American Friends Service Committee and LGBTQ Rights
As a peace and justice organization, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) places its work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights and recognition within an international human rights framework and draws on the historic Quaker witness for peace. With deep-rooted commitment, AFSC staff have worked for over 50 years alongside the people and communities most affected by these issues to challenge homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia in our organization and in our society.
AFSC’s institutional response to LGB concerns began in 1975 when four staff and committee people sent out an open letter in which they acknowledged their homosexuality or bisexuality and invited others to discuss issues of concern, both within AFSC and in the larger community. Eventually over 200 signed the “statement of support and solidarity.” The letter writers quoted the 1963 British Quaker publication Towards a Quaker View of Sex in their call: “we affirm the power and joy of non-exploitative, loving relationships. As a Society and as individuals, we oppose arbitrary, social, economic or legal abridgements of the right to share this love.” This was at a time when in many states a person could be arrested and jailed for a homosexual act. Many discussions and actions ensued throughout AFSC, including the establishment of a task force dedicated to addressing LGB issues.
More than a decade before the open letter, AFSC had connections to a small number of lesbian and gay organizations in San Franciso, California, an incubator of the early gay rights movement. In 1964, San Francisco was named the “Gay Capital of the U.S.” by LIFE magazine, gaining recognition for its politically active LGBT community. The earliest documented outreach occurred in 1961 when the local San Franciso office of AFSC invited the Mattachine Society to address the Bay Area Corrections Clearinghouse on legal issues facing gay men. Founded in 1950, the Mattachine Society was one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States.
AFSC San Francisco’s criminal justice program worked specifically to end laws criminalizing homosexuality. For a while in the 1960s, this same AFSC program housed and served on the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, a San Francisco-based organization founded in 1964 for the purpose of joining homosexual activists and religious leaders. The council published “A Brief of Injustices: An Indictment of Our Society in Its Treatment of the Homosexual” in 1965.
As with AFSC San Francisco, other regional AFSC offices were well positioned to provide direct support for and help organize activities with the LGBTQ communities that shared the same cities and neighborhoods. In addition to San Francisco, the most prominent of this localized work has occurred in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Hawaii.
The 2008 economic downturn and a stronger U.S. LGBT movement led AFSC to make program cuts. In 2010, the AFSC Seattle program was the last U.S. regional LGBTQ program to close down. While there are no longer any major AFSC LGBTQ programs in the United States, regional AFSC offices still carry out and support LGBTQ activities, including joining in marches in Chicago, work on transnational marriages of gay immigrants in Miami, and support of Transgender Day of Remembrance in New Hampshire. Nowadays, a program in southeast Asia is the one place where focused work with LGBTQ youth occurs.
All of AFSC’s accomplishments and activities did not necessarily come about easily within AFSC. The struggle for U.S. transgender healthcare coverage took many years, but finally did arrive in 2003. Similarly there was a struggle for transgender healthcare coverage for international program staff, largely advocated for by AFSC staff in southeast Asia who work for transgender youth. It became policy in 2015. When led, AFSC will continue to do this important work.