Writer and reviewer R V Bailey, writes for PinkNews and reflects on fifty years of support by the Quakers of same-sex relationships, all the way up to same-sex marriage for England and Wales on 29 March.
Fifty years ago, being openly homosexual was a criminal offence.
I discovered I was lesbian (I didn’t even know there was a word for it, I just knew I wasn’t like other people) about fifty years ago, and it wasn’t a lot of fun. You could be sent to prison for being openly gay if you were a man, and if you were a woman people on the whole preferred to think you didn’t exist at all.
All this made for a pretty low sense of self-worth. It also made a lot of salacious copy for newspapers, and was thought scandalous, and much talked about. I buried myself in books and hoped it would all go away.
Fortunately there were people called Quakers, though I didn’t know much about them then.
Perhaps because they spend a lot of time in silence, Quakers are particularly good at hard thinking. Quakers are rooted in Christianity, but happily they are also open to new light from God, however it comes (even through the tabloids), and in the sixties they began thinking very hard indeed about sexuality and relationships, and not, like the tabloids, in a prurient way.
The results of such persevering courageous thought was an influential booklet called Towards a Quaker View of Sex, which took the line that it was the nature and quality of a relationship that mattered, rather than the gender or sexual orientation. I read it. It was amazing; it was controversial; but it was only a pamphlet, and I didn’t think it would change the world. I didn’t think my mother would read it, and that was what mattered to me.
But a lot of people did read it. And to cut a long story short, after fifty years’ more hard thinking and research, in 2009 Quakers agreed to seek a change in the law, so that same-sex marriages could be prepared, celebrated, witnessed, reported to the state, and recognised as legally valid exactly as opposite-sex marriages are – that’s to say, within the religious setting of a worshipping community. Quakers wanted the law to be present, as well as God.
This work has been a long and patient struggle. It hasn’t been a knee-jerk response to contemporary mores. For Quakers, from the beginning, it’s been an issue of religious freedom, and of equality. Much quiet significant Quaker work lies behind what happens at mid-night tonight.
There is more to be done: couples already in Civil Partnerships are having to wait for secondary legislation before they can convert their partnerships to marriage. Quakers have taken this up with Government ministers, who say the problem may be resolved by the end of 2014.
If I were asked what does same-sex marriage mean to Quakers, I can’t answer this for all Quakers – Quakers are very strongly independent individuals – I can only say what it means to this Quaker. But I’m pretty sure that quite a lot of Quakers will agree with me.
For me it means the chance to be honest about who I am, and whom I love. It means being able to know that the kind of love I have to offer is real, and not a kind of second-rate thing. It means I am glad about all this, too, and that I don’t need to hide my happiness. My late partner and I were fugitives. For years, we didn’t live together. No one except us even knew that we were together. It was twenty years or more before we discovered Quakers, and found our love welcomed and accepted and celebrated. It was quite bewildering. It was wonderful.
As human beings we long to experience love, to find it central in our lives; we want not only to be given love but to give it. Love liberates us from the prison of ourselves.
Transient as we are, we long for permanence. Most people, deep down, want relationships that offer that ever-after quality that novels discover on their final pages. Marriage, tried and tested over centuries, is one of the best ways in which such everlastingness is helped to happen.
Quakers believe that same-sex marriage is important because we believe that we are all equal, and because we believe the quality of the love we offer to our partners is the same as everyone else’s. The true measure of an intimate relationship is its degree of selfless love, a love that isn’t proprietorial or exploitative, but tender, responsible, committed, equal; a love that feeds its transforming messages of hope and happiness benevolently into society day after day.
“We marry none,” said George Fox, Quaker founder. “It is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses”.
Well done, George Fox.
R V Bailey is a writer and reviewer. Her late partner was the poet U A Fanthorpe. They became Quakers in the eighties.