In 1995, I entered this essay in the “Greatest Moments of Pride” Contest in S.F. Frontiers Newsmagazine and was awarded 1st Place. Unfortunately, there are no on-line archives of the magazine from this period.
The room fell silent as I slowly walked up to the podium. When I reached the front, I too fell silent as I tried to gather my thoughts. Although I had volunteered to speak, I still had no idea what I was going to say to this gathering. The assembled group before me was the business meeting of the Quakers (Friends). And since the Quaker form of worship is based upon silent meditation, silence is a welcome part of all of their meetings, including those for business. My pause allowed them to reflect quietly to themselves as well. Given the controversial and almost raucous nature of the discussion so far in the meeting, a small break was appreciated.
The Friends Meeting of Washington, D.C. had been trying to come to terms with the issue of same gender marriages for five years at this time. As is Quaker practice, the entire meeting had to come to a joint consensus before any new change could be accepted. Originally requested by a gay couple five years previous, the issue of gay and lesbian marriages had split the meeting. While a clear majority of the group favored the marriages, a majority is not enough for Friends. Unity had to be reached and several prominent homophobic members were enough to prevent that unity from being achieved.
After the initial push for marriages ended in failure several years before, the discussion moved to a number of different committees, where slowly, it seemed, a consensus was emerging. A renewed public discussion was started in the business meeting, the decision making body of the Friends. However, despite the growing numbers of gay and lesbian members in the meeting, none of these members had chosen to speak on the topic before the meeting itself. No one felt safe in exposing themselves to the type of personal attacks that had gone on before. This is where I waltzed in.
I was a late bloomer and had recently come out after being married for a number of years. My coming out process was a joyous and exhilarating one for me, as for the first time in my life, I felt like a whole person. Coming out opened a flood gate of emotions. In this period of intense spiritual and psychological growth, I sought out like-minded people. Thus I found myself attending the predominantly gay and lesbian Friends meeting in Dupont Circle, one of several meetings constituting the Friends Meeting of Washington.
Quite soon after I began attending, I heard about the gay and lesbian marriage proposal that was being discussed. I went to the next monthly business meeting and was dismayed at the type of the statements that were being made by what I had assumed were enlightened Quakers. The usual “gay equals AIDS” as well as the “lifestyle choice” arguments were brought up. One older member even said, “Gays are like barnyard animals in the way that they have sex. It’s disgusting!” Each of these comments provoked anger and shame in the gay and lesbian members. And despite attempts by other supportive straight members of the meeting, the resolution of this issue appeared to be blocked for the foreseeable future.
I was bothered about what I had heard and experienced. Why was this otherwise strong and supportive group of gay and lesbian Quakers being quiet? Being new to the group, I knew little of the bad experiences and the mistrust that had developed over the previous years. Over the month until the next meeting for business, I pondered my reaction to this situation. On the afternoon of the business meeting, even as I approached the head of the meeting, I knew I had to speak, although to say what was unclear.
As I closed my eyes to gather my thoughts, I was filled with a strength that had been growing ever since I started corning out. This strength came from loving myself, my entire gay self. It was a strength, I knew, that was supported by my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters scattered throughout the 90 people attending the meeting. This resilient force reached back to all of the gays and lesbians I knew, back to Stonewall, back to as long as we have existed and professed our love to each other. Suddenly, I felt clear headed and was ready to speak. And the words poured out of me as if a river of our experience was guiding me along. And no one, not even the most unrepentant homophobe in that group, could divert the truth.
“Friends, 10 years ago I was married in a Quaker ceremony in what was one of the most moving and loving experiences of my life. Surrounded by my family and Friends, capital ‘f’ and small, I felt love enter the room and bless not only me and my partner but all who were there on that fall afternoon. Anyone who has participated in a truly centered Quaker wedding has experienced this same feeling.
“Over the past several years, the Spirit has led me onto a path, a path that I could not have predicted 10 years previous. As I grew to know myself better, it became clearer and clearer to me that something was missing in my life, that I was not being true to the spirit that is within me and within all of us. As I started opening myself up to this feeling, I came to understand that I was gay. And while this Spirit-led understanding has caused some pain to others outside of me, it has brought nothing but joy and peace to my heart.
“I now stand before you, a gay man at peace with his soul. In many ways, I stand no differently before you now than I did 10 years ago when I celebrated my wedding. I look the same, although a few gray hairs now grace my head; my commitment to letting the Spirit guide my life is the same or even stronger; my strange sense of humor has not mellowed with time. The difference now is that I love men in the way I used to love women. In fact, I now love men with a passion and conviction that is stronger than I ever had before. Nothing else has changed.
“Oh yes, one other thing has changed. Before, I could celebrate my love with the blessings of my community of Friends. Now you tell me that I cannot. What is the difference, I ask? What is love about? Is gay and lesbian love different from heterosexual love? I can say, from my unique vantage point, that the answer is no. How I feel love now is no different than how I felt love before. Love is love, we either recognize that or we must deny the existence of all love.
“Friends, the question before us is not whether we permit gay and lesbian marriages; it is whether we will recognize and bless love within our community. When we look at the issue in this manner, I don’t believe that there is any doubt as to how to answer that question.”
I stood before the group for a few seconds longer and sat down. There was silence throughout the room, a silence that lingered longer than any other that afternoon. The next person to speak was a young African American woman. Her message was short and to the point. “I came to the meeting today to speak out against this proposal. However, after hearing the last Friend speak, I now realize that what he said is the truth. The issue is love. There is no other issue. We must join together, gay and straight to support love in all of its forms and allow same gender marriages to come under our care.”
Her message started the flow of tears for many seated there and a perceptible change swept over the meeting. Afterwards, a number of gay and lesbian friends approached, not only thanking me for speaking but for being the first gay person to break through the silence and shame that had surrounded them.
The following months saw gays and lesbians speaking out at every meeting, sharing their stories, their dreams and their pride. In true Quaker fashion, the question of gay and lesbian marriages was not resolved for almost another year. But from that point on, the tenor of the discussion had changed. And the result… Two years later, a lesbian couple Jacqueline DiCarlo and Renee Roberts, stood before the meeting and exchanged their vows. The entire community shared in this historic moment as we all reflected on the long and difficult path that had brought us to that day. Within two years, two other lesbian and gay couples were married in the meeting.
Gay pride shows itself in many ways and in many forms. Sometime: it requires the outbursts and rage of ACT-UP or the boisterousness of thousands gathered in marches and parades. At other times, however, pride needs the silence and reflection of prayer. What all of these manifestations of pride have in common is the realization that we will not be taken for granted or ignored, that we are proud of who we are, and that we will continue to celebrate our lives and shape the world around us. The Quakers use a simple and forceful phrase to describe this: speaking truth to power.