September 7, 2011: Cheering for God in the Reagan Library
In my last paid job, at a Quaker peace project next to an enormous military base during the height (or better, the depths) of the Iraq-Afghan wars, I spent a lot of time looking for spiritual resources for that work, and the life that went with the job. For a long time it seemed pretty hard to find any. I read a lot of academic theology and other “spiritual” works. With a few notable exceptions (to be dealt with in future posts), for a long time it seemed pretty hard to find more than an occasional nugget; too much was weak tea or thin gruel.
But then, in early September 2011, after watching a televised Republican presidential candidates’ debate, hosted by the Ronald Reagan Library in California, I abruptly realized that in fact I had found some, and they had crystallized into convictions.
NOTE/Confession: Halfway through reading the “Explainer” piece below, a suppressed memory broke through the mind fog: that of my own drag experience; and yes, bowing to the current fashion, I’m going to spill the sordid details right here.
It was around 1990, on or about what the world calls Halloween, at a Friends meeting near — well, I won’t be more specific; they don’t need the exposure. We decided to have a party for the occasion, as an alternative to trick-or-treating; coming in costume was encouraged, and the outlandish was expected.
But I didn’t have a costume: no Luke Skywalker getup, no skeleton mask, or whatnot, naught but a stifled middle-aged imagination; what to do??
Well, I did have three daughters, and dressups were a thing, and somewhere we found a very plus-size dress, mostly red as I remember, and a fairly billowy straw hat with a sash. So, soon I was walking in the meetinghouse door, as — yes — a bearded lady.
And a bit more: the waist of the dress was capacious (and my waist, believe it or not, was then much less so), and a pillow was somehow strapped to my middle under it, to add a certain blushingly expectant air.
The ensemble thus made me appear not only ridiculous, but also insinuated to the more observant and worldly that sometime in the recent past the character had been involved in ess-eee-echs (Of course, I met all the knowing “Oohs” and “Aahs” with demure deflection.) So I think that now makes me not only a gender bender offender, but furthermore a Boomer Bloomer proto-groomer (try to say that fast three times).
Beyond the, um, couture, I had no act, no Shtick; the guffaws were reflexive and sufficient. Certainly I was not trying to be a “drag queen”; we were Quakers, after all, and had no truck with royalty. (A Drag Clerk? That is an idea which did not occur to us.)
The evening passed in what then seemed like harmless revelry. I think some snapshots were taken, and dimly recall one of me, the hat slightly askew, my mien mimicking a maid awaiting a blessed event. If so, one hopes it has been lost in the shuffle of the decades; otherwise, when I run for president next year, some oppo researcher is sure to dredge it up for an attack ad proving me to be an acknowledged threat to civilization.
In which case, I guess I could still move to Georgia, change my name to Herschel and run for the Senate . . . .
The art form has been cast in a false light in recent months by right–wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Opponents often coordinate protests at drag events that feature or cater to children, sometimes showing up with guns. Some politicians have proposed banning children from drag events and even criminally charging parents who take their kids to one.
Performers and organizers of events, such as story hours in which colorfully clad drag queens read books to children, say the protesters are the ones terrorizing and harming children and making them political pawns — just as they’ve done in other campaigns around bathroom access and educational materials.
The recent headlines about disruptions of drag events and their portrayal as sexual and harmful to children can obscure the art form and its rich history.
WHAT IS DRAG?
Drag is the art of dressing and acting exaggeratedly as another gender, usually for entertainment such as comedy, singing, dancing, lip–syncing or all of the above.
Drag may trace its roots to the age of William Shakespeare, when female roles were performed by men. The origin of the term is debated, but one possibility is that it was coined after someone noticed the dresses or petticoats that male actors wore onstage would drag along the floor. Another casts it as an acronym — an unproven notion that notes in scripts would use “DRAG” to indicate the actor should “dress as a girl.”
Drag performances could later be seen on the vaudeville circuit and during the Harlem Renaissance. They became a mainstay at gay bars throughout the 20th century, and remain so.
RuPaul took things a step further with his reality–competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which became an award–winning hit and allowed drag to explode in popularity — and into the mainstream.
IS DRAG SEXUAL?
Many drag opponents cite nudity in their objections. Every performer makes different choices, but drag queens often wear more, not less, clothing than you’d see on a typical American woman of the 21st century, at a public beach or on network TV.
Their costumes tend toward extravagant, sometimes floor–length gowns. Drag queens may use false breasts, wear sheer costumes, and use makeup or other means to show cleavage and appear exaggeratedly feminine.
The difference, performers note, is that opponents of drag see sexual deviance in the cross–dressing aspect.
Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in burlesque, a separate form of entertainment. Explicitly sexual and profane language is common in performances meant for adult audiences. Such routines can consist of stand–up comedy that may be raunchy — or may pale in comparison with some mainstream comedians.
SHOULD CHILDREN SEE OR DRESS IN DRAG?
It’s up to parents and guardians to decide that, just as they decide whether their children should be exposed to or participate in certain music, television, movies, beauty pageants, concerts or other forms of entertainment, parenting experts say.
Performances in nightclubs and brunches meant for adults may not be suitable for children, while other events, such as drag story hours, are tailored for children and therefore contain milder language and dress.
Drag performers and the venues that book them generally either don’t allow children if a performance has risque content, or else require children to be accompanied by a parent or guardian — basically, how R–rated movies are handled by theaters.
Drag story hours, in which performers read to children in libraries, bookstores or other venues, have become popular in recent years. The events use a captivating character to get their child’s attention — any parent whose kid can’t take their eyes off Elsa from “Frozen” gets the idea. The difference here is that the goal is to get kids interested in reading.
Some children have performed drag at age–appropriate events. One 11–year–old who dons a princess dress and tiara was scheduled recently to perform at a story and singing event at an Oregon pub — but was downgraded to “guest of honor” after protests outside broke out into fighting.
“Part of keeping our children safe is allowing them to be children, to be playful, to take risks, and to be silly, without it necessarily meaning anything deeper or more permanent,” says Amber Trueblood, a family therapist. “Many parents are OK with children dressing as assassins, evil villains or grim reapers, yet they seldom take the costume choice to mean anything more than playful and fun.”
THREATS AND ‘GROOMING’
Opponents of drag story hours and other drag events for audiences of children often claim they “groom” children, implying attempts to sexually abuse them or somehow influence their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The term “grooming” in a sexual sense describes how child molesters entrap and abuse their victims. Its use by opponents of drag, as well as by protesters in other realms of LGBTQ opposition, seeks to falsely equate it with pedophilia and other forms of child abuse.
Perpetrators of the false rhetoric can then cast themselves as saviors of children and try to frame anyone who disagrees — a political opponent, for example — as taking the side of child abusers.
The objections are often religious in nature, with some opponents citing the devil at work. Threats to drag events, and story hours in particular, have increased along with the rhetoric. In addition to the protest in Oregon that failed to suppress one such event, organizers of a recent one in Florida did cancel theirs after what they said were threats from hate groups.
The threats are likely an attempt to scare parents into not taking their children to such events, leading them to fizzle out and push drag back into the closet, observers say. Some organizers, parents and performers have dug in their heels, insisting they won’t cave.
In another tactic to discourage attendance, drag opponents have been known to attend performances, take and post a video that lacks context, and then troll or “dox” the performer or venue.
One such video clip showed a profane drag act in front of a young child and framed it as abuse — though the child was with adults and the venue had advised attendees about coarse content, suggested parental discretion and required any children to be accompanied by parents.
Other undermining efforts include a false claim that a performer flashed children at a Minnesota library and another false claim that the head of the Drag Queen Story Hour organization was arrested for child pornography.
Despite some opponents’ claims, drag cannot “turn” a child gay or transgender, although its playful use of gender may be reassuring to kids who are already questioning their identity. That way, therapist Joe Kort wrote in a blog post in Psychology Today, gender–nonconforming kids can have “other templates as they begin to sort out their feelings about who they authentically are.”
[NOTE: Friend Gary Sandman, of Roanoke Meeting in Virginia, has long been collecting and distributing short articles about artists and performers who are Quaker, or Quaker adjacent. His latest profile is of the longtime illustrator and artist, Edward Sorel. It was so appealing that with his permission, we are re-posting it here, with some addenda we found online.]
GUEST POST: Gary Sandman on EDWARD SOREL
Edward Sorel (b. 1929) is an American cartoonist and writer. His work usually focuses on political topics, though occasionally it touches on other subjects, and it isenlivened with his sardonic humor.
The cartoons are pen-and-ink sketches, filled out with watercolors and pastels. The best of them, in his words, are “spontaneous drawings”. Among the numerous magazines in which his work has appeared areThe Nation,The Village Voice,Esquire andVanity Fair.
Sorel has published children’s books, Hollywood historiesand autobiographies, in collaboration with others or on his own, including Johnny-on-the-Spot, Superpen: the Cartoons and Caricatures of Edward Sorel and Profusely Illustrated: a Memoir.He is also known for his mural at the Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village.
Sorel has exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, the Art Institute of Boston and Galerie Bartsch & Chariau.His honors includethe Auguste St. Gaudens Medal for Professional Achievement, the Page One Award and the National Cartoonist Society Advertising and Illustration Award.
Sorel began attending Morningside Meeting in New York City in 1963. After he separated from his first wife and lost his job, he went through a long dark period.Ed Hilpern, his therapist and a member of the Meeting, recommended that he explore Quaker worship.
He met Nancy Caldwell, the love of his life, at the Meeting, and they were married there in 1965.(Above is a cartoon of the Sunday morning they met).
Sorel participated in anti-Vietnam War marches in Washington DC with Friends and joined with them when they walked across the Peace Bridge at Rochester to deliver medical supplies for North and South Vietnamese civilians to Canadians Friends, who had agreed to forward the supplies.
When he and his family moved upstate in the early 1970’s, they attended Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting. A gleeful atheist, Sorel is known for his anticlerical cartoons and has sat on the board of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He felt, however, that he could become a member of the Friends because of Quakersocial witness.
I have always loved Edward Sorel’s cartoons. I first saw them in Rampartsmagazine in the mid-1960’s and enjoy them still in The New Yorkermagazine.And I was delighted to see the cartoon above. I had worshiped at Morningside Meeting several times when I lived in New York City.
A quote from Sorel about his first Friends Meeting for Worship:
“What I remember best is the silence. It seemed to charge the room with a connectedness of yearning”.
[ Gary has published an extensive collection of his artist profiles in a book titled QUAKER ARTISTS. Copies can be ordered (hard back or e-book) through his website, at: http://garysandmanartist.com/ ]
If I was a “consultant” and needed work, I’d get in line at AFSC. By my count, the group is hosting its third round of outside consultants, laboring earnestly (and raking in the billable hours) trying to help it square the circles of what is called at 1501 Cherry Street, Philly “Restructuring.”
The Restructuring plan — and the drive for an internal coup to smash it — were reported here in early January, and this initial post has links to the main documents, and a detailed sketch of the struggle against it. At that point, the Restructuring plan was set to be acted on at a Board meeting earlier this month.
The January coup was spearheaded by Lucy Duncan, who was at the time assigned as AFSC’s liaison with Quakers. She was candid about the goals for her insurgency:
We call on other Quakers to call for a cessation of the planned restructure, an external evaluation of the Senior Leadership Team and a searching, well facilitated internal conversation about how this process proceeded so far despite widespread opposition and how the organization can heal and move forward collectively, honoring all voices especially those most impacted by the issues upon which AFSC focuses.
If the plan wasn’t dumped, she warned, AFSC would be faced with numerous departures:
Several staff have left or are on the verge of leaving the organization–some of whom have been with AFSC for decades–due to the difficult experience of these processes and their concern about the new direction AFSC seems poised to take.
Well, there was one signal departure in the wake of this manifesto: Duncan, who was suspended and then fired within a week.
Her dismissal stirred up a brief flurry of well-attended Zoom calls, some wringing of hands, and various social media posts.
But within a few weeks, the smoke cleared, and most Quakers turned back to their already long list of serious concerns, such as the impending destruction of democracy here, the invasion and ongoing destruction of Ukraine there, and the destruction of the entire planet overall, to name a few.
This plethora of distraction indicated that there would likely be no mass movement of Friends marching to rescue Duncan and a once-Quaker-but-now 99+% secular NGO from the fiendish clutches of — the people who were hired to run it, especially by stopping another reorganization in a long string of such over the decades.
But opposition to it surfaced early, and despite the often overheated rhetoric, took in practice the more typically Quaker form of a campaign to stall and talk it to death.
This is where the parade of consultants got into the act, being well-compensated to somehow make a series of real differences vanish in a cloud of lavender-scented conflict resolution blather or drown in vats of herbal tea.
The consultants haven’t yet succeeded, except at their bottom lines. The key sticking points were summarized in the early post thus:
After wading through many documents, and cutting through a fog of verbiage and buzzwords, in my view the issues boil down to three:
Power: Who will run AFSC?
Jobs: Will “restructure” mean staff and program cuts? And, not least,
Money: who will control its distribution?
The two sets of answers, in brief, appear to be:
From the “Leadership Team” (aka LT):
Power? To the LT.
Jobs/program cuts? Likely; maybe lots.
Money control? The LT.
From the dissidents:
Power? To the staff (or rather, the staff favored by the dissidents). Out Now! with the LT & its plan.
Job/program cuts? Not just no, but Heck No. Instead, more hires and projects at the “bottom,” in field and project offices.
Money control? Staff (again, the “right” ones).
With l’affaire Duncan now past, it seems clear that the struggle has returned to the question of who will out-stall, out-talk, and out-consult whom. AFSC Deputy General Secretary Hector Cortez told me this week there has not been any staff exodus following Duncan out the door.
But he also acknowledged that the April Board meeting, held in conjunction with AFSC’s annual Corporation session, had come and gone without taking up the Restructuring plan. Which, in light of what I was told in January, suggests the LT didn’t think the Board was ready to say yes.
The next Board meeting will be June 10-12. And from documents shared with the Corporation, it seems AFSC will be in full frenzy marathon meeting mode til then. Here’s the schedule (which, as the small print admits, will probably get even more crowded toward the end of May.):
This whirl will likely focus on much the same conflicts as were identified above. Here’s the summary shared with the Corporation (By the way, the BWGPDM stands for the Board Working Group on Governance and Decision Making):
And that’s not all. The remnants of the Duncan putsch echo here:
So, what will happen in June? Here’s the Leadership Team’s vision:
The blue chart above tracks a process which it says started (at top left) in June 2020, and looks to complete in June 2022 (at bottom right).
Seems to me it leaves out some items, so I’ve prepared a revised, shortened version here. One possibility is not on it: I predict that when June arrives, the Restructuring opponents will insist, “We need more time!” (And consultants.)Then . . .
The big Maybe: There are no public polls of the 20-plus member AFSC Board. Maybe they’re as ready as Cortez to be done with all this. Yet after fifty-five years of Quaker business and committee meetings, it is very easy for me to imagine a half dozen members notbeing ready to act in June, which would be enough to thwart the LT’s yearning for a conclusion, and keep the hopes of the resisters alive.
After two years of AFSC’s impasse, Cortez sounded to me like he (and the LT perhaps) was within sight of being fed up: “We are under the assumption and the very very clear expectation a proposal will go to the board in June,” he said, “and we will request a decision.”
If they don’t get one?
Well, there are always more consultants to consult.
The possible exceptions are clustered among the most shamelessly antivaxx megabucks preachers. Theirs was a win-win setup: if they died, they were martyrs gone home to Jesus; if they lived, they could brag about beating the pagan socialist groomers with the poison vaxx needles, burn their masks and feel bulletproof (at least til the next spike).
And what about Quakers? I haven’t seen recent overall attendance numbers (and Quaker attendance figures are mostly baloney anyway); but a few significant bits of hard data have turned up. Among them are four numbers that sketch in the pandemic impact in an important sector, and the sum is not good.
The first two big numbers aren’t public, but their impact is: in early April, Friends General Conference announced that its 2022 summer Gathering, which had been set to be held in-person at Radford University in southwest Virginia, was off; in its place would be another all-online gathering (the third in a row).
Plans for the 2022 online Gathering program are, as of April 13, still “under discernment.” (Usually, by mid-April a detailed Gathering program schedule is ready, and registration is open.)
Next year, FGC pledged, the Gathering would be back, live & in-person, in Oregon.
We’ll see about that.
The first two of the key numbers behind the cancellation came from extensive surveys of former and potential attenders. The first showed that likely attendance this year would be way below that of the last in-person Gathering, at Iowa’s Grinnell College, in 2019.
Second, the surveys showed a similar decline in attender volunteers to staff out the very labor intensive run-up to the very labor intensive Gathering week itself.
The attendance/volunteer projections underlie the third key Gathering number, denominated in dollars, namely: income. The Gathering costs a lot of money, and over time, it has to break even.
This pay-as-you-gather policy has served FGC and its constituency well. Bottom line, it has meant that for more than 120 years, enough living Friends actually wanted the FGC community experience enough to pay what it costs, either in cash, in volunteer labor, or a mix.
Sure, FGC raises and gives out substantial financial aid and work grants. And there’s always uncertainty when fees are set and attendance is projected months ahead of time: in some lucky years, the Gathering comes out a bit ahead. In others, it falls short.
But “projections” are predictions, and the prophet Yogi Berra said truly that predictions are tough, especially about the future.
Will it rain tomorrow? What about a market or economic crash six months from now? A war or an oil shock? A pandemic? Or, you know, the collapse of democracy? (Hey I’m just asking questions . . . .)
FGC does not have anything like the endowment needed to underwrite the whole event.
Besides, breakeven paid attendance yields a measurable authentication that the Gathering maintains a place in the lives of enough living Friends to stay viable.
But foreseeing a big drop in likely attendance/volunteers, the planners’ calculations for 2022 also projected a deficit of around $70,000.
Some shrugged off that number: FGC could raise the difference with a special fundraiser.
But others held fast to the breakeven tradition: finances were, and had been, uncertain for FGC since even before the pandemic; and while COVID was currently declining, there was still plenty of other uncertainties to grapple with.
Further, beyond short-term volatility, which is unsettling enough, FGC faces the biggest challenge in the fourth big number, which comes down to three fateful digits: Eight zero zero.
Let’s set the scene for the answer: run the Calendar app backward almost twenty-two years, to early July, 2000. I was with some family in Rochester, New York: a few miles north was the rippling blue expanse of Lake Ontario. Closer in were landmarks including historic houses where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass had lived.
We were on the campus of the University of Rochester, at the FGC Gathering.
It was to be a special one, because FGC picked that year to mark its centennial (mistakenly, in fact; FGC was actually about twenty years older. But no one on the planning committee really knew much FGC history, so never mind.)
I was on that planning committee, and we had all sorts of special events scheduled. A highlight was an all-attender panoramic photo: I squeezed in for it, crouched on the grass next to a granddaughter. As a memento, I ordered a print of the photo. It cost $25, a lot; but worth it (though sadly it was lost somewhere, likely in one of the decluttering attacks).
I remember looking it over later, before it was mislaid: so many Quakers together, packed like sardines, but all smiles.
I recalled the tally of those dozen-plus long rows: we had hoped and worked hard to get at least 2000 attenders. We came very close, about 1960, but didn’t quite make it.
It wasn’t unusual in those years for attendance to top 2000. More than once the Gathering filled every available bed on a host campus, and a few frantic late callers were reluctantly turned away. (What did the registrar say when a tardy Friend choked up on the phone and sobbed, “But God TOLD me to be there . . .”?)
So — Rochester in 2000, with almost 2000 Quakers. A new century. Heck, a new millennium. A lot to celebrate.
Yet since then, year by year, a graph of the Gathering attendance figures would be jagged, but the trend line was unmistakable; and it’s not a rumor. Which brings us back to that fourth big number, 800.
It was the attendance at the last in-person Gathering, 2019 in Iowa, the final summer of what many of us now think of as The Before Time.
FGC has been struggling with this attendance decline, with only fitful, temporary upticks.
There have been several surveys, and some recurrent complaints: the Gathering was becoming too expensive; it lasts too long; it’s become a Nanny State; etc. (I think FGC has made some big mistakes; but that’s not what this post is about, though some are listed here FYI.) Tweaks were made; yet the slide continued.
At a certain point, continued decline will push the Gathering to the brink of being no longer financially feasible.
Personally, that’s what I think it faces now. Besides finances, the email about the decision to go online includes a report on intense and unresolved struggles among planners over such matters as mask-wearing and Covid protocols. (WHAT?? Polarization among liberal Quakers too?? Is NO ONE safe? Evidently not.)
At this point, in most Quaker commentaries like this one, it is a rhetorical expectation — nay demand — for the writer, especially if they’ve been critical, to present what I dub the “Fix It List”. That’s a number of actions, usually about five, for Friends to take at once, to either solve a problem, or at least provide a sense of Having Done Something. (The ability to DO SOMETHING NOW seems to be one of the presumed keystones of our Quaker spiritual birthright and entitlement.)
Such lists almost always include, near the top, a mandate to Write to Congress, and Call for Action.Next is to Make a Donation to some do-good group or cause. And if the readership includes those from the programmed branches, a third will be a Summons to Pray. The other two will vary.
In this case, a Fix It List is something of a conundrum. For instance, while there are many good reasons to write Congress now (e.g., to save democracy), bailing out the FGC Gathering is not one of them. And while donations to the FGC (or relief for Ukrainian war refugees) are always welcome, the organization is not facing a temporary cash crunch, and we’ll all be dunned soon enough anyway. Still, if it’s your practice, one could Pray for All Of The Above.
But to be plain, as far as I can tell, the Fix It List mantra doesn’t really apply here.
Instead, what I increasingly suspect we may be witnessing is the natural sunset of an event and an organization: a life cycle, like that of a tree or a creature, or fossil-fuel powered automobiles. Or thee and me.
After all, the first Friends General Conference was organized in the early 1880s, more than 140 years ago. That’s a pretty good run; how many U. S. businesses have continued since then with their original name and ownership & mission? (Some churches have; but many have not.)
If the Gathering and FGC were to be laid down, would that be the end of Friends? I strongly doubt it. Other committees had come and gone. Quakerism had muddled through 200 years before they were started.
But what of those of us for whom the Gathering was one of the high points of our year?
That was me, for a couple of decades. And there will be a time to grieve. But I’m also one for whom the Gathering thrill is gone; its appeal has faded and wrinkled. Could that be, not something To Be Fixed, but just how it goes — more like leaves turning brown in the fall?
It feels more that way to me. And the 800 number, along with the latest projections, reinforce this impression.
So this summer, if I’m able to Zoom in and join in the online Gathering, as I have in a limited way the past two years, that may well be enough. It sounds like it will be for many others too.
And if the Gathering or FGC soon thereafter quietly folds its tents, my prediction is that before long some other concern or leading or event could take its place.
In any case, I’m now reminded of what one Friend said in jest, but might now be a promise of renewal:
“Our kind of Quakers don’t believe in Hell; that’s because we’ve got committees.”