Here’s a report written in 1977 (on a typewriter; imagine!), just after the Wichita Conference of Friends in the Americas in late June 1977. The gathering included all the branches, and it was when the issue of LG Friends (BT&Qs weren’t listed yet) burst onto the national Quaker agenda, where it has stayed ever since.
I didn’t go there to cover the event. As a rookie attending his first ever national Quaker event, I wanted more to socialize than do journalistic work. I had saved up to pay the fees and busfare, to avoid work-related distractions.
I should have known better.
1977 was the year for articles on gay rights controversies: Miami-Dade County, Florida adopted a pioneering gay rights ordinance, which sparked a widely reported repeal crusade led by singer and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant.
None of this was on the official agenda at Wichita when I rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of the gymnasium at Friends University, where we low-budget attenders did our best to sleep. (That’s also where I got kicked in the head a couple times in the dark, presumably by accident.)
But the conference agenda was soon rewritten, and so was mine. When the event blew up in everyone’s faces, I tried to resist being drawn into the fray. But it was quickly all anyone was talking about, and rumors swarmed like mosquitoes after a heavy rain. I soon surrendered, bought a little notebook, started asking questions and taking notes.
Afterward, versions of the resulting report (below) were published widely in secular papers, from Boston to San Francisco. I ended up earning more from it than the conference had cost, but there was not one Quaker dollar in the take. Most Quaker publications weren’t going near this topic on THEIR pages; not yet. So I think few Friends have seen it.
Yet the encounter it describes was a watershed for American Friends. Did I say “watershed”? Got to get my cliches straight: more of an earthquake, one still reverberating across the Quaker landscape. It also started me on a pilgrimage of Quaker journalism that has not ended, forty-two years later. So here’s the story, lightly edited, along with a few pictures, and a few current comments in bracketed italics . . . .
QUAKING OVER GAY RIGHTS: WICHITA, 1977
Quakers in the Western Hemisphere range in outlook from literalist Fundamentalists who hold to a strict code of personal morality forbidding smoking, drinking, dancing and even movies, to liberal humanists who are dubious about God’s existence and tolerant of almost any nonmilitary lifestyle.
[The dancing ban was in place at Friends University, I was advised. But then I was further advised, sotto voce, that one building on the campus, technically owned by the local YMCA, was exempt from the ban, and such indulgence occurred there om occasion.]
In 1977, American Friends were organized in four major associations (plus some unaffiliated groups), which have often been hostile to each other. Attempts to bridge the gaps among the various Quaker constituencies have been underway for decades, seemingly with some success.
The Wichita Conference of Friends in the Americas in June 1977 was one of the most ambitious of these efforts. Following several meetings of Quaker leaders from the various branches during the previous ten years, it was aimed at bringing together ordinary Friends from Meetings and Churches all over the Americas.
The question of participation by Gay Quakers in the conference surfaced in March 1977 in a letter from a California Friend named Gary Miller to the conference planning committee. Miller, then a member of San Francisco Monthly Meeting, was a lobbyist for the California Friends Committee on Legislation in Sacramento.
He wrote on behalf of the Friends Committee on Gay Concerns, an informal group of gay and straight Friends interested in gay issues. Miller’s letter asked that the FCGC be given table space in the exhibition area for its literature, a regular meeting Place for gay Friends on the campus, and that the planning committee include in the conference program an open meeting or an educational discussion of gay concerns.
There was nothing unusual in this request: scores of other Quaker groups had been granted equivalent arrangements. Miller’s letter was circulated by [snail] mail among members of the planning committee by General Chairman Donald Moon, then an official of Kansas Yearly Meeting [now Mid-America Yearly Meeting], an Evangelical group headquartered in Wichita. Most committee members indicated approval.
Gays in recent years had been routinely granted similar prerogatives at several Yearly Meetings and at Friends General Conference, the most religiously liberal of the major associations. In fact, at the 1975 gathering of FGC in Ithaca New York, gay couples were permitted to room together at the same lower room rate available to straight couples. When the Wichita gathering was discussed at the Ithaca Gathering, gays asked if they would have the same options at the 1977 gathering, and were assured they would. “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror otherwise,” declared one FGC staff member.
There were, however, two members of the Wichita planning committee who felt otherwise, and they made their feelings known to Donald Moon in no uncertain terms.
One of the dissenters was Norval Hadley of Newberg, Oregon, and his letter was stinging. Hadley was then General Superintendent of Northwest Yearly Meeting, which is a major constituent of the Evangelical Friends Alliance, the most theologically Evangelical of the major Quaker bodies. Hadley was also President of the Alliance. He told Moon that if Miller’s request were granted, he and the alliance would refuse to participate in the conference, and he believed it would at least set back ecumenical efforts among Friends, and perhaps permanently end them.
“Unlike many other Friends,” Hadley explained later,”we acknowledge the Bible as our authority, and the Bible says homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God. So we just weren’t comfortable with the idea of giving a platform to somebody to say that what the Bible teaches is wrong is really right.”
When Donald Moon called Gary Miller a week before the conference was to open and told him of the Evangelical opposition, Miller withdrew the request. Norval Hadley later wrote to Moon to find out what had happened and was advised of the withdrawal. Hadley then went ahead with plans to bring members of his group to the conference, including missionary Friends from the Aymara Indians of Bolivia, who were being transported from their homes at considerable expense.
When Hadley and his members arrived in Wichita on the eve of the conference, however, Hadley discovered to his dismay that the matter was not, in fact, closed. Moon had in the meantime received a second, similar request, this time from a more important, or in Quaker parlance, “weighty” source, the Committee on Civil Rights for Homosexuals of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
Gary Miller’s request had come from an unofficial group; but the Philadelphia letter, asking for table and meeting space and a listing on the program, originated with a duly constituted Friends body. Moreover, its sponsor was the largest and historically most influential Yearly Meeting in America; the letter was written on its official stationery.
[Note that Philadelphia in 1977 was by no means united in accepting homosexuality either. Thus the careful nomenclature for the committee: supporting civil rights of people who were homosexual, reserving judgment on their identity itself.]
Further, the same day the letter was sent, someone in Philadelphia notified a contact in Wichita, who in turn called the local press, and on June 23, the Wichita Eagle informed the whole city that “Gays Ask Spot in Quaker Meeting.”
The paper’s interest was not really a surprise. On the map, Wichita may appear to be lost in the endless wheat fields of the prairies, almost as far from San Francisco as it is from Fire Island — surely the middle of nowhere for homosexuals: but such was not the case.
In 1977 the city had a numerous, highly conscious and visible gay community, which gathered in several gay bars and clubs, published a newsletter and supported a congregation of the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church.
Even as the Quaker conferees were gathering at Friends University, Wichita gays were winding up a busy Gay Pride Week with a big picnic not far away. If it was not San Francisco, Wichita for gays was not the end of the earth either.
[In fact they were also at work on a gay rights ordinance, which the city council adopted later that summer.]
Against this background, the Philadelphia request was brought to a meeting of the conference Oversight Committee on Saturday afternoon, June 25th. Both Hadley and several gay Friends were at the meeting, which almost immediately erupted into angry charges, countercharges and threats.
The Evangelical opposition to the request was, however, a distinctly minority position, and at one point in the four-hour session Norval Hadley offered to withdraw from the group. “We suggested that they should go ahead and make whatever decision they felt they should” he explained, “and then we would decide whether we could stay.”
But this offering obviously ran counter to the Quaker style of decisionmaking, which does not depend on voting or numerical majorities, but delays action until a solution can be found that all parties can agree to as consistent with their sense of the leading of the Holy Spirit for the group.
“Almost to a person the committee rejected my proposal,” Hadley said.” They insisted we were all Friends and we should keep at it together until we reached some agreement.”
The Oversight Committee, the conference, indeed the future of Quaker ecumenism were all at a critical juncture “we were at the point of deciding whether there would be one Friends Church in the United States or two,” Hadley said. His evaluation was echoed by another participant, Thomas Bodine of Hartford, Connecticut Monthly Meeting.
Bodine had been Presiding Clerk of Friends United Meeting, the largest and most diverse of the American associations. “If we hadn’t made progress and the Evangelicals had pulled out,” Bodine said, “we would probably have been unable to have another gathering like this one for at least forty years, until all the current generation of leadership had passed from the scene.”
[Bodine, who would later come out as a gay man, was both correct and incorrect in his estimate of the situation: there was progress in Wichita, as described below; but it is now more than forty years later, and there has been no such comparable gathering of American Friends, though many other Quaker events have since been disrupted by the associated issues.]
The Saturday meeting struggled, caught in an impasse, through the dinner hour and right up to the time of the opening plenary session, without finding a way out. Before the meeting broke up, the members had recourse to another Quaker procedure: they appointed a smaller group of five, including Hadley, Bodine and three other Friends representing the various positions, to meet again Sunday morning to see if they could hammer out a solution to bring back to the whole committee.
“Saturday was a very difficult session,” Hadley recalled later, “and one thing that kind of put us under the gun was the fact that the Wichita press was interested in the issue and reporters were waiting outside.” The Sunday Wichita Eagle (June 26, 1977) did in fact note that “Quakers Defer Ruling on Gays,” and the story went out over the wires to appear in papers as far away as Kansas City and Des Moines, Iowa.
“But the spirit was at work Saturday night in all of us I guess,” said Tom Bodine, “because when our group of five met at eight AM Sunday morning, the atmosphere was completely different. We were ready to find something we could get together on. We all even arrived on time.”
Norval Hadley agreed that, “In the middle of the meeting on Saturday I realized that I was in danger of being too hard on the gays because I couldn’t really be certain about the how or why of homosexuality. Besides, even though the Bible teaches it is a sin, we believe there is hope for anyone through Jesus Christ, and that was a possibility I wanted to be able to emphasize. I didn’t want to take the position of rejecting gays as persons. We believe that there is power through Jesus Christ to enable even a person with homosexual tendencies to lead a life that’s pleasing to God.”
This more tender spirit finally produced a concrete proposal: on Wednesday, June 29, a conference Interest Group would be scheduled on the topic: “Sexual Orientation and Human Rights.” Notice of the meeting would be printed in the conference daily bulletin.
“From my side,” Hadley said, “this was not seen primarily as a platform to say, “’Gay is Good’, but a discussion of sexual orientation as it involved human rights, which is a concern that we have and which was an objective of the conference.”
The gay members of the group of five were pleased with the topic, because it gave them the official chance to be heard that they had been seeking, and the area of human rights was similarly important to them.
For both groups the stakes had been raised by the recent, notorious crusade led by singer Anita Bryant in Miami against a gay rights ordinance there, which had brought the issue to wide public attention.
The Sunday meeting ended in a euphoric spirit, which the press picked up and inadvertently almost destroyed.”Gays Win Role In Quaker Meet,” said the Eagle headline on Monday, June 27th.
“But nobody had talked about us ‘winning’ anything,” protested Jim Cavener, a supporter of the gay Friends. “Winning and losing in the political sense are foreign to the Friends’ way of making decisions. That’s just what we worked so hard in these meetings to avoid.”
In actuality the news article did not contain any quotes or text about anyone having “won” anything. But the headline’s damage was done. No sooner had the paper hit the streets than the telephones of local Quaker officials involved with the conference began to ring, bringing angry messages of protest from their constituents.
Donald Moon, the conference General Chairman, went to work to try to repair the breach. “Friends Conference Denies Role For Gays,” was the Eagle headline the following day (June 28), over an article explaining that the gathering had not taken a position on gay
rights, and had not in fact granted any of the original requests.
But in the meantime, it was now the turn of Norval Hadley and other Evangelical attenders to display quiet courage in standing up for their support of the interest group meeting.
“We tried to set up the Wednesday Meeting very carefully,” Tom Bodine explained, “to maximize the chances of a real Quaker dialogue. And one way we wanted to do that was to have three moderators, one gay, one who disapproved of homosexuality and one who was more or less in the middle . And we also wanted one of the three to be a person well-known to local Friends.”
But the group had trouble finding people to fill out its list, and asked Norval Hadley whether he would be willing to serve.
Yet Hadley had been getting messages too.
“I was told by influential members of my group that I would be ‘crucified’ back home if I officiated at the session,” he said. Tom Bodine was more concrete: “Norval’s job was on the line, but he stuck with us and said that if we needed him to be a moderator, he would serve.”
The Friends University administration was also taking heat over the likelihood that the session would be held on their property. “The University staff told us that it would cost them a lot if the meeting were held on the campus,” Tom Bodine continued, “but they said that if we couldn’t find an acceptable alternate location, we could hold it here anyway.”
Buoyed by this support, the Oversight Committee worked hard to avoid either eventuality. Finally a large church a few blocks away from the campus, which was being used for some conference sessions already, provided space for the interest group. And a woman named Miriam Burke, who was well-known to Wichita Friends, accepted the third moderator’s position (after several others had declined it).
When Wednesday afternoon arrived, the session drew a large crowd, more than 120 people, and heard different views aired with some emotion but no acrimony.
Gary Miller spoke of the human rights issues involved. Norval Hadley set forth his view of the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality along with the hope in Christ for saving a homosexual person. A white-haired mother spoke feelingly of her discovery, four years ago, that her daughter was gay and how, though it had been “the hardest adjustment I ever made in my life,” she was again proud of her daughter, her daughter’s friends and their way of life. Several gay Friends described how their local Meetings had helped them come out of the closet, and how much their Quaker faith meant to them. No conclusions were reached, but that was not part of the agenda.
After the meeting, tension seemed to drain from the issue and the conference atmosphere. A crisis had been confronted and dealt with. Gay Friends met informally later and decided to pursue conversations on the topic with other attenders on an individual basis, identifying themselves, and others interested in the issues, by small pink triangles attached to their nametags. This symbol was chosen in memory of the gays massacred by the Nazis, who forced their victims to wear pink triangles on their sleeves, just as Jews were forced to wear six-pointed stars.
As these conversations proceeded, major attention among the attenders shifted to other concerns, prominent among which were the discussions which had been carried on all week in Spanish among Latin American Friends and others in sessions of the Mesa Redonda, or Round Table. The Latin American Friends reached what may have been one of the most significant decisions of the conference, which was agreement on a consultative structure among missions and Meetings of Quakers in Central and South America.
Dialogues also went on among Friends of various theological persuasions about matters of doctrine, missions, social action, and the basis of ongoing unity among a group as diverse as the Society of Friends in America. Under other circumstances, any of these points could have been the fuel of angry debate or even division; in fact, many of them had been, in earlier years.
At week’ s end, as attenders prepared to return home, the Wichita Eagle asked the gay Friends for a statement. The gays had earlier decided not to hold a formal press conference, but acceded to this request.
At the interview, gays and supportive non-gays posed for pictures and expressed considerable satisfaction and pleasure with what they felt was the progress that had been made at the conference, and the Quakerly manner in which the issue had been tackled.
They also warned that the forces exemplified by the Anita Bryant crusade were attempting to use opposition to homosexuality among Evangelical Christians as part of a broad right-wing push in American society which needed to be opposed by more than just gays.
They were careful to point out, however, that Evangelical Friends were not easily lumped into this repressive drive. Despite their firm rejection of homosexuality, the Evangelical Friends Alliance has a strong record of support for peace and civil rights issues involving racial minorities, in line with traditional Quaker testimonies in these areas. Dwight Spann-Wilson, General Secretary of the ostensibly more liberal Friends General Conference, declared of the Evangelicals that “they’re really more active in social concerns than we are, although not always in the same style. And the Evangelical Friends Alliance had the highest proportion of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War of any Friends group.”
[Spann-Wilson was mistaken about conscientious objector rates; there are no reliable statistics on the proportion of draft age men pursued CO status in the various branches. The gays were also mistaken about the prospects in the evangelical yearly meetings: all have since been drawn ever more firmly into the religious right orbit and most have hardened their stance against LGBTQs. Between 2000 and 2019, five U.S. yearly meetings split over issues relating to LGBTQ matters, and one of them disappeared entirely after 320 years.]
For his part, Evangelical leader Norval Hadley was more reflective about the week’s developments. “It was a heavy experience,” he admitted,”a growing experience. God is still working with me too.”
He stuck to his conviction that the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality; and on gay rights, when asked to be specific he admitted, “You’re pinning me down on some things I don’t think your readers are going to like.” He opposed discrimination against gays in housing, economic matters like insurance, and in most job situations. He even considered gay marriages mainly a private matter between the people involved, “though we wouldn’t marry them in our churches.
But yes,” he added, “I have problems with their teaching in public schools. That’s where our young people see their role models, and where the question of encouraging others to join in this sin becomes unavoidable. ”
Hadley’s tone was one of disturbed rather than self-confident assertion. “I don’t want to come off like I know all about this,” he said. “And I would welcome the chance to carry on further dialogues about it on the basis of acceptance of one another as persons, or on the basis of ending unjust discrimination, or communicating that God loves gays and can make them whole. That’s why I supported the Wednesday meeting.”
He added that he intended to continue contacts by mail with at least one gay Friend who had been on the group of five as a further dialogue on a personal level.
[Hadley also soon left his position with Northwest Yearly Meeting and left the Northwest for southern California.]
Tom Bodine, whose clerk’s job in Friends United Meeting exposed him to the rigors of working with Friends from a wide range of views, felt very positive about the conference but very cautious about the future of Quaker ecumenism. “We came further on this than I ever thought we could,” he said afterward. “The Holy Spirit was really at work among us. I imagine that most attenders at Wichita would be happy to have another conference like this.
“But I’m not so sure about the sentiments of people who were not here. I think it’s going to be very hard to interpret what happened here to many Friends back home. And that goes for people on both sides of the gay issue. There is still plenty of work to do before Quaker unity will be a functioning reality again, even in terms of respecting our right to our different points of view.”
[More work was soon to arrive. After the Wichita city council adopted a gay rights ordinance in September 1977, an evangelical-led crusade led to a referendum vote in May 1978, where the ordinance was voted down by a five to one margin.]
OTOH . . .