The Price of Prophecy: The Carolina Trial of Willie Frye
Willie Frye (1931-2013) began his pastoral career among North Carolina’s pastoral Quakers in the early 1950s. He came to this work from a background of strict fundamentalism. In most of this state and much of the rest of America, these were years of racial segregation, unquestioning support for American wars, and a goes-without-saying conviction that homosexuality was an unmentionable perversion and a crime.
But by 1960, sit-ins at Greensboro lunch counters set off an uprising to overturn the racial status quo that spread quickly from North Carolina across the region. Within a few more years, as U.S. troops poured into Vietnam, some Friends, including Willie, began to have doubts about that war and remembering something called the Peace Testimony.
And in 1963, a group of British Friends published a pioneering study, “Toward a Quaker View of Sex,” which sparked international controversy.
Willie Frye was involved in all these matters, as a pastor and an advocate. And his own received attitudes were changing. In 1969, his peace witness led him to visit the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. On this and racial equality, he could draw on long Quaker witness, even if they were little practiced in his home area. As for questioning the homophobic status quo, the impetus for change had more personal sources: one of his sons turned out to be what would later be called “gay.”
Along with his wife Agnes, the Fryes organized some the earliest PFLAG (Parents of Lesbians and Gays) support groups; they also worked with the PFLGC (Piedmont Friends For Lesbian & Gay Concerns).
Willie’s stands in favor of civil rights, along with his challenges to U.S. wars and militarism got him into trouble. But when after his own personal struggle, he and Agnes began to question the received anti-homosexual attitudes, opposition became intense. Officials in North Carolina Yearly Meeting called him a heretic and worse; he received virulent hate mail.
In 1993, Willie wrote a short pamphlet, Homosexuality: An Attempt At Dialogue. He printed a batch of copies, and handed them out to Friends at NCYM’s annual sessions that summer.
As far as constructive dialogue, it didn’t produce much there, at least in the short run: instead, Willie was subjected to denunciation, condemnations, and attempts to rescind his credentials as a pastor, drive him out of NCYM, and end his ministerial career.
The effort at formal banishment fell short, but to many in the Yearly Meeting, Willie remained a pariah for twenty years, until his death in 2013. Further, a case can also be made that Willie’s witness, and the pamphlet, were key catalysts for the campaigns which have recurred in the following two decades, to purge North Carolina Yearly Meeting of all who were sympathetic to homosexuals, as well as to expunge the newer understandings of the Bible, traditional Christian beliefs, and issues such as war and racism that went with them.
As this post is being written in mid-2016 — 23 years after Willie presented this essay — these efforts are continuing. But this witness by Willie & Agnes has not been forgotten: others have picked up the banner, and pushed back against the ongoing repression.
For some readers today, especially the more “liberal,” some of this essay may seem dated — we’re well beyond that. Maybe. But for me there is no question that Willie’s pamphlet was not only far in advance of the time and place where it was produced (and remains so in many meetings); it also took extraordinary courage to write, distribute, and then stand up for.
This short excerpt is as relevant today as it was in 1993:
“As Friends, we must rise above the homophobic hysteria sweeping the country and seek to be a voice of reason, concern, and spiritual insight. We cannot afford to lose the soul of Quakerism by allowing ourselves to be caught up in the current compulsion to condemn and exclude. Naturally, we are stirred by the gay and lesbian rights movement. The civil rights movement of the sixties had much the same effect. Those of us who grew up in the South resisted and criticized it; we were hostile to it and felt threatened by it but, in the end, it compelled us to look within and what we found was raw prejudice that would not stand the objective scrutiny of the Inner Light.
The strength of Quakerism has always been found in our willingness to expose ourselves to that kind of examination and our further willingness to follow the revelation that the Light brings. It has been that willingness that has set us apart from other denominations and made us pioneers in areas of which we are now proud. It is time for us to hark back to our basic concepts in dealing with the present issue. The process has not failed us in the past. It will not fail us now if we have the courage to engage ourselves in it.”
When the history of Quaker struggle over the presence of affirmation of LGBT persons is written, this essay, and Willie’s example of seeking truth calmly but steadfastly in the face of fierce, unrelenting opposition will have a place of high honor, well worth recalling and reflecting on for many years to come.
And in the meantime, their example is well worth emulating.
I am pleased, with permission of Willie’s family, to present the pamphlet in full, here: Homosexuality; An Attempt At Dialogue.