To mark this year’s LGBT History Month, this week’s blog post takes a look at the history of the Friends Homosexual Fellowship (FHF) (now known as Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship) which supports LGBT Quakers within the Religious Society of Friends.
Quakers first began to consider gay equality with the publication of the booklet, Towards a Quaker View of Sex in 1963. This was the culmination of work begun in 1957 by a small group of British Friends who met to examine issues of sexuality, including homosexuality. The booklet challenged traditional Christian attitudes to sexual morality, causing considerable controversy in the media, and sparking debate within the Religious Society of Friends. The authors took the view that,
An act which expresses (for example) true affection between two individuals and gives pleasure to them both does not seem to us to be sinful by reason alone of the fact that it is homosexual. Rather it should be judged by the same criterion as any heterosexual relationship.
(Heron, Alistair (ed. ), 1963, Towards a Quaker View of Sex, Friends Home Service Committee, http://exhibits.lgbtran.org/exhibits/show/towards-a-quaker-view-of-sex, p.32, accessed 04/02/2016)
Although the booklet was not an official statement by the Society of Friends, it was published by the Friends Home Service to encourage debate and is described as,
…probably the most influential document published by Quakers in Britain in the twentieth century.
(Religious Society of Friends, Quaker View on same sex marriages – updated 2013, http://old.quaker.org.uk/samesexbriefing, accessed 04/02/2016)
It was certainly the first of such documents to be produced by a religious organisation. You can read more about the work of the group which contributed to Towards a Quaker View of Sex, its publication and the response to it in this on-line exhibition of archive documents, which includes a full copy of the booklet.
Following the publication of David Blamires’ book Homosexuality from the Inside by the Social Responsibility Council of the Religious Society of Friends in 1973, a group of Friends gathered in Manchester in September of that year to form the Friends Homosexual Fellowship (FHF). This was an interest group rather than an official structure within the Society of Friends, and was one of the first religious support groups to exist. It was established to counteract the sense of isolation and loneliness many gay Quakers encountered and to provide them with a friendly, understanding, supportive forum in which they could get advice and find friendships. An introductory leaflet compiled for those making enquiries about FHF set out its aims:
To encourage fellowship, friendship and support between members, and, where necessary, to help those who have difficulty in either accepting themselves and others or in being accepted. To this end, the formation of local groups is encouraged.
To promote a dialogue within the Society of Friends at all levels, with a view to achieving a deeper mutual understanding and acceptance.
To liaise with other groups with similar aims, particularly with a religious basis.
(Central Area Meeting Archives, Ref SF (acc. 2014/213) 818)
Following the first meeting in Manchester, FHF continued to hold meetings, with a one-day conference in the autumn and a residential weekend conference in the spring. A newsletter was published four times a year and regional groups held meetings at members’ homes, or members were put in touch with those that lived nearby. As well as giving pastoral care, FHF was committed to the aims of the Society of Friends and many members were active at all levels of the Society as office holders or as members of committees. By 1982, membership of FHF had grown to 200 (male and female) members across Britain, and by 1984 it had made contact with 400 Friends and Attenders.
FHF encouraged its members to engage with meetings and develop a dialogue to achieve greater awareness and understanding. In 1984 it issued an information pack entitled A contribution to the discussion of sexuality and human relationships (Central Area Meeting Archives, Ref SF acc. 2014/213 818) which was issued to all meeting house libraries across the country as part of FHF’s contribution to the wider discussion on ‘Sexuality and Human Relationships’ which was being addressed at a local level in Preparative Meetings.
It contained a number of articles produced in the period 1978 – 1982, which included an introductory leaflet about the aims and work of the FHF, assessments of the progress made regarding attitudes in the Society of Friends since the early 1970s, accounts of personal experiences of being an FHF member and attending FHF meetings, discussions as to why the FHF was needed, a list of questions considered by Quaker gay support groups in the US, statements from the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches on homosexuality with FHF’s response, and a summary of a survey of reactions within the Religious Society of Friends to the existence of FHF.
The situation for gay people has changed considerably since then. In the Society of Friends same-sex relationships have been celebrated via an official meeting for commitment since 1996, civil partnerships have been celebrated since 2012 and same-sex marriages have been celebrated since 2014. You can read more about this here. However, the FHF continues today, under the name Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship, and still has similar aims to those it had at its inception, despite the progress that has been made since 1973. You can find out more about its work here.
A timeline of Quaker concern for lesbian and gay equality is available here and you can read more about the campaign for gay equality in: Kirby, K. and McNaughton, M., (eds), 2013, A time to celebrate, a time to remember: fifty years of Quaker concern for gay equality.
Eleanor (Project Archivist, Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)