Quakers (of whom I am one) have a long history of social justice. Many Quakers were involved in the Underground Railroad, they generally believed that Indians should be treated justly (though this meant paying them a “fair price” for their land, not keeping off of it entirely). In 1688, Germantown Friends drafted the first anti-slavery minute, and over the course of the next 100 years, Friends gradually came to consensus around the idea of slavery being wrong. In the first half of the 1800s, Friends were convinced, by gradual social pressure and other stuff, to free their slaves or not buy new ones (I’d go into details, but I honestly don’t know them very well, and it’s late and I’m kinda tired).
Quakers are proud of our history, and justifiably so. We’re one of the first organized groups to formally come out against slavery. Quakers did a lot to contribute to the downfall of slavery in the United States, and aided countless men and women escaping slavery in the South.
But still. It took us 100 years to get there.
A Friend once told me of an experience she had in a discussion at a Quaker gathering about race. A (white) man stood up and more or less what I’ve repeated above, the usual self-congratulation at the enlightenment of Quakers.
A (black) woman stood up and asked, “How many of my people had to die in chains while white Quakers sat around and debated what they knew to be true for one hundred years before finally getting off their asses and doing something?”
She was right. Quakers knew that slavery was a violation of Quaker principles, and a violation against God, and an unjust system long before we managed to come together and get rid of all our slaves. Like Thomas Jefferson, so against slavery, and yet so beholden to its power as a social system. We enslave ourselves to habits. And I’m not saying that Quakers should be ridden with guilt that it took us 100 years to get to a place that, from 20th century perspective, seems self-evident. I’m just saying that we don’t get to decide whether we were or weren’t (or are or aren’t) effective allies. But next time the opportunity presents itself, hopefully we learn lessons from our past and don’t take quite so long to do the right thing.
That was what came to my mind when I read this excerpt that Barack Obama did recently with The Advocate:
Yes, and Joe asked me the same question. And since I’ve been making a lot of news over the last several weeks, I’m not going to make more news today. The sentiment I expressed then is still where I am—which is, like a lot of people, I’m wrestling with this. My attitudes are evolving on this. I have always firmly believed in having a robust civil union that provides the rights and benefits under the law that marriage does. I’ve wrestled with the fact that marriage traditionally has had a different connotation. But I also have a lot of very close friends who are married gay or lesbian couples.
And squaring that circle is something that I have not done yet, but I’m continually asking myself this question and I do think that—I will make this observation, that I notice there is a big generational difference. When you talk to people who are in their 20s, they don’t understand what the holdup is on this, regardless of their own sexual orientation. And obviously when you talk to older folks, then there’s greater resistance.
And so this is an issue that I’m still wrestling with, others are still wrestling with. What I know is that at minimum, a baseline is that there has to be a strong, robust civil union available to all gay and lesbian couples.
Now, sure, that Obama would do an interview with a gay magazine is a step forward in and of itself. But the question still remains: Obama knows that legalizing gay marraige is the right and just thing to do. I’m sure he knows that it’s basically inevitable–sooner or later, straights-only marraige is going to go the way of anti-misogynation laws. So what the hell are we waiting for? How many gays and lesbians have to continue to exist in this unjust system–without partner health care, without wills, without the ability to adopt children, without tax breaks, without the security and safety in their person–while we straights pussyfoot around and “evolve our attitudes”? How many queer kids have to be bullied to the point of suicide before the outcry against it becomes so deafening that we manage to create safe schools? How many Pride parades must a man walk in before they call him a man? Let’s hold hands and sing all together, now.
I just…I’m so sorry, gay America. I’m sorry you have to put up with this bullshit. I’m sorry that straight America is so reluctant to do the right thing. I’m sorry that so many of you have died without ever getting to see what should be a basic civil right granted to you. That we use the excuses that we do is an example, in and of itself, of the privilege that we have that we’re unaware of. I haven’t yet figured out how to put my money where my mouth is (sigh, privilege again, sorry), but here’s at least one straight chick who can’t wait for America to get gayer.