Report of the QLGF Manchester Conference, May 2014 by Hugh Jones
Following the 50th anniversary of Towards a Quaker View of Sex, and Stonewall’s recent award to QLGF as Community Group of the Year for 2013, we felt it would be both timely and appropriate to use some of the prize money to subsidise a one-day conference on Quaker (and non-Quaker) views on spirituality and sexual ethics in today’s diverse society. The aim would be to reflect not only QLGF’s, but also Stonewall’s, and young Friends’, views on recent developments such as gay marriage and faith groups, homophobia, and transgender rights, in the light not only of our own Quaker testimony to equality but also of 21st century realities and needs. We deliberately advertised the event – in Mount Street Friends Meeting House in Manchester – widely and well in advance, with skilled facilitators and keynote speakers from a broad range of perspectives, and were rewarded with a challenging and uplifting day of discussion. We were particularly glad to welcome a number of young Friends and hear their views.
The conference started with addresses by the three keynote speakers. Ruth Hunt, acting Chief Executive of Stonewall, put the entire theme of the day in context by reminding us where we had got to as a community, with (now) gay marriage in the UK, but with continuing problems of hate crime and bullying in schools, and much work still to do against homophobia in Africa and Russia. Ruth said, encouragingly for Quakers, that although much has been achieved Stonewall felt a need now to find a new, kinder, way to promote change, perhaps less aggressively, and it is important to serve LGBT spiritual needs too.
Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu, former chair of the Association of Liberal Rabbis, reminded us of the true story of Job, not merely of passive suffering, but of sustained integrity ultimately rewarded by his restoration to health, and suggested we might need to reclaim the real meaning of ‘straight’ as upright integrity. Jews, like Quakers, are now reconsidering civil partnerships in the light of the (apparently) more “equal” gay marriage.
Finally, Rhodri Roberts, the LGBT officer at NUS Wales, reminded us that LGBT young people still face prejudice and discrimination, including transphobia, particularly at school, and we still have a way to go in identifying ourselves as a truly inclusive but diverse community, without ‘alphabet-soup’ labels such as QUILTBAGS (Ruth) and (my favourite, from Rhodri) IDAHOBBIT. During questions, we felt this concern about identity may be leading to a wider issue of communication, not only with other faith (and non-faith) groups, but also with ‘power’ (liberals don’t often speak with ‘powerful’ voices). We may pat ourselves on the back for much that has been achieved over the past 50 years, but major challenges (and much passive phobia) still remain.
After lunch, we split into four break-out discussion groups, led by our Treasurer Lis Sutherland, facilitator Kelvin Beer-Jones, Rhodri, and Shulamit, with themes of engaging as faith groups with the wider LGBT community, challenging phobias, Quaker testimonies and sexual ethics (the one I joined). In our group, led by Rhodri, we felt four Quaker testimonies were key: equality (or ‘fairness’?), truth, integrity, and simplicity (how can we simply support each other?), and during the reporting back stage at the conclusion of the day we found a great unity around a sense of real achievement that can support us together in the many challenges still remaining. We even managed – at last – to find a common identity: ‘Quaker Sexuality – Simple, Truthful, Equal, Sustainable’.