50 years supporting the rainbow community

Roger Sawkins, Queensland Regional Meeting

In January 1975, nearly fifty years ago, Quakers were the first Australian religious body to publicly support the gay community. As with all Quaker Concerns, it took a couple of years for the statement to come to fruition.


The Criminal Code in each Australian State was inherited from the UK on Australia’s Federation in 1901 and included draconian penalties for any sexual acts between men.

Queensland imposed penalties of up to 14 years “with hard labour” for “any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” (intended to refer to anal intercourse), and up to three years with hard labour for men “committing any act of gross indecency with another male person.” (Sect. 208 & 211)

In November 1972 a Concern was brought to Queensland Regional Meeting (QRM) to support the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) in that State and to support changing the law against male homosexual acts. QRM endorsed the Concern and the Clerk was asked to “convey a message along these lines to the organisation” (CAMP).

In 1973 a Triennial conference, organised by The Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), took place in Sydney and was attended by Friends from around the World. That happened to coincide with the publication by the Social Responsibility Council of Quakers in the UK of a booklet by one of the participants at the FWCC Triennial, David Blamires, called Homosexuality from the Inside (1973).

QRM agreed to pay half of David Blamires air fare from Sydney to Brisbane so that he could speak at a public meeting as well as with Friends. The meeting was later declared “a great success”.

Partly as a result of David’s visit to the Triennial, Sydney Regional Meeting advised that they also supported changes to the Australian Criminal Codes, and their Concern was forwarded to Yearly Meeting in April 1974.

Because of the Triennial in Sydney, a limited Yearly Meeting was held over the Easter weekend in April 1974 at Mount Glorious outside Brisbane with about 30 Friends in attendance. Sydney RM’s Concern was considered and a group of four Friends were asked to bring back a possible public statement to a later session.

The later session minuted:

  1. The group appointed by Minute 19 has brought forward this statement, of which we approve:

“We have been aware throughout this Yearly Meeting of the pressing need for individuals in society to be helped to develop deep and meaningful personal relationships in a wide variety of situations. Sydney R.M. has brought to our attention their concern that we should support changes in laws which at present help to increase prejudice against homosexuals within society and which seriously limit the development of many people’s personal lives.

“We believe that the law should be changed so as to take the area of personal conduct between adults out of the concern of the law. At the same time the law should protect individuals and society through laws preventing indecent behaviour in public and protecting victims of exploitative relationships, either between adults or involving children”.

“We urge Regional Meetings. to consider the need for a serious ongoing concern on all the issues raised in this Minute and to this end we ask:

“Roger Sawkins (convenor), Dougald McLean, Roderic Grosvenor, Justine Sawkins, Sabine Willis and David Willis, to produce a suitable statement to be sent to Regional Meetings for discussion prior to any release to the media.

“We ask the group to indicate to RMs sources of information on this subject.

“When RM comments are received and ­­considered we authorise the group, with the consent of the Presiding Clerk, to issue the statement in the name of the Society.”

The Yearly Meeting hesitated to issue the statement immediately as the number of Friends there was limited and Regional Meetings had not had a chance to discuss the proposed statement.

Over the course of the next six months the group prepared a report setting out the provisions of the law and giving other information about their effect. They also proposed a much longer public statement which Regional Meetings discussed and suggested alterations.

As an example of the considerations in the various Regional Meetings, Queensland agreed the following in December 1973 (based on the group’s draft):

“The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Queensland believes there should be changes in the Queensland laws relating to homosexual acts and homosexual relationships.

“There has been a long history of concealment of the diversity of human relationships which has built up a barrier to trust and honesty and has led to myths about homosexuality, bisexuality and other forms of sexual expression.

“The ignorance resulting from this concealment has oppressed many minority groups in the community whose sexual orientation or preferences do not match up to the rigid roles imposed upon them. The result has been that some individuals have been unable to experience the strength and joy of non-exploitative relationships because of arbitrary social, economic or legal restrictions of their right to share their love in private.

“The Society believes that homosexual relationships can be encompassed within a community without difficulty.

“The Queensland laws should be changed to eliminate the discrimination against homosexuals in particular, and to remove the area of personal and emotional relationships between consenting adults from the realm of the law.

“In calling for this change, the Society is aware that the community still requires laws to protect its individuals from offensive behaviour in public and to protect the victims of exploitative relationships.

“The Society also calls upon all people to seek more knowledge and understanding of the diversity of human expression and to affirm the worth of a loving non-exploitative relationship.”

Similar drafts were brought by other RMs for consideration at the 1975 Yearly Meeting. In the event, Yearly Meeting “while recognising the wide diversity of views on homosexuality held by individual Friends” agreed to issue a much shorter public statement:

“The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia calls for a change in the laws relating to homosexuality. These laws should be changed to eliminate discrimination against homosexuals.

“This statement is made in the light of the Society’s desire to remove discrimination and persecution in the community. The Society also calls on all people to seek more knowledge and understanding of the diversity of human relationships and to affirm the worth of love in all of them”.

It is notable that the statement calls for the elimination of discrimination as well as changes in the law.

Support for relationships

Support for gay and lesbian people continued after the issue of the public statement. As an example, QRM supported student teacher Greg Weir who was refused employment by the Queensland government on his graduation because of his involvement in the gay student group at his Teachers College. QRM also provided a meeting place for the Metropolitan Community Church which had specific outreach to the gay community; and objected to the Courier Mail newspaper refusing adverts for MCC and the CAMP’s telephone counselling service.

At the end of the 70’s Australia Yearly Meeting was looking at a revision of the Handbook of Practice and Procedure, with Yearly Meeting in January 1980 asking RMs to discuss “changing mores in our society, marriage and homosexual relationships, etc.” for the purpose of redrafting sections of the Handbook.

The AYM Handbook Revision Committee pointed out that the Handbook had a section on marriage and giving support to partners in marriage. Should there be a statement about other committed relationships?

There followed a difficult struggle with three out of four consecutive Yearly Meetings discussing (broadly) the same subject and coming (broadly) to the same conclusions; we had a Yearly Meeting Presiding Clerk deferring a Yearly Meeting decision for further consideration; we had Standing Committee meeting changing a Yearly Meeting decision; and we had letters and telephone calls going directly to the AYM Committee and the Presiding Clerk.

We also had Friends, some present and some not present, saying that YM decisions were not in right ordering or were not guided by the Spirit; we had concerted letter-writing trying to change the decision (one Friend wrote nearly 300 (numbered) letters on the subject, some up to ten pages in length, many copied and sent to several different Meetings and individuals); we also had the suggestion that Friends supporting this “radically changed ethos” should no longer used the name “Religious Society of Friends”.

During the discussions the relationships were referred to as
Sharers in relationships,
Those who live in groupings,
Committed partners,
Unmarried couples and homosexual pairs,
Relationships between two people who desire to share their lives in love and fidelity,
Single parent families, siblings sharing the same home and adults caring for elderly relatives as well as unmarried couples and homosexual pairs.

We also referred to the relationships as:
Committed relationships
Spiritually enriching relationships
Relationship with loving concern at its source

And yet as far as I know no Yearly or Regional Meeting session discussed what it meant by the term “committed”.

In 1985 we ended up placing sections on marriage and relationships in an Appendix to the Handbook. The Appendix explained some of the history of our struggles, went on to offer guidance in relation to “Prospective marriage partners”, “Partners in Marriage” and then “Committed relationships other than marriage”.

That final section included “If the Meeting feels that a relationship is stable and loving, a suitable opportunity might be found when Friends could express their love and support for the individuals” (Note: not for the relationship) and added “Friends need to respect the rights of those concerned to make their own decisions about a lifestyle congenial to them.”

But as one Friend asked plaintively in the last Yearly Meeting session “What does it mean if I am in an Appendix?”

However, support for issues around sexuality continued and Sydney Friends had an official entry in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade for several years, as well as a stall at the Fair Day.

Marriage equality

There was considerable concern when in 2004 the Federal Government, with bipartisan support from the Opposition, changed the Marriage Act to define marriage as “the union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others”. This change not only caused dismay but also caused confusion for the few people in Australia who had married and then one partner had changed their gender. It appeared that what had previously been a legal marriage was effectively annulled.

The government went further in 2006 by disallowing a new Australian Capital Territory law which recognised same-sex civil partnerships, as had happened in several States (the Federal government has power over the Territories’ legislation which it does not have over State legislation).

Friends wrote objecting to these changes, without success, and continued to discuss their attitude to marriage and the use of the word “marriage”.

Then in 2007 Canberra RM celebrated the marriage of two men, using the normal Quaker process but acknowledging that the marriage was not legal.

The approach also bore in mind that Quaker marriages between opposite sex partners were not legally binding until 1753 in the UK, and then only if they were between two members. Until 1859 a Quaker who married a non-Quaker was disowned by their Meeting in the UK and in Australia. It was not until 1878 that Quaker marriages were fully recognised under UK legislation. So the idea of a Quaker marriage that was not legally recognised was not new.

Eventually, the January 2010 Yearly Meeting in Australia discussed a Concern from Young Friends that it make a public statement supporting marriage equality and redraft the Handbook to reflect that.

Again Quakers in Australia were the first mainstream religious body in Australia to publicly support marriage equality, and AYM publicly supported the “Yes” vote in the Referendum in 2017.

And into the future …

Issues of equality around gender and sexuality did not end there. A number of Australian Friends have declared themselves as transgender, non-binary or gender diverse in various ways.

A Rainbow Friends and Allies group was established and meets online by Zoom on the fourth Sunday of each month for Worship, support and information sharing.

In 2021, the South Australia and Northern Territory Regional Meeting stopped reporting their number of Members and Attenders by gender, reporting only the number of adults and children. To date, other RMs still report their statistics by Male and Female.

And so within Australian Friends, discussions continue on the issues of gender, sexuality and relationships and may well do so for many years.

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