K Woodhouse, New South Wales Regional Meeting
When Wies Schuiringa and I collected the resources from Devonshire Street Meeting House for our stall at the Mardi Gras Fair Day, we made a quick decision to use the same banners and placards that we’d used in 2018, as they had all seemed appropriate way back then.
But while Wies was cleaning the main 3m-long banner, she wondered if the wording had really become a bit dated and not reflective of our intention to be inclusive. It reads “WE ARE QUAKERS, SUPPORTING GAY & LESBIAN HUMAN RIGHTS.” After asking around, Wies learnt that the banner had probably originally been made for the MG Parades in 1990s. BTIQ+ had hardly entered the conversation then. As it was too short notice for us to produce a new banner for this year’s Fair, we decided to stick a notice onto the existing banner stating “Historic banner first used in the 1994 Mardi Gras parade” (we now think it was probably 1997), and to print some wording “Quakers supporting LGBTQI+ rights” for the smaller placards.
Twenty years ago, when I was involved in spiritual outreach in the gay and lesbian communities in London, there was some discussion about how to include transgender people in the words and acronyms we used. I suggested using the word Queer as an all-encompassing shorthand for human diversity of gender and sexuality. But some of the older generation of gay men in particular were horrified by my suggestion, as they remembered too well when Queer was only used in derogatory terms, and they certainly weren’t ready to reclaim it. So we settled on LGBT.
You may have noticed over the years that the number of letters in the acronym has been increasing. At this year’s Fair Day, we used LGBTQI+ on our placards. But + can extend to A+. In 2017, the Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship of Britain Yearly Meeting (called the Friends Homosexual Fellowship prior to about 1990) again changed their name, and are now known as the Quaker Gender and Sexual Diversity Community (QGSDC). They admit on their website that this is unwieldy and they are happy to be called Queer Quakers for short.
We would like to design a new banner for future Mardi Gras and may choose to use the word Queer. So, I’m going to put it out there and use it in this article to refer to LGBTQI+. If you are not comfortable with the Queer tag, please write in and express your views.
Why have a stall again in 2020?
NSWRM feel there are good reasons. Here are some of them:
- It is an opportunity for Quakers to engage in spiritual outreach to Queer people and the large (80,000 according to the organisers) and diverse crowd of Fair-goers, witnessing to our inclusivity.
- It is an opportunity to mutually support the very small handful of church and faith communities (six this year) that dare to reach out to Queer people by having a stall at the Fair Day.
- It bears witness to the continuing Quaker advocacy for the human rights of marginalised peoples throughout our history. According to the Human Dignity Trust’s website, there are 73 jurisdictions today that criminalise private, consensual, same-sex sexual activity. At least six implement the death penalty – Iran, Northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – and the death penalty is a legal possibility in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and UAE.
- It is a fun day out for those Quakers who volunteer on the stall and an opportunity to celebrate our diversity.
After a break for about ten years, we decided to have a stall in 2018 after the very divisive postal survey and legislation on same sex marriage in the second half of 2017. At that time, Quakers had a media and social media presence supporting the “yes” vote. Wies recalls:
“The media reported many church leaders and members saying some awful things about homosexuality and same sex marriage. I found it important for a faith tradition to be seen at the Fair Day and bear witness to a different understanding.”
Wies, being on the board of the Ecumenical Council of NSW, has her antennae up when news regarding the “church’s position” on Queer issues is broadcast. She writes:
“In the second half of 2019, we have seen some church leaders and members going public about the draft Religious Discrimination bill that was released in July 2019, demanding special privileges that no other group has in our society (The Australian Friend, December 2019). Most church leaders are still smarting about the same sex marriage legislation.
And Israel Folau was getting a lot of media exposure about his sacking from the ARU (Australian Rugby Union) for social media posts about homosexuals, among others, going to hell and imploring them to repent.
Then in October, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney also received a lot of media attention when he was quoted to have said that “if you don’t agree with our doctrine against same sex marriage, then leave the church.” Later he corrected this by saying that he intended this to be addressed to Anglican Bishops only. A minority of Anglican Bishops support at least blessings of same-sex relationships.
Many people in Australia are not familiar with the wide range of beliefs by and within Christian churches. Often reports in the media quoting a Christian leader is taken to encompass everything to do with Christianity and churches in Australia. So, it was time again to bear witness that there are faith traditions that support homosexuality (not the “don’t tell, don’t ask” variety) and same-sex marriage. It was time for our testimony of equality to be aired again.”
Amongst almost 300 stalls in Victoria Park this year, there were six religious organisations with stalls; three “churches” (Uniting Church, Quaker, Metropolitan Community Church), one other church group (for LGBTI Catholics and their families), one group for LGBTI Jews and their families and, for the first time, the Sydney Queer Muslims had a stall in their own name (note that they too are adopting the Queer tag) – last year they had put their toe in the water by piggy-backing on another stall. In 2020 they are a bravely visible and joyous bunch, and brought an extra smile to many Fair-goers’ faces by decluttering their stall of benches and chairs, and laying rugs on the ground to welcome us in to their space for a chat and to offer us pastries. A cause for celebration!
This year the organisers had largely grouped stalls together according to themes, so we Quakers expected to be near other religious organisations. However, when the four Quakers who had volunteered to set up the stall arrived at our pre-allocated site, we discovered it had been taken over by another (non-religious) organisation. Long story, but the volunteer marshals/supervisors initially offered us a new stall site that was remote from the other religious organisations. “Quakers identify as a religious organisation!” we protested. Eventually, after we’d been at the park for two hours, a spare stall was carted by volunteers to a vacant site across the pathway from the other religious organisations. Our Quaker presence alongside them represented a show of solidarity. A member of the Uniting Church conveyed their thanks for our submissions on the draft Religious Discrimination Bill (The Australian Friend, December issue). We accepted their thanks on behalf of the AYM Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee. A member of the Metropolitan Community Church joined us for some singing. We are glad we waited in the light for the re-organisational wheels to turn.
Eleven Quakers volunteered on the stall from Devonshire Street and Wahroonga Local Meetings, each doing a shift of between two and four hours. In the afternoon, some of us busked beside our stall with a pre-prepared program of songs from various Quaker and other song-books, mostly well-known rather than specifically Quaker songs.
What our volunteers said of their experience:
“There was a community, sort of carnival atmosphere. It was wonderful to be there amongst people enjoying themselves. Everyone was there to be themselves and to support each other.”
“The Fair Day was lots of fun; some of us got our faces painted with glitter art.”
“I find singing together an acceptable and enjoyable way of communicating a message in many situations [rallies, vigils, marches…] I will only come to these things if there is an opportunity to sing.”
“It was a good opportunity to show support for my gay and lesbian friends”
“It was good to spend time and do something with other Quakers”
“Even the sexy bits were funny.”
We did not proactively hand out pamphlets, but we had piles of the pamphlet “About Quakers” on our stall. I estimate that 50-100 pamphlets were taken by passers-by who did not stop to have a conversation with us. A good number did stop to engage in conversations. Of those who wrote in our visitors’ book, a typical comment was “It was lovely to talk to some Quakers – so inclusive.”