This week I began my three week Friend in Residence program at Haverford College, a historically Quaker undergraduate school outside of Philadelphia. According to the Quaker Affairs’ website,
The purpose of the Friend in Residence program is to enrich the educational experience for Haverford’s students, deepen the school’s appreciation of its Quaker roots and strengthen the College’s connections within the broader Quaker community.
During my time here I will give two public performances to demonstrate the sort of work I do as a theatrical performance activist. On April 5th as part of the President’s Social Justice Series, I willl present Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. It will be a rare showing of the full theatrical production along with short pieces presented by trans people from Philadelphia.
But first this Saturday I will perform a stand-up comedy of sorts called Peterson Uncut! The Raw Version, which will give me a chance to tell some bawdy Bible stories and saucy tales from the Homo No Mo Halfway House and more. But earlier that same day I will help facilitate a Climate Summit. I am NO EXPERT when it comes to climate change as a scientific issue or a human rights issue. I will take part to learn from experts in the field both students and non-students–scientists, activists, and concerned citizens. What I bring to the event is my experience as a facilitator.
Tomorrow I head to Temple University to teach in a class about Sexuality and the Bible. The topic? Masturbation and Protestant Christianity. Again I have a scene from Homo No Mo that will come in handy as well as a scene from my play Jesus Had Two Daddies.
Haverford has given me access to their vast Special Collections, which includes thousands of Quaker publications as well as rare archival materials. So I got thinking about Quakers, who were so much involved with prison reform in the 18th and 19th centuries. They also ran hospitals, schools, and insane asylums. What did these Friends think about the sin of Onanism?
This week I have been reading biographies of Quaker members of the Prison Society that advocated many innovations in attempts to improve prison life. Guards were not paid back then and made their money by selling food, clothing, and alcohol to inmates. Also, all inmates were jumbled together regardless of the seriousness of the crime. Murderers and debtors were housed together. Also, men and women (sometimes with their children) were all living in one jail together with no segregation at all. The Prison Society lobbied the Pennsylvania Government and had that all changed.
The Prison Society, whose members also included non-Quakers like Benjamin Franklin, also strongly advocated for solitary confinement. They started with 16 solitary cells in the Walnut Street Jail. They assumed they were helping inmates, but ended up creating one of the cruelest forms of punishment regularly practiced in prisons today. Good intentions do not prevent people from causing harm.
Which got me thinking about masturbation and how prisons responded to inmates caught in the throes of the sin of Onanism. I recently read a reference in the book, New Jack City, about the writer’s time as a guard in Sing Sing Prison, that back in the day inmates were punished or sent off to an asylum in hopes of curing or curbing their masturbatory practices. Yesterday in reading a 1766 Treatise on Onanism I began to discover some of the attitudes and practices of that time–severe.
Who knows where the research will lead? It likely will lead all sorts of people discovering this blog post through all kinds of Google Searches. Next week I will research Hannah Whitall Smith and her very interesting offspring.
Here are some photos I took this week.
Special thanks to Diana Peterson, archivist for the Special Collections, Walter Hjelt Sullivan, director of Quaker Life and my kind handler and organizer of all these events, EarthQuakers, a Haverford sustainability group, Eileen Flannigan, a Quaker writer and climate change human rights activist, and Carl Sigmond and Sam Gant, Haverford students who I have known since they were in high school.