This week I have the privilege and pleasure of attending the Friends General Conference (FGC) at Grinnell College in Iowa. This is the annual gathering of unprogrammed Quakers in North America. We are the Quakers who sit in silence when we worship (well until someone shares something they feel compelled to say.) I have attended this same conference on and off since 2004. It was actually at the 2008 FGC that I met my dear, sweet, wonderful partner, Glen Retief.
I don’t feel I can accurately say what happens at a typical FGC because so many people have different experiences here based on their identity, their age, family demographics, involvement on committees and in groups, and their energy level during the week. The week is PACKED with all sorts of opportunities to worship (much of it silent but not all,) play (Broadway singing and a variety of dance opportunities are popular as well as the unofficial wear a sarong day,) and engage in conversations about any number of serious issues like torture, the environment, racism and white privilege, and lobbying congress and the president about issues important to Quakers. For a group of peace-loving, anti-war, de-militarizing advocates, I always find humor in the intergenerational Capture the Flag activity. To spice it up I have suggested they fight over me and rename the game Capture the Fag.
Friends are encouraged to sign up for week-long workshops on a plethora of topics. Glen and I opted for the Couples Enrichment Workshop for LGBTQ people. There is a also a general Couples Enrichment Workshop for any couple regardless of orientation, gender identity and presentation, but some Friends recognized the need for a couples workshop specifically for LGBTQ folks. I imagine the more general one offers many of the same activities and tools, but being with five other queer couples provides Glen and me a chance to talk about our experiences with folks who have some shared experiences. While I am sure we would have had a worthwhile time with heterosexual couples, I value the time to be with just the queer folks this time around.
LGBTQ Friends are present and active in every part of the gathering–child care, plenary speakers, committee members and heads, performers, and representatives of Quaker organizations. The Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns remain highly visible each year hosting a well attended worship service every afternoon, and the wildly popular Cabaret and Silent Auction. I will not speak for the transgender and gender queer Friends among us about their experiences, but I hope some will provide comments here. I would like to see more gender neutral bathrooms on-site.
If you have a scent allergy or special food need (gluten-free, nut allergy, vegan) FGC staff and participants make efforts to create a safe and inclusive environment. Again I cannot speak for other people and their experiences, so I will not comment on how effective these efforts have been. I am no longer a proper vegan (I now eat eggs and some fish,) but I know that vegan deserts vanish quickly, most likely consumed by non-vegans who covet our animal product-free confections. I did witness some drama though around the gluten-free counter. After a day or two when Friends without a sensitivity to gluten chowed down on the limited supply of gluten-free food on offer, a gluten-free Quaker police force patrolled the area and effectively cowed the rest of us away from their supplies. Some strongly worded announcements in the Daily Bulletin didn’t hurt either. I know that vegans can be forceful about our dietary needs and preferences, but these gluten-free folks are delightfully militant in their efforts to protect themselves from potential medical harm. I stay out of their way.
Quakers are a peculiar people, and from my experience quite easy to offend. You never know which strongly felt issue will trigger a Friend and inspire gentle (or not so gentle) “eldering” often prefaced with the gravely articulated word–“FRIEND…” It is like when my mom carefully pronounced my first, middle, and last name to alert me that I was about to get disciplined. Try doing comedy among Quakers–it can be a minefield!
But mostly I find Quakers to be thoughtful people, willing to think deeply about issues, and to listen to another. Amidst the quirkiness, the complexity, the sometimes annoying reactionary conversations, I find an uncommon wisdom, spiritual leadings, conviction to question everyday realities, and people who value integrity, simplicity, peace, equality, sustainability, and social justice.