Before marriage equality formally came to Wisconsin with the June 10, 2014 ruling by Judge Barbara Crabb of the Federal District Court, there were many conversations and actions. One conversation of significance was conducted by the Madison Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends or the group better known as Quakers. The Madison Monthly Meeting, founded in 1938, holds weekly First Day (or Sunday) worship, and holds a monthly meeting for worship to conduct business. A clerk of the meeting places items on the business agenda. The Madison meeting has been supportive of a low-cost housing project in the Triangle area and shared in the homeless meal programs at Luke House.
Quakers are autonomous in their church polity relying on the inner Light of the Divine Spirit to guide them in discerning the will of God rather than any hierarchy. The basic group is the Meeting of a free association of Quakers in a particular locality. The Madison Meeting gathers at a simple building at 1704 Roberts Court. Some monthly meetings join in a free regional association for mutual support and consultation as Yearly Meetings. The Wisconsin and Minnesota Quakers formed the Northern Yearly Meeting later joined by some others.
The Friends study an issue seeking the Light. In what earlier times might have been called a threshing session, views were aired with no intent for a quick decision. The corporate decision-making process is viewed as a spiritual discipline needing trust, patience, mutual forbearance, and willingness to listen. The aim is to seek the truth and unity of the Spirit or the sense of the meeting. This unity is expressed as a Minute of the Meeting. Some early Quaker meetings in the late 18th Century adopted minutes for abolition of slavery and in the early 19th Century for women’s rights reflecting a progressive tradition.
A Friends document on inclusive efforts for “Same-Sex Marriage” in the mid-1980s showed how the issue of marriage equality was taken up among some meetings of the Friends. While some meetings in the urban areas of San Francisco, Cambridge, MA, and Brooklyn the 1970s had considered same-sex celebrations of marriage, none had actually taken place. The first recorded “Celebration of Commitment” occurred in 1981 in Seattle. The second celebration of commitment remarkably occurred for two women under the care of a small rural meeting, the Kickapoo Valley Monthly Meeting of Friends, in western Wisconsin.
A major turning point occurred when the Twin Cities (Minnesota) Monthly Meeting adopted a minute on marriage equality on October 10, 1986. The minute began, “Twin Cities Friends Meeting joyfully recognizing the diversity of sexual orientation within our religious community, affirms the goodness of committed, loving relationships that endure, are unselfish, and that provide mutual support and tenderness.” Further, “We now affirm our willingness as a Meeting to hold celebrations of loving commitment under our care, in accordance with our traditional procedures, for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples.”
The proposed minute from the Twin Cities was sent to the Northern Yearly meeting which sent it on to the member societies. In Madison at the September 1986 meeting for business, it was noted the Northern Yearly Meeting was requesting associated Monthly Meetings considering the issue raised. On December 4, 1986 it was announced that the Ministry and Counsel committee was planning a forum in Madison during 1987 on same-sex marriage.
The first forum occurred on January 18 with 85 Friends attending. The query was, “Will we as a Meeting take a same-sex marriage under our care?” Further forums were requested. The one on February 1 was focused on “Learning More About Each Other” an opportunity to learn about concerns and experiences on the issue of homosexuality. The next forum, on March 8, focused on the Twin Cities minute.
“Marriage” versus “Loving Commitment”
A record of the Friends same sex-marriage forum, held on March 8, 1987, showed 25 were present. As was customary the meeting began with a period of silence. The minute from the Twin Cities was read and three small group discussions occurred. The small group reports showed a general approval and some wordsmithing. One point was discussion over the terminology around “marriage” versus “loving commitment” as used in the Twin Cities minute. Some felt strongly that marriage should be the term the Friends would use to show equality for straight and gay couples. One sentiment was to leave the term to the choice of the couple. The meeting ended with a request that the Ministry and Counsel should draft a minute for the April Meeting for Business. A further suggestion was to thank the Twin Cities for their minute, thereby helping the Madison meeting with its forum.
A proposed draft Madison Minute was presented for approval by the Ministry and Counsel on April 2. The report of the business meeting showed, “Friends thoughtfully considered the wording of the minute and the meaning of the term ‘marriage.’ We find that we are not ready to adopt this minute, we have not reached consensus.” It was stated, “As way opens we will reconsider a minute on Same Sex Marriage.” An expression of thanks was extended to the Madison group Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns.
Later in May, a Friend circulated a letter with objections. It argued the need for controlling sexual urges and urged keeping sex and love separate. The basic argument was that, “I do not believe that same-sex intercourse is within any definition of biological normality.”
The May 31 meeting for business continued the discussions for three hours with great emotions. Again it was noted, “We are not united.” The conclusion: “We will continue to search for the path which we as a meeting community can follow in unity.” As part of the overall effort a small library of materials was gathered at the meetinghouse on topics of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, the nature of marriage, and the purpose of sexuality. The focus was on works written by Quakers.
Same-Sex Marriage by Madison Quakers Adopted
Finally, at a called meeting of the Friends for December 6, 1987, the redrafted Madison minute on same-sex marriage was adopted. It was noted some members not present (a handful, one characterized it) had voiced reservations and their contributions to the joint searching was valued. The minute noted, “We intend to follow the same customary and careful process of arriving at clearness for all couples who wish to unite under our care.” One proponent noted a key issue was whether to call it “marriage,” and some of the straight Friends were the strongest voices in favor. “Earlier attempts to call it something different turned out to satisfy fewer people than calling it marriage.” Further, Friends “felt that calling such a union anything but marriage would dilute and call into question the traditional notion of marriage.” To some it was the Quaker tradition of “plain speaking.” One Friend with doubts came along because the minute expressed concern for caring for all marriages including traditional ones.
Thus a very thoughtful group of Madison Quakers, and a Kickapoo Valley society, both beat the federal Western District Court by some three decades in affirming loving marriage equality.
Richard Wagner, openly gay former Dane County Board Chair and co-chair of Governor Earl’s Commission on Lesbian and Gay Issues, is the author of both We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History and Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History.