I think it’s fair to say that my religious upbringing, in the extremely liberal wing of an already kind of wacky denomination, was unusual. In Sunday school, we learned the stories of famous Quakers, almost all of whom seemed to have served jail time. I was educated in values like equality, simplicity, integrity, and peace: words that were recited, repeated, studied, and taught like the creed we adamantly professed not to have. My family frequently ran into other members of our church community at anti-war protests and silent vigils, and one time when an international trade summit brought thousands of protesters to our city, we hosted 75 out-of-town demonstrators in tents in our backyard. I dreamed that in adulthood I would change the world, take courageous stands of conscience, and earn a respectably hefty FBI file.
I learned a lot of beautiful and useful things about justice and commitment and community during those years. But other topics were notably absent from the discourse of my childhood faith community. I didn’t develop an understanding of Quaker theology, particularly our roots in Christianity, until much later, when I sought it out myself. I didn’t necessarily know much, if anything, about what the adults in my community believed about God, or how they experienced their spirituality. On the matters of personal belief and morality that many other church communities seemed to emphasize—like prayer, or holding a particular set of beliefs about Jesus, or what kinds of sex were acceptable under which circumstances—mine was generally silent.
I came out as queer in high school, and had my first, wonderfully loving and blessedly uncomplicated, sexual relationship in my mid-teens. I experienced joy, tenderness, and total validation in sexual intimacy. I wondered why it was supposed to be so horrible to have sex before marriage, and especially as a teenager. At about the same time, I began to identify ministry—in the broadest sense, commitment to a life of taking God’s leadings seriously—as my life’s work, and I wanted my personal practices in all things, including my sexual life, to reflect that new commitment.
And so I started to wonder what, if anything, my faith community had to say about sex. Not about sexual orientation—that debate was settled in my monthly and yearly meeting in the early years of my childhood, and I had no reason to doubt the validity of our affirming stance. No, I wanted to know where we stood on sex: on whether it’s okay to have sex just for fun or pleasure; on how to avoid harm and exploitation in sexual interactions; on sexual decision-making; on monogamy. I had been taught, and come to believe in my own experience, that taking Quakerism seriously and listening for the leadings of God could potentially change my approach to everything: what kind of media I consumed, what I ate, what kind of student I was. Now I wanted to know how to have sex like a Quaker—not because I expected there to be one correct, seal-of-approval way, but because I suspected there was some potential connection, and I wanted to uncover it.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with liberal Quakerism that few people in my religious community had definitive answers for me when asked about the connection between sexuality and spiritual life. But I heard some interesting stories. And as interesting stories so often do, they made me want to hear even more stories. I started leading workshops on Quakerism and Sexual Ethics, not because I had anything figured out, but because I had become convinced of the importance of the questions.
When I’m teaching a workshop like this, I usually start by asking the participants to brainstorm every Quaker value they can think of, or anything they’ve heard anyone else identify as a Quaker value, commitment, or belief. There are always a few surprises, but mostly, I’ve been struck by the similarities between what various groups identify. Equality. Nonviolence and peacebuilding. Care for the earth. Community. Integrity. The direct availability of God to all people. The presence of something “of God” in every human soul. Listening. Waiting for guidance in our decision-making, and checking out important decisions with our community. Continuing revelation.
I can’t think of a single one of those things that doesn’t have powerful implications for my sexual decision-making. I need to examine power and privilege in my relationships, and relearn some instinctive behaviors if I am committed to seeking true equality in my relationships. I need to commit to practicing and teaching meaningful consent if I want to be a voice for peace in a culture of epidemic sexual violence. I need my reproductive decision-making to include an awareness of the role of overpopulation in our current global environmental crisis if I wish to care for the earth, because the decision to reproduce is more significant to my ecological footprint than all the other decisions I will make in my life combined. I need to practice a rare and challenging level of honesty with my partners. I need to trust that God’s guidance is available in all my decisions, and make time and space to listen for it.
These days, I keep a working list of my sexual commitments and values. It is written in explicitly religious language. It is profoundly shaped by my experience of Quakerism. It speaks powerfully to me now, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t change over the course of my life, because as a Quaker I understand my relationship with Truth to be unfolding, not a fixed point.
*My sex and relationships will be consensual. I will honor “no”s, and I will not proceed without “yes”s. I will not try to manipulate anyone into sex or relationships that they don’t want.
*I will actively and intentionally seek good for myself and others and avoid harm.
*In all intimate and/or sexual relationships, I will approach others as beloved children of God.
*I will remember that I am a beloved child of God, will hold my body and heart sacred, and will not tolerate situations of harm or abuse.
*I will not judge the sexual behavior of others unless it is non-consensual, dishonest, unjust, or otherwise causes suffering.
*I will be open to unfolding wisdom about sexuality, generally and personally. I will support that unfolding by actively and continuously educating myself on sexual issues.
*I will weigh reproductive decisions carefully, discerning them in relation to both my own life and leadings, and the faithful stewardship of an overpopulated planet.
*I will pay attention to my intuition, my mind, my heart, and my body when making decisions about sex and relationships. I will not make important decisions when my ability to hear and pay attention is clouded (by substance, mood, physical surroundings, etc).
*I will be honest about who I am, with myself and with others, and seek to dwell in that integrity in each moment.
My hopes, aspirations, commitments, and values related to sexuality have already undergone significant changes. I used to long for a specific set of rules to guide my sexual behavior. Now, my goal is to internalize the principles that are most important to me, so I can apply them to new situations as they arise. I don’t expect that my statements of commitment in sexual behavior will, or should, work for everyone. But they do, in the tradition of Quaker “advices” (writings on moral conduct) express a standard that is both immediate and aspirational, that I hope both to live, and to continuously grow toward.
As a queer, trans, sex-positive, Christian, Quaker youth worker, Kody Gabriel Hersh spends his life trying to embody apparent contradictions with integrity and playfulness. He lives in Philadelphia, where he writes, does childcare, staffs youth retreats, teaches Sunday school, and generally practices making radicalism look very sweet and innocent to people who don’t know him very well. He blogs bi-monthly for The First Day. You can also see his article, “Queer Lessons for Spiritual Life,” in the inaugural print edition of The First Day (November 2013).