Have you ever had a friend or family member, maybe that one asshole uncle or aunt who thinks the whole gender thing is just a millennial invention? Maybe they say they support self-expression, but think people are just looking for ways to be offended? Unfortunately, I doubt anything I have to tell you could persuade them that that is patently false, but let me affirm for you that people have been coming out as a different gender than the one they were assigned for centuries.
I have always had a fascination with the Religious Society of Friends, but you would probably recognize them as the Quakers. As an atheist and ordained minister, I find their liberal Quaker movement far more progressive and meaningful than any mainstream Christian group I have interacted with. Hopefully, once I am done telling you about a legend, you will read up on Quakers for yourself and learn why I admire them even if I am not one personally.
In October 1776, Public Universal Friend became a preacher and set out to call for repentance, equality, and advocate that all people had free will. They were born under another, more conventional name and assigned a gender at birth. The Friend began their ministry by declaring that the person people knew by their old name had died and they had been reborn genderless with a mission (they really put the dead in deadname). The Friend dressed in a masculine-of-centre androgynous style: hat and a clergy outfit (which was intended exclusively for men at the time). This all happened in New England with the backdrop of the American Revolution coming to a close, just months after the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence.
The Friend was a polarizing figure. While it wasn’t uncommon for people to run around New England preaching during and after the First Great Awakening, the Friend challenged a lot of then-commonly held ideas about what it meant to be a Christian and a Quaker. They were met with deep suspicion due to the fact that they associated with Christians outside the Quaker circles, their sister was removed from her meeting (equivalent to a congregation) for having a baby out of wedlock, and their brother was removed for training to fight in the American Revolution (Quakers are strict pacifists).
There were Quakers who saw the Friend’s worth. Meetings that had been effectively excommunicated for taking part in the American Revolution welcomed the Friend. Some of those who welcomed the Friend started the Society of Universal Friends. When they preached, the Friend would quote from the Bible as though they had memorized the entire thing. They attracted mostly people under 40, making them the kind of person who would have probably had viral videos on TikTok had it been around at the time.
What I love about Public Universal Friend is that they took the ideas established by previous Quakers such as George Fox, Isaac Penington, and James Nayler. These included opposing slavery, demanding religious tolerance for all, and the equal worthiness of women in God’s eyes. They embraced these ideas and made a spectacle of Quakers who had become set in their ways of thinking (primarily, those men were heads of the household). It may sound silly now, but early Quakers were known for stripping naked to make a point. They put the Leveller back into Quaker theology.
The strange part in the story about this unsung hero is that the Friend wasn’t preaching anything radical for Quakers. The most controversial thing was the Friend’s gender and presentation. Quakers had forgotten their theatrical roots or the idea that it was most important to demonstrate faith with actions that had transformative potential.
I think about Public Universal Friend’s commitment to putting faith into action when I think about coming out. For me, coming out was and is an act that expresses my profound faith in humanity to be better than it is now. I believe we will one day reach a point when gender is no longer a focal point of debate and argument. Every time I come out and loudly demand my rights, I put that faith into action.
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