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A gay Bahai couple in the Hague, 1956

Posted by Sen on January 9, 2011

This story is interesting in that it is one example of how a homosexual partnership was addressed in the time of Shoghi Effendi, and because it gives the context and full text of a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which is otherwise published only in part.

This is not my research: it is published by Jelle de Vries in The Babi Question you mentioned (2002), a history that covers reports about the Babi and Bahai religions written by Dutch expatriates in 19th century Iran, and also the early history of the Bahai Faith in the Netherlands up to 1962. The title of the book is a reference to one of the letters written from Iran, in which the Dutch correspondent begins, “As for the Babi question you mentioned…”

This extract from the book begins on page 259:

Before their enrolment in 1954 Mr. A. and Mr. B. had made no secret of their homosexual relationship – they had in fact told their fellow believers of it – and still the SA [Spiritual Assembly] of The Hague as well as the ETC [European Teaching Committee] had accepted them. But when a year later both were elected into the SA they could not escape the inevitable clash of personalities. And as a ‘struggle for power’ arose they soon were blamed for their way of life. [footnote 285: Van Lith and Sijsling to RSA [Regional Spiritual Assembly], 13 Oct 1957]

Matters escalated and the assembly became divided on the issue. Both A. and B. pleaded their case with the ETC and the Guardian, as did Jane Boekhoudt, one of their supporters. She received the following answer:

Your letter of September 4th [1956] has been received by the beloved Guardian, and he has instructed me to answer you on his behalf.

Homosexuality is highly condemned and often a great trial and cause of suffering to a person, as a Baha’i. Any individual so afflicted must, through prayer, and any other means, seek to overcome this handicap. But, unless the actions of such individuals are flagrantly immoral, it cannot be a pretext for depriving them of their voting rights.

The young believers in question must adhere to their Faith, and not withdraw from active service, because of the tests they experience. In one way or another we are all tested; and this must strengthen us, not weaken us. The Guardian will pray for these two young believers, and also for you and for the situation there.

With warm Baha’i greetings, R. Rabbani.
[footnote 286: Guardian's secr. to Boekhoudt, letter 6 Oct 1957, ]

At the end of 1956, B. had left the faith, while A. had his voting rights withdrawn. Some members could not accept this situation and openly sided with A. Disunity paralysed the assembly. In order to cope with ‘the great weakness of the Faith in Holland’, Amsterdam because of ‘its fewness in numbers’ as several believers moved away, and The Hague because of ‘regrettable personal problems and disunity’, the ETC called for a ‘prayerful consultation of all the friends jointly’ on what could be done to safeguard the assemblies in Amsterdam and The Hague. … [footnote 287: ECT to Spiritual Assemblies, 13 Dec 1956. NBA [National Bahai Archives]]

[page 260 begins]

… In the following months seven of the believers felt it necessary to retire from Baha’i activity, and by September 1957 the SA of The Hague could no longer function. [footnote 289: Hollibaugh to RSA, 17 Sept 1957, NBA.]
That same month the Benelux [Regional] Assembly sent its members Jan Sijsling and Bob van Lith to The Hague to investigate the matter. After meeting several local Baha’is individually they reported to the RSA [Regional Spiritual Assembly] that ‘the main reasons’ for the problems were ‘personal ambition, neglecting the Baha’i rules for working and living together, [and] authority-problems between pioneer and spiritual assembly’. As a result the community had split up in three factions, one around Fippie van Duyne, another around A. and a third ‘more or less neutral’ group. In order to rebuild ‘a Baha’i community, which would observe the Baha’i rules’ Sijsling and Van Lith offered to attend the 19-day feasts and assembly meetings of The Hague. [footnote 290: Van Lith and Sijsling to RSA, 13 Oct 1957]

With [page 261 begins] this external help, which was continued well into 1958, the SA continued to function. Meanwhile three local believers moved abroad: Adrianus Herweyer to Africa, Jopie Lefevre to Switzerland, and Eleanor Hollibaugh to a new pioneer post in France. It was especially after A. had expressed his intention ‘not to act as a party once he would be accepted again into the Faith,’ and ‘to purify his sexual behaviour,’ thereby enabling the RSA [Regional Spiritual Assembly] to restore his voting rights in March 1958, that the community recovered. A month later the new local SA elected A. as its chairman. [Footnote 291: SA The Hague, minutes, 8 March 1958, NBA.] And when B. who had withdrawn from the faith desired to become a Baha’i again, unity seemed to be restored.

[Footnote 292: Apparently the RSA had doubts concerning the sincerety [sic] of the latter’s application. It decided that Auxiliary Board member Sijsling wold discuss the matter with the Hands of the Cause in Europe at their conference in Brussels and that based upon their reply, the assembly would make a decision. So the RSA answered B. that it needed ‘more time to come to a conclusion’ and that it hoped to be ‘in a position to give [ ... ] an answer after their next meeting’. By April 1961, however, the RSA still had the matter ‘under consideration’. See: RSA minutes, 13 Dec 1958 and 9 Apr 1961, NBA.]

One wonders why the subject of homosexuality received so much attention and even resulted in the suspension of voting rights – ‘the heaviest sanction [...] short of ex-communication’. [Footnote 293: Guardian's secr. to NSA of US and Canada, letter 30 May 1936. In: Hornby 1983: 45.] There were other Baha’is whose behaviour was not totally conform [sic] Baha’i standards either. In 1954, for instance, the Guardian had made it clear to the British believers that he ‘disapproved’ of a simultaneous membership of Freemasonry. And he even warned that any Baha’i determined to retain his membership of that organization would lose his voting rights. When the NSA of the United States learned of this directive, it inquired of the Guardian whether this applied to the American believers too. In a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, dated 9 July 1955, this question was answered: ‘The directive regarding membership in Freemasonry should be carried out by your Assembly in all areas under your Assembly’s jurisdiction’. The directive was therefore published in the September 1955 issue of Baha’i News ‘as a notice to the friends and to the administrative bodies functioning in and for all U.S. territories of the Ten Year Plan’, and that included The Netherlands. Yet Henk Buys and Jaap Liebau, who had been Freemasons before their enrolment, did not give up their old affiliation. And although at elast some fellow Baha’is kenw of their membership in Freemasonry the two were never put on the spot. [Footnote 294: BN Sept 1955. The point is not that there is something intrinsically wrong with Freemasonry, which as the Guardian acknowledged, ‘no doubt has many very high ideals and principles, and has had a very good influence in the past’, but that the believers should stress their Baha’i identity. … [the rest of this text is in Hornby: 1996: 421-424]

[Page 262 begins]
So why was a point made of a homosexual relationship? The answer consists of at least three components. First the emphasis is only apparently so, for it did not result from the taboo on homosexuality as such, but rather from the impact the matter had on the Hague community. Secondly, Buys and Liebau [the two Bahais who were freemasons] did not draw attention. Neither advertised his membership of Freemasonry; on the contrary. Therefore their choice to retain their affiliation was never considered to be a provocation to the small religious community that was still in the process of defining itself. A. and B. on the other hand lived in the same house, and were clearly recognizable to the outside world as a gay couple. Yet, these circumstances can only partly serve as an explanation. There were, after all, other homosexual Bahais at that time who never lost their voting rights. The third and breaking point was that A. and B. defended their lifestyle, tried to win over others to their position, and thereby threatened to cause a split within the community. [Footnote: 295, Sijsling to De Vries, interview 13 May 1999.] In such a situation the RSA could not remain silent, and it therefore eventually had to withdraw their voting rights. Referring to the standard set by the Guardian – ‘unless the actions of such individuals are flagrantly immoral, it cannot be a pretext for depriving them of their voting rights’ – Sijsling (later) somewhat clarified that conclusion by stressing that in general the only criterion for suspending voting rights had been whether or not certain immoral behaviour was ‘flagrant’ or not. [Footnote 296. Sijsling to De Vries, letter 7 Dec 1999.]

In other words whether or not it was a very obvious expression of disrespect for Baha’i law. Had these two believers admitted their weakness in the face of the Baha’i moral standard, refrained from openly expressing their preference, and not acted as a party it would probably never have come to this sanction.

Short link: http://wp.me/pcgF5-1CU

15 Responses to “A gay Bahai couple in the Hague, 1956”

  1. rogercoe said

    Quite interesting. There’s obviously a lot of the story we don’t know that would be interesting. i.e., what was flagrant? the fact they were living together? or a possible admission in their defense of their position that they had intimate relations as a part of their lifestyle? Gathering others around them in creating an alliance and a party is what did them in. It’s difficult to stand alone (in truth) and not desire to convince others – it seems unnatural.
    -roger

  2. Sen said

    The author’s analysis is of a situation in the 1950’s, and the reasons for the reaction then. What is ‘flagrant’ in an era of state-recognized and socially accepted same-sex marriages is another question. Shoghi Effendi writes:

    It should also be borne in mind that the machinery of the Cause has been so fashioned, that whatever is deemed necessary to incorporate  23  into it in order to keep it in the forefront of all progressive movements, can, according to the provisions made by Baha’u’llah, be safely embodied therein.
    (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 22)

    That’s the theory. Perhaps it has to be seen through the eyes of faith.

  3. robert van der hope said

    Thanks for the great post on Andrew Carnegie. A pity you censored my vigorous debate with the “good biassed doctor” (gaydom – remember ?)

  4. Sen said

    I don’t remember, but I do go through the comments now and then to delete those that are back-and-forth discussions. I do not want this to become a discussion forum. On the “about” tab I have said:

    About the comments on this blog
    29 March 2010
    I have an idea of what I want my blog to be, and it isn’t anything like a discussion forum about the state of the Bahai community. There’s Talisman9, Bahai Rants and Planet Bahai and other forums for that, and I prefer chatting there to chatting through my comments section – which would put an onus on me to be there every morning responding. Not to mention the conflict between giving people their say, and controlling what’s on my blog. So I want to keep the comments on my blog just for feedback that extends or corrects what is in the postings. For that reason, I’m go through the comments now and then and weed them out. Those that I remove stay in a bin, where I can recover them if asked, until WordPress eventually deletes them.

  5. Hasan Elías said

    Sen, the fate has been written. Since the death of Shoghi Effendi the authoritative interpretation is frozen for at least 895 years (1957-2852) and that have consequences… although the Covenant is intact – in the sense of it cannot be destroyed – we see more dogmatism in the Bahá’í Community: we see more prejudice against homosexuals, the review process is harsh as well as the treatment of personal cases.
    The only that could lead the Bahá’í to get out of this is studying the bahá’í writings and practice tolerance.

  6. Sen said

    You refute your own assertion Hasan: if Bahais were to study the writings closely and consider the spirit as well as the letter, the Bahai community will find it still has the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions.

  7. Hasan Elías said

    Yes, I meant, studying is the only way out from dogmatism.

  8. Sen said

    I think that is true in a sense. Knowledge in itself is not a remedy for dogmatism, but deep knowledge teaches one that there is so much more to learn: really knowledgeable people tend to be humble. And the dialogue involved in absorbing knowledge from others, and developing and testing new knowledge, leads to humility and openness. It is therefore essential that deepening, both individually and in groups, should be at the core of every Bahai community. It does not matter what level of knowledge may be involved: sacred study is an end in itself quite apart from whether anything “publishable” or remarkable is produced.

  9. Hasan Elías said

    I agree, but the “humility and openness” is only with those who seek the truth and do not consider their opinions as conclusive (they are not dogmatic).

    But, I think that there is another problem about homosexuality from the bahá’í perspective, it is time.

    As nobody can authoritatively interpret, authoritative interpretations are frozen from 1957.

    The Universal House of Justice uses the interpretations of Shoghi Effendi, but the science never stops. What happen if homosexuality has epigenetic inheritable factors? What happen if homosexuality is not a handicap but just a different genetic expression?

    Dogmatism starts with inflexible views.

  10. Sen said

    I think we (humanity at large) already knows that homosexuality is not a handicap in itself, although it can be a burden in a society that is full of prejudice or which discriminates. If we are not inflexible and dogmatic, we then apply the principle of the harmony of religion and science, and the Guardian’s statement:

    “The infallibility of the Guardian is confined to matters which are related strictly to the Cause and interpretation of the teachings; he is not an infallible authority on other subjects, such as economics, science, etc. When he feels that a certain thing is essential for the protection of the Cause, even if it is something that affects a person personally, he must be obeyed, but when he gives advice, such as that he gave you in a previous letter about your future, it is not binding; you are free to follow it or not as you please.”
    (Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 33-34)

    That has two relevant elements: the Guardian can be wrong on matters of science and fact, and his letters of advice to individuals were not intended to establish precedents that must be applied by all Bahais forever. Shoghi Effendi is not the problem — if we read Shoghi Effendi as he intended we should read him, without either exaggerating or diminishing his station.

  11. Hasan Elías said

    I never said that Shoghi Effendi is a problem. What I said is that the Bahá’í Community lacks of authoritative interpretation, all authoritative interpretations (of `Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi) are frozen in time because they correspond to the past. That is what I said.

    Imagine science discovers that a good percentage of homosexuals (let’s say 50%) are caused by epigenetics which is inheritable, this would change the official bahá’í view on the subject.

    I random select one UHJ letter, this is from 1995: “In a letter dated March 26,1950, written on his behalf, Shoghi Effendi, the authorized interpreter of the Bahá’í Teachings, further explicates the Bahá’í attitude toward homosexuality. It should be noted that the Guardian’s interpretation of this subject is based on his infallible understanding of the Texts. It represents both a statement of moral principle and unerring guidance to Bahá’ís who are homosexuals. The letter states:
    “No matter how devoted and fine the love may be between people of the same sex, to let it find expression in sexual acts is wrong. To say that it is ideal is no excuse. Immorality of every sort is really forbidden by Bahá’u’lláh, and homosexual relationships He looks upon as such, besides being against nature.
    “To be afflicted this way is a great burden to a conscientious soul. But through the advice and help doctors, through a strong and determined effort, and through prayer, a soul can overcome this handicap.””

    Here we see at least 2 things:
    1. The UHJ follow the Guardian’s time-frozen interpretations
    2. Homosexual relations are immoral.
    3. Homosexuality is a handicap.

    But science could contradict the bahá’í view directly because people which inherit homosexuality could not be blamed:
    1. They could not be blamed for being immoral, because for them homosexuality is natural and normal.
    2. Homosexuality could not be a handicap because it is just a different expression of genes, something normal in nature.

    We should seek the truth and follow evidence wherever it may lead us.

    This study awaits testing, but I think it could change many dogmatics minds http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/668167

  12. Xyz said

    Hasan wrote: “But science could contradict the bahá’í view directly because people which inherit homosexuality could not be blamed”

    For a Baha’i true science and the Baha’i Faith can never conflict with each other. That is one of the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. In other words, true science will never claim that homosexuality is inherited. A person cannot be blamed or held accountable for an inherited trait.

  13. Hasan Elías said

    Xyz, do you realize that science could discover a biologic (epigenetic) factor for homosexuality?
    Have you checked out the study of my last post?

    This model is awaiting to be tested:
    “Our model predicts that homosexuality is part of a wider phenomenon in which recently evolved androgen-influenced traits commonly display gonad-trait discordances at substantial frequency, and that the molecular feature underlying most homosexuality is not DNA polymorphism(s), but epi-marks that evolved to canalize sexual dimorphic development that sometimes carryover across generations and contribute to gonad-trait discordances in opposite-sex descendants”.

  14. Sen said

    I think it is very likely there is a genetic and epigenetic mechanism involved: there are so many correlations for example in twin studies and family studies that some such mechanism must exist.

  15. Xyz said

    Hasan wrote: “Xyz, do you realize that science could discover a biologic (epigenetic) factor for homosexuality?”

    No, I don’t realize.

    Hasan wrote: “Have you checked out the study of my last post?”

    No, I haven’t BUT I have read the Baha’i teachings on the subject of homosexuality. You have quoted one letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effend.

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