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  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.
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