Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Seven Heavenly Gay Virtues : Temperance

Temperance is often confused with abstinence. Perhaps a better way to describe temperance in moderation of voluntary self-restraint. That could be moderation in anything and not just alcohol with which temperance is most often associated. If you think of temperance with its opposing Seven Deadly Sins, gluttony, it may be clearer. Gluttony is extravagance and over-indulgence, and temperance is the opposite. Like gluttony temperance is placed on the orange stripe of the Rainbow Pride flag.
Perhaps our image of temperance consists mainly of groups of women preaching about the evils of alcohol of the Victorian temperance movement. Actually, I was a member (technically, I still am) of one of those Victorian temperance movements. When people ask about my faith I usually say “Christian, Protestant, Non-Conformist, Methodist, Wesleyan, Rechabite – in that order”. I won’t bother you with an explanation today except to explain that last name, Rechabite. Although not a religious denomination like the others on the list I personally regard it as a belief.

The Independent Order of Rechabites was founded in 1835. Although a secular organisation it has its roots in the Methodist community of northwest England. Because of its name many people (and even a few ignorant historians who wouldn’t know how to research their own life with accuracy) have regarded the Order as some form of masonic movement or secret organisation, when in fact its more akin to the trade union movement, which also owes a great deal to Victorian Methodism.
The name Rechabite derives from a Biblical character called Rechab whose descendants had pledged never to drink wine. In my childhood there was a great community spirit in the Rechabites with social events every year all round the country. These days, however, the Independent Order of Rechabites exists as a “friendly society” and savings company under the name of “Healthy Investment”. Technically, all members are still required to be teetotal, but several decades ago the organisation relaxed its rules to allow “voluntary self-moderation” – temperance – rather than abstinence. Apart from the fact that alcohol actually tastes foul I allow myself a bottle a champagne twice a year, on my birthday and Christmas.

Let’s go back to the Victorian period and several influential lgbt social activists who were leading members of the temperance movement in the USA.

Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906) was raised as a Quaker, another denomination who aren’t keen on alcohol. During the 19th century alcohol abuse was a big problem in most industrial nations. Pressures of working long hours under less than safety-conscious conditions, often in poor environments, drove many people, mainly men, into alcoholism. Alcohol was cheap, and it helped to forget their often squalid lives.

A group of women in the USA saw the bad effects alcoholism had on families and campaigned for stronger laws on the availability and production of cheap alcohol. Their organisation was called the Daughters of Temperance and Susan B. Anthony joined their ranks. She was elected president of its Rochester branch in 1849 and she began organising fund-raising events for them.

During her temperance work Susan realised that little would be achieved until women were given the vote. In 1853 she was refused the right to speak at the New York state convention of the male equivalent of the Daughters of Temperance, naturally called the Sons of Temperance, because she was a woman.

Undaunted Susan and fellow campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the Women’s State Temperance Society. As part of her campaign Susan organised a petition calling for the New York State legislature to pass a law to limit the sale of alcohol. The petition gathered 28,000 signatures, but because most of these were from women and children the petition was rejected.

Susan’s suffragist campaigns became too much for other members of the Women’s State Temperance Society and she was criticised for giving too much of her time to votes for women and so she resigned from the organisation. She still continued to support their work, however.

Eventually, the US government decided to tackle the alcoholism problem by introducing prohibition, a decision which Susan B. Anthony disagreed with because it took attention away from the women’s suffrage movement.

Today the problems of alcohol abuse remain in society. Although Victorian-style temperance movements no longer exist there are many social and health organisations who tackle the problem from a different angle. Instead of demonising alcohol and its drinkers the emphasis is more on tackling it as an addiction and provides medical support and encouragement in voluntary self-restraint.

The same techniques are used in many other addiction problems such as drugs and nicotine. The lgbt community has its own specific needs in all these areas and many support groups, health programmes, rehab facilities and charities exist to replace the old-fashioned Victorian temperance techniques of the past.

It will be in that last area, charity, that we look at in our next Seven Heavenly Gay Virtues series.

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