Larry Scott Butler was born in 1943 in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, a river valley town in the hills of Western Pennsylvania. His family had lived in the area for many generations so Larry grew up with a firm sense of belonging to that particular community. While his parents were not particularly religious, they belonged to the local Methodist Church (everyone there was expected to belong to a church) where his mother was the organist. Larry was in church every Sunday growing up and grew to love church music, even though he wasn’t particularly talented musically. As a teenager he was a circuit preacher who traveled through the surrounding hills on Sunday mornings to preach in small Methodist chapels. He was raised to have a strong fundamentalist Christian faith.
He enrolled in Dickinson College, a very old small liberal arts school, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He signed up for a Bible class his first year since he intended to become a Methodist preacher. There he encountered “Professor Bonnie” who told students that they could believe what they wanted, but they had to be able to justify it. As the school year progressed, Larry found it increasingly difficult to rationalize fundamentalist Christianity in a liberal academic setting. He experienced his whole faith structure collapsing and walked away from religion.
During his second year at Dickinson he joined a discussion group which met on Sunday afternoons to discuss current social affairs, led by Dr. Herbert Royce. One Sunday, while trying to ascertain the time and place the discussion group would meet, Larry found Dr. Royce and fifteen students sitting silently in a circle in a classroom. Dr. Royce encouraged him to sit in with the group—in a Quaker meeting. Larry was initially skeptical about this unusual religious gathering, but found the experience life-changing. He began to attend a small Quaker meeting , Warrington Monthly Meeting In Wellsville, Pennsylvania. The Warrington meeting house matched Larry’s love for and study of history—it was a simple, rustic stone structure with no modern amenities that sat in the middle of a cherry orchard. He asked to join the meeting, but the elders suggested that he wait since he was a college student who was still learning and growing.
During his senior year Larry worked as a pastor in the Adams County migrant camps and also lived in the camps. The Musselman’s applesauce company had built a church for its workers, about half of whom were Puerto Rican and the other half were Blacks from Mississippi. Larry was not fluent in Spanish so he had to work hard to communicate with the Puerto Rican workers who treated him as their Catholic priest. The Southern Blacks came from Holiness and Pentecostal traditions and their gentle encouragement (of amen’s) gradually helped Larry develop a more fiery preaching style.
Larry graduated from Dickinson in 1965 with no plans for the future. He did not want to settle into a typical post-college routine of earning money. But he wasn’t sure what he did want to do. One day he heard a presentation by LeRoy Moton, who had been with Viola Liuzzo when she was murdered after the Selma March. Moton invited students to come South to participate in the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Larry had organized a chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) at Dickinson and the town of Carlisle. He immediately decided to take part in the SCOPE project with nine other students from Dickinson and Gettysburg Colleges. The Quaker meeting that he was attending then decided to admit him to membership and they provided the funds for him to go South to work for SCOPE. The group was trained in Atlanta by SCLC leaders under the direction of Bayard Rustin. Then they went to Barbour County, Alabama, to work in educating and organizing the local community. Butler kept a diary and wrote a report of this work which can be read here.
Larry had known from a very young age that his sexual desires were different from most of his peers, but he had no way of dealing with that in the conservative, fundamentalist milieu in which he was raised. In college he fell in love with his straight roommate. While they were physically affectionate, they did not have sexual relations. (Years later Larry came out to this roommate and they remain good friends to the present.) During the time he was working in the South, he decided he needed to remain celibate because of the many attempts made to discredit civil rights workers.
The year he spent organizing in the South was very helpful for Larry in establishing his identity and becoming more comfortable with himself. During his developmental years he had questions about his masculinity—and appearance as a “sissy ”and Quaker pacifism—and whether that made him a coward. As a young adult he looked like a self-described “dirty-blonde, little white boy.” But with the preaching style he had learned in the migrant camps, he surprised audiences in Alabama with his fiery and inspiring rhetoric. He went into dangerous places, was attacked, shot at, and spent time in jail—affirming his own personal sense of strength and power.
One of the lessons Larry learned during this year there was that northern Whites should not run Black organizing movements in the South. After helping persons learn organizing skills, the Whites should get out. The SCLC asked him to move on to Mississippi to organize and equip another Black community. However, Larry decided he was ready now to face up to questions about his own identify and orientation, so he decided to move to Philadelphia, a Quaker center.
Larry faced a big adjustment from living in a small Alabama town to dealing with the huge city. At this time in his life, Larry identified with counter-cultural communities, so-called “hippies." While he was getting settled in and researching community resources, he found an advertisement for the Janus Society. Janus was one of the early homophile rights groups in the U.S. , founded by Clark Polak in 1964. Polak published the erotic Drum magazine to fund the group’s work. Although hesitant to make this connection, Larry eventually went to the Janus office and met Polak. Polak questioned the intentions of this young man which he verified by introducing Larry to his first sexual experience. Following this, Polak introduced Larry to gay communities and sensibilities and enlisted his assistance in Janus’ organizing efforts.
Larry became involved in the Gay Liberation Front in 1970 which matched his counter-cultural proclivities. He was an official delegate to the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention organized by the Black Panthers. The Panthers played a vital role in community development through their breakfast programs for children and serving as a line of protection for the community. They also viewed lesbians and gay men as oppressed persons. However, Larry’s strong identification with nonviolence led him to drift away from that group. He attended the first Gay Pride Parade in 1970 in New York City with Dallas Beedle and recalls the Dykes on Bikes as being one of the popular groups in the march.
During this time Larry was employed by state government agencies—first in public assistance and then in a state hospital for the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill where his identification as a conscientious objector with the draft board was affirmed. However, his local draft board later backed away from recognizing this work to qualify for his CO status. So Larry enlisted the assistance of the renowned psychiatrist who was also a friend—Dr. John Mock—to write a letter to the board stating that Larry was homosexual. The draft board then granted him a permanent deferment from military service.
Larry then took a position teaching at the Friends Select School in heart of Philadelphia where he taught history and religion for ten years. Larry was active in the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting which was one of the overseers of the school and he served on the school’s board. Larry took the position as an openly gay man which was supported by students, parents and administration.
During this time Larry was living as a “plain Quaker.” In the early 20th century a movement among the Society of Friends developed to stop using distinctive Quaker dress and language. While it was quite contentious at that time, it eventually won out among most Friends. However in the counter-cultural 1960s, some younger Quakers revived the practice of adopting “plain” dress and language. Larry was one of the plain Quakers who dressed in simple, Amish-like clothing and spoke in traditional Quaker language.
During this period Larry also became a public spokesperson on gay and lesbian issues for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Through the foresight of ally James Laird, a retired Methodist pastor who worked for the Yearly Meeting, an official Committee on Homosexuality was organized. It was a duly constituted part of the structure of the Yearly Meeting. Under the auspices of this Committee, Larry traveled among the local meetings to show an educational film strip produced by the Unitarians called The Invisible Minority and talk about homosexuality. He was often accompanied by a lesbian co-presenter, much of the time this was Barbara Gittings. In 1972 Larry was asked by the interfaith Metropolitan Christian Council to write an article, which he entitled “I Am a Homosexual,” that was published in their Plain View publication. The educational work that Larry and the Committee did put the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on the forefront of openness to gay and lesbian persons within Quaker circles.
In 1971 Larry hosted an initial gathering of gay Quakers from around the U.S. in his living room: Ron Mattson; Gerald Turnbull; Geoffrey Kaiser; along with Dallas Beedle , who was Larry’s partner. The Committee of Concern, later Quakers for Lesbian & Gay Concerns, was organized from this gathering. Larry who did not much like traveling was content with doing his educational and organizing work locally and letting the FLGC group undertake the national work.
Larry and Dallas had moved to a more rural area outside Philadelphia where Larry became the first clerk of the Unami Meeting organized by Geoffrey Kaiser. However, as the travel costs of commuting into Philadelphia grew, they moved back into the city in 1974. Also that year Larry completed a masters degree in history from Temple University.
When a new headmaster came to the Friends Select School, he instructed him to stop using Mary Calderone's pamphlet “Human Sexuality and the Quaker Conscience” with his ninth grade Religious Thought students. The headmaster thought it not proper that a gay person should address this subject with students. When Larry’s protests were not heard by colleagues or his Quaker meeting, he resigned. Larry and Dallas decided that this would be an opportunity for a great new adventure in their lives. So they came up with a scheme to buy a sailboat and offer cruises for gay and lesbian persons. They packed and moved to Florida in their Volkswagen station wagon in 1980. In Fort Lauderdale they purchased a 30-foot sailboat, which they quickly learned was much too small to take on paying guests. Larry learned he was not the nautical type—he never could navigate the boat well, had little interest in the mechanics and maintenance of the boat. However, he loved living on the water which he and Dallas did for five years.
Larry became a member of the Quaker meeting in Miami. When he and Dallas had exhausted the savings they brought with them to Florida, he found a position teaching developmentally disabled adults in a plant nursery that served as a vocational training ground. The combination of interests in horticulture, teaching and working with the developmentally disabled now became Larry’s focus. He moved up to become the director of the plant nursery. From there he became a consultant to the Log Cabin Plant Nursery in Miami Beach which also trained developmentally disabled adults.
Larry and Dallas had been growing apart in their interests and decided to split up after 17 years together. Larry connected with a much younger man who encouraged him to move with him across the state to Fort Myers. That relationship didn’t last, but Larry took a position as a direct care staff in a small institution and later as a vocational supervisor and administrator at a large state institution for the developmentally disabled and worked there until his retirement in 2006.
In 1986 Larry started writing for The Support Line, the gay news outlet in southwest Florida. In 1991 he helped start the first Quaker meeting in Fort Myers. One of the first acts of this Monthly Meeting was to approve a same-sex ceremony of commitment. This was the first Quaker meeting in the southeastern U.S. to approve such a ceremony of commitment. The meeting was very supportive of Larry and he served as clerk for a period of time.
In 1994 Larry met Wandson De Oliveria who had moved south from Massachusetts with his wife and two children. Wandson worked at the institution with Larry. Larry was breaking up with a partner as Wandson’s wife left him after learning he had sex with men. So Larry invited Wandson to move in with him and their relationship grew and flourished. Wandson' children at that time were three and five years old and were part of the package. When Wandson’s wife moved to her home country of Brazil, Wandson and Larry became full-time parents for Priscilla and Samuel. Both children have since graduated from college.
Larry and Wandson continue to share a home in Fort Myers with a large coterie of dogs, cats and birds. They represented The Fort Myers Friends Meeting with a sign at the Gay Pride March on Washington in the year 2000 for gay, lesbian, transgender, bi-sexual and queer peoples . That march provided a colorful glimpse of the bright future for our people.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with Larry Scott Butler.)
Biography Date: February, 2014
Larry Scott Butler's 1965 diary and written account of being a Civil Rights Worker in Alabama are available at the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement web site: http://www.crmvet.org/vet/butlerls.htm