The recent release of Cloud Atlas, piqued my interest in writing some thoughts about sexual identity. As has been fairly well publicized leading to the movie’s opening, Lana Wachowski (born Larry) underwent a gender transition (“sex change”) a few years ago; and from all accounts, seems the happier for it.
The even-more-recent allegations that Joe Simpson (Jessica and Ashlee Simpson’s father) came out to his family as gay, mean I’m going to scratch that itch, even if it might mean this blog gets permanently filtered for “sexual content”.
So, first off, congratulations to these two for being able to affirm their identities; one hopes that they didn’t endure too much suffering before taking a big leap of faith and entrusting in their friends’ and family’s acceptance and love. And if anyone didn’t accept them for acknowledging who they happened to have been all along, well, jeers to those folks.
Animals’ sexual diversity has been exhaustively documented, and it’s no surprise that humans are like our distant kin. To summarize in a sentence, one’s equipment comes at conception (depending on whether one has a Y-chromosome), but one’s inclinations come several weeks later, as hormones shape foetal development.
If I remember correctly from years-ago readings in mythology, the pride community (homosexuals, transgender folks, and the like) dominate the religious ranks in some so-called “primitive” religious traditions: they are the shamans, the witch doctors, the priests, and so forth. These societies have belief structures that these holy people are special, because most people are “only male” or “only female”, but the gods gave the holy people both male and female powers. We might see these social mores as positive, and affirming of the diversity of the human experience.
This tendency may not be unique to “primitive” religious traditions, either. If you were gay in medieval Europe and didn’t want to fake your way through a lifelong marriage, there was only one place you could go to avoid suspicion: the clergy. (I’m including monasteries and convents in this category.) So overrepresentation of the pride community may not just be a feature of “primitive” religions. Mind you, while primitive shamans celebrated their god-given identities, their counterparts in world religions would have suffered deep and unhealthy repression — and would probably have adopted a militantly homophobic tone, to throw suspicion off themselves!
Our own era is littered with cases of such “gay homophobes” so uncomfortable with themselves, that they verbally attacked their non-straight peers, perhaps to avoid being detected themselves (e.g. see here). One of the most notorious was George W. Bush loyalist Ken Mehlman, who, naturally, opposed same-sex marriage until he came out. He’s widely believed to have helped or masterminded a plan to jam the phone lines of a Democratic Party get-out-the-vote operation in 2002, to prevent them from reaching New Hampshire voters, enabling the Republican candidate (John “Colin Powell only endorsed Obama because he’s black” Sununu) to win a narrow victory.
[Addendum: as noted in the comments, Mehlman is now proving quite an ally for gender equality now, perhaps making up for lost time. And for this, he should be commended at least as energetically as he should be criticized for his past transgressions against his community. As much as I’d like to think I’d’ve done things more uprightly than him if I’d been in his place, I’m not in his place — and it’s dangerous to let oneself get seduced into a sense of self-righteousness.]
If religious homophobia is perpetuated by troubled gay authorities who are trying to cover up their own sexuality, we might wonder whether this was a feature of the original religious teachings, or whether this was a later addition.
A famous later-addition many people will be familiar with, is the notion of Original Sin, which doesn’t appear in the Christian scriptures, was first conceived by Iraeneus in the 2nd century, was finally popularized by St. Augustine about four centuries after Jesus’ death, and finally confirmed as Christian doctrine in the year 529. Sorry, make that Western Christian doctrine. While it may be a central tenet to Catholics and Protestants, the idea is as alien to Eastern Orthodox Christians as it is to Jews, and as it would have been to the first few centuries of Christian converts.
So, let’s go down the rabbit-hole, shall we?
Paul’s Letter to the Romans is one of those components of Christian literature that doubtless causes consternation in many faithful congregants who know in hearts of their own experience how normal gay people are, and who wonder just why their leaders are so hung up on homosexuality. The section of interest is in Romans 1, specifically 1:24-32. (Incidentally, the whole tradition of putting chapter and verse numbers to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, was itself late-arriving: that didn’t happen until the 1500’s. And many a Biblical scholar would agree that Robert Estienne did a valiant job, but kinda mangled things.)
Using the NRSV translation, we have Paul saying that some people had strayed into idolatry, whereupon:
1:26 “God gave them up to degrading (atimias) passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural (para physin)…”
1:27 “Men committed shameless (aschemosyne) acts with men…”
1:29 “They were filled with every kind of wickedness (adikia), evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
2:1 Paul then cleverly chides anyone in the audience who might be feeling smug, by reminding them that they commit these very wickednesses in their own lives. [Well, with the possible exception of murder.]
The first thing to note is that the laundry list of wickednesses does not include any sexual deeds. These specific items are to in a separate and worse category than same-sex acts (or, “homogenital acts” if you want to use the proper jargon). This is reinforced by the fact that wickedness (adikia) means immoral, unethical behaviour, but the terms used to describe consensual non-heterosexual activities are much gentler.
Basically, Paul is putting social taboos (non-hetero relations) in a different category from moral sins (the various wickednesses). And at the end, just when his audience is feeling like they’re above those frisky idolaters… he reminds them that the moral sins he’s cited are part of the universal human experience. [Again, with the possible exception of murder.]
When you contemplate this for a time, it becomes readily evident that social taboos are nothing compared to moral failings, and aren’t worth paying attention to; as we might refer to them in engineering, they’re lost in the “rounding error”. Examining the specific Greek terminology Paul uses, gives further evidence that for him, gay sex really wasn’t that big a deal.
Degrading (atimias) means socially unacceptable, shameful, or of ill repute. It does not connote moral evil, it connotes a socially frowned-upon faux pas — say, like picking one’s nose, burping or farting at a formal event. We can be sure of this, because Paul uses atimias to describe himself as social pariah in 2 Corinthians 6:8 and 11:21 in just such a context.
Shameless (aschemosyne) means not nice, not seemly, or inappropriate. But it doesn’t connote moral evil, either. We can be sure of this too, because Paul uses aschemosyne in 1 Corithians 7:36. He writes, “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly (aschemosyne) towards his fiancee, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin.” If aschemosyne connoted moral evil, Paul — who in the immediately-preceding passage tried to dissuade people from getting married because he thought the end of the world was nigh — would effectively be saying that marriage was okay if a man was committing moral evil to his fiancee. That’s silly. Paul is writing that if the guy feels he’s being unfair and improper (aschemosyne) to his fiancee by deferring marriage on account of the impending end of the world, then okay, it’s alright to get hitched.
I’ve saved para physin for last. It means unnatural, or which ordinarily wouldn’t happen in nature. But it doesn’t connote moral evil either, it just refers to things which wouldn’t “ordinarily” happen. Para physin could be used to describe, say, a wig; tattoos; body piercings; prosthetic limbs; even circumcision. None of these would happen in the ordinary course of nature, but there’s no sinfulness associated with them. We can be sure of this, because Paul uses para physin in this very same letter, to metaphorically describe how, in his eyes, God had grafted Gentiles (non-Jews) onto the tree of the Jewish faith. Romans 11:24 reads:
“For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature (para physin) into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.”
Those who think the unnatural intercourse between women in Romans 1:26 is sinful because it is contrary to nature, would have to conclude that God’s extension of the franchise to Gentiles was also sinful, being itself contrary to nature. This is of course, silly. Since God’s action wasn’t sinful but was merely “extra-ordinary”, it can only be concluded that the women’s actions weren’t sinful either. They were just extra-ordinary, themselves.
My hope here has been to burst the bubble of one Biblical passage commonly (and inaccurately) used to condemn homosexuality. (Heck, while I’m at it, I’ll note in passing the story of Sodom in the Hebrew scriptures isn’t about consensual same-sex relationships, it’s about rape. Bit of a difference, there…)
I don’t intend to change the minds of those who adhere to disapproval; I’m sure it won’t.
Nor do I want to imply that any moral authorities are infallible; they aren’t. Even if they happen to have the same moral stances as me. :)
But perhaps it’ll give some comfort to some congregants to learn that some of the early leaders of their faith were in fact as accepting (or at least tolerant) of their gay kindred, as they themselves are, today — and that some of the intolerance doesn’t come from the original text or context, but are interpretations that later authorities projected back into the text from a later point in time. Most sorrowfully and sadly in the Christian case, quite possibly projected back into the text by troubled individuals deeply committed to their faith, but who lived in an era where it was unsafe for them to acknowledge who they were. Which is a lamentable pity, given that — to use Jesus’ own words in John 10:10 — He “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. (In the sense of “living life fully”, and not trying to deny their identities, their being.)