Homosexuality and the Baha’i Community: a conversationOctober 30, 2010
Sonja: Recently I was told that writing for a Baha’i gay audience was an oxymoron, and when I pointed out that I found this comment offensive the response was that the problem was with me and the writer went so far as to state that I needed to take this up with the House of Justice, as if his statement automatically reflected their views. My point here is that so often when in discussion with Baha’is on the topic of homosexuality, at some point a Baha’i tells me I am disagreeing with the House of Justice or the Baha’i Teachings as a way of trying to silence me. To start this discussion I’d like to focus first on homosexuality as a form of identity.
It seems to me that some Baha’is pretend that gay Baha’is don’t exist or don’t have a voice, viewpoint or audience. I’m an artist and a Baha’i, and while I might not have any sort of Baha’i audience, I certainly have a Baha’i artistic voice, which is informed by my experiences and beliefs. This is what I mean by a gay Baha’i voice. What do you think?
Of course there’s a huge difference between no one in my Baha’i community being interested in what sort of art I’m making and a gay Baha’i having to keep their sexuality a secret in order to be treated with dignity and equality.
Lee: First, let me say “thank you” for asking me to participate in this project. I am humbled and a little nervous, as our discussions are bound to dredge up a lot of uncomfortable feelings that I have quite successfully moved beyond. I am willing to do this work, however, on the chance that it might help someone else in some way. I am a Baha’i, and I am gay — so there is definitely a “gay Baha’i audience.” I don’t think it is an audience of only one! And I do have a voice that springs from my belief in Baha’u’llah, and the reality that I am a homosexual.
I firmly believe that true spiritual principles are never in conflict. When I read the situation you have described, I ask myself “What spiritual principles are these people following?” Yes, the clash of differing opinions is a tool for arriving at what is true, but there are other definitions of “true” than simply “right”. One definition that I like to apply is “Proper alignment or adjustment.” When a door is hung “true” it closes properly and fits snugly, insulating from the cold. When the sailor sets a “true” course, it is one that guides the ship closer to its goal.
I was fortunate to sit in the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette a few weeks ago with my daughter, who is currently wrestling with the decision to either remain a member of the Baha’i Faith or to have her name removed from the rolls. We talked about how we felt being in this building, how our feelings have changed over the years, and whether or not we still identify with all the Temple symbolizes. Does it still feel “true” to us?
I first set foot in this place in the summer of 1970, a fresh convert from a small town in the West attending my first Youth Conference. I prayed and wept in the Cornerstone Room, which my daughter and I were shocked to discover has now been utterly “de-spiritualized” and “demystified” by removing the walls around it — taking away its aura of “sanctum” and eliminating the possibility of quiet, meditative reflection. Back then I was filled with hope and youthful idealism, and dedicated my life to serving a Cause that I saw as the only hope for humanity. Having come from a myopic, stark black-white/right-wrong, fundamentalist background where outward piety masked hatred of “others” and harsh judgments of fellow believers, I was thrilled to be welcomed into a diverse community which espoused the elimination of all forms of prejudice.
I suppose my first inkling that all was not “true” or in perfect alignment came when I accompanied my two “spiritual mothers” on a visit to the home of some believers who had just moved into our little community. They were two older gentlemen who were living in a colorfully decorated home, and who were themselves fastidious in their attire and a little “precious” in their demeanor. We left the visit, and I saw these two women (who I truly adored) look at each other and chorus: “homos!” That was the last attempt by anyone in the community to include these newcomers in any activities. I had not yet begun to explore this element of my sexuality, but I got the message loud and clear that it would not be OK to be gay! Rather than confront the issue head-on, and try to get to the essence of the spiritual principles being applied in this instance, I simply bottled up my feelings and continued to immerse myself in my early Baha’i education.
Now, more than 40 years later, I am sitting with my daughter in the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, and we are both marveling at how the light has gone out of the Temple for us. I look around at the quotes from the Hidden Words, and I am unmoved. I have seen too clearly the evidence from my own life experience of how this place, which is intended to stand as a beacon of hope for all, and to welcome all within its doors no matter what path they have taken to reach it, is really not a haven of peace and joy for a significant portion of the human family.
I turned to my daughter and said: “Look, I don’t have the temerity or lack of humility to claim that I understand the Grand Design. I am willing to concede that I may be totally out of alignment myself, and perhaps the conflict I am feeling springs from my own ignorance of ‘true’ spiritual principles.” For that reason I never speak ill of the Baha’i Faith. I still teach its core principles avidly, even when my auditors are incredulous that I am still so passionate about a belief system that tells me I am somehow “unnatural.”
I don’t know the way to bridge the divide, and I have honestly given up trying. All I know is what my heart tells me is “true.” My heart tells me that the universe and everything in it is bound together by the force of attraction, which is the force of love. Everything is gradually aligning toward love and unity, whether it is apparent or not. The underlying purpose of all the Prophets and Holy Messengers has been to foster that love and unity, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha said that if religion is a source of discord and disunity we are better off without it! I believe that the world is better off with the Revelation of Baha’u’llah, and that someday all the diverse manifestations of humanity will truly be welcomed, valued and appreciated for being exactly how God created them.
Sonja: I had a close gay friend of the same age when I was 18, and in particular loved it that we could be such close friends without the trappings of “romance”. I encountered the Baha’is a few years later but was never aware of any particular aversion towards gays.
I knew that the official position was that gays were welcome as long as they remained celibate. It didn’t seem fair as it meant condemning gays to a life of singleness, but like many Baha’is around me in the 1980s we took the position as an assembly or community in treating the gays in our community with equality and we didn’t consider that it was any of our business to pry into their personal lives. However, all of these gay friends of mine eventually left the Faith, very angry, and rightly so because they knew that the Baha’i Teachings were not treating them with equal rights and responsibilities.
Lee: I think many Baha’is blithely state that all are welcome in the community, including gays, and that Baha’is don’t hold gays to any different standard than they hold up for straight people. All are expected to live celibate lives outside the sacred institution of marriage, which has been designed as a “fortress for well-being.” They don’t consider the painful and, honestly, abusive reality behind that concept. You expressed one aspect of it: “Condemning gays to a life of singleness.” When you really stop and think about everything that is implied by the “fortress” which has been erected to exclude and isolate gays, it is not surprising that many of your friends left the Faith.
I got married, but by not being honest and true to who I really am, my fortress was actually a prison. I was accepted and honored in the Baha’i community as long as I could hold up the mask and continue the charade, but once the truth came out my life was utterly shattered. A representative of the National Assembly met with me to impart the news that my administrative rights were going to be removed. I asked if that meant that if I was ever to live as just a roommate with a man in the future, in a non-sexual relationship, I still could not have my rights back? Tearfully, she said that I could not ever cohabitate with a man in the future since, now that it is known I am homosexual, the presumption of innocence could not apply.
I knew in that awful moment that the doors to my acceptance in the community were closed forever. I am not someone who thrives in solitude. I don’t think that is how the human species is engineered. There are too many of life’s spiritual qualities that can best be learned and practiced in intimate association with another — humility, selflessness, honesty, acceptance, surrender, to name just a few. So here is the bitter reality of it — gays are not just condemned to a life of “singleness” but to one of solitude and deprivation of all the growth and sorrows and joys that come from the intertwining of two lives for better or worse. Is this “true”? Is this spiritual? Is this the will of a loving and caring Creator?
We talk about Unity in Diversity, and the elimination of prejudice in all its forms. In fact, this is one of the three pillars of our Faith — the Oneness of God, the Oneness of Religion, and the Oneness of Humanity. Who among us has not waxed rhapsodic as we relate the Beloved Master’s parable of the flowers in the garden? Every Baha’i speaks the words, and knows in his or her heart that the garden is much more beautiful when it is ablaze with a diversity of plants and flowers. Yet there is one variety of plant appearing throughout history in the beautiful garden of humanity that Baha’is are actively culling. Baha’is believe that plant is not appropriate. It does not belong. It is somehow “unnatural.”
Another fundamental spiritual principle of the Baha’i Faith is that Science and Religion go hand in hand. There is no disagreement between the two. Again, I go back to my original premise that “true” spiritual principles are never in conflict. Is it true that homosexuality has been a variety of the human condition for as long as there is recorded history? Is it true that homosexuality, by appearing in the natural world in many forms, is a gift from an all-loving Creator Who has a Purpose in His Designs? Is it true that the scientific community has removed homosexuality from its list of illnesses that need to be “cured”? Is this scientific truth in alignment with the current Baha’i stance? What do Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha say about the state of religion when it is in conflict with scientific truth? The word “superstition” comes to mind, but “ignorance” and “prejudice” work just as well.
Sonja: For me whether something is considered natural or not is not the issue, because what we consider ‘natural’ is a cultural construct. I think it is natural that men should have equal involvement in raising their children, for example. I view humanity, identity and orientation as a range, and I made an art work called “First Lessons in Relativity” of suspended male and female dolls as an expression of this idea. The work was triggered by the birth of my first son, and a gift of a blue male and pink female doll with their heads connected by string intended to be hung above his bed like other items of conditioning, and his indeterminate name. People couldn’t tell what sex this baby was and berated me when I “unnaturally” referred to him as a baby and not as a he or her, or didn’t correct them when they referred to him as she.
It got me thinking about other instances related to identity where people seem to loose all sense of rationality, and in particular to when Baha’is get angry at me for even mentioning homosexuality. As if I am mentioning that which should not be mentioned. I wonder if some of the hate and rejection of homosexuality as one of the flowers in the garden of humanity is not a reaction of fear of one’s own identity or at least a fear of change? I find this a strange idea for a religion that has such progressive teachings and where our administrative system is built for flexibility and change.
Lee: I know a lot of the damnation is fear-based. Look at how many fundamentalist Christian ministers hack away from the pulpit at the homosexual “lifestyle” and are later found with a male prostitute. There is a great movie now “outing” congressional leaders who vote against gay rights but are secretly homosexual themselves.
Sonja: Yes and it is a pity that so many Bahais involved prominently in the Bahai community these days keep this aspect of their identity hidden and then Bahais think that there are no gay Bahais.
They might keep this hidden because they feel ashamed or wrong, but in the end it would be because most gay Bahais know that even if they live lonely celibate lives, they will still be constantly faced with Bahais who accuse them of being ‘diseased’ or ‘unnatural’ and most likely they would be removed from any position in which they serve their Bahai communities, as you were. (See my blog “Is the Bahai community homophobic” for a taste of these attitudes). Of course this is complex and in the end an individual must be responsible for their own actions, but one of the reasons I’ve found you so inspiring, is that you are not bitter towards the Baha’i community when you were rejected, lost your friends and family, lost your job, your community, and lost all sense of love and respect.
Lee: I deeply regret that I was more concerned about my “position” in the Community, and my image as a straight, family man, than about being open and living in truth. The primary harm I caused was to myself, for lying and contorting myself into the image of what I thought people wanted to see. But I cannot deny the harm I caused to others. As you mentioned above, I did a disservice to the Community by trying to disappear in a magic trick of smoke and mirrors, perpetuating the idea that a man who is gay by nature could be equally happy in a straight relationship. By living this lie I was unknowingly cutting the legs out from under anyone else who was trying to be honest and open. I take responsibility for my decision to live a lie. That was the only “unnatural” thing about my being gay. And in not being true to myself and others, I caused great harm and pain for my family and for the Baha’i institutions. I love Baha’u’llah and am grateful for all the profound changes that have happened in my life as a result of embracing His Revelation. I am a far better person today for trying to follow Baha’u’llah’s teachings in my daily life than I could have ever been otherwise. For that reason, I can never speak ill of the Faith or harbor any resentments. It has given me my life, and my life today is truly blessed!
Sonja: The issue is the practice of discrimination. It does make you wonder when a Baha’i or a Baha’i Institution appears set on removing voting rights such as in your case, even if you have a male flatmate. That is not equal treatment with heterosexuals who have flatmates. Or when a Bahai says: “only if homosexuals practice,” to which I think, when am I not a practising heterosexual? When I sleep?
This way of thinking seems to be an obsession with treating homosexuality as some sort of ailment instead of it being part of the spectrum of human orientation. What is there to fear? However the real issue is pretense. Pretending the issue is about celibacy, when it is really about visibility which brings me back to my first statement. The silencing of gay Baha’is by treating them as lesser beings. Silencing is one aspect of prejudice, a very painful one and hard to address because it is invisible to those perpetuating the prejudice.
Lee: If I were to tell you not to think about something that is close to your heart because it is not acceptable, like an idea for an art project that is welling up within you, and urge you to put it out of your mind entirely, what would happen? I am sure that the more you try to silence that thought, the more it will come to the forefront of your thinking. Any form of repression (internal or external) brings about a strong impulse in the opposite direction. Treating homosexuality as something to be cured breeds sick behavior. I sought counseling and treatment to no avail. There is no fix for something that is not broken. Attempts to change the core of one’s psyche and one’s reality result in nothing but harm, and that harm extends to everyone involved. Through my inability to be honest about who I really am with my wife, my children and with my coreligionists, I caused great pain. Betrayal of my inner reality led to a betrayal of my marriage vows and a shattering of the facade of happy family life. It was a devastating time for everyone, including the Baha’i Institutions, but especially for my wife and children. I don’t want to sound like I am ducking responsibility for my actions and the pain I caused, but I would like people to consider how the institutionalization of an atmosphere of “sickness” and “disease” and “abnormality” around a group of people who have absolutely no choice in the matter of their sexuality actually breeds the sickness of deceit, and the disease of denial, and the abnormality of self loathing. Unconditional love and acceptance is what is needed for healing and wholeness, and this is absent in the Baha’i community when it comes to its homosexual members.
Sonja: Just like those who told me I’d be mixing up my son’s maleness by not straight-jacketing his identity, Bahai’s state that homosexuality is lesser, wrong or worse because that’s what the Baha’i Writings say. Well they don’t.
Think about it, why would it matter to a Manifestation of God what the sexual orientation of an individual is?
I agree with you that Baha’i communities should act with compassion, but I’d also go a step further and say that Baha’is should think about the consequences of their actions. If they believe that homosexuals are lesser beings – which they must do if they apply different laws and remove their voting rights – how does this square with the principle of equality? One law that demands celibacy and in your case this was taken a step further: no co-habitation, no close friendship, no falling in love, no companionship, for all of one’s life. And another law that allows individuals to develop close friendship, to fall in love, to marry and to raise children. That’s two sets of laws and not equality.
I don’t believe that Baha’u’llah was inconsistent, so that was why I started to look around in the Baha’i writings to see where these homophobic ideas came from. Some ideas expressed by Bahai’s come from letters penned by secretaries writing letters to individuals on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. The ideas of many of these letters reflect the norms and values of the 1930-50s and some contain clear errors, however it is not an issue for me, because Shoghi Effendi made it clear that his own doctrinal authority was only when interpreting the “revealed word”. So if he considered his statements he made as head of the Baha’i Faith as not having the authority of interpretation, how could he have considered those letters penned by others as authorative interpretations?
A Baha’i asked me why Shoghi Effendi did not correct some of these letters written on his behalf, and I realised that he wouldn’t have seen a need to because it appears that he saw the authority of these letters as being advice or instruction for the addressee. [A link to more about this]
So actually my position when it comes to the metaphor of the flowers of the garden, is that as gays are currently excluded from open and active participation in Baha’i communities (of course, I might be wrong, some Baha’i communities might welcome gays and gay couples as equals) it means that the visions, viewpoints and energy of this minority group is missing. My motive is not out of pity for gays, but because I believe that the Baha’i community is a poorer place by not having the input of all people.
Often when something is out of balance, actions and events show this to be the case and make the imbalance even worse. It isn’t just a case of gays being expected to live lonely lives, and then being treated with equality and respect in all other cases, but in your case you were told you could never have a flatmate who is male or even a celibate male friend you share your life with. This inequality breeds prejudice.
“among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is, that religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices destroy the edifice of humanity”
(Tablet to the Hague, p. 5)
and it seems to me that the garden of the Baha’i community is missing some of its humanity.
Lee: You are using strong language when you say that what some Baha’is are doing is expressing “hate speech” toward gay people. But when you look someone in the eyes and tell them, in even the most loving voice possible, that they are spiritually sick and in need of treatment, what else can you call it but hate speech? You are teaching such persons to hate themselves, and the consequences of this type of speech are horrific. We have seen it all too often end in suicide, and the insidious thing is that such speech breeds a culture where it is OK to act in prejudicial ways toward gays.
There is currently a law banning homosexuality being debated in Uganda. It imposes harsh prison sentences, and in some cases death, for a convicted homosexual. Uganda is a country where all the fundamentalist religions seem bent on outdoing each other in their outward displays of piety. You drive down the street and see things like a “Praise the Lord Butchery” sign hung over a window display of freshly slaughtered and disemboweled animal carcasses! The religious groups in Uganda have jostled one another in their eagerness to support this heinous new law, and ensure that it is passed. I am appalled to say that the Baha’i administrative order in Uganda fell into line and added its voice in support of the proposed death sentence for gays! THIS, from the community entrusted with the care of the Mother Temple of the African Continent, meant to be a beacon of light to all nations.
I spoke with a Baha’i in Uganda recently who was equally appalled by this situation. I was happy to hear that the World Center sent a Counsellor to educate the community about the harm this action is doing to the Faith, but where are the Counsellors flying into other communities where the termination of gay Baha’is in a spiritual sense is taking place every day? Where are the members of the community who will dare to speak the truth about the incalculable harm being done by the closed-minded culling of a particular variety of flowers in the garden of humanity? How many more beautiful Baha’is will commit suicide because of the untenable position they have been forced into by their love for Baha’u’llah and their unyielding and (dare I say it?) unspiritual “Spiritual Assemblies?” As you said before, the Community is lessened, and this has created incalculable harm.
Any Baha’i who wishes to continue using beautiful analogies about how the Baha’i Faith cherishes the diversity of the human family like it does the flowers of the garden must find some way to reconcile the evident conflict between the spiritual principles he or she is espousing and the reality in the Baha’i community. This is what is really being taught: “No gay flowers are allowed in this garden. If you are gay, and you try to grow here, you will be maimed and mutilated, and perhaps exterminated.” That is the truth. It is not in accord with spiritual principles and it is not in accord with scientific principles, but it is the current state of the Baha’i Community nonetheless.
Sonja: That Baha’is adamantly state that there is no discrimination against gays is one reason for publishing this discussion we are having. I assume most base their opinion on their own observations of the fact that there are no gays in their Baha’i community, and somehow feel that this is a healthy situation of diversity. Baha’is such as yourself who dare to be open, are driven out and well-meaning Baha’is, who have said or done nothing to stop the intolerant Baha’is, are also part of the problem by pretending it doesn’t exist or by looking the other way. This is not “innocent” behaviour when it results in injustice.
When your voting rights were removed, did your local community still make you feel welcome? Did they try and arrange events so you could still participate? Invite you and your partner to social events? Did anyone try and do something? If this happened in my community, my response would be to look at what would be a way forward, a way to include. But having had something similar happen to me personally and our local community turn their backs on us, I know it is difficult. It is up to your local Baha’i community to make some effort to show that they are inclusive and not up to you, the one who has been excluded.
In 2009 the U.H.J sent a letter to all N.S.A.s suggesting alternatives such as
“The House of Justice has decided that, in such instances, rather than eliminating the administrative portion completely or asking the visitors to withdraw, those conducting the programme can modify this part of the Feast to accommodate the guests.” Transmitted by email, To all National Spiritual Assemblies, 17 May 2009
However Baha’i community is as inclusive as the Baha’is choose to make it.
Lee: I am afraid that no matter how many overtures of inclusion and welcome a local community makes to its disenfranchised homosexual members, few will respond positively or want to participate until there is a fundamental change in the Baha’i belief system. Knowing that I am considered an aberration of nature, do you think I want to go and hang out with the Baha’is? Through years of pain and suffering, therapy, and intensive internal work I have finally come to a place where I can honestly say I love myself. Having reached this beautiful place, why would I ever choose to associate again with a community of people who do not (no matter what they say to my face) truly accept me for who I am? This is a huge dilemma for believers, like yourself, who want inclusion and healing. You are not able to change the Baha’i belief system. Only the Universal House of Justice can do that, and I have not seen to this point any evidence that this Body (of whom I knew two of their sons who were homosexual) is willing to do what is necessary to heal this festering wound in the Baha’i Community. They have the tools and the authority to do it, as you have pointed out so well elsewhere.
Sonja: Actually it is not a dilemma personally, because I am convinced that Baha’u’llah’s teachings are really about equality for all of humanity, but I agree it is tough when Baha’is think they can’t do anything because the U.H.J. has the current policy of celibacy for all gays.
Change never happens overnight. If Baha’i communities start to have the tolerance and flexibility they show for straight Baha’is who are not married (which of course depends on the local social climate), then sooner or later the U.H.J. might see a relevance in looking at their current policy. But they are unlikely to do this while countries discriminate against gays in the ways that Iran and Uganda currently do where even an expression of tolerance is not tolerated. I do not see a point in petitioning the U.H.J. and it is not my place to do so. I see any rules a U.H.J. makes as the most conservative aspects of the community and this makes sense, as this is a force for stability and these rules need to be universal.
I do, however, see a point in promoting tolerance and flexibility in Baha’i community life so that gays are not rejected and so that Baha’i communities can prosper from the creative input of gay voices, just as we have a need for all sorts of voices in order to develop Baha’i communities of diversity.
Your reference to what is happening to gays in Africa is very relevant. In 1996 the U.K. N.S.A. published a letter in support of a current bill, Section 28 (a ban on councils and schools stating that homosexuality was a valid alternative lifestyle. See my “Change is a Law of Nature” blog). Thankfully their letter has since been edited to remove the references to disease [<note: the text of this statement on the bahai-library.com has since changed adding these references back in, so now the original statement which was circulated plus an introduction explaining the context in 1996 is available here on scribd] but it remains online in 2010 with statements such as “Baha’is reject the idea that homosexuality is something to be regarded as normal and its practice merely a valid lifestyle alternative.” (accessed 6 July 2010, and available here). So, far from aiming for neutrality or tolerance, Baha’i communities seem to be perpetuating the idea that homosexuality is something ‘abnormal’.
The following 1999 statement by the N.S.A. of Guyana is an argument against human rights whether individuals are Baha’is or not.
“The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Guyana asks that your Government ensure that any legislation enacted safeguards the rights of all, but only insofar as the limits of morality may not be transgressed. It would not be acceptable for example, if the Constitution implicitly allows same sex persons to demand the right to be married. We do not believe this may have been the intention of the Amendment, but it should be sufficiently carefully constructed that such a situation does not automatically follow.”
Accessed from: http://www.gy.bahai.org/amendment.html on 24 April 2010.
The whole statement petitioning against equality has since been removed from the Guyana Baha’i website.
I don’t blame the Guyanan N.S.A. in particular because their action is a result of the same line of thinking as expressed in the statement by the U.K. N.S.A., that homosexuality is not a valid lifestyle.
My question is why can’t gays have equal rights and responsibilities as Baha’is? It is a human rights issue and it wouldn’t be one if individuals were treated equally.
Lee: Have you heard about how gay men in Iraq are being tortured and having their anuses sealed shut with super glue so that they die a horrible death? Where do we draw the line with regard to discrimination against a segment of humanity? We hastily condemn the actions of the perpetrators of such horrors in Iraq, but it is the same doctrines as expressed by the Baha’is in Uganda and in Guyana that merely take the “official Baha’i stance” on homosexuality to their obvious conclusion and thereby open the door to such horrific behavior. Freedoms must be curtailed if you want to hang the label of “evil” or “sick” on a certain form of human love. Equality can never exist in such a system. Pretty words and legalistic arguments cannot obscure the fundamental and jarring inconsistency of a religion preaching unity and inclusion while excluding from active participation a significant minority of the human family.
As I have said before, I believe that the Teachings of Baha’u’llah have the power to unite the world and bring peace. I continue to pray and fast, to live my life according to spiritual principles, to love and accept others as they are, unconditionally, and to do my best to serve humanity with the spirit that work is worship. This is, in essence, what I think it means to be a Baha’i. I will never give up hope that someday I will be welcomed into the Community of fellow believers just as I am.
Lee is a pseudonym. He lives in the U.S.A.