A friend posted the following on facebook recently:
“Peter Drake, sent me the following email to let me know that he will be appearing on the Dr. Oz show to discuss the harm caused by “reparative therapy” for gay people.
I hope you will be able to watch the program, as it is important for Baha’is to be clear about the dangers of something that is suggested in our literature.“
“I appeared on the Dr. Oz show, about reparative therapy, which will air nationally on Wednesday, November 28th in the afternoon. Clay Aiken and a host of others were also on the show. This has become an international topic of great importance. California’s recent ban on this form of therapy is being challenged in court very soon, so the debate still rages. It is professional malpractice, and highly dangerous — particularly for youth.“
Here is what a British publication has to say this week: “this September, California became the first state in the nation to outlaw “conversion therapy” – basically, trying to make gay people straight – for children and teenagers. Jerry Brown, the governor, calls ex-gay therapy “quackery”, but it’s actually worse than that. The American Psychological Association, in a 2009 report, found that not only does conversion therapy have no effect on a patient’s sexual orientation, but it can also lead to depression, if not suicide. And while it’s harmful enough for adults, for more vulnerable teenagers the inculcation of inferiority and sinfulness that conversion therapy relies on can have lifelong effects.“
The Guardian, 23 Nov 2012
“I hope you find a moment to watch or record this show. You’ll see quite a vehement exchange of opinions, well beyond the usual realm of Dr. Oz’s topics. I applaud him for taking this on, and it was quite an experience to be a part of the show!“
So how did a few Bahais respond to this?
Well, prejudice against gays by Bahais seems to be alive and well with responses such as:
“What is in the Baha’i Writings is the general principle to pray and to consult physicians in matters of health. In this particular instance, “through the advice and help of doctors, through a strong and determined effort, and through prayer.” It would be wise for us as Baha’is to also reflect on the danger to us of continuing conduct that is in violation of the laws of God.”
So this Bahai (lets call him X) thinks being gay is in violation of the laws of God, and so forgive me while I roll around on the floor in a fit of laughter. Ok I’m back now. Yes, that’s right reader, such an idea contradicts the Bahai teaching that we are all born beautiful (“I knew My love for thee: therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image” Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, Arabic nr. 3), born without sin (“Know thou that every soul is fashioned after the nature of God, each being pure and holy at his birth”. Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 189.), and, in fact, born in the image of God (“chosen Thee to be the manifestation of Mine Own Self”, Selections from the Writings of the Báb, p. 38. See my blog for more examples of this holistic perspective of the human condition.).
But this Bahai was not finished. He continued with paragraph, after paragraph, after paragraph, about how Bahais must obey Baha’u’llah’s laws. Reading it sent shudders down my spine because the approach was just like an old-fashioned fire and brimstone Bible-basher. Baha’u’llah’s words were being used like hammers and not like the “choice wine” (Kitab-i-Aqdas, paragraph 5) Baha’u’llah wrote was the intent for his laws. Wine is a metaphor, of course, because Bahai’s do not drink alcohol, but the metaphor was used because one sips wine and consumes it selectively and chooses to enjoy it.
A law is not very meaningful to anyone if removed from its context, and so the paragraphs, all taken out of context, told me as a reader, this person hates gays so much he uses Baha’u’llah’s text like ammunition and throws it out insinuating that anyone who doesn’t think ‘gays should be cured’ is unwilling to obey Baha’u’llah and therefore is a bad Bahai. All good and fine: Bahais are free to express themselves, prejudices and all, and this was just one person’s response. But I continue with this train of thought because I ran against this idea of ‘obedience’ in relation to a blog by another Bahai who, while he wrote that there is nothing wrong with being gay, added: “it is a difficult line to walk as an individual believer to profess equality while also adhering to an infallible faith that prohibits it.“
I asked him if this meant that he thought there’s nothing to be done in making the Bahai community more welcoming of gays.
His response (you can read it here) would require another blog, but briefly his argument was that we must obey the Bahai administration even if we disagree with it and that individuals such as himself should make their views public so gay Bahais know who they are and that they have their support.
What he stated is a Bahai Teaching, that for the sake of unity it is best to work together even if the decision is wrong.
Here’s the text from Abdu’l-Baha: “It is my hope that the friends and the maid-servants of America become united on all subjects and not disagree at all. If they agree upon a subject, even though it be wrong, it is better than to disagree and be in the right, for this difference will produce the demolition of the divine foundation. Though one of the parties may be in the right and they disagree that will be the cause of a thousand wrongs, but if they agree and both parties are in the wrong, as it is in unity the truth will be revealed and the wrong made right.” Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 411
“The honoured members must with all freedom express their own thoughts, and it is in no wise permissible for one to belittle the thought of another, nay, he must with moderation set forth the truth, and should differences of opinion arise a majority of voices must prevail, and all must obey and submit to the majority. It is again not permitted that any one of the honoured members object to or censure, whether in or out of the meeting, any decision arrived at previously, though that decision be not right, for such criticism would prevent any decision from being enforced. In short, whatsoever thing is arranged in harmony and with love and purity of motive, its result is light, and should the least trace of estrangement prevail the result shall be darkness upon darkness…” Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 88
So Bahais obey a decision made by an L.S.A. (a Bahai local administrative body) or a Bahai institution acting within its authority, but Abdu’l-Bahá also outlines that policies made by such bodies may, and are meant to, change (“The House of Justice is both the initiator and the abrogator of its own laws.” See more on my blog). So clearly this teaching doesn’t mean that Bahais cannot disagree or cannot present argumentation or have a discussion about a topic that has been ruled on.
So what has been ruled upon and how does this work?
When writing on the topic of homosexuality the Universal House of Justice has tended to refer to letters written by secretaries on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. These letters are not part of Bahai scripture, however the U.H.J.’s role, as head of the Bahai community, is to make policy on areas not covered by Bahai Scripture. This means they are free to refer to what they wish. While their policies which are part of a machinery “to keep it in the forefront of all progressive movements” shouldn’t contradict any of the Bahai Teachings, both Shoghi Effendi and Abdu’i-Baha wrote that “another House of Justice will then have power, according to the exigencies of the time, to alter that law. This it can do because that law formeth no part of the divine explicit text.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah by Shoghi Effendi, p. 22-23)
So clearly any reference to do with infallibility of the Universal of Justice is in relation to their role as head of the Bahai Faith and not to do with interpretation or particular policies. That makes sense because otherwise we would have policy after policy building up on top of earlier ones and we would end up with a bureaucratic nightmare as the decades moved on. But we are spared this problem because of this separation between policy and scripture. Only what Shoghi Effendi penned in his own hand is considered interpretation and interwoven with the scripture penned by The Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha.
So what is the latest policy on the topic
of homosexuality and is it different to earlier policies?
To my knowledge the Oct 2010 letter from the Universal House of Justice is the most current policy statement on homosexuality, and the first time that there is policy encouraging the Bahai community to take a neutral position in regards to same-sex partnerships and they compare this policy to the current Bahai policy on party politics. That as individuals, Bahais are free to vote and are encouraged to be involved in political systems but not to join or be active members of any political party.
Their letter stresses that as a community Bahais must remain neutral on whether they support or do not support same-sex marriage but they must work at removing all forms of prejudice against gays (“regarding homosexuality and civil rights, … Baha’is are enjoined to eliminate from their lives all forms of prejudice and to manifest respect towards all. Therefore, to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice or disdain would be against the spirit of the Faith.” The whole letter is here).
Now an L.S.A. in an area where same-sex marriage is legal can accept a homosexual marriage as equal to a heterosexual marriage. However the same letter also states that a marriage is between “a man and a
woman”. So what can an L.S.A. do? I’d say look at the writings and look at the context of the situation. Would it be discrimination to treat a same-sex couple differently? If the answer is yes, then I would say the answer should be clear.
However whenever I bring this up, I’m told this idea is a challenge or that it is not possible. A lesser reason is that this is a new policy that has yet to filter into the Bahai community.
A bigger reason is that Bahais still promote the idea that gays need to be fixed. One example is the existence of the BNASAA program (Bahá’í Network on AIDS, Sexuality, Addictions, and Abuse) whose pages advocate that gays can ‘pray’ their gayness’ away (“Any individual so afflicted must, through prayer, and any other means, seek to overcome this handicap.” is just one of the Letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which are quoted as if this is a Bahai Teaching, Accessed 30 November 2012). The fact that this committee is also a committee for AIDS, drug abuse and addiction speaks volumes about how homosexuality is associated with illness.
And if anyone ventures to wikipedia for a Bahai view on homosexuality, the current state of play there is the statement that “homosexuality is not a condition to which a person should be reconciled, but is a distortion of his or her nature which should be controlled or overcome.” (Letter of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 12 January 1973; Lights of Guidance, p. 366, #1222) and gays are to be “advised and sympathized with.” (Letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual, 21 May 1954; Lights of Guidance, p. 365, #1221)
So what we have at the moment in the Bahai community and in its public face on this issue is the general attitude that there is something wrong with being gay.
This is in direct conflict with the most recent statement from the Universal House of Justice in its 2010 letter urging Baha’is to work at removing all forms of discrimination. This conflict signals a need for something to change.
Often Bahais have brought up arguments related to morality or the role of sex. Who one loves is not the same thing as celibacy or sexual behaviour. This four minute video summarizes the distinctions between gender, orientation (what reparative therapy attempts to ‘cure’), sex, and behaviour.
There’s no need to confuse morality or behaviour with orientation.
And back to the discussion on facebook, another Bahai wrote: “there is an assumption that there is something to fix in the first place.”
“In the Baha’i Writings, there is such an assumption. However, I feel it is most respectful to view people as spiritual beings who have the dignity of choosing what they will take in and what they won’t; of defining who they really are; and even if such therapy existed which assisted people to change their sexual orientation, which was not proven harmful, of having the dignity to choose for themselves whether or not to participate.”
So most Bahais in that discussion didn’t share the view that gays need to be fixed, but the initial poster (Mr. X) continued with more quotations on law and obedience and asserted the following personal views:
“People have to decide whether they’re going to listen to the worldly-wise, and to the gay magazines, and to public opinion — or whether they are going to listen to the Word of God, in their lives. We all make that choice, all day”
“It is not for us to modify the Cause of God. It is for us to defer to the Will of God, not foolishly strive to change what is written in our texts.“
So, forget all those teachings about the independent investigation of truth, Bahais are not to question anything!
Forget about religion needing to be reconciled with science!
Forget about the notion that change is the immutable law of nature – everything changes, and there are mechanisms built into the Bahai Faith to enable it to adapt to changing times!
No, Mr. X believes that everything we understand now is as it will be for the next thousand years. We will just have to ignore any evolutions in human knowledge relating to physical and spiritual reality.
Another response to Mr X’s torrent of quotations was:
“And I feel that it would indeed be necessary to destroy such a God, a god who rules by Law alone and not through the whisperings of the Spirit, not through the brightness of the Inner Light. Such a God is, I feel, profoundly wrong and awfully harmful in the real world and ought to be rooted out of our spiritual culture. If I met the Buddha on the road I might not kill him, but if I met God up on the ridge as the last light fell, I would wrestle with him until dawn, just like Jacob did (Genesis 32:24-32), crying ‘Let my people go! Take your wretched book of dumb laws away from us, and leave us be!’”
Here is where I stand on this subject: While some Bahais might think being a Bahai is about following rules or laws, I and a number of others see the rules or laws made by Baha’u’llah as ‘choice wine’ – to be tasted, to be applied in tune with the Bahai Teachings and in harmony with ever-evolving scientific knowledge. This is not an excuse or cop out, after all isn’t that the point of Baha’u’llah’s own laws – that religious laws are not static but contextual.
The most important teaching is unity. You can’t have unity when some people are treated differently than others.
However well meant, even feeling sorry for another person because of their difference, is prejudice. Sometimes feeling pity is worse than outright expressions of prejudice because then, at least, the words are expressed, as in the postings by Mr. X above. And then someone like me can make a blog about this.
Science has weighed in on the subject of reparative therapy (see my blog: On the psychopathology of homosexuality) and has judged it to be not only ineffective, but harmful. Bahais are required to uphold the principle of the essential unity of science and religion. It follows, therefore, that Bahai Institutions’ must modify the current public position that homosexuality is an illness which can be cured or is a handicap of some form.
A future installment will be about “what is suggested in Bahai literature about curing gays” but if you can’t wait here are a few links on my blog about a presentation at a Bahai studies conference in 2010, or about Letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi.