Time changes… an interview with a young American Baha’iApril 25, 2013
He spent 4 years hanging out with Baha’is and then signed his declaration card 2 months before this interview took place.
What was your first exposure to the Baha’is? Were you openly gay then?
“I first met a Baha’i via my boyfriend in college. His best friend is married to a Baha’i and we would go over their house for couples game night. So yes, I was openly gay from my very first contact with the Baha’i community. At some point we got into a conversation about religion, and they were really good conversations!
For about 6 months it was just good conversation. Then I learned about progressive revelation and asked how Buddhism fits when there is no direct concept of God.
What that conversation revealed to me about the nature of God and the importance of context over absolute truth really made an impression on me. So now this was more than just good conversation. It was something worth serious investigation.”
Tell me more about your religious background and your experience growing up and coming out.
“Long story short: My family are Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was one of those kids you could point to and say he’ll probably be gay.
I wasn’t effeminate, but I didn’t like rough play as a child and loved dolls and horses. I first realized it at age 11. Started actively fighting it at age 13 with the help of my parents. Stopped fighting and came out at 19 and I was celibate for two more years.
Coming out was no fun. When I officially came out at 19, my parents were disappointed but couldn’t do much since I was celibate. When I was excommunicated from the Jehovah’s Witnesses community at 20, however, it was a different story. I didn’t talk to my family for 6 months to avoid bringing shame on them. When I finally did tell them they moved from the next state over and blackmailed me into moving in with them, threatening to stop paying for school if I didn’t, and they tried taking me back to church. They imposed a curfew on me. They outed me to my extended family, half of whom now pretend I’m a ghost when we’re in the same room together. No talking, No eye contact. I couldn’t have a civil conversation with my mother for 8 months when she found out. Five years on, and I now have a fairly productive relationship with my parents where we talk about our work and so on, and avoid mentioning my sexuality except that every 6 months or so, there’s an argument about why I’m still gay.
Luckily I had supportive friends and a supportive university psychiatrist when I came out.
Participating in a LGBT bible study at the Methodist ministry on campus did a lot to help me resolve my spiritual issues, as my life was falling apart with the battles I was having at home.“
So what happened next in your journey?
“I spent the next two years learning all I could about the Faith. At first it was mostly focused on theology and there were several other obstacles I had to overcome such as women on the U.H.J., the nature of ‘infallibility’, and the marriage laws, along with reconciling Baha’i beliefs with my fundamentalist Christian background. I used the book “Responding: 101 questions often asked of Baha’is” as the basis for many long conversations. Even though I was asking difficult questions and was confrontational at times, I never felt my questions were unwelcome or out of bounds. Each Baha’i I spoke with saw my sincerity and was eager to engage and to share their experiences and opinions along with explaining the official Baha’i position. Even when the answers were unsatisfactory to me and we continued to disagree, they did not dismiss me but respected my conscience and continued inviting me to participate in their community. As a scientist from a fundamentalist background this made a big impression on me.
Of course the Faith’s stance on homosexuality was probably my biggest obstacle. If it weren’t for that issue I probably would’ve declared 6 months after learning about the Baha’i Faith. But my biggest fear was of getting involved in another religious community and then having to endure the excommunication and shunning I had experienced as a Witness. This fear kept my investigation, earnest though it was, somewhat academic for a long time. Some of the texts on the subject are quite harsh in their wording, especially letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. But there was so much that was good about this Faith and the Baha’is I knew.
Eventually two things helped me to allay my concerns. First, exposing myself to different Baha’i perspectives online helped me to understand the Baha’i definition of infallibility and how it applies to the Baha’i writings. Combined with the Baha’i principle that science and faith should be complimentary, and understanding the different roles of the Guardianship and the U.H.J., most of my concerns about homosexuality were allayed. Second was the quality of the Baha’is I met in the community. Over time I came to realize that even if I was not able to have a Baha’i marriage, I would still be welcome in the community and it would be a place where I could feel safe raising my kids. Not all Baha’is would agree with me but that’s OK. The quickest path to truth is unity in diversity. And the Baha’is showed me that I was more than welcome to be a part of that.
Some other things happened along the way including 2 trips to the Wilmette temple and several frank conversations with LGBT Baha’is of various stripes. I decided to publicly declare my faith in Baha’u’llah in February of 2013.“
You said that roughly a third of the population in your city area are openly gay individuals. Why do you think this is so high?
“This is a metropolis in a culturally conservative part of the county, so gay people move here because it’s easier to live openly.“
What sort of impact do you think this has on your Baha’i community and in your view how has this affected how you are accepted as an openly gay man and a Baha’i?
“I think it means that the Baha’i community is familiar with the LGBT community and there’s less prejudice and ignorance than there probably is in other places. Also they see multiple definitions of what it means to be gay. It’s not just parties and bathhouses, we come in as many varieties and lifestyles as straight people. So there is less suspicion among the straight Baha’is and less doubt about my intentions and morality. It means Baha’is in my community can see the possibility of me leading a Baha’i lifestyle as a gay man.
They may not agree, but they see the possibility and respect my conscience. And, frankly, many of them show that they are happy to see me actively participating in the community. They realize this is a contentious issue that leaves people feeling as if the GLBT community is outside the scope of the Baha’i community. And that doesn’t sit well with them. They recognize the need to have more GLBT people involved in the community. Also the fact that I’m active in the community helps others to see aspects to my personality outside of my sexuality and this lightens any discord that might be caused by my sexuality.
I was blessed in that all three Baha’is I initially had contact with identified as GLBT, even though I didn’t know it at the time. So my initial exposure to the community was sensitive to my concerns as an openly gay seeker. One of the things I did before enrolling was to make an effort to get to know as many GLBT Baha’is as possible. Within my own local Baha’i community there’s a wide spectrum: one gay man is married to a woman; one bisexual woman is married to a man; there’s a single gay who keeps his gay and Baha’i identities separate, while being out to the important people in his life; another Baha’i is a closeted gay; and now there’s me. I also came across a Baha’i from another community who is in a same-sex marriage who is active in his community and served on his LSA for a time. I also familiarized myself with the stories of gay Baha’is who did not have positive experiences with the Faith. Having all these perspectives helped me to have a representative view of what the gay Baha’i experience could be like and whether I could see a place for not only myself but also my future family in this community.
I had one of these friends raise my concerns with the local LSA, since she was secretary at the time, and I got a very nice response from them as a seeker. The gist of the response from the LSA was this: “Baha’i law is Baha’i law, and it is our job to enforce it. However, we are not in the business of prying if you’re not flagrantly making us look bad. And even if you choose not to enrol there is still much you can benefit from and we would love to have your contributions to our community.” This made me feel very welcome and helped alleviate some of the pressure I felt to resolve all my conflicts before getting involved with the community. The Baha’is didn’t seem to be nearly as concerned as I was whether I had the “right” beliefs. They were most concerned that I was actively involved in my journey and that the community would benefit from what I had to offer for however long I chose to associate with the Baha’is. After this I started becoming more actively involved in the Baha’i community. Before I declared I had attended talks, devotionals, deepenings, and even a Baha’i feast.“
So given what you have said about the diversity of those in your community, I guess you knew that identifying openly as being gay wasn’t seen as a bad thing and wouldn’t be considered being flagrant.
“Nope. I knew same-sex marriage was a controversial topic. But homosexuality in itself was not something rejected by the community. It might cause some temporary discomfort as people reminded themselves about Baha’u’llah’s teachings on prejudice, equality and inclusion, especially since many come from an evangelical or Baptist background. The general mood seems to be that being openly gay may be awkward but most Baha’is in my community show that they are actively working to overcome this. There’s a bit of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude with the LGBT Baha’is who were raised in the community, which is understandable given where we are on this issue in the wider culture.
But it’s something that many in the community both straight and gay are working to improve. The important thing is that the community is not looking for black and white reasons to include or exclude, but rather they are looking at how you apply the Baha’i principles in your life. They look for the fruits and judge that rather than with whom or how you express yourself.“
So you mean some Baha’is did say to you that being gay wasn’t OK or said that Baha’u’llah forbade it?
“No one said anything as direct as this, but the feeling is there. I still live in a conservative part of the country and many Baha’is come from conservative religious and cultural traditions. That’s why being active in the community is so important for me. It gives others a chance to see evidence of my commitment to Baha’u’llah and that the majority of my life – any gay person’s life – is spent outside the bedroom. Some Baha’is in my community believe that Baha’is can’t have a same sex marriage and some are uncomfortable with this, while others feel it’s perfectly justified.
However, nobody is pressuring me to date women or play more football or anything.
At least here in the States, most people who live in bigger cities are comfortable enough around gay people and have enough exposure to be able to see us and not automatically think of sex, regardless of whether they support or oppose civil or religious gay marriage.
To give you an impression of the wider Baha’i community in my area here’s a story I submitted to the “gaybahai.net” forum:
Recently I told a Persian Baha’i colleague that I was gay. He’s an older gentleman, and during the Fast we’d been going on walks during our lunch hour once or twice a week. I’d found our walks very encouraging and uplifting so then I decided to open up to him.
I started by telling him about a sermon I had listened to by the founder of the Gay Christian Network, Justin Lee, on how God is an artist and why I thought that illustration fits well with Baha’i ideas. We all have different potentialities to develop the assortment of virtues/colors. And while there are rules to painting, sometimes they have to be broken to create a masterpiece. And God’s primary concern isn’t maintaining the letter of the law, but in creating masterpieces. I would definitely recommend checking it out here.
I then asked him for his thoughts on marriage and whether we focus too much on romance here in the West. After talking about that for about 10 minutes he asked me if I had a girlfriend, like I figured he would. I told him I had a boyfriend and that things are going well. He was surprised by the revelation but he took it in stride. No theological debates, no prejudiced comments or looks, no insistence that I’m sick or in need of therapy or that I should try dating women.
He reiterated that science and religion must agree so he expects the UHJ to rule on this eventually and that until then we must strive to adhere to the laws we do have and that, at the end of the day, whatever we do, we must be able to answer to our God with our heads held high. To which I agreed and added that I do expect to be able to have a Baha’i marriage someday based on what I know of the Writings and science and my own personal experience. And that even if I can’t have a Baha’i wedding I do intend to apply Baha’i principles to my union, whatever it is called. Even if I cannot adhere to the letter of the law, keeping with the spirit of it will only help me and those in the community who see.
We then continued our walk and our conversation about marriage and the purpose of laws. It was a great conversation. While I’m working on a need-to-know basis with my sexuality I have never been closeted in my interactions with the Baha’i community. And, in general, people have either been openly supportive or politely neutral. I’ve never felt judged or treated differently after people found out.
Now would this Baha’i support gay marriage on a ballot? I don’t know. But what I do know is that he is committed to his faith, while at the same time being open to learning from the experiences of others and adjusting his perspectives as new information comes along. He is why I have faith that the Baha’i community will eventually find its way through this issue.
Unlike a lot of religious communities, Baha’is are very much engaged in the non-Baha’i world around them. And that constant interaction with different ideas and perspectives and worldviews helps us to refine our own, to know the limits of what we know for sure. Often this ends up forcing us to narrow the scope of what we know for sure and embrace the constantly shifting shades of gray built into human experience. Admittedly I live in a very gay city, it is number 1 by percentage of the population, last time I checked. So my experience is by no means universal or even typical among Baha’i communities. It probably won’t be for a while yet. But it shows things are getting better. Being exposed to happy, healthy, religious, productive members of society who happen to also be GLBT helps. It doesn’t eliminate the controversy or even change minds necessarily. But by keeping the issue in front of people our presence in the community keeps the conversation open. And that’s the most important thing. People can only endure cognitive dissonance for so long when they are constantly reminded of it.
That’s why it’s so important for us to not only be out, but to stay engaged with our spiritual communities if at all possible. Yes, it means enduring injustice. I’m not saying we should keep allowing people to hurt us. Lord knows how many of us have been scarred on our souls by the “good intentions” of religious people, even Baha’is. I still have family that won’t talk to me since I was excommunicated from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But we can’t let that poison us, poison our relationship with God, poison our relationship with our communities. Ultimately that just hurts us and allows ignorance and injustice to persist that much longer.
Know your limits. But do what you can. Don’t give up. There’s hope.
I share this Baha’is hope that the Bahai community will eventually find a way through. I think there is nothing in Baha’i Scripture to inhibit the possibility of same sex marriage, but for those Bahais who think that there is something in Baha’i Scripture which implies that marriage is restricted to marriage between one man and one woman: here’s a quotation from a talk given by ‘Abdul-Baha:
“Time changes, and when time changes the laws have to change.”
What ‘Abdul-Baha means here is not to change the law, but not to enforce a religious law that is no longer relevant. Religious laws are “the accidentals of religion” and “useful in accordance with the exigencies of the time.” These fall under what Baha’u’llah refers to as social teachings. So if a social teaching or religious law is in conflict with the principle of equality or justice, if we follow ‘Abdul-Baha’s example, we do not enforce it.
The context for this quotation is below:
“In the Taurat there are ten commandments concerning the murderer. Is it possible to carry these out? Can these ten ordinances, concerning the treatment of murderers, be enforced?
Modern times are such that even the question of capital punishment – the one form which some nations have decided to enforce in relation to a murderer – is a mooted question. Wise men are consulting as to its feasibility or otherwise. So everything that is valid is only valid for the time being. The exigency of that time demanded that if a man committed theft to the extent of a dollar they would chop off his hand, but now you cannot cut off a man’s hand for a thousand dollars. You cannot do it; it is impossible. This is true, for it was useful for that time, but things are useful in accordance with the exigencies of the time. Time changes, and when time changes the laws have to change. But remember, these are not of importance; they are the accidentals of religion.”
From the middle of a talk given at to congregation in the synagogue, the Temple Emanuel, (Emmanu-El) in San Francisco on Saturday, October 12, 1912, in Star of the West Vol. 3, No. 13, p. 3, which corresponds to The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 365.
Talks in “Star of the West” are more reliable as a source than Promulgation of Universal Peace because the editor of Promulgation of Universal Peace was sometimes very free in what he added to the text.
Talks in the volumes of “Star of the West” are not authentic scripture unless they can be verified by a Persian version.
There are notes in Mahmud’s diary from p. 299 of Vol 1, which closely reflect the Star of the West version above. Mahmud’s dairy is a personal recollection by Mahmud Zarqani which ‘Abdul-Baha encouraged him to write. It was written during ‘Abdul’-Baha’s lifetime and so it is very likely that Abdul-Baha read this.
One day if Persian notes for the above can be found, then this could be treated as authentically by ‘Abdul-Baha.