Homosexuality – a false dichotomy?June 7, 2015
” … I feel I can no longer associate with a religion that does not perceive LGBT rights as a true social value,” Rayshel said, adding, “I, as a gay man, find it offensive that my same-sex attraction is primarily summed up to a sex act or a perceived notion that I over-emphasize my sexuality which is seen as destructive and self-indulgent.”
Sean Rayshel in The Bay Area Reporter, 4 June 2015.
Is the Bahai Faith “a religion that does not perceive LGBT rights as a true social value?” At the practical level, that is true except where a Bahai makes it clear that they do not discriminate and that their communities do not discriminate. For the present at least, the Bahai community has something to prove in this respect.
Because of the dominance of the perception of discrimination within the Bahai community, I have to constantly state first that I am for equality for gays and lesbians and only then state that I am a Bahai. Otherwise the person I am speaking to is put off from the beginning. I have so many stories, so many encounters, in which people do a double-take and tell me, “but Bahais don’t like gays” or “Bahais discriminate.” In the Philippines, in the U.K., in New Zealand, in the U.S., in the Netherlands … people have said things such as: “Oh what is the Bahai Faith about, because when I read that you didn’t accept gays, I stopped reading” or “So tell me more – I thought the Bahai Faith was conservative” and “When I read about homosexuality being forbidden I thought it was a fundamentalist church.”
I explain that I am as much a Bahai as the person who told them that gays cannot join the Bahai Faith. Then they learn that the discrimination is not embedded in our teachings. For me it is not so much whether or not a seeker is put off but two bigger issues: that our gay children are not tormented by impossible demands, and that our community practises the essential Bahai principles of justice and equality.
So I understand why Sean Rayshel withdrew his membership in response to the 2014 letter from the Universal House of Justice. As far as I know, letters from the Universal House of Justice, since 2010 (see 2013 + 2010) on the topic of homosexuality put an emphasis on removing discrimination and on Bahai communities not taking sides on the discussion of same-sex marriage. These letters maintain that marriage is only possible between a man and woman, but there is no negative association with homosexuality made in these letters.
In the 2014 letter the Universal House of Justice calls the discussion on homosexuality a “false dichotomy,” using ambiguous wording — but this letter makes it very easy for Bahais to continue to discriminate against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. My May 9th, blog is a response to the first part of this letter:
The reference to a false dichotomy is here:
“The contemporary discussion surrounding homosexuality, which began in the West and is increasingly promoted in other parts of the world, generally takes the form of a false dichotomy, which compels one to choose between a position that is either affirming or rejecting. It is understandable that Baha’is would be sensitive to acts of prejudice or oppression in any form and to the needs of those who suffer as a result. But to align with either side in the public debate is to accept the premises on which it is based. Moreover, this debate occurs within the context of a rising tide of materialism and consequent reorientation of society, over more than a century, which has among its outcomes a destructive emphasis on sexuality.” (Department of the Secretariat for the Universal House of Justice, 9 May, 2014. The full letter is here)
Perhaps the discussion about same-sex marriage is a Western invention, but I would not assume that non-Western cultures discriminate against homosexuality. (See this link for a discussion of “two spirit” persons, in the context of Native American culture) Is it relevant to know where the discussion about same-sex marriage arose? The vote for women first appeared in the West: the fact that something is a Western invention does not mean that it is not universally a good thing or that it can’t be implemented in the Bahai community. In the Secret of Divine Civilisation, Abdul-Baha demolishes the argument that advances in civilisation are to be rejected just because they come from the West.
The Western phenomenon that is new is the legalization of same-sex marriage. It is possible this is what the Universal House of Justice means by “contemporary discussion surrounding homosexuality,” however what I respond to most strongly in the sentences above is that this is followed by the words: “generally take the form of a false dichotomy.”
The premise for a Bahai should be justice and equity, and I interpret the false dichotomy as meaning that in the public debate you have people who confuse the rights, responsibilities and legal protections to marry and raise children with a focus on sex. So I ask, if the focus is really on sex why would they wish to marry?
The letter doesn’t state what this false dichotomy is, so another Bahai can easily use this statement of the Universal House of Justice to argue that Bahais must not identify themselves as gay because that “affirming” visibility is part of a false dichotomy.
It is also possible to interpret this to mean that Bahais must stay away from the topic of homosexuality, or that anyone who discusses the rights of gays or lesbians is part of the false dichotomy. I think it is not wise to attempt to squash any discussion on the rights of gays and lesbians, and this is why I felt compelled to write my May 9th, blog and the second one on criticism and now this blog. If as Bahais we cannot think and express ourselves as individuals, then there is no free will and no principle of the independent investigation of truth.
If the 2014 letter had been addressed to a Bahai Institution then I would have understood this to mean that Bahai Institutions are not to get involved in the discussion of gay rights in keeping with the Bahai principle of not getting involved in party politics. I could see the wisdom of that. However the letter is addressed to an individual so the implication is that in general any discussion on this topic is labelled a false dichotomy. This appears to be undermining the discussion – the discourse.
When I first read the first page of this letter it made me feel ill. So for me there is no choice. Either critique this letter or renounce membership in the community.
I am a Bahai because of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, so I remain a Bahai. And I think I can do more good working from the inside. The Universal House of Justice is perfectly free to make any policy it wishes. That is the authority the Universal House of Justice has. It can change its policies too, and it has.
Shoghi Effendi wrote: “He [the Guardian] cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed utterances.” The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh by Shoghi Effendi, p. 151.
If Shoghi Effendi can allow for the possibility that the Universal House of Justice could “depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed utterances,” surely this means that policies of the Universal House of Justice can be critiqued and even criticized by anyone, because there is no guarantee that what they say reflects the spirit of the Bahai Teachings. These are Shoghi Effendi’s words.
Can someone show me that the 2014 letter cannot be used by Bahais to promote discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? Even worse, might it not be used as an argument to silence the debate? That would mean denying our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters a voice or visibility by shifting the discussion from justice and equality to a supposed “destructive emphasis on sexuality.”