The differing opinions revolve around a few key issues that are difficult to talk about. Without good communication, people unwittingly fall into categories of pro- or anti-gay. Below are some of my thoughts on how to navigate the conversation. As you may know, the Baha'i teachings don't fall into either the pro or anti category.
Is being gay innate? Learned? A behavior? Genetic? Many people definitely think it's an unchangeable identity, and to discourage homosexual desire would be to commit an injustice. The question is often phrased, "Do you accept homosexuals?", assuming an identity based on sexual orientation that is innate. In other words, it's not like "Do you accept soccer players?"
Some people have argued that being attracted to the same sex is a choice. I disagree. There is almost certainly some kind of unconscious predisposition towards same-sex attraction that appears in varying degrees in a small percentage of people.
From a medical perspective, it could be explained as a congenital abnormality, meaning something goes wrong during development in the womb. A fetus, by default, starts out as a female, but if the body secretes large amounts of testosterone, then the fetus becomes male. Sometimes that hormone bath goes awry. In a 2004 article about a proposed root cause of homosexuality, David W. Gregg, Ph.D. writes,
"Since both options [male and female] are genetically available, a selection process is taking place. This process selects which part of the genetic code will be expressed and which will be suppressed. Included in this are the genetically carried codes for sexual attraction. At the appropriate stage of development, the sexual attraction program is selected irreversibly. It is as irreversible as the selection between a clitoris and penis. It is not clear exactly what stage this particular selection happens. It is only clear that it does happen. This is the point where an error is made for homosexuals. The inappropriate program is selected."Dr. Gregg also claims that 3% of males, and 1% of females have this chemical yield that goes the wrong way, with nothing abnormal about the genetic makeup. This is corroborated by other sources claiming 2% of humans are born with a homosexual predisposition with no hereditary link.
An objective view of same-sex attraction, then, would see it as a disorder, a case where genes fail to accomplish their intended purpose in a small percentage of people. Now don't jump to any moral conclusions. If this approach is correct it means that homosexual attraction has been around forever and likely will be around for a long long time.
It shouldn't be a surprise to suggest that gene expression can create same-sex attraction, because that's how opposite-sex attraction works. There are also interesting examples of genetically controlled sexual behavior in animals. Naked mole rats live in a colony of about 90 with one female queen that dominates a small handful of breeding males, then all other naked mole rats don't breed, they just work for the colony. Contrast that with the Cape mole rat, which lives solitary and breeds promiscuously with any other mole rat in sight. Both monogamous and promiscuous behavior, and varying degrees of libido are developed in nature to serve a purpose.
In a well documented attempt to discover its roots, a 2006 study of thousands of twins found that homosexual behavior has genetic, prenatal, social, and environmental origins. The modeling revealed that,
- Family and social attitudes explained 0% of men's and 16-17% of women's same-sex behavior;
- Genetic effects explained 34-39% of men's and 18-19% of women's same-sex behavior;
- The unique environment of pregnancy and childbirth, physical and psychological trauma, peer groups, and sexual experiences explained 61-66% of men's and 64-66% of women's same-sex behavior.
Is there a predisposition to homosexual behavior? Almost certainly yes, but in the US and Britain, about 10% of respondents claim to have had a homosexual experience. That number nearly doubled from 20 years earlier. A better question is, what are the physical, social, and environmental causes of homosexuality? These remain largely unexplored due to the social stigma around suggesting that it is an undesirable deviation from the norm. This gets to the heart of the issue for some people. In the nature vs nurture debate, what comes from nature can be changed through medicine, while what comes through nurture can be changed through culture, the environment, and personal choices.
Compare homosexual behavior to alcohol and this might be more clear. Some people are predisposed to alcoholism, but those with a predisposition who never start drinking alcohol would never develop the intense desire for it that lingers for one's entire life. Likewise, some people without a predisposition to alcohol abuse could still become dependent on it and experience the negative affects of addiction thanks to current social norms. Ultimately, whether alcohol is moral or not has nothing to do with a predisposition. For me to say that I have no choice but to engage in drunkenness because my genes encourage me to be an alcoholic, a trait documented as genetic, I would be denying my free will and living as a slave to instinct. In this light, the identity question becomes a non-issue. People may find themselves with all kinds of predispositions as a result of genetic irregularity or social conditioning, but they should strive to live a moral life and control their instincts.
There is a popular idea that sexual relations are moral as long as all parties are consenting. This view of sexual freedom is in conflict with traditional sexual morality, which says that sex is only appropriate in marriage, and divorce is discouraged. Thus a traditionally moral person would likely only be with one partner in their life, or possibly remain celibate if unable to contract marriage.
This traditional approach has largely been discarded in lieu of a morality that encourages personal freedom and sees abstinence as unjust, restrictive and unnecessary. The foundations of traditional morality have been ripped apart by criticism, having been associated with the suppression of women and attached to religious dogma. To even suggest that abstinence should be recommended to youth is almost universally condemned as naive. Any imposition of a firm moral standard in regard to sex is countered with the refrain of, "Why don't you just mind your own business?"
This needs a deeper look. Morality establishes what is right and wrong based on doing benefit or harm to oneself or society. While giving room for any ethical tradition to be questioned, ethical traditions do exist. Excluding self-gratification for its own sake, the idea of sexual freedom has no benefit. On the other hand, the over-emphasis on and even promotion of the sex drive does real harm to the individual and society. There is a wide range of possible behavioral addictions with harmful consequences. Most common among these are gambling, internet, eating, and sex.
To the individual, promiscuity is associated with some obvious harms: the risk of disease, unwanted pregnancies, depression, addiction, and divorce. But the real damage is subtle, and the long-term deficit is often obscured by the short-term pleasure. To be a slave to carnal instincts is to be an animal; the conduct of such a person is frivolous, attached to trivial and misdirected pleasures that contribute not to human happiness, but to shallow entertainment that can never quench one’s desire. Humans find distinction in practicing virtue, by self-control, honesty, moderation, decency, purity, and power of a rational mind that is not controlled by instinct. Such a life demonstrates by example the hollowness of self-indulgence, the falsity of low standards, the perversity of vices, and impermanence of material excess.
This encouragement of self-denial is not to support the opposite extreme of monasticism and asceticism. We are not to live as monks in a cave in the mountains, or be in constant repression of any and all physical pleasure. Thanks to evolution, we get pleasure from eating salt, fat, and sugar, all things that are scarce in the wild, but when we have them available in abundance we have to live at a higher level of consciousness. Nobody wants to be overweight, but the natural desire for high-density food overwhelms some people and they have a compulsion to consume it.
Likewise, sex has a place in our lives, a rather unique place. Evolution gave us sexual pleasure to perpetuate the species, but in a social world, that drive has to be tamed for the good of society. It’s no longer beneficial for a man to mate with as many women as possible to spread his seed in hopes that a fraction of the offspring will survive. It is beneficial for that same man to practice restraint and chastity before choosing a mate, because that allows for the most successful marriage, and then spend his energy raising and instructing the children to contribute towards the profit of themselves and others. This act of raising children is one of the most rewarding accomplishments in life, and in reality is an assistance to the parents.
The sex act, then, is merely one moment in a long process, from courtship through marriage, the procreation of children, their education and raising, that contributes towards a mutually sustaining relationship between two people. Its misuse, especially when unintended or abandoned children are the inevitable result, is not just a bad idea and harmful to the individual’s mental health, but destructive to our collective ability to sustain a civilization.
Every major religion of the world (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) teaches personal restraint, chastity, and marriage. A quick overview of Judaism sheds some light on just how clear sexual morality was. If an unmarried man and woman had sex, there are only two possibilities. If the woman was married to someone else, they would both be stoned to death (unless it was rape, then just the man would be killed). If the woman was not married, then they had just consummated a marriage and the man was obliged to take care of her for the rest of his life (if he was already married, polygamy was acceptable). Of course this is a crude legal code of an ancient civilization, but the basic principle of abstinence outside of marriage is carried over in every other religion, including the Baha'i Faith, and the level of adherence to this standard has risen and fallen many times throughout history. Today though, religion is increasingly regarded as irrelevant to the issues of practical life. As social religious teachings are increasingly viewed as relics of past ages that are incompatible with the modern world, sexual morality itself needs to be reviewed.
Here is where the real rub comes with homosexuality and religion. If this moral code of sexuality is adhered to, as it should, and sex outside of a marriage is condemned as harmful, then it would not seem strange to include same-sex relations as condemned. But in modern society that standard of sexual chastity is almost totally abandoned and mocked. Those that don't condemn heterosexual promiscuity, yet discourage homosexuality are being dogmatic and hypocritical.
For religious adherents who want to follow their teachings of traditional, conservative sexuality, the question is not so much a debate about sexual freedom because the teachings of all religions are very clear. In the face changing social attitudes towards sexuality, the question is how to navigate the new world without offending others and encouraging them to see the conservative path as the right model.
Judgment of others has a bad history. In response to a tradition of social intolerance towards others by religious adherents, some people take a relativistic stance that no moral standard should be taught at all, to contrast the fundamentalist approach.
This is a false dichotomy. Morality does exist, there are always better ways of doing things, and malicious denunciation can itself be denounced. If you are aware of a certain truth, of which others are deprived, it should be shared in compassionate language and in a spirit of goodwill. If the intention is to help others better themselves, and the advice is accepted, then your goal is attained. If the advice is refused, then any further pressing of the issue will have the opposite of the intended result.
Every person influences other people, it’s part of living in society, but this persuasion is most effective by example or inspiration, so that people accept the wisdom of principles inwardly and out of their own conviction. Thrusting demands on people is fruitless and harmful. Only in the most severe circumstances should others use force, and this is the realm of laws and government, not individuals.
The laws in the USA over homosexuality followed a framework of traditional morality, which excluded pre-marital or homosexual relationships. In 2003, Lawrence v. Texas was brought to the Supreme Court, which ruled that sodomy law violated the constitution by applying the law to homosexual conduct only. In other words, since society does not want to legally impede consensual sex between unrelated persons above the age of consent, then it would be discriminating to single out homosexual relations as a criminal offense, punishable by jail. This is a reasonable approach. As I already mentioned, anyone singling out homosexuality is being hypocritical.
So this leaves those that recognize sexual freedom as harmful in a delicate situation. Because of past and current discrimination, often anything short of normalizing same-sex relationships is immediately associated with intolerance. It is one thing to stand on a street corner and tell people they are going to hell, but when a stance on homosexuality is directly inquired, I have often found myself at a loss for words, because there is no one-line answer that can convey that it is not a desirable trait, but avoids a lot of assumptions. Often my response is indirect: sex outside of marriage should be discouraged.
Once it’s clear that a religion teaches to abstain from the modern version of sexual freedom, it's important to also communicate that religion, every religion, also condemns intolerance and hate of others. For example, Baha'is are taught that this moral code is only applicable to those that willingly declare themselves Baha'is, there is no position on what others should or should not do. If Baha'is were to not associate with people breaking Baha'i laws, then they would have nobody to associate with. It would create a ridiculous situation.
Aligning one's life to religious teachings is one thing, many people want to know why those laws are the way they are. If you can't explain why you follow certain traditions, then isn't that blind faith? If sex is acceptable in marriage, shouldn’t those born with a homosexual predisposition be encouraged to marry in the same way that a heterosexual couple does even if they don’t have kids? If even this is considered immoral, then surely this is a sign of injustice and discrimination, right?
Rights, Love, and Reciprocity
There are three more false assumptions that need to be approached to answer the question of why gay marriage is not allowed in any religious text. One assumption is that every person has the right to sexual expression, another is that sex and love are equivalent, and the last is that men and women are the same.
Regarding rights, clearly there are some people that, for whatever reason, will never be married. The moral approach already outlined suggests that such people should remain celibate their entire lives. This is not injustice. The predisposition towards same-sex attraction is a very small section of the population (2%) and having that predisposition doesn’t preclude a normal marriage. The research so far has not identified the predisposition and studied those with it, it has only studied those who regard it as innate, which may include people without the predisposition who develop the habit. Thus, people who may be disposed towards same-sex attraction and overcame it to an extent that they never acted on those desires would never be included in any statistics. Further, several times more people practice homosexuality than can be attributed to the congenital predisposition, so it’s clear that even people with it can practice heterosexuality. So it’s not to say that these 2% of people can never marry, but if that were the case, it would still not be unfair to include them in a category of conditions that don’t allow for sexual expression, a category that includes a range of physical and psychological deficiencies.
A common phrase I hear when discussing homosexuality is that, “If two people love each other, they should be allowed to be together.” This is illogical and easily contradicted. Sex is not love. I love my mom, I love my sister, I love my friend Riaz, but no matter how fine and pure a love is between two people, to let it find expression in sexual acts, outside of a marriage, is wrong. Marriage between a man and a woman is the natural and normal way of existence for every sane, healthy, socially-conscious, and responsible person. Its purpose is the perpetuation of the human race.
Lastly, a more subtle topic is the reciprocity between man and woman. While growing up I soaked up the idea that equality meant that men and women were the same. Evidence to the contrary seemed to catch my attention as I matured. There are whole books written documenting the differences between the sexes, and a few points have always stood out to me: women give directions by markers and men by cardinal directions, women like crafts and men like sports, and women dress up to impress other women more so than to impress men (this is extremely strange to a man). Of course these are broad generalities, but mostly true. Some gender roles can be attributed to social constructs, like wearing dresses, but more often than not they are naturally occurring and have an evolutionary explanation (there’s even a reason why women like pink), and these became even more obvious to me after getting married.
The most impressive article I’ve read so far about gender differences came from a summary of the book, “Why Women Have Sex”, in The Guardian newspaper. The authors interviewed over one thousand women and came up with 237 reasons, ranging from physical to emotional, for self-esteem, revenge, to keep a distracted lover, for material gain, or because of coercion (one girl said it was to give STDs to an enemy!). In the past clinical psychologists never wondered why women have sex, because the researchers were men, and to them the answer was obvious: for physical pleasure. As it turns out, that’s not always a priority for women. Nature played a joke on males by giving them physical power, but an insatiable attraction to women, who have psychological power over men. Men’s sex drive makes them want to have sex every 3 days, but women only get a drive every 4 weeks right before ovulation. Without an overwhelming urge for sex the majority of the time, women use their powers to satisfy other needs.
Studies show that men are more happy married than not, but to be considered, men have to show the qualities that women are attracted to: stability, faithfulness, intellectual capacity, determination, and other social tendencies that tell her that once she’s pregnant, he won’t run away, and he has the ability to support her. Women unconsciously realize these relationships and sometimes are threatened by other attractive women, because she knows her man might be too stupid to resist, and she wants to keep him because she unconsciously knows that his symmetry and smell mean he’s got some good genes. In contrast, men aren’t nearly as threatened by other men.
Another good source on the differences between men and women is the book, “Mr. Mean” by Jed Diamond PhD. It describes how men experience shame and women experience fear in relationships, often without either understanding the dynamic. While there are always exceptions, it’s generally true that men are taller and stronger than women. Women also go through a pregnancy and toddler rearing where they must rely on external support. While both men and women are moved by fear, women react more strongly, and are more sensitive to isolation and lack of contact. This survival mechanism leaves women needing to be cherished, protected, and cared for, more aware of emotional closeness. Men, on the other hand, react more strongly to shame. Due to fierce competition in mating, demonstrated on a microscopic level by fifty million sperm trying to get to a single prized egg, or on a social level by men’s frequent propositioning of women, males often experience a great deal of shame and unworthiness when rejected. Men never forget that they must be chosen by a woman. Men’s basic need, then, is for respect, to feel like a winner, to be the chosen one. Doctors working to rehabilitate violent men say that all serious acts of violence are an attempt to prevent or undo the experience of shame, humiliation, disrespect and ridicule, even if the punishment is imprisonment or death. Unwittingly, women frequently shame men by their emotional strength, criticism, and withholding praise; and men frequently scare women by their voice, anger, and emotional withdrawal. These cycles feed on each other, but if properly understood the dynamic can be mutually beneficial.
It’s not that gender roles are arbitrary social constructs, it’s that each gender has features that are complementary to the other. Moojan Momen wrote in an excellent article that the goal of achieving equality of women and men “cannot be achieved merely by trying to advance the position of women in society. Rather a much more radical change is needed.” He goes on to argue that putting women into positions of power (e.g. Margaret Thatcher) is not equality. It carries with it the assumption that aggressiveness and force, male qualities, are the highest social value and the basis for judgments about worth. Instead, we must work towards a society that values mental alertness, intuition, love, and service, qualities in which women are strong. The future will see a balance of the masculine and feminine elements of civilization.
Under the assumption that men and women are the same, it would seem that gay men and lesbian women have similar relationships.
In one of very few studies on lesbians, respondents gave their understanding of relationships and sexuality, but, similar to the book “Why Women Have Sex”, the results had to be compiled as narratives, not statistics. A few examples show the general character of responses; they said that social conditioning made it “almost impossible for me to have a truly healthy sexual relationship with a man”, that because of their conditioning “women are much more sensitive to other people’s needs”, that they preferred the relationship of power and aesthetics between women, that girls are more “tender and loving”, some went into how they found emotional relationships with women more satisfying than those with men, how they found it hard to trust men, and one said it was easier to “give myself emotionally” to a woman because the women she’d been with “have been my friends first, which was never the case with men.” Lesbianism was perceived generally as an alternative to abstinence or juvenile men. The sex itself was perceived as better, “at least an hour with a woman” instead of “twenty minutes for a man”. Between women sex was “not an ‘exchange’ or a ‘trade’ of services”, and focused on “more kissing and holding”. Another reason given was “political lesbianism”, a new form of rebellion against traditional norms that subordinate women.
For males, homosexuality is quite different. Just as lesbians cite a rejection of men, males often cite the intimidating nature of attracting women as an advantage of gay relationships. The frequent, abundant opportunities for sex, the lack of nagging and criticism, and the similarities of social habits are all attractions to male-male relationships. The level of sexual recreation can be evidenced from the FDA’s prohibition on receiving blood or tissue donations from any man who’s had sex with another man, or from any woman who’s had sex with a man who’s had sex with another man, due to the higher risk of disease.
Most males go through a decade from 5 to 15 years old where they have a close camaraderie in a group of boys, and an aversion to females. Coming out of this period there is a sudden switch from all-boys to boy-and-girl. According to a study by Clive Bromhall, there is a category of men who remain in the “all-boys” stage and never develop further. The reasons for this are vast and complicated, and don’t represent an active choice by the individual, but can easily be attributed to environmental and social experiences that are non-genetic and non-congenital.
In both cases, the social and environmental factors that lead to homosexual relationships that account for the difference between an estimated rate of predisposition (2%) and the actual rate of homosexual experience (10%), can be attributed to dysfunction and the lack of the social conditioning that leads to an ideal heterosexual relationship, one that is reciprocal and mutually beneficial. This dysfunction is associated primarily with males, with their traditionally dominant role and overemphasis on physical pleasure over emotional connection.
The last confounding factor is adoption. While there are clearly more important factors involved in raising children, such as the presence or absence of a second parent, or their level of attention to the child, it would certainly be best for a child to be raised by parents of each gender, with each contributing differently to development. This, by itself, is not a reason to discourage homosexual adoption, but it’s one of several factors that make these relationships non-ideal.
Homosexual attraction comes from both a genetic predisposition and social conditioning. In either case, there are varying degrees of attraction, and this attraction should not be considered an overarching identity. Nor should any moral conclusions be drawn about people who have this attraction. What people do in response to the attraction is another thing. Seeking to normalize homosexual relationships is one of many aspects of a modern liberalization of sex, all of which are opposed by the authoritative teachings of every major religion. Every socially-conscious and responsible person should strive to have a successful marriage and produce children, if possible. Outside of marriage the sex drive should be restrained and controlled, and anyone who never marries should remain celibate. Such a level of self-control is quite difficult, but so is restraining the natural desire for food, alcohol, gambling, and other behaviors that have addictive qualities, which if taken to extremes have a destructive effect on the individual afflicted, who must strive to overcome them. The social implications of such an attitude are very important.