Last published on OS Jan. 29, 2012. Being published here in support of Jonathan Wolfman's latest post:
Also being published for those who read my stuff on OurSalon who didn't know me on OS
This was originally a pair of posts, now combined into one. I originally posted this after some fundamentalist American Christian clergymen went to Africa and encouraged the persecution of gays. Given the recent killing of a prominent gay activist in Uganda, David Kato, talked about in Jonathan Wolfman's latest post and probably due ultimately to the influence of these same clergymen, I thought it was time to repost these.
PART ONE: MY ASSUMPTIONS
Before I get to my reasons, we need to be coming from the same place. There are two assumptions I start from:
1. Homosexuality cannot be "cured." I don't define homosexuality as pathology, neither does the psychology/psychiatry field in general, so there is actually nothing to be "cured" of by definition. Be that as it may, there are a lot of gay people who would rather be straight for a variety of reasons including, to use a prime example, religion. No approach has thus far been able to turn gay people straight and keep them that way for any length of time. There are people who claim to have "cures" but they are basically analogous to homeopathic cancer cures - some will try them out of desperation but if said "cures" really had a track record they'd be in wider use.
Some claim that homosexuality is "unnatural." Given the number of gay people (and, for that matter, animals) in existence, homosexuality clearly occurs in nature, so to define it as "unnatural" is wrong by definition. Some claim it is unnatural because it doesn't lead to reproduction but that is true of an awful lot of heterosexual sex, including recreational sex in general and sex involving one or more non-fertile partners (due to anything from age to vasectomy).
2. Homosexuality is not a choice. How do I know this, aside from the obvious - that every gay person I've ever heard discuss this says it isn't? Simple: Because I'm straight and didn't choose to be. I grew up in a household where I would have been accepted had I been gay and I attended a college (Oberlin) where it is only a slight exaggeration to say that being gay was encouraged. My heterosexuality is not a result of pressure or of my morals. I am not attracted to men, so I can't claim credit for resisting nonexistent temptation. Because I didn't choose my orientation, I can't assume that others chose theirs.
Why would anyone claim that homosexuality is a choice? Because that would remove a major religious dilemma. If homosexuality isn't a choice, then one could conclude that people are gay because God made them that way, and if God made them that way, then He bears direct responsibility for that which He ostensibly rejects. That is a dilemma that a lot of people would rather not have to face; it's so much easier to blame gays for their own plight.
Homosexuality isn't a feasible choice because there are too many downsides and not enough advantages. Why choose an orientation that can get you rejected by your own family, friends, house of worship, place of employment and, depending on your beliefs, God Himself? There are a number of fundamentalist gays (both Christian and Orthodox Jewish), people who really believe that Scripture prohibits what they are and who, as a result, hate themselves and hate their lives; given their priorities, it is unimaginable that they're putting themselves and their families through this by choice. A choice would entail a motive and there isn't an obvious one here.
I occasionally hear the following: "Sexual orientation isn't a choice but isn't prohibited by Scripture to begin with; however, acting on that orientation is both. You can be gay and not be a sinner; you just can't act on that." This argument is literally true but way too facile. When I hear it, I answer the following:
"Imagine that God comes down and says 'The Earth is overpopulated. As a result, I reverse My earlier decree. Same sex relationships and marriages are now approved but opposite sex relationships and marriages have lost My approval and are now an abomination.' If this were to happen, would you be prepared to give up sexual and romantic relations with the opposite sex? Because that's what you're expecting gays to do." It's amazing how few unqualified yesses I hear.
I am happy to enter this argument but only if both sides conduct it honestly. The contention that homosexuality is a choice isn't honest, it's a Conviction of Convenience, a conviction held to avoid having to face a very real dilemma. The only way to deal with such a dilemma is to have the courage to face it. Blaming the victim represents nothing so much as intellectual cowardice, and arguing with people who are married to such a viewpoint isn't worth my time. In other words, if you can't stand the heat, please stay out of my kitchen.
PART TWO: MY REASONING
Some people support gay rights in spite of their religious convictions. I support gay rights because of mine. This is why. I am Jewish, currently participating in the Reform Movement, but my reasoning also applies to Christians. I'm too poorly informed on Islam to include that here (except insofar as the Koran states that the Torah is valid which, oddly enough, it does).
I've learned a lot from my religion. I'm supposed to love my neighbor. I'm supposed to do justice and love mercy (Micah). I'm supposed to be empathetic to the stranger and the slave, because I was both once. I'm not supposed to hurt people who haven't hurt anyone....but there's an exception, an exception involving those who participate in male homosexual conduct. (Lesbianism isn't actually addressed at all in the Bible, at least not in what Jews call Tanakh and Christians call the Old Testament.) I'm not completely sure why it's there and it doesn't seem to fit with the rest of what my religion teaches me but, unless I am ultimately rescued by what turns out to be a translation issue, there it is. I'd love there to be a translation issue but I can't count on that so I'm going to have to make my choice based on what's currently on the table.
One day I'll die and I envision having a conversation, a sort of exit interview, with God. On this issue, He'll ask me one of two questions:
1. "Why did you tolerate homosexuality when I expressly forbade it? Didn't you read?"
2. "Why did you tolerate the persecution of My children? Didn't you think?"
It gives "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" a whole new meaning.
How will I best be prepared for that conversation? How will I have lived my life most morally? On what basis do I make my choice?
What my choice really comes down to is whether I'm prepared to take the heat for being too compassionate or too vigilant. To really be Jewish (or Christian, for that matter), you need both compassion and vigilance. Which takes priority? To me, the answer is obvious, though there are apparently many out there who would disagree with me based on their own conduct. It is this answer which ultimately drives my choice.
From what I can see in Judaism, compassion takes precedence. I base this on a lot. The Torah itself introduced an element of humaneness that I believe was unprecedented at the time. This humaneness isn't limited to people; a lot of it involves animals, everything from not overburdening them to feeding them before you feed yourself to not eating those that haven't been slaughtered humanely. Yes, there are a lot of rules, over six hundred of them, but they're only part of the story - a key part of understanding the moral center of Judaism has to do with the exceptions to the rules. Violating Sabbath is a big deal but, in order to save a life, violating Sabbath is not only permitted, it is obligatory. Fasting on Yom Kippur is required, unless you're sick, in which case it's forbidden. The rules that are most central, the Ten Commandments, are mainly about how to treat others (don't murder, steal from, lie about, or cheat on others, honor your parents) and yourself (you need rest - Sabbath) rather than about ritual.
The best answer to my question comes from the sage Hillel. When asked mockingly by someone to "teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot," he replied, without missing a beat: "That which is hateful to you do not do to another. The rest is commentary, now go study." He summed up our entire religion by going straight to compassion, bypassing even God. He doesn't talk about vigilance. This is pretty unambiguous.
Jesus, if anything, is even less ambiguous, because he makes the point that vigilance is less important than compassion explicitly, in a single amazingly elegant sentence:
Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone.
There are Christian clergymen who are now running around the world advocating the persecution of gays (like what just happened in Malawi). I'm a pretty intelligent guy but, try as I might, when I try to connect the man who gave us the above sentence with what they're preaching, I find I can't get there from here; I don't know how. Frankly, if they gave the same question serious thought, I suspect they wouldn't be able to either.
That's my reason. I don't expect everyone looking at this question from a religious standpoint to agree with me because the prohibitions do after all exist. However, what the aforementioned clergymen are doing falls under a completely different category. That's not about faith; that's about having prejudices, finding some backup for those prejudices in Scripture, and going with it. That's just being bigoted and trying to force God to be their accomplice.
I think this because there is nothing in either Jewish or Christian scripture that supports this sort of emphasis. Yes, the Tanakh/Old Testament refers to (presumably) male homosexual congress as an Abomination; however, it also refers to eating shellfish as an Abomination (same word in the original Hebrew as well as English), and you don't see any of these guys suggesting long prison sentences for eating shrimp cocktail. One could, I suppose, make the case that sexual law is more important than dietary law (though I'm not sure on what basis). OK, let's use that standard: The prohibition of male homosexual congress doesn't show up in the Ten Commandments, unlike the prohibition of adultery, which does. This makes sense - adultery always entails at least one victim, while homosexual congress typically entails none. Adultery also involves the betrayal of a close and sacred relationship, which homosexual congress does not. Do you see these clergymen running around Africa or anywhere else saying we ought to put heavier penalties on adultery? Based on every standard except one, that would make more sense than what they're doing. The exceptional standard is the gross-out factor, the allegation that such conduct is unnatural (see Pt. 1 for my answer to that).
A good measure of the justness of any given policy or law is its objectivity. The gross-out factor is a completely subjective standard. That in itself is a great clue that we have an unjust policy here, with enforcement being driven by taste rather than law.
Are these stone-casting clergymen without sin? Didn't they read? Didn't they think?