The posture of the world’s major religions toward homosexual behavior has, across history, been mostly one of censure, and conservative believers continue to regard homosexuality as sinful. But in some progressive denominations, LGBT people have won acceptance, including rights to ordination and marriage. And they take heart from an attitude that honors same-sex bonds, increasingly being voiced within and outside their faith traditions.
Judeo-Christian scripture condemns certain sexual acts, but mentions of homosexuality are rare: There’s the story in Genesis 19 about a mob of wicked men demanding to rape two others (actually angels) who are staying at Lot’s house in Sodom (whence the term sodomy), and sexual relations between men are twice harshly proscribed in the Holiness Code of Leviticus (Lev. 18:22, 20:13) in a lengthy list of sexual infractions. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul, in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, castigates those who engage in “unnatural” intercourse, both men and women—the Bible’s sole mention of lesbianism. A few seeming condemnations of homosexuality appear in other New Testament epistles (1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Jude), though biblical scholars have argued about these texts’ meaning—and, in fact, about whether anything in the Bible pertains to homosexuality understood as a natural orientation. Its relative unimportance in scripture as a whole has not, however, prevented some fundamentalist Christians from elevating opposition to homosexuality to a primary article of faith. Foremost among these zealots are the members of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, who are mostly relatives of its late leader, the Rev. Fred Phelps.
Westboro Baptist Church hasn’t won many friends, even among Christians who likewise oppose what they describe as the “homosexual agenda.” Westboro’s fierce antigay invective has been on vicious display at the thousands of protests the church has mounted, and it’s neatly summarized in the group’s official “God Hates Fags” slogan. Westboro’s revolting tactics, including picketing funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in action—whose deaths, Westboro’s members believe, represent divine retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality—are beyond the pale for almost everyone else, earning Fred Phelps’s venomous little tribe the title of America’s Most Hated Family.
Many evangelicals, and some conservative Catholics and Jews, combat homosexuality via the ostensibly more loving strategy of so-called ex-gay ministries, which encourage gay men and lesbians to undergo faith-based “conversion therapy” to abjure their same-sex attraction. The controversial TLC special My Husband’s Not Gay recently spotlighted such transitions among Mormon couples.
The first ex-gay ministry, Love in Action, was founded in 1973. The movement to “pray the gay away” has mostly produced, however, many ex-ex-gays, including former ex-gay spokespeople, testifying to conversion therapy’s ineffectiveness and harm. Major medical and psychiatric organizations share that verdict, calling sexual-orientation change efforts futile, injurious and misguided.
Some who undergo therapy through ex-gay ministries are minors whose families force them to do so. But others are adults, troubled by their own desires, who enter the programs voluntarily. Such decisions tend to flabbergast secular LGBT people, who also have trouble comprehending why anyone would remain within a religious tradition that rejects him or her on such an existential level. The documentary Trembling Before G-d sensitively addresses this question by examining the lives of lesbians and gay men who were raised in Modern Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish families and for whom belief and religious practice continue, in some cases, to have paramount importance. Even those who have left Orthodoxy express profound loss over their spiritual exile.
Trembling indirectly supplies an answer to the riddle of why some LGBT people don’t abandon antigay faiths: Tradition and the deep connections religious people have with their spiritual communities are typically just as self-defining as sexual orientation. For some of the film’s subjects, the conflict between faith and sexuality presents a painful, unresolvable quandary; that’s true, for example, for one anonymous closeted lesbian wife and mother, who fears losing her children and her entire social world were she to come out.
Trembling Before G-d’s talking heads include Steven Greenberg, who holds the rare distinction of being an openly gay Orthodox rabbi—rare because prohibitions of homosexual behavior remain in force in Orthodox Judaism. (Greenberg came out years after his ordination.) Other American Jewish denominations (Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist) now permit the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, the result of a movement for acceptance by LGBT Jews that began in the early 1970s, soon after the blossoming of the political movement for gay liberation. That trend within Judaism has been paralleled in “mainline” American Protestant churches, one of which—the United Church of Christ—ordained its first openly gay minister, the Rev. William Johnson, as far back as 1972. After countless reports by human-sexuality task forces and repeated policy fights at denominational assemblies, some other Protestant bodies have followed suit. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are among churches that now allow lesbian and gay ordination, always with the proviso that “practicing” homosexual ministers must be in committed, monogamous relationships. The United Methodist Church, whose Book of Discipline cites homosexuality’s “incompatibility with Christian teaching,” remains a major holdout.
There have always been gay clergy—rabbis, imams, pastors, monks, nuns, priests, bishops and, in all probability, popes. It’s deliciously ironic that the Roman Catholic Church, which calls homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered,” selects its pontiff in the Sistine Chapel, whose homoerotic ceiling frescoes were painted by the homosexually inclined artist Michelangelo at the behest of a pope, Julius II, whom detractors attacked for being light in the papal loafers. But before recent movements for acceptance by religious LGBT people—now arising even in certain liberal corners of Islam—word of clerical homosexuality was spread by innuendo, not public avowals. Intolerance of same-sex relationships extended, of course, to the laity, and major world religions have mostly condemned same-gender liaisons when they have considered them at all. Not that there haven’t been exceptions to that rule. For one example, historian of Christianity John Boswell, in his 1994 book The Marriage of Likeness, argues that early Christianity accommodated same-sex love via adelphopoiesis (literally “brother making”), a ritual uniting two men, which Boswell regarded as similar to marriage. Boswell even suggested Saints Sergius and Bacchus, widely venerated in the Eastern church, were lovers whose relationship had been solemnized through an adelphopoiesis ceremony.
Jewish and Christian opponents of same-sex marriage sometimes contend this bond is illicit because it doesn’t match the biblical norm. One problem with this argument is that there isn’t any such norm. Yes, in Genesis, God creates Adam and Eve—not Adam and Steve, as the tired quip puts it—but the marital lives of Bible heroes hardly conform to a monogamous, one-man-and-one-woman standard. When Sarah can’t bear Abraham a son, she directs him to her handmaiden; he complies. Solomon, the glorious and apparently tireless king of Israel, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. And Jesus, whose life supposedly represents a Christian ideal, never married and instead hung out with 12 guys, including one “Beloved Disciple.”
Although the Bible records no same-sex marriage, which was unthinkable in an era when marriage secured political alliances and ensured bloodlines, some of scripture’s strongest emotional bonds are between people of the same gender. It’s curious that a biblical speech often recited at heterosexual weddings—“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16)—was originally spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi.
As LGBT Christians like to point out, Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. Some even claim Jesus may have given tacit approval to same-sex love in his healing of the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10), interpreting the Roman soldier’s relationship with his “highly valued” slave as a sexual one. Admittedly, many Bible scholars contest that interpretation, along with the supposition that two Old Testament heroes, David and Jonathan, had an erotic attachment. But the David and Jonathan episode seems to defy the stern injunctions of Leviticus: Soon after the two young men met, “Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul,” reports 1 Samuel 18:3; and later, after Jonathan has died in battle, a grief-ravaged David cries out, “Greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). Given David’s well-attested heterosexual randiness, this was high praise indeed. If just a bromance, theirs was an awfully torrid one, and gay Jews and Christians have with justification taken the story as evidence that the Bible makes some room for same-sex love.
On the whole, Islam has been as antagonistic toward homosexuality as Judaism or Christianity has, and sexually active gay people in several Muslim countries today (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen) risk their lives, since these nations’ Islamic law codes prescribe capital punishment for homosexual activity. But, like Judeo-Christian tradition, the history of Islamic civilization reveals occasional glimmers of an attitude celebrating, rather than condemning, same-sex love. As Jonathan loved David, so was Rumi—widely considered the greatest Persian-language poet and the founder of the Mevlevi sect (i.e., the Whirling Dervishes) of Sufism—passionate about another man, Shams of Tabriz. Rumi and Shams’s attachment was no youthful infatuation: Rumi was in his 30s when he met the wandering ascetic Shams, then nearly 60. After a period of intense togetherness, Shams suddenly disappeared, and Rumi’s bereavement was overwhelming. The poet named one of his masterworks, the Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (“Works of Shams of Tabriz”), after his beloved friend. Just as David and Jonathan’s love has been canonically interpreted as comradely, many commentators are scandalized by the notion that Rumi and Shams’s relationship was anything other than “spiritual”—though that reading willfully ignores Shams’s highly eroticized presence in Rumi’s mystical verse.
Revulsion at homosexuality reaches an extreme in the Torah’s condemning to death of a man who “lies with a male as with a woman” (Lev. 20:13). Such uncompromising abhorrence has not, however, been universally shared across cultures. Many Native American societies were, by sharp contrast, highly accommodating of gender variance and sexual diversity. A large number of North American tribes accepted and even honored biological males and females who dressed as and lived their lives as members of the opposite sex. Long referred to by the anthropological (and originally derogatory) term berdaches, these people are now identified as Two-Spirits, persons whose selves incorporate aspects of both genders. The social roles of Two-Spirit people varied from one tribe to another, but some groups accorded them important spiritual or ceremonial functions—for instance, as healers or as shamans whose distinctive nature enabled them to mediate between the human and spirit worlds. Unsurprisingly, European Americans did not take kindly to this “unnatural” dimension of Native American culture, and the Two-Spirit tradition was quashed by Christian missionaries and U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs officials. LGBT Native Americans have, however, now reclaimed and embraced the Two-Spirit heritage.