Friday, January 7, 2011

Homosexuality and Civil Rights

A recent letter was sent by the Universal House of Justice to an American Baha'i regarding the issue of homosexuality and civil rights. It was brought to my attention when someone sent me a link to an article about it. They knew of my interest in the subject, had presumably read an earlier piece I had written, and let me know. Whoever that was, thanks. (I'd give you a tip of my hat, but I'm not wearing one.)

As the person who wrote that article said, it seems to be the issue of our generation, and so I find myself, once again, addressing it.

The extract from the letter from the Universal House of Justice is as follows:
...With respect to your question concerning the position Bahá'ís are to take regarding homosexuality and civil rights, we have been asked to convey the following.

The purpose of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh is the realization of the organic unity of the entire human race, and Bahá'ís are enjoined to eliminate from their lives all forms of prejudice and to manifest respect towards all. Therefore, to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice or disdain would be against the spirit of the Faith. Furthermore, a Bahá'í is exhorted to be "an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression", and it would be entirely appropriate for a believer to come to the defense of those whose fundamental rights are being denied or violated.

At the same time, you are no doubt aware of the relevant teachings of the Faith that govern the personal conduct of Bahá'ís. The Bahá'í Writings state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and that sexual relations are restricted to a couple who are married to each other. Other passages from the Writings state that the practice of homosexuality is not permitted. The teachings of Bahá'u'lláh on personal morality are binding on Bahá'ís, who strive, as best they can, to live up to the high standards He has established.

In attempting to reconcile what may appear to be conflicting obligations, it is important to understand that the Bahá'í community does not seek to impose its values on others, nor does it pass judgment on others on the basis of its own moral standards. It does not see itself as one among competing social groups and organizations, each vying to establish its particular social agenda. In working for social justice, Bahá'ís must inevitably distinguish between those dimensions of public issues that are in keeping with the Bahá'í Teachings, which they can actively support, and those that are not, which they would neither promote nor necessarily oppose. In connection with issues of concern to homosexuals, the former would be freedom from discrimination and the latter the opportunity for civil marriage. Such distinctions are unavoidable when addressing any social issue. For example, Bahá'ís actively work for the establishment of world peace but, in the process, do not engage in partisan political activities directed against particular governments.
Now, what does all this mean, in practical terms? I think a few things.

First, it means that prejudice is prejudice and we need to take a stand against it wherever we see it. That seems to me to be the gist of that second paragraph. We are all created noble and are deserving of respect, no matter our skin-colour, background, or life-style choices. Each and every one of us deserves this. It is, as they say, entirely appropriate for us to arise to "the defense of those whose fundamental rights are being denied or violated".

The third paragraph, however, reminds us of the laws of the Faith. There are many things that are considered moral and acceptable within the general society that are not permitted within the Faith. But, and here's the catch, these laws are only applicable to Baha'is. We are not supposed to, nor do we have the right to try and impose these laws on anyone else. Furthermore, to judge other people, especially in relation to laws to which they are not bound, would be not only rude, but highly unfair, and even "against the spirit of the Faith". Pretty harsh words, if viewed in a particular context.

Then they remind us of the Baha'i definition of marriage, and that it constitutes a union between a man and a woman. There is no question about that. It's pretty simple. They also tell us pretty simply that sexual relations are only allowed within the context of marriage and that homosexual behaviour is not permitted within the Baha'i Faith. But again, these laws are only binding upon Baha'is, and not a judgement against anyone else. To judge others is not permitted.

In the last paragraph they look at the issues facing our society, especially in regard to the gay marriage issue. They point out the need for looking at the various issues in a proper context. We need to be able to distinguish the moral points from the social points.

It is here that I like to look at a real example. There was an elderly gay couple who had been partners for over 40 years. One of them took ill, and was in palliative care in a hospital. Because they were not considered "married", the man's partner was not allowed in to see him, except during public visiting hours, and he was not allowed to be recognized a "next-of-kin", despite the patient's request. This is, without any question, a violation of rights based on a prejudice. It is in circumstances such as this that we should all feel free, and even eager, to rise to defense.

There should be a legal model in which an individual can choose who they wish to have regarded as "next-of-kin", or who they would like to be able have visit them in hospital, as well as a number of other things. (Of course, this gets tricky in terms of estates when there is no will, but that is another matter altogether. And besides, it really is true that we should all have a will.) (Oh, and it also gets tricky when no one is officially listed as being in that position.)
But now we come to another point: what would we call that legal model.

This is where I am not particularly concerned. Whatever the government decides, I am happy with.

I've been told that it is not as simple as I make it out, but I have to wonder why. In terms of the rights of all people, I am fairly adamant, and will stand up for anyone's rights. As for what we call the model for those rights, I could care less. Personally, I believe that calling it a "marriage" is only confusing, and muddles the issue of the religious institution and the civil model. I am all for calling it a civil union, or something similar. This model should serve as giving people all the rights of a married couple, without confusing it with the religious institution.

One more example. I have two friends who are not legally married, but they are considered common-law. They have decided not to get married because neither of them is religious. There is no point, in their opinion, of having a wedding. When one of them was in hospital, the other was allowed to visit as a family member, even though they were not married. As far as taxes and inheritance laws go, they are still considered as married.

But if they were of the same gender, then this would not be true in many areas. To me, this is not fair, and constitutes a clear prejudice.

We have come so far. And the next step really is not all that big.

Many of these rights used to only extend if the couple was married according to the rites and rituals of the land. Then we recognized that many different religious ceremonies were acceptable. Now we allow people these rights even if they are not married according to any specific faith path. It seems to me that the next step is to allow people to decide who they want to have those rights in relation to themselves, no matter who they choose.


  1. You have such a nice way of making subtle distinctions clear and taking strong stands gently. I am sure that is why you are called to your work.

    Your subtle points here are "our rules are right, but only apply to us" and "even if I disagree with it, it is still discrimination." I have to wonder: if the debate were shifted from the rightness or wrongness of being gay to the truth or falsehood of these tenets, what would change? Is the real disagreement whether tolerance and fairness should be our highest values? Or is it something different?

    Thanks, again, for making me think.

  2. So those who want to be openly homosexual cannot be Baha'is without sharing the same love that is experienced between a man and a woman?

    How trivial.

    I mean, sure, they don't have to be Baha'is, but what if they like everything else about the religion? What if they are children who are born into the Faith and become conflicted inside because they just might happen to be gay? Do you know of what kind of stress that causes? The cognitive dissonance?

    That is not a happy well-being right there.

  3. When the word 'marriage' constitutes government benefits it is no longer a 'religious only' institution.
    Civil Unions, domestic partners, etc create a separate class of individuals and muddy the water.
    To speak towards your example about the hospital we can all imagine a hospital saying 'we only provide that for people who are married, not for civil unions!'
    I'm sorry but I can not agree with your 'separate but equal' attitude about it because we all know 'separate but equal' is never 'equal'.
    If religions want to 'own' the word marriage then the government needs to remove any government benefit for the institution of marriage.
    At that point, marriage will be nothing more than a religious ceremony holding no legal value whatsoever. Additionally, common law 'marriages' would not exist (which speaks to your other point about the non-married couple).
    Everyone will be required to obtain a civil union license in order to obtain any government benefits.
    Of course so many are so blinded by personal prejudices that they can't see the government will end up using this to their advantage. Giving them more control and power. Both of which, they already have to much of!

  4. To Anonymous:
    My understanding of the writings is that the practice of homosexuality is forbidden in the faith- while I understand practice as related to the physical intimate relation between same gender. I haven't read anywhere that the prohibition relates to the feelings and emotions towards the same gender.

  5. I think there's a lot of logic-twisting going on here in a desperate attempt to justify non-discriminiation against gay and lesbian people. Either you affirm and support the notion that some people are gay and it's OK or you do not. If your religion clearly states that gay is not OK - and you agree with and support that position - then you are predjudiced against gay people. It doesn't matter how many Gay Pride events you attend or how many gay friends you have - and even love. You are supporting a fundementally (I use that work with awareness) prejudiced position that as we know has been used by other religions to persecute, terrorize and kill gay and lesbian people over the centuries. To say that you don't act on your religous law to oppress others doesn't give you a 'get out of predjudice free' card.
    Religous texts are written by human beings - usually heterosexual men - and reflect their beliefs and ignorance and predujices of their contemporary times. I don't know about you but I have no desire to follow the tenets of some man I've never met who wrote a bunch of laws based on a society that existed thousands of years ago. That doesn't mean he had nothing useful or enduring to say - but he would also have possessed a lot of ideas that simply don't apply today. We don't drill into the skulls of psychotic people to release 'demons'. And we know today that being gay is a fundamentally inborn trait - not a 'lifestyle choice' that can be altered, no matter how hard the 'pray away the gay' crowd tries to convince you.
    Rejecting gay or lesbian people from partaking fully in society - or preventing them from joining your religous club unless they pervert and distort their natural beings - is predujiced and cruel.

    1. Any way you phrase it what you are saying is if we as Baha'is do not endorse gay lifestyle, or agree with it, we are prejudiced. That is a very narrow view.

  6. Hello Tonykudu.

    You raise some interesting points, but seem to try to impose dichotomy on others where they don't see it. It is not the case that someone has to be prejudiced against another just because they disagree. In the case here, I am in full support of people making their own choices in their lives. Everyone has the right to do this. All of our actions, whether or not we are genetically disposed towards something, are the product of our choice. But I think I clearly state this in a number of articles I've written on this subject. I don't want to bore you with repetition. You don't have to agree with me, but you really shouldn't try to impose your paradigm on me.

    As for the second paragraph, I just want to point out a couple of things. First, I happen to disagree with the implication that religious texts were written by ignorant men. I believe that they were written by the Manifestations of the Divine that were sent by God to lead us on to higher and higher levels of civilized behaviour. That's why I'm a Baha'i and you are not. No problem there. I'm not trying to impose my beliefs upon you, nor condemning you for believing differently. Oh, and Baha'u'llah lived in the 1800s, so it's not thousands of years ago, only 150. And it's interesting to look at your statement about "ignorance and prejudice of their contemporary times" while you fail to acknowledge the ignorance and prejudice of our own times.

    But most importantly, if you actually read what I wrote above in the article, you will see that I am not "rejecting gay or lesbian people from partaking fully in society". Quite the opposite. I am standing proud and tall defending their rights in society.

    As for rejecting anyone from becoming Baha'i, nobody ever said that. For my friends who are gay, and who have joined the Baha'i community, they have said that they see it as their own spiritual test to live within the laws of the Faith which they believe come from God. This means that they believe the laws and teachings are better for them than their own understandings. They say this, not me. Nobody imposes it upon them. They recognize that they are not the be-all and end-all of understanding. They have said that it is their test in life, and they seem to be content with that. Anything more than that is none of my business.

    But please note that they are not criticizing anyone else for making different choices. Neither am I.

    Everyone makes their own choices and has to live by the laws of the community they choose. Just because my choices are different from yours does not make one of us right and the other wrong. It makes us different. So your comment about us being "prejudiced and cruel" is more an indication of the problems that arise when we see the world in terms of dichotomy, and not a reality of my own being.


    1. Well, I don't know if a person can make truly free decisions if a religious institution describes them as "afflicted", "one of the evils of society", or having a "shameful sexual abberation", that they are "bad for the cause".

      And I don't know if one is able to accept and respect people fully and equally if they believe those people to be "distortion of true human nature".

      The Bahai's stance on LGBT people is highly dangerous. I am a Bahai and I happen to be gay - and due to those words, I have lost any faith, any trust in the Bahai institutions. I do not believe that the Bahai religion will help unite the world as long as they exclude certain people having been born a certain way from fully taking part, from fully loving themselves, for fully taking themselves for what they are, from depriving them of a basic human right which is to experience love, commit themselves to a partner they truly love.

      How do you imagine a future society which could be based on Bahai values and ruled by a Bahai majority? Will LGBT people be considered outcasts again? Will they need to undergo treatment after "loving advice" and compassionate degradation of their being?

    2. I have guided people to the Faith for a long time. When issues arise for any of the social laws, I provide the materials and ask them to come to their own conclusions. Some have become members, some have not. I will defend their decisions to the nth degree. I always defer to a quote by Shoghi Effendi..
      "The Cause of God has room for all. It would, indeed, not be the Cause of God if it did not take in and welcome everyone--poor and rich, educated and ignorant, the unknown and the prominent--God surely wants them all, as He created them all."

      (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to two individual believers, December 10, 1942: The Individual and Teaching, p. 25)

      It should also be noted that one of his quotes also indicates that there may be a physical cause to homosexuality.

      I will be attending a reception for a Baha'i friend's civil marriage.

      Some people are not remembering that marriage in and of itself was/is a civil condition based on property rights and inheritance.

  7. very interesting
    thank you

  8. The Baha'i Faith is just more of the same. Just like Evangelicals, but way more subtle. Religions will never let the past rest in peace because they love dirty corpses.