Religion and sexual identity are two aspects of our culture that have historically appeared to clash. Until recently, “the religious condemnation of homosexual acts, and even homosexual persons, was unquestioned.”1 Regular participation in organized worship has proven to be the strongest demographic predictor of whether a person disapproves of homosexual relationships or not. Yet this relationship has fluctuated immensely throughout time. Each faith holds a unique view on sexuality that has come to shape how we perceive sex. Oftentimes, these convictions are adjusted as we adapt to the diversity of sexual expressions in the world.
There are three primary stances on homosexuality in regards to religion:
- “Love the sinner, hate the sin”
- Full acceptance
Rejectionism is held mainly by Judeo-Christian denominations that embrace a more fundamental, Biblical interpretation of sexuality. This approach entirely objects to the idea that homosexuals deserve equal rights. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” holds that LGBT people should be regarded with equal amount of respect; however, homosexual behaviors are not tolerated. This modified rejectionism perspective accepts that sexuality cannot be changed but states that one can only be obedient to a higher power as long as they abstain from homoerotic activities. The full acceptance approach believes that queer people are entitled to all civil and social rights as do their heterosexual counterparts. Quakers have a long-standing tradition of accepting both homosexuals as a person and a behavior, while the Episcopalian Church has recently made a move towards this ideology.
Churches have even been created under this egalitarian ideal of full acceptance. Reverend Troy Perry founded the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1968 as a part of his coming out process in his book: The Lord is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay. The advent of this Church signaled to how inclusive spirituality has grown to be. Similar to the Universal Fellowship, a majority of religions have subgroups of queer-identified members. People are able to straddle the boundary between the faith and sexuality using support groups within each faith that acknowledge gay identities and affirm the normalcy of gay piousness
For centuries, legislation has tried to restrict sexual acts ranging from sodomy to polygamy. Such harsh ordinances often stem from strict religious practices that advocate celibacy, monogamy, and heterosexuality. This emphasis on pious virtue has consequently created a hierarchy of purity where normal and healthy sex is defined as heterosexual, married, monogamous, and intended for reproduction. As a result, polyamourous and homosexual sex, as well as sex outside of marriage, were labeled as abnormal and repulsive, something that should be relegated by law. These notions of “normalcy” are based on documents written centuries ago when mankind lacked a full understanding of the wide spectrum of sexuality. As our world progresses, we now appreciate that all forms of sexual orientation, gender identity, and relationships are natural and should be treated equally under the law, though some religions may not see it in this way.
Individuals who fall outside of this orthodox spectrum—including unmarried, polyamourous, or queer-identified people—may feel anxious that their sexuality does not perfectly align with these spiritual mandates. Some individuals feel torn between the doctrines they were raised learning and whom they grew to become. When a great deal of one’s ethics is based on a specific faith, it may directly conflict with their identity as a nonvirgin, queer, or polyamorous individual. In order to mitigate any tensions between religion and sexuality, it is critical to know that a gay and religious identity can coexist in harmony. It is 100% possible to be devout and sexually active. Being religious does not necessitate that you are completely asexual. Though an individual may not follow their religious doctrines down to the last syllable in terms of sexuality, it is still entirely possible to one’s structure life around the premises of respect and love that are a foundation for many faiths around the globe.
There is an enormous range of perspectives taken on sexuality. Here, we explore some of the most well known sects across the world.
One of the most prominent and outspoken views on homosexuality is seen in Christianity. A letter from the Corinthians taken from the New Testament of the Bible succinctly sums up how some Western faiths choose to view sexuality: “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (7:2)2. This conservative discourse has brought about many of the limitations and stigmas that revolve around sexuality in our society today. Christianity has emphasized a need to be chaste and labeled those who do not abide as sinners. It is distinctive in the premium it puts on heterosexual monogamy. A recurring theme states to “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Homosexual couples, therefore, are excluded from the sacrament of matrimony.
Classic Greek Philosophy
In Classic Greek Philosophy, sex is not viewed as inherently evil. In fact, it is an activity celebrated amongst the gods in ancient texts. Pederasty—a sexual relationship between an older gentlemen and a younger man—is celebrated in ancient Greece and visible in the culture. It is seen as a rite of passage to military life and the religion of Zeus. A myth from Classic Greek Philosophy tells how Zeus abducted Ganymede, a hero from Troy, and engaged in homosexual relations. Both Aristotle and Pindar recognize pederasty as a way of mentorship for young boys in becoming a man. Traces of homosexuality (like pederasty) were documented as early as the 5th and 4th century BCE highlighting how natural and accepted these acts were in society.
Jewish creeds on homosexuality are found mainly in the Old Testament of the Bible. Sexuality is portrayed as “a gift to be used responsibly and in obedience to God’s will.”3 Pervasive themes include the importance of intimacy and procreation in a relationship between a male and female. Infidelity and polygyny is scorned. This is because the Canaanites, a rival fertility cult, openly practiced mating rituals and temple prostitution in their culture; considering the two were enemies, Jewish law began to regulate any foreign behavior like homosexuality. Sexual variation, as seen in the Canaanites, was seen as a threat to group harmony. Queer individuals still struggle with full acceptance in this faith.
There is a great deal of variety in Islam faith regarding homosexuality, mainly due to the fact that Muslims do not have a single, central source of authority (like the Pope, for example). As a polylithic faith, it allows for a diverse range of beliefs. In general, Muslim texts take a much more sex-positive stance than most. Sexuality is first and foremost a mechanism for pleasure, and secondarily a means of reproduction (which is quite the opposite of Catholicism). Intercourse in marriage is considered the highest good of human life. Both polygyny (marriage between a man and multiple wives) and cocubinage (the practice of having a woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife) are sanctioned by Islam; even the Prophet Muhammad had several wives. Muslims do not follow celibacy, or refraining from sexual activity until marriage. Contraception is encouraged by law. Muhammad himself support al’azl (the withdrawal method) as a way of enjoying intercourse, though today this is viewed as an outdated method of birth control. Therefore, many within this faith support homosexuality.
Hinduism, on the other hand, does not treat homosexuality as a sin. It recognizes that each human has his or her own attraction to love and does not discriminate based on same-sex partnership. This refreshing take on sexuality has empowered many who believe in a higher power but have not felt that their religion adequately encompasses their true beliefs. There are four themes that permeate the religion. Kama, the pursuit of pleasure, encompasses one of these. This is where the origins of the Kama Sutra lay, which is a piece of literature written on the achievement of sexual pleasure. The Kama Sutra demonstrates the sex-positive nature of this religion. Many Hindu temples display carvings of both men and women engaging in homosexual sex. Homosexuality is considered a normal expression of human desire. Furthermore, Hindu philosophy recognizes the existence of a third gender, one in which people are embody a mixture of male and female natures. This third gender, or hijra, is granted semi-divine status and epitomizes the tolerance that permeates Hinduism.
There is little discussion on the matter of sex in the teachings of Buddha; instead, most publications focus on enlightenment. There are several paths to enlightenment and sexual expression constitutes one of these. Tantric Buddhism, one of the three primary branches of the faith, says that “Sexual union epitomizes the essential unity of all things by the joining of energy.”1 It does not specify the sex of each partner and thus does not explicitly condemn homosexuality. Rather, it merely preaches against sexual misconduct such as adultery and nonconsensual acts.
Some ministries offer prayer-based conversion, or “praying the gay away”. This strategy asserts that meditation and repentance can change one’s sexual orientation. However, in 2009 the American Psychological Association concluded that there is zero evidence of success of any conversion treatment and many may actually be harmful (including increased signs of depression and thoughts of suicide).
Integrating gay identity with other intersectional identities like religion may require some time, but can be an extremely fulfilling and successful process. Multiple religious institutions have begun to reexamine their attitudes toward this issue because traditional interpretations of religious texts have not always proven accurate. Progress is slowly creeping as the relationship between sexuality and religion continues to evolve.
Baldwin, Janice and Baldwin, John. Topics in Sexuality: Advanced Studies. McGraw-Hill
Companies, Inc., 2012.
Levay, Simon, Baldwin, Janice and Baldwin, John. Discovering Human Sexuality Second
Edition. Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2012.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.