This article appeared as "The Evolution of Gay Identity" in the April 2000 issue of GENRE.
The term "spirituality" has come to be used these days to refer to the concerns and sentiments that previously have been called "religious." People who used to think of themselves as deeply religious now often call themselves spiritual instead. This is certainly true among gay people. Many of us were deeply religious as youth. A disproportionately large number entered the seminary or studied for the ministry. Often it was our budding homosexuality itself which inspired such religiousness. We knew vaguely that we weren't normal, that we were special, that we wanted something different from life from our parents, that we weren't drawn to the usual life of marriage and family. We knew we were "called."
For most of us, that youthful religiousness failed us. This happened in two ways, one personal, one social. Personally, as we grew up and became more aware of our interior motivations, we discovered sex. We learned to name our feelings as sexual and to see that what made us special was that those sexual feelings weren't what the other boys and girls were experiencing. Socially, we discovered that the history of religion was filled with cruelty and oppression and persecution of difference. As we studied history and science, we saw that the stories we'd learned in Sunday school or catechism class didn't fit the modern world view. We may have begun to realize that if religion was wrong about such things as structure of the solar system and the development of life on Earth, it was probably wrong about a lot of other things--especially the nature of sexuality.
But even as we were seeing through the content of religion, we likely still felt those deep feelings of love of life and sensitivity to other people. We still wanted to find meaning in life and to feel the presence of God in our experience. Especially as we realized our homosexual orientation and saw how the Churches had only bad things to say about those feelings--crazy things that we could tell in ourselves were just as false as the stories about the origin of the Earth--we likely abandoned religion. We may have started to call ourselves spiritual, instead of religious. And we meant that we looked to our own experience to find meaning and the presence of God, not to the teachings of Church authorities.
|"We may have started to call ourselves spiritual, instead of religious. And we meant that we looked to our own experience to find meaning and the presence of God, not to the teachings of Church authorities..."|
In the past hundred years or so, religion has been challenged. The old world view has been swept away by scientific discovery and technological advance. The modern mind no longer finds the argument from authority very convincing. We no longer look to the past for truth. Indeed, we logically expect the ideas of old to be overturned by modern discoveries. When we go to a doctor we want him our her to treat us with the most advanced modalities, not the most ancient. We don't want a dentist or an architect to look up what to do for us in a book handed down from antiquity. Why would we think that the authorities of old who didn't understand human biology or have effective pain-relievers or know sound engineering techniques would understand the nature of God and the cosmos?
The images and symbols for these big questions have evolved over time. Primitive peoples worshipped animal deities and plant gods. These were the source of sustenance. As they observed the patterns in nature, they saw correlations between the seasons and the movement of the heavenly bodies. The gods shifted to the skies, and they worshipped the sun and moon. As consciousness became more complex and people began to live in ordered societies, the gods shifted their concerns to morality and personal behavior; God became the bestower of Law and guide of conscience. As science shifted its purview from the heavens to the earth, from astronomy to biology, and in the 20th Century to anthropology and psychology, human consciousness itself became the focus on wonder.
Religion is necessarily undergoing a tremendous transformation. It is having to cope with modernization. One very important aspect of that modernization is the recognition of psychology. Just as astronomy and paleontology have changed how we understand the structure of the solar system and the evolution of life, psychology changes how we understand human nature.
The rise of gay consciousness in the last fifty years is one of the great challenges to religion. While, of course, people have been behaving homosexually all through history, it is a new thing to claim this as a source of personal identity and to understand it as a source of admirable personality traits. It challenges the old notion that the purpose of human life is to go forth and multiply and subdue the earth. Gay consciousness demands a paradigm shift just as significant--and maybe more so--as the heliocentric universe and the evolution of species. Religion is just managing the heliocentric universe (the Pope has finally forgiven Galileo for being right). The war over evolution is still being fought, though it is inevitable which side will win.
The paradigm shift signified in part by gay consciousness is even more challenging because it affects the meaning of sexuality and the experience of embodiment. Acknowledging that a significant portion of the human race is not driven to reproduce changes the meaning of sex. That there are people who are constitutionally homosexual challenges the notion of a universal natural law. It even changes the way embodiment in flesh and the experience of physical pleasure is experienced.
The religious Fundamentalists deny the reality of homosexuality just like they deny the truth of evolution. And for somewhat the same reasons. They are more concerned with maintaining their authority than with recognizing and responding to the real human situation.
Ironically, the message of religious reformers, like Jesus, was that love and compassion supersede Law and authority. "Love your neighbor" was the commandment Jesus gave. He never mentioned a thing about homosexuality, or about sex in general for that matter. The Golden Rule would certainly not support the Churches' champaign against gay rights. Indeed, to the extent that the Churches rail against gay people, preaching fear and hatred for fund-raising purposes, they reveal themselves out of sync with the One Commandment of Love.
As the old myths make less and less sense, the meaning of religion has to shift away from the archaic symbols and old-fashioned laws and begin to respond to the reality of human life. Homosexuality is a central issue in this transformation.
In recent years, a new paradigm has arisen. A new scientific discovery has been achieved. This is the awareness of planetary ecology. We now understand that there are forces that guide the development of life on the planet. At the same time, a whole new issue has developed for the planet: overpopulation. There are now just too many people for the earth to sustain. Even if food production can keep up with population growth, how is the planet going to cope with the waste all these people produce. We are exhausting natural resources and polluting the environment because there are just too many of us.
The development of conscious homosexuality may well be an ecological mechanism to call the human race to reduce population. We are the models of contributing, satisfying lives lived without reproducing. We demonstrate that having children is not the primary purpose of sexuality or of life.
Gay culture may not have entirely caught up with its role as ecological guide. We are still struggling to find our place. But even as we struggle we are helping the human race in the important step of maturing from religion to spirituality. We are helping force the issue.
Today, everybody is having to make the shift away from the old, out-dated myths. In the conflict between religion and science, science necessarily will win. The purpose of religion then cannot be to cling to the old symbols. It can't be about maintaining certain myths. These are, after all, just metaphors. As the metaphors lose meaning, the deep sensitivity to other people and to the larger goals of planetary ecology have to supersede them This is the meaning of spirituality. Gay people's struggle models everybody's maturation from religion to spirit.
Toby Johnson, former editor of White Crane Journal, is author of several books including Gay Spirituality: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness and most recently, a novel written in collaboration with Walter L. Williams about two-spirit/berdache tradition among Native American cultures, titled Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo.