It is not hard to understand why gay life in general leaves the divine out of the picture, unless that divine is a great big drag queen who outrages us and makes us laugh. "GOD HATES FAGS" we have been told over and over – from St Paul to the Westboro Baptists, the voices in Christianity that want to see us eradicated are usually much louder than those who would see beauty and holiness in same sex love (though, largely unknown by gay people, those voices exist too).
The rise of secular society, built on principles of equality and reason, has led to our emancipation in some parts of the world. Gays have proven ourselves to be perfect citizens in the consumer age – we are tolerant and peaceful, we work and we spend. Attempts recently in the USA to allow religious people to discriminate against us collapsed as much due to our commercial clout as due to any principles of fairness. Our freedom seems so hooked into the capitalist dream that even our sharing of sexual pleasure with each other can seem more about consumption than love, even more so as sex becomes ever more easily and instantly accessible through cruising websites and telephone apps.
Our freedom and visibility in secular western society is putting queers in more religious societies in ever increasing peril. Certain sections of some religions, especially the biggest two – Christianity and Islam – have such an ingrained hatred of us, seem so utterly convinced that we are dirty, immoral, unholy, disgusting, disease-spreading scum, that there seems little prospect of a more liberal attitude emerging in parts of Africa, Asia and parts of Europe (and in certain communities within the USA) any time soon. Ignoring the fact that Jesus said nothing against gay people, ignoring his commandment to love, ignoring many of the laws laid down in the old testament but obsessing about the ‘abomination’ clause, forgetting that great islamic mystics through the middle ages praised same sex attraction as a form of divine communion – and keeping out the voices of reason, tolerance and love that do exist within religions today – faith is used as a weapon against us, a justification to hunt us, attack, imprison and kill us. It is because of this that we ‘liberated’ queers in the west badly need to tackle this question of what is the nature of the SOUL.
In 83 countries expression of same sex love is illegal. In five of those – Mauritania, Sudan, Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia – the death penalty is in place for committing homosexual acts. In many other places, eg Jamaica, death is often meted out by vigilante homophobic groups, acting outside the law. There are 55 countries where gay sex can be punished by a prison sentence of up to 14 years, and 10 where the sentence can be between 14 years and life. Recently we in the west got very worked up about the anti-gay-propaganda laws in Russia and the harsh new law in Uganda. Things are also especially bad at the moment in Nigeria and Malawi. In India what looked like a bright new dawn for gay people has led to gloom with the reinstatement of an old British law making sex between consenting adults of the same gender punishable by up to 10 years in jail, using the classic argument that same-gender relations are ‘unnatural’.
These laws do not just come from the twisted minds of powerful religious bigots however – they are supported by massive majorities of the population. Queers are seen as the devil incarnate in many societies – as dirty, immoral and diseased. This is the result of us having to hide in the shadows for so very long. People are afraid of us, ignorant about us – and thus easily whipped up into frenzies of hatred against us. And our increasing visibility in the west is intensifying this, as cruel minded politicians, pandering to the prejudices of the people, can cite the cause of gay rights as western decadence trying to infiltrate their traditional cultures (totally ignoring the fact that it was westerners who brought anti-gay prejudice to their lands in the first place).
Liberation in the west has given us queers a chance to establish our own subculture – to develop our sense of identity and start to leave behind the vast legacy of fear, hatred and self-loathing that has long been the lot of the homosexual. The AIDS crisis forced us to pull together and act for ourselves as authorities were slow to respond and help. Those crisis years did a lot to strengthen our sense of community and has led directly to more egalitarian laws, marriage rights and a huge swing in society’s attitudes towards us. But there is a sickness in our community, manifesting as a hunger that seems insatiable, as drug addiction and increasing HIV infection rates. It seems we are using and abusing more than we are caring and sharing. Just two decades ago gay men looked down on injecting drug users as the lowest of the low, now our city scenes are full of guys chasing the next syringe of crystal meth or mephodrone, needles are normalised and fetishised, and reasonable, intelligent, educated men are ending up in pits of addiction and darkness. In our subculture, the seeking of spectacular ecstatic, sexual highs is much more upfront than seeking a life partner, or embracing self-awareness/personal growth.
What has happened to our souls? Simple – we are ignoring them. A rather unattractive hunger exists in gay life, that many try to satisfy with more sex and more drugs. We come out seeking pleasure and companionship, but soon learn the gay scene can be a very hard place, where we have to toughen up to survive. We can end up feeling very abused and wounded. Our souls need more than endless, unconstrained pleasure. We may in fact be finding out the hard way that sex without love leads simply to the need for more sex, to addiction and sickness. And yet sex with love, as many or most of us have realised at some point on the journey, can take us into heavenly states of soul communion. Love is the key to the soul – but of course we were conditioned as children in a hetero society to believe that sexualised love is something to be kept for one special person. The lgbt movement has always challenged this, and challenged the notion that we are defined solely by our sexual activities. The AIDS years showed that the gay community can act from the heart through the outpourings of care and compassion that happened then. Now, with disease still spreading, addiction rates expanding, and a generation out of the closet now that has no memory of those dark years, gay life badly needs to re-engage the heart, to bring love to the centre of the picture, or we may well sink under the energy of consumption and insatiable greed, and prove correct all those doom-merchants who believe we are dirty, drug addicted perverts.
I recently met a young Italian escort working in London, who told me he didn’t believe in god but accepted that we are all souls, not simply bodies with minds. Sex workers have always had a special relationship to the soul – in ancient times they were often found in temples, working to open the soul energies of their customers and bring them to communion with the spiritual planes. He accepted the presence of spirit(s) which can be positive (good) or negative (evil), and that via spirit we attract energies into our lives according to what we have going on inside us and what we are giving to the world. I figured that, like many people I know, when he rejects the god notion he was in fact referring to the idea of a manipulative father figure who interferes and controls our lives. I spoke of the spirit as having a source point – a unity point – that exists in us all and beyond us all – the Great Spirit of traditional cultures that is not necessarily anthropomorphic and that is manifesting through us (and as us) rather than instructing us. This he could relate to and I found myself excitedly describing Spirit as the greatest drug of all: when our minds and hearts are open to spirit we are in touch with the source of life, the ultimate source of all pleasure and awareness. When this is flooding through our veins we do not need chemical substitutes to get us high. When Spirit is alive in us, drugs are seen as pointers to the power and pleasure that exist in us, in our soul energy, and the need for helpers to reveal transcendent reality diminishes rapidly.
All our searching, yearning and chasing for bliss are calls of the soul to know ourselves as part of the great mystery, the magnificent divine manifestation that is life. Love is essential for our souls to grow and thrive on this planet. We do not have to restrict that love to one person. We can put love at the root and centre of all our interactions. For me this was the calling when I came out. I came out to love life – enjoying it to the full, sexually and socially, falling in love and finding my tribe. A tribe that is still in a state of dire confusion about who and what it is. Our legal standing around the world is in a very schizophrenic state, but so are we – we do not know our souls, we do not know our history, we do not know the power inherent in our love. Until we do, until we find the true nature of our souls, and our relationship with the divine source, we will be simply fucking blind, ignorant, selfishly. To bring light into our lives and to the world is the calling of being gay – coming out is a first step, but then we tend to get caught in the ghetto of queer sensibility, we escape the hetero norms but simply buy into another set of limitations. If we do not wish to see increasing numbers of casualties, in both countries where we are persecuted and in our western cultures where our own bad attitudes and ignorance lead us into darkness, the search for Who We Are must go on and go much deeper. SOUL and LOVE, SPIRIT and LIGHT – on the subject of who we are and our role in the human family – are desperately needed now, by queers the world over.
The rise of secularism enabled the emancipation of queer people, but secularism is not winning the battle with faith. The Age of Enlightenment began in the 17th century, but was quickly followed by the Romantic period in Europe – logic and reason alone cannot explain or fulfil the human condition, and the to and fro between reason and romance (intuition/magic) has continued ever since. Atheists like to present faith as belonging to the dark ages and to assume we will soon arrive at a god-free future, but this is not going to happen. The spiritual search for the root and truth of human existence is part of the human experience – and therefore part of the gay experience. The good news is that this search is no longer controlled by religions – we are free to think for ourselves, to find our own answers.
Gay people in the more secular west owe it to our brothers and sisters in the rest of the world to undertake this search, because without it we are all too easily getting lost in darkness and leaving our kind in more religious cultures in a very exposed and dangerous place indeed. Our liberated attitudes to sex are a crucial part of what we are in the world, for sex (not just gay sex) has been misunderstood and feared in the world for a very long time, but we are more than sex – something those who fear or hate us do not get at all – things will only improve, at home and abroad, when we raise our sights above the groin and put some of our passion into the exploration of the mysteries of the soul.