ESSAY- Bible beating: Let's lay homophobia to rest

In November, Virginia citizens will vote on a proposal which, in effect, bans "gay marriages." Because this event is reviving the ugly spectre of homophobia, I suggest that we examine the roots of that social stigma.

 In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the classification of mental disorders. But many still view the homosexual act as unnatural and immoral, "a sin against God and man." In some states it is illegal, and in one state the penalty for sexual intimacy between same-sex consenting adults is greater than that imposed upon a convicted rapist!

The slang term "fag" is derived from the word faggot, which the dictionary defines as "a bundle of sticks used as fuel for fire." The use of the word as a  sexual epithet refers the historical fact that homosexuals were once burned at the stake. Today we are more sophisticated in our cruelty, but similarly inhumane. As one Vietnam veteran put it, "The government gave me medals for killing many men and gave me a dishonorable discharge for loving one." 

How did we come by such emotionally charged attitudes toward those whose only crime is being different sexually? I think the roots of our feelings stem from two ancient religious beliefs. 

The first stems from primitive religious rites designed to placate the wrath of powerful and fickle deities. In the beginning, rituals were performed to please the gods and solicit their good will: the burning of incense, the pouring out of libations of perfumed oil, animal sacrifices, etc.

Then rites of aversion were developed: practices designed to disarm the malevolence of the deities by bringing pain upon oneself. These were intended to make the gods feel sorry for us and less malevolent. Thus fasting, mortification of the flesh and other forms of self-inflicted suffering became sacred ritual. 

This category of religious rites also engendered taboos regarding physical pleasure, which was thought "bad" because it would make the gods jealous. Concomitantly it nurtured the thought that pain was good because it would invoke the sympathy of the deities. The notion lingers today in the belief that "suffering is good for the soul." 

If you accept the idea that what feels good must be "bad," then sexual pleasure, one of human beings' greatest pleasures, is particularly evil. Early Christians assimilated this taboo in the view that "All sex hath somewhat of sin in it." St. Jerome, in the 4th century, even suggested that "a man who loves his own wife– too ardently– is guilty of sin." The Church Fathers, wanting their adherents to be devoted to the spiritual rewards of the next world, recognized that such devotion would be undermined by too much pleasure in this one. 

The second source of our culture's attitudes toward sexuality is rooted in Hebrew history. The Jews were a small tribe living a precarious existence. Surrounded by hostile forces and an environment which threatened their extinction, they had to "be fruitful and multiply," as their scriptures commanded, if they were to survive as a people. This emphasis on the sacred obligation of procreation carried a corresponding condemnation of any enjoyment of sexual pleasure which did not produce children.

For example, Onan's "spilling his seed upon the ground" was sinful because it wasted the precious substance upon which the survival of the Jewish people depended. Indeed, any sexual activity that was not intended to produce offspring was seen as sinful. That's why, in 1000 B.C., homosexuality came to be regarded as "an abomination." 

In the Greek and Roman cultures, however, there was no need for such an emphasis, and the people were able to regard sexual pleasure as a legitimate end in itself. Homosexuality was openly practiced and socially accepted. 

Today we no longer need to "be fruitful and multiply," but, as often happens, those ancient environmental circumstances have enshrined beliefs which became designated as "divine injunction." The arbitrariness of it all is reflected in the fact that the same Book of Leviticus– which contains the condemnation of homosexuality– also includes a similar proscription against the eating of rabbit and shellfish. But few persons today regard the consumption of clams as "an abomination" and a violation of sacred law. 

It is clear that we have inherited homophobia, a fear of homosexuality that considers it the sin of enjoying the pleasures of sex without the justification of propagation. Compounding our anxieties is a subconscious awareness of our own latent capacities for such activity– and that, I think, is the source of the disproportionate hostility we visit upon those so oriented. Statistical estimates vary, but even a conservative judgment suggests that more than seven percent of our population have same-sex preferences.

Thus the crucial question becomes: how shall we relate to those persons whose sexual orientation is different from ours? 

It has been said that "Love is the capacity to view statistics with compassion." I suggest that, if one of those persons was your son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father, you would not want that loved one to be denied basic human rights or the nurture of physical affection. 

I also suggest that, in the place of ancient religious taboos, we should apply the same criteria for evaluating the sexual behavior of heterosexuals to the activities of a homosexual. The only valid basis for judging any act as right or wrong is, "How does it affect the lives of those involved?" 

If a sexual act between consenting adults is an expression of genuine caring and is mutually enhancing, we cannot regard it as anything but good. To deprive persons of the nurturing experience of physical love, because their sexual preference is different from ours, is the sin against human nature and life itself. 

Let us be more rational and caring in our response to homosexuality. There is little enough of the love which sustains selfhood in our society. Let us be finished with the ancient blight of homophobia.

TonyPerrino is a retired Unitarian Minister living in Charlottesville.