Heterosexism in Contemporary
By Daniel C. Maguire
Homosexuality is not a problem: heterosexism is a problem, and
not just for sexual minorities. To think of homosexuality as "problem"-which
even persons of liberal bent can do-is a distraction and a surrender
to the unjust and poisonous prejudice of heterosexism.
Homophobia has, in irony, been called "the last respectable
prejudice" but, of course, no prejudice merits respect. All
prejudice metastasizes into other sites and spreads its malignancy
into policy, law, custom, and culture. Any prejudice tolerated
makes other prejudices seem more natural. By its nature, prejudice
"outgroups" persons, disenfranchising them of their
human rights. It marks persons out for special and negative handling
simply because of who they are.
Unlike its cousins anti-Semitism, sexism, and racism, heterosexism
has enjoyed undue immunity from critique, especially religious
critique. Worse yet, religions have been the major offenders in
fomenting prejudice against sexual minorities. The Pope says gays
cannot be priests. As theologian Mary Hunt points out in Chapter
Six, heterosexual Catholics have seven sacraments; gays and lesbians
have only six since the sacrament of matrimony is denied them.
Some Episcopalians want to split their church apart to prevent
same-sex marital bonding. The stress on reproduction in all religions
often disparages non-reproductive sex, thus tabooing and insulting
all homosexual relationships. Religious prejudices seep deeply
into cultures. Thus, sexual minorities not only cannot be clergy,
they also cannot be teachers or even soldiers.
Religions are always active and influential in defining the meaning
of the bonding called family and have regularly shrunken it into
a gated preserve for heterosexuals. This gives religious blessing
to a heterosexual monopoly on committed love. It transforms marriage
from a human right into an award for being heterosexual. Sexual
pleasure itself is put on trial; it must be justified or validated
by reproductivity. Sexual joy in its own right is stripped of
its natural legitimacy. Sexual minorities are thus not the only
victims of heterosexist brutality. The damage is so much broader.
Humanity needs its exuberant diversity, but humans tend to flee
from it. William Sloane Coffin writes: "Diversity may be
the hardest thing for a society to live with-and perhaps the most
dangerous thing to live without." This self-protective hunger
for a cowering monism could indeed be the fatal flaw of our species.
We either learn to live with and exult in the wealth of our natural
and cultural differences-religious, ethnic, racial, sexual---or
The fervor that animates homophobia seeks ill-fated support from
zoology, hoping to show that nature requires heteronormativity.
Alas, the desired evidence is not there, and contrary evidence
abounds. In his extensive study, Biological Exuberance: Animal
Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, biologist Bruce Bagemihl
shows that homosexuality is part of our evolutionary heritage
as primates. He reports that more than 450 species regularly engage
in a wide range of same-sex activities ranging from copulation
to long-term bonding. Even the assumed male/female dimorphism
is not fixed in nature. "Many animals live without two distinct
genders, or with multiple genders." Finding evidence that
our preferred social arrangements are exemplified in edifying
animal conduct is also doomed. The lovely mallards sometimes form
"trio-bonds" with one male and two females or one female
with two males.
Homophobia and Fear of Change
A similar and related timidity makes us fear change. Extreme conservatives
seem to be saying that "nothing should be done for the first
time." Yet change is of the essence. From the molecular micro
to the macro of the universe, flux is normative and incessant.
"First times" are an unending feature of nature. Clearly
many changes would come to society if heterosexism with its multiple
noxious ramifications were banished from our cultural lexicon
and buried with evils of the past, such as cannibalism and the
divine right of kings. The extent of change, it seems, is keenly
If the patriarchally conceived model of marriage were changed
and more egalitarian forms of marriage and family were legitimated,
a lynchpin would be yanked out of current social constructions.
As Marvin Ellison points out in Chapter Two of this volume, governments
might have to support people on the basis of need and not of conformity
to a narrow definition of family. His words: "Making marital
status the exclusive conduit for those benefits does little to
correct the entrenched patterns of social and economic inequities
that are rapidly expanding within the global capitalist social
Patriarchal marriage has long been the building block of society,
and through its symbolic power it finds reflection in governments
and corporate structures. It weaves hierarchical assumptions into
the expression of power. Heterosexist and biased definitions of
normalcy attach to the central nerves in the economic and political
arrangements now in place. Change in these matters is not just
personal: it is political and important and powerholders know
it. Hence the frenzy and uproar in church and state when regnant
notions of marriage and family are threatened by new thought.
Fear of two persons who love one another and want to bond permanently,
legally, and if they choose, religiously, would not, on its face,
seem to presage social disaster. Why does it engender such panic?
It does seem to be a rule of life when an issue becomes suddenly
inflamed in society, it rarely has anything to do with the issue.
It has everything to do with power. Powerholders, like animals
who sense earthquakes before others, first feel the distant tremors
that threaten their foundations and their privileges..
All of this helps to explain the shocking enigma of misplaced
moral indignation in the political arena and among religious people.
One would think that the ongoing starvation of 1.3 billion people
in absolute poverty would command our moral attention. If not
that, then one would hope that the double basting of the planet
in CO2 with catastrophes of melting polar and glacial ice already
happening would focus our minds. How compatible it would be with
the peace-passions and empathy traditions of all the world's major
religions to mount campaigns against obesely bloated military
budgets that suck blood out of our economies while children starve
and wars and illiteracy spread, with health care needs unforgivably
But no. In countries such as the United States, a demonic, fear-driven
pelvic orthodoxy, with scandalous over-absorption in issues like
same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion, consumes politics,
churches, legislatures, and judiciaries.
The widely unappreciated truth is that heterosexism with its
attendant assumptions force us into a closet of fear-terrible,
damaging, corrupting fear.
This book is written as an invitation to exit that closet.
Religion as Problem: Religion as Cure
With support from The Brico Fund, The Religious Consultation on
Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics (www.religiousconsultation.org)
recruited the scholars contributing to this volume, some living
as far away as Singapore, Taiwan, and New Zealand. We met twice
over two years for four day meetings. At the table were representatives
of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Protestant
and Catholic Christianity (including a specialist in Black American
Christianity), and Islam. We gathered in the conviction that where
heterosexism flourishes, fundamentalist religious inaccuracies
dominate public discourse affecting public attitudes, laws, and
policies. The ingredients in the world's religions that support
same-sex unions are largely hidden, and we set out to correct
that. Our goal is to give voice in this volume and in multiple
media to the religious resources that are truly antidotal to heterosexism
and can bring balance to discussions of the moral rights of sexual
minorities. Truth well delivered is the hoped-for solvent of prejudice.
All the scholars in this volume agree, as we do in all the Consultation's
projects, that multi-religious collaboration breaks open the lockbox
of mono-cultural ethical analysis. It facilitates what Robert
McAfee Brown used to call "caricature assassination."
Meeting twice over two years face-to-face and not just by e-mail,
fax, and phone-though we did that too-makes a qualitative difference
in the dialogue. The Jesuit social theorist John Courtney Murray
used to say that "disagreement is a rare achievement,"
and he had a point. Distance from one's interlocutors can breed
an undue politeness. We break thorough that with this methodology.
We can agree and disagree, probe and question, and so more effectively
pull away the veils of false, culturally ensconced assumptions.
Our funder saw the value of this and made it possible for us to
build a small collegium through these intense and exhilarating
meetings. Parting after our second meeting was "sweet sorrow"
since bonds were forged which will continue to bear scholarly
Each chapter of this volume has a different perspective to offer.
There was refreshment in seeing that Chinese cultures did not
think of a person as "a homosexual;" they didn't even
have a word for it though the reality was there. This is in chastening
contrast to much of Western homophobic culture. In this view,
sexual orientation did not constitute personhood. In other religions,
too, sexual orientation is not the grounds for either dignity
Homosexuality like heterosexuality is morally neutral. Rather,
it is, primarily, how persons live and relate to other persons
and to their parent earth that gives persons their main identity.
In healthier cultures, the "is" of a person is not established
by one's sexual orientation or by one's height, but by one's moral
commitments. The object of one's passion and love does not stigmatize
the lover. We know more of what makes a person a person by finding
their lived-out attraction to compassion and justice. Thus in
Buddhism, the concern is not so much with whether a person is
homosexual as with whether the person observes and embraces celibacy
and the other requirements of a moral life as a monk.
This same healing theme appears here and there like an aspiring
Leitmotif in all those flawed but powerful classics called world
religions. The healthy emphasis on the moral character of persons--rather
than with whom they fall in love -strips away and embarrasses
the moralistic pretensions of heterosexist cultures. Seeing persons
through heterosexist lenses is radically distortional.
Realism on Religion
The writers in this volume do not proceed under the illusion that
religions are immaculately conceived and free of sin. Au contraire!
Religions are not only sinners, they are also influential sinners.
As already noted, all religions contributed and continue to contribute
to heterosexist prejudice. No religion is a complete moral success.
There is a Buddhist saying that every belief system is an illness
waiting to be cured. That may overstate the case and it may also
out-post-modern the post-modernists, but there is a point there.
The goal of our authors is to seek out the renewable moral energies
of these classics, however flawed they may be, and direct those
energies creatively to contemporary moral crises.
All religions suffer from amnesia. They can forget their better
moments in the past when prejudice did not dull their vision.
Thus, as John Boswell showed, Christianity was not always heterosexist
and homophobic. The task of religious scholarship is to call the
religions before the bar of their professed ideals and to show
them times when those ideals were better realized.. Religions
also suffer from contagion. Heterosexist poisons cross borders
and our various scholars in this volume take note of these unhappy
imports into their religions.
Some, not all, of our authors in this volume bring their own experience
as sexual minorities to their scholarship. This was indispensable
and appreciated by all participants. Seven of the participants
are women, two men. Since men tended to write the script for most
religions, all of our Consultation projects welcome the newly
emergent voices of women scholars.
Judith Plaskow, our scholar in Judaism and co-editor of
the book, is no stranger in feminist literature. As past president
of the American Academy of Religion, she has been an influential
presence, and few are they who are not in debt to her valuable
and courageous work. She points out how society tries to shrink
sexual expression into a tight binary and then derives sexual
norms from this artificial arrangement that do not match the richness
of nature. Violations of these norms, she says,"seem to endanger
the foundations of the earth, the walls of our only safe and certain
home in the universe. " It takes courage to challenge these
norms. But courage, of course, is the mark of all who struggle
against the headwinds of prejudice.
Our other editor, Marvin Ellison, is a gay man teaching
in the venerable Bangor Theological Seminary and author of the
recently published Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis
in which he defends same-sex marriage on Christian grounds. Ellison
shows how power concerns operate in the effort to make heterosexuality
normative for the whole human race and how government conspires
with religious prejudice and religious ignorance to dictate narrowly
defined "family values.".
Ghazala Anwar, a leading Muslim scholar, brings to this volume
what most have thought impossible: a defense of same-sex marriage
based on the Qur'an and other authoritative Muslim sources. She
even shows how this has moved beyond scholarly debate and is being
lived out successfully in ways that are virtually unknown in the
West by committed and fully faithful Muslim lesbians, the Samadiyyah.
Professor Anwar, now teaching in New Zealand, returns frequently
to her native Pakistan where she has lectured on "Lesbian
Shariah." She reports in her chapter on the surprisingly
encouraging reactions she has gotten on her courageous mission
to her beloved Muslim community.
Anantanand Rambachan draws from his own Hindu experience
and from his life of scholarship on the multiple traditions covered
by the general term Hinduism. Respect for diversity is at the
heart of Hindu cultures. There are many names for God and many
embodiments of divinity. Unlike the rigidly monotheistic faiths,
there is less stress on tidy categories, more humility, and more
openness to surprise. Since early times, the Hindus saw that persons
were not divided neatly into male and female; there was also a
third sex, and this normalized gender and sexual variety. This
reflects the acceptance of "two spirit" people in native
American cultures. There are remedies in these traditions for
the dogmatic dimorphism found in other cultures.
Yu-Chen Li, from the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan,
shows how Buddhism relativizes not only gender but sexual orientation.
It is the successful management of sexual desire, not the orientation
of that desire that matters. Virtue and enlightenment are possible
for anyone in this tradition. Of course, the privileging of males
is pandemic and leaves no religion untouched, and so sexual and
gender prejudices are present in Buddhist history even to this
day. Still, professor Yu-Chen Li shows that there are forces within
Buddhism that stress that acceptance of this universe as it is,
with all of its natural differences, is the path to true enlightenment.
Privileging one sexual orientation over another is not the path
Professor Ann Marie Hsiung writes of Taoism and Confucianism.
In the Chinese religions there is, of course, a strong stress
on the need for reproduction, and Professor Hsiung points out
how Confucian rigidities were conducive to heterosexism. Still
there is not the homophobic resistance to same-sex romance found
so widely in the West. Same-sex relations among males were common
though often in situations where status, power, and wealth gave
freedom to privileged males. Women enjoyed more freedom for homoerotic
relationships as witnessed in the outpouring of passionate literature.
In one play, a young married woman Cui falls in love with a beautiful
young woman Cao in her visit to a Buddhist convent, and Cao reciprocates
her feelings. The two seek union as husband and wife and even
invoke the Buddha as their witness: "We could share the same
bed and afterwards the same tomb and we would be joined, like
two butterflies, flitting hither and thither." In some cases
a partnered lesbian would take up a simultaneous relationship
with a man to fulfill her child-bearing duty and then would return
to her true lesbian love. The human desire (more prominent in
the West than in the East) to pack sexual and gender reality into
tidy fenced-in categories does little justice to human experience
more broadly seen.
Professor Kelly Brown Douglas discusses the fact that in
the African American church communities there is pronounced homophobia
and heterosexism. She points out that this was strategically exploited
by the Republican party with some success in the 2004 Presidential
election. She explores the multiple reasons for this: a reaction
to past charges of their aberrant hypersexuality, fear that the
anti-heterosexist movement is bypassing the enduring justice claims
of African Americans, and an overreaction to their past history
where marriage was denied them. It is also stimulated by fundamentalist
interpretations of the Bible's anti-homosexual texts. Professor
Douglas counters all of this with a sophisticated Christian theology
that better corresponds to the spiritual power and elan of the
African American churches.
These biblical "texts of terror" used by popular evangelists
are also influential with conservative Catholics newly bonded
with fundamentalist Protestants. The texts themselves are their
own refutation, and no one could take them literally. Leviticus
20:13 demands capital punishment for sexual minorities. It says
of anyone who has had homosexual sex, "they shall be put
to death. Their blood shall be on their own heads." Paul
writing to Romans also prescribes capital punishment for same-sex
activity. "Those who behave like this deserve to die"
(Rom. 1:32). Obviously these texts, like other texts in the Bible
permitting slavery, animal sacrifice, and polygamy, are not applicable
or applied today. Yet they continue to do mischief and not just
in the African American communities. They also resonate in the
chambers of American lawmakers and judges.
Dr. Mary Hunt writes "as a Catholic lesbian feminist
theologian" and faces up to the enormous problems caused
by homophobia and heterosexism in the Roman Catholic Church. She
notes the basic irrationality of heterosexism: "Homosexuality
is a phenomenon that, absent heterosexism, is no more ethically
interesting or relevant than heterosexuality. It is a descriptive
category that is morally neutral." Hunt argues that heterosexism
has a deviant power mission in Catholicism. She asks why "a
religious organization would spend its symbolic capital on sexuality
if it were not the lynchpin in its hierarchically dualistic world
view. Paired with the sexism that always accompanies it, heterosexism
plays a key role in Catholic kyriarchal thinking both to discriminate
against lgbt people and to prevent especially women from exercising
moral and spiritual agency." A truly Catholic theology would
call for the celebration of same-sex love, not its condemnation.
True Catholicism would extol persons for their virtues and not
burn them for their loves. Dr. Hunt's logic would also hold for
political heterosexism. There is no state interest in preventing
two persons who love one another from bonding for life in secular
or religious ceremonies of their choosing. Thus, a not-so-secret
power agenda is again afoot.
Religions are never neutral or passive bystanders in public debates
on issues of morality and human relations. Nothing so stirs the
will as the tincture of the sacred. In the United States and many
other countries, simplistic and fundamentalistic theologies that
distort the religious traditions have held sway. They have been
the loudest voices in the public square. This book seeks to remedy
that. and to do honor to the racial, ethnic, and sexual variety
with which humanity is blessed.
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