The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions

Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion

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.

Diversity Phobia

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 we perish.

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 felt.

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 order."

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 unmet.

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 ( 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 fruit.

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 or scorn.

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 of wisdom.

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.

Back to Top

Send this page to a friend!

Home   About Us   Newsletters   News Archives   Donate