Sunday, June 17, 2012

Queer Dharma: Thoughts on Buddhism and Sexuality

The author of the Open Sky blog, Rev. Lawrence Grecco, has spent a lot of time over the past week debating others about the content of this post. His contention is that the way the article, as originally worded, was biased against GLBTQ practitioners. That instead of being a statement of equal treatment, it was a subtly imbalanced argument that ends up privileging heterosexuality.

In a letter Grecco offers in his current post the following comments:

In the case of what I am addressing, some context needs to be applied here. It was only 40 years ago that homosexuality was de-classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Before that, there were many theories as to “why” someone is born gay or lesbian. All of those reasons have been proven incorrect time and time again, yet some still look for reasons to explain why LGBT people exist, but don’t pose the same question when any talk of heterosexuality arises.

So it is indeed offensive that when a simple question such as “Is it ok to be gay?” is asked, the answer and the comments that follow include statements about past life explanations, precepts, sex and lust. A correct answer would have simply been something like: “The Buddha never spoke about homosexuality so there is no scriptural references condoning homosexuality as might be found in the Christian bible.”

But instead, the author belied his/her prejudices in the second to last paragraph of the original post by inexplicably talking about "changing preferences over the course of many lifetimes", and saying people are “born gay/lesbian due to past life influences.” This implies that there needs to be some explanation for the very existence of an LGBT person, yet this has nothing to do with the initial question. When one tries to come up with causes they are pathologizing an entire group of people. And there are some who are still practicing reparative therapies (under the guise of psychology and/or religion) which have been repeatedly debunked both ethically and scientifically.

It's important to note that the original post has been altered, and much of the offending material has been re-written. Grecco wrote an earlier post, which contains the old material, which I can confirm is accurate, having read the post and comments the first day the post was up.

What do I want to add to this conversation? First off, I'd like readers to view the discussion on the original post. It's instructive in terms of what happens to people from sexual minorities who question interpretations of the dharma that involve sexuality. In addition, there are citations from the Pali canon that are worth reading and considering.

Secondly, who knows for sure what causes and conditions lead to any person's sexuality? The human mind loves to speculate, test, theorize, and the like, but as far as I'm concerned, whatever we come up with is partial. Furthermore, there is more fluidity to what we call "our sexuality" than many of us would like to admit. Some may always be attracted either to the opposite sex or the same sex, but how that looks, feels, and is engaged in across time is markedly different during different periods of a lifetime. Others experience attraction and intimacy more independently of biological body form. While still others may, for example, be attracted to men earlier in life, and then find their focus shifting to women in mid life, and then have a more mixed experience in the last third of their life. We could consider the myriad of combinations along a "spectrum of sexuality," where one's position can, and usually does, shift at least a little bit throughout a lifetime. My dharma friend Katie likes to think of it more as a "the field of sexuality," suggesting that the spectrum approach might not contain it all.

Whatever fluidity is present in sexuality, this is not a justification for the kinds of "sexuality conversions" promoted in some Christian communities, nor is it an excuse for arguments that suggest GLBTQ folks should suppress their attraction in any shape or form. Speaking of fluidity is about liberating sexuality from fixed notions and from the commonplace default binary of "gay" and "straight." In other words, I'm trying to complicate the standard narratives because my experience, and that of many of my friends and past lovers, confirms things are more complicated.

Thirdly, as Grecco says in one of his posts, "Gay and lesbian people are all too often viewed solely as sexual beings."

This is a vital point. Whenever discussions of GLBTQ dharma folks are underpinned by a focus on lust, desire, and/or sexual activity, things have often gone awry. Whereas heterosexual people are usually considered whole in and of themselves, members of the GLBTQ community frequently are reduced to being in sexual relationship with another person or people. Even if they aren't, currently, in such a relationship.

It's just about who I am with (or not with) romantically. It's about how I experience attraction and intimacy. It's really about the way I (each of us) view and engage the world.

I could say more, and perhaps flesh out some of my points more, but I want to get this out there. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.


NellaLou said...

I found some of the comments more cringe-inducing than the actual post. A good number of them neither read the post nor Grecco's comments and if they did clearly the point was not understood. Whenever long dharma quotes get presented without any analysis or even a reason why they are being presented the commenter hasn't bothered to consider the issue but only seeks to enforce their own opinion on the general topic.

The presentation of queer perspectives is generally absent in "Western" Buddhism and when it is attempted the same old reactionary sexual hegemony--heterosexism and enforcement of gender binaries shows up without fail. I've personally given up on addressing this topic in public forums related to Buddhism. So kudos to you and Lawrence and Katie for continuing to bring it up.

Nathan said...

I cringed several times at some of those comments as well. Lawrence tried his best I think to engage folks respectfully over there, but some people can't handle examining their assumptions.