Friday, July 10, 2009

Gay Rights and Wrongs

I remember the first time I met a person who was openly gay. Like many people, I had a certain mental picture of what a gay man would look like, would talk, and would dress and so on. But this man was unlike any one of those stereotypes. A well educated man, he spoke openly about his struggles as a gay person trying very hard to be hetero sexual and along with his parents doing everything possible to get therapeutic help. It is after everything that was tried, failed that he decided to try and come to terms with his situation. And that is where he ran into this massive brick wall called stigma. And alas, a large part of this stigma is fuelled by religion.

In fact religious leaders of different faiths in the country talking united on one voice on any issue is something that does not often happen. But the subject of gay rights and whether homosexuality ought to be decriminalized brought together all of them. Initially, it was the Christian clergy who seemed to be more vocal and was the religious face on television channels but later others joined in too. But is the matter of gay rights, a religious issue? Partly yes, partly no, perhaps.

The Bible of course has a lot to say about homosexuality. “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."(1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
While the scripture may sound clear, the debate actually surrounds the use of the Greek word that this particular version of the Bible translates as "homosexual offenders." The term is "arsenokoite." Some say that it is a reference to male prostitutes rather than to two committed homosexuals. Yet, others argue that Paul, who wrote the passage, would not have repeated "male prostitutes" twice. Even others argue that the two root words in arsenokoite are the same terms used to prohibit any premarital or extramarital sexual relations, so they may not refer to homosexual relations alone.

But there is also the matter of distinguishing between homosexual attitudes and homosexual practice, a distinction that is often not made. Most people do not delve deeply enough to distinguish between some who may be gay by orientation but celibate in practice. The Bible , wherever it alludes to homosexuality , talks about homosexual behavior – not orientation- Leviticus 20:13 - "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable and Romans 1:26-27 - "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion."

A larger question to be confronted is whether morality ought be enforced through law or preached persuasively as a lifestyle. History proves that criminalizing anything merely drives people underground. A century or more of the provision of law penalizing “act of carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal an offence” has obviously not prevented the development of a robust gay movement in the country. Neither has for instance, more than 60 years of keeping Gujarat a dry state done much to keep people from consuming illicit hooch and dying.

So clearly the matter is far more complex. Clearly the government will not find it easy to break this impasse. Obviously, social laws cannot be passed by ignoring religious sentiments when all the major religions have united to raise a chorus of support against the granting of gay rights, because it is against bharatiya sanskriti or Indian culture. But we must remember that in 1829, when the practice of Sati was being banned through the efforts of Raja Ram MohanRoy, William Carey and others, obscurantist elements had sought shelter under the same veneer of culture and tradition. So, in the mean while rather than trying to be God and pass judgment on those individuals, a better option may be to offer prayers to those struggling with their homosexuality and society’s largely hostile responses to them.

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