Smiling Assassins part 1
On January 9th 2012, Pope Benedict announced that homosexuality represents “policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” It’s clearly time to conduct an investigation into one of the last bastions against same-sex rights, namely organised religion and whether religion will ever get over its sexual hang-ups.
‘If you are with a group of people and a woman happens to fall over, let somebody else pick her up; it’s much safer.’
This is how I recall the bizarre advice given to us by our Moral Theology professor when I studied in a Catholic seminary in the 1960s. The Church’s paranoia over the female threat to its celibate clergy, or just plain old misogyny, was evidence of a deeper, more disturbing misunderstanding of psychology. Sexual expression outside marriage was seen as a danger, rather than a value to be embraced and celebrated. This misunderstanding was later to lead the Church into the quagmire of child sexual abuse.
Society has undergone some radical changes since the 1960s but somehow Catholic theology remains derailed in that medieval fear of and disgust for the body and its needs, an inability to reconcile carnal desires with spiritual longing and which allows it to officially call homosexuality ‘acts of grave depravity’. Surely such a label would be more appropriate to serial killers or even child abusers, whether clerical or otherwise.
I worked as a Catholic priest for more than ten years, mostly in the southern Philippines during dangerous but exhilarating years of the Marcos Martial Law regime. It was a heady, dramatic time for a young idealistic priest, trying to make Liberation Theology a practical reality for the tenant farmers with whom I lived. Sexual expression was conveniently pushed to the back burner by the excitement of those years and celibacy was just part of the deal. Eventually I rejected institutional Christianity for a variety of reasons, only one of which was that if I identified as gay I would be considered a moral pariah in the Church I had served.
Now thirty years later, I’m not so sure that I’ve got over the leaving or the loss of my belief. I’m more and more puzzled and irritated that some religions remain bastions against homosexuality. How can religious leaders ignore contemporary psychology and compare a homosexual lifestyle with those ‘acts of grave depravity’, rehashing the same dry old arguments against homosexuality?
Islam represents the extreme limits of tolerance and I don’t have a personal investment in it so I decide to explore it first. There’s plenty of evidence demonstrating the serious penalties inflicted on gay people by the gatekeepers of Islamic morality. Islam and Catholicism compete here for intolerance. Freelance journalist James M. Dorsey who has covered ethnic and religious conflict for the past 35 years for publications like The Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal points out on the Eurekastreet website that in most parts of the Arab world homosexuality remains illegal. And the issue here is that many of these nations are either theocracies or countries where religion and politics are bedfellows. For example ‘homosexuals can be jailed for up to three years for what Moroccan law describes as “lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex”.’
According to Mithly, the Arab world’s partly European Union-funded only gay magazine, ‘death squads have abducted, tortured, and executed hundreds of Iraqi gays with only a cursory response from authorities. Their abused bodies are dumped in public places as a warning.’ GayMiddleEast, a gay website dedicated to current news from that region reports that in Iran and Syria the news is similar and in Africa there are signs of serious intolerance too. As recently as August last year Anglican bishops attending the All Africa Bishops Conference in Entebbe reiterated their firm stand against homosexuality. Many prelates even received standing ovations when they described the practice as alien and an ‘innovation of the truth’. Opening the ceremony, Prime Minister Professor Apolo Nsibambi praised the bishops for their stand, calling it the ‘right move’. He asked them to be steadfast in the campaign against homosexuality. Church and State it seems are singing from the same hymn-sheet. Even gays not living in oppressive regimes under threat of death face rejection, hatred and verbal violence from their religion. In America ‘Queer Jihad, a support group for ‘queer people to remain true to their Creator’ receives more negative than positive postings; messages such as: ‘There is no place for gays in Islam!!! May you gays go to hell!!!’ are common.
However, essays in Islamic Homosexualities demonstrate that ‘before the twentieth century the region of the world with the most visible and diverse homosexualities was not north-western Europe but northern Africa and south-western Asia.’ Homosexuality still thrives in Islamic societies, according to Sexuality and Eroticism among Males in Moslem Societies, which includes first-hand accounts of the availability of male/male sexual encounters in countries like Morocco, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Evidently everybody was doing it but nobody wanted to talk about it. Perhaps this was how secret double lives had been sustained over many years. Westerners were doing it too but the difference was they wanted to talk about it all the time, perhaps too much.
Analysis of numerous Islamic religious texts demonstrates that there was a well-documented tradition of male-male sexual activity stretching back many centuries in Islam. Some of these traditions it appears have continued until the present day. ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ on February 22nd 2010 documented the phenomenon of Bacha Bazi (boy play)where young men are forced into prostitution in Afghanistan to serve the sexual needs of rich and powerful Warlords. Traditionally it appears that when it comes to sex between males, masculinity is only compromised by taking the passive role in sexual relations according to long-held Arabic traditions. It takes a colleague to draw my attention to the fact that this institutionalised abuse of children is really no different to that perpetrated by the Catholic Church too. Men in positions of power anywhere it seems can defy decency.
Stephen Murray believes that originally Islam did not make the same harsh Biblical judgements about homosexuality that Christianity did and that frequent and recurrent homosexual behaviour did not traditionally matter in Islamic societies as long as men continued the family line. Islam requires that all men should marry because an unmarried man is of little consequence in an Islamic society. Murray asserts that in Islamic society ‘with females segregated and tightly controlled, young and/or effeminate males available for sexual penetration were tacitly accepted and carefully not discussed.’ This is both a double standard and a misuse of power but maybe it’s even more than that. It could be argued that this custom was a way of comfortably accommodating a condition that commonly existed. It still sounds like hypocrisy to me.
I’m wondering about this when I watch an SBS Dateline program with the usual horror story about the possible introduction in Uganda of a bill advocating the death penalty for homosexuality. Religion is once again playing a role with suggestions that the American Evangelical movement has been having an influence in the country and one Pastor Moses Male asserts that ‘no one is born a homosexual; it’s an addiction, like drugs.’ James Nasaba Buturo, the Ugandan Minister for Ethics and Integrity (why doesn’t Australia have one of those?) warned against the ‘Western homosexual juggernaut’ taking over Africa.
It’s possible that the Middle–Eastern/ African condemnation of homosexuality has more to do with resisting Western (and especially American) lifestyles- short skirts, plunging necklines, drug culture and homosexuality. Being gay and having a gay identity is a Western phenomenon. Perhaps homosexuality is being used by Islam as a convenient whipping boy, a symbolic excuse for rejecting all that the secular West has come to represent. Maybe it’s a backlash against what is perceived as an attempt to impose the values of former colonial powers. Anti-western in general rather than anti-gay in particular. It’s not the homosexual acts that Islam can’t stomach but the identity and the lifestyle that goes with it. Western right-wing Christianity however evidently passes the decency test.
I’ve always understood that the condemnation of homosexuality by Islam was rooted in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an and Sharia Law but even here there are contradictions. There are indeed references in the Qur’an, inferring that Lot and his people were destroyed because of their sexual practices. However, scholars are unanimous in reporting that only one passage in the Qur’an condemns sexual relations between males and even then recommends just a light punishment.
James Wafer, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle, writing in ‘Islamic Homosexualities’ maintains that there is great inconsistency amongst scholars about the Prophet’s real attitude to sex between males. Certainly he says the Prophet did not ‘include homosexuality among the “abominations” offensive to Allah for which he related specific punishments.’
I was becoming too bogged down in theory and needed to talk to people who were struggling to live these two identities. I knew no gay Muslims personally so it was time to seek someone out. This proved more difficult than I had expected but by posting a message on yahoo groups I finally contacted a man in Melbourne who was happy to be interviewed and we arranged a time to meet up.
(end part 1)