Gay Men’s Spirituality: Reclaiming Your Rights
God bless you. Namaste. Blessed Be. Salaam. Assalamu Alaykum. Shalom. Those are the good words.
Hate the sinner. Death to infidels. Unnatural. “Gay lifestyle”. Adam and Eve, not Steve. God hates f*gs. Those are the bad words.
Religion, historically and presently, has been tough on gay men, with their attitudes and treatment toward gay male human beings full of conflicts, bigotry, and a searing, red-hot hate that has spanned the globe since the origins of religions (for a summary, see here), resulting in the persecution, torture, and murder of more victims than could ever be counted.
But for many gay men who grow up in their families of origin, while they may have been institutionally abused by their religion, they may also have been influenced by some “good” messages somewhere in the dogma, and internalized them to improve their values, resilience, and character. They may have shared happy times, especially at holidays (holy-days) with their parents, siblings, grandparents, and community members that are cherished memories. The same religions that can be virulently hateful and murderous in their public dogma can also contain positive concepts like peace, forgiveness, charity, kindness, faith, hope, and love. Just like a battered partner returning to their perpetrator partner because perhaps “some” of their needs are being met, some gay men want to hold on to their traditions, customs, beliefs, and rituals of their original spiritual tradition, choosing to focus on the more positive aspects of it, and ignoring the thwarted and adulterated messages by its intolerant factions.
For these gay men, they’re not about to let a bunch of narrow-minded, short-sighted, hetero-centric, backward-focused bigots keep them away from a meaningful spiritual relationship with the higher power, god, or goddess who made them. For these believers of the faith, that is an empowered, heartfelt, reasoned, and rational choice.
When I work with gay men in my practice, part of the intake process and assessment interview includes my asking about their spirituality, if any. Many gay men, so completely bullied and battered by organized religion, simply say “none”. And that’s fine, for a large number of guys, who very consistently report a devotion to a secular humanistic approach of basically being a good person. I really feel for the guys who want to have a spiritual practice, or even a religious practice, and yet feel that that option has been closed to them by the anti-gay sects of many forms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even the more “progressive” ones like Buddhism (the Dalai Lama has made anti-gay statements) and Wicca (with its goddess/god heteronormativity concepts and imagery).
It’s like the comfort, solace, inspiration, motivation, and guidance that some gay men get out of spiritual practice and rituals growing up, including cultural things (holidays, foods, rituals, family traditions) have been ripped away from them by their respective religions’ collective anti-gay tirades. Well, hold on a second. “Excuse me….”, as Julia Sugarbaker used to say on “Designing Women”, right before she would launch into one of her awesome righteous and articulate tirades (when I do that, my husband calls it, “Ooooh, Julia is in da house!”). Wait just a minute. Just because “some” religious traditions (the conservative ones) would rather see us literally burn in “Hell” than be anywhere near their rituals, doesn’t mean that we have to allow them to rip away our entire relationship to all things spiritual.
When they want to, gay men have the option of re-claiming their right to spirituality, in any of the world’s organized traditions, or a hybrid that they have made all on their own. Just like someone who is a survivor of sexual abuse or physical abuse needs to assertively re-claim the right to control and dominion over their own body, gay men who have been booted out the stained-glass door of their house of worship can still re-claim what in their heart-of-hearts their spirituality means to them. The homophobes, and their bastardized version of positive spiritual dogma, do not have the last (sacred) word. If anything, it should be US who kicks THEM out.
Gays have been vilified by almost all of the religious orders that claim to “love the sinner.” Almost half of LGBT adults in this country say they have no religious affiliation and a third say they’ve been made unwelcome in a place of worship. Of those who are affiliated with a religion, a third chafe under a conflict between their sexual orientation or gender identity and the teachings of their religion. So it’s hardly surprising so many LGBT people have chosen to reserve Sunday mornings for brunch, Friday nights for dancing, and Saturdays for the gym.
If fighting the good fight for your own place at the pew doesn’t interest you, you could try solitary practice. Set a time for your spiritual or worship time. Create a shrine that has meaning to you in a quiet corner of your home, or on a solitary bit of beach or forest. Gather by yourself or invite a friend or two. Create a ceremony, read something that makes your heart soar. Play music that has inspiration or meaning. Sing if you’re moved to and pray or say meaningful words (quotes, poems, sayings, lyrics, or sacred texts). The homophobes aren’t listening, but you can believe that the deity(ies) you recognize are.
But what if your soul cries out for religious congress with other folks who worship the same god, sing the songs you warbled as a child, burn a familiar incense, or preach a message that touches you deep down? You’ve got a few options:
1. Find a gay-friendly congregation of your chosen tradition
The number is growing, although obviously with varying degrees of enthusiasm. A Duke University study of 1,331 American congregations found that almost half of the houses of worship allow gay and lesbian members in long-term relationships to join. That was a 10 percent increase since 2007. A third of congregations allow LGBT members to volunteer in leadership roles. Now, to me, those numbers aren’t impressive and feel a bit like they are “throwing crumbs”, but for some people, it’s a start worth trying, and continuing to make the situation better from there. But if treatment like that from a congregation seems like patronizing to you, keep looking.
Church ads that use phrases like “welcoming” or “affirming” are often code for LGBT-friendly (as if they needed to use a code, which is something to consider right there). You could always call first to a church official and see if you can be reassured. Put some specific questions to the lead clergy or staff. Do a Google or Meetup search for LGBT-friendly religious gatherings in your area. Gay-friendly Christian churches include The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church, and the Liberal Catholic Church (it established a church for gays in 1916 in Australia).
2. Take the “spiritual smorgasbord” approach
Enjoy the portions of your original denomination’s beliefs that speak to you and ignore whatever feels dismissive or hateful. Consider: 82 percent of Catholics say birth control is acceptable, but they still consider themselves Catholic.
3. Queer your church
If you’ve got the energy and the grit, stick with your original church and let the leaders and congregation know your corrections whenever they’re preaching anything but love for everyone. Religious organizations around the world are wrestling with how to fit their long-held anti-gay opinions into a world that’s increasingly accepting. Churches and other religious organizations simply will not survive if they grow increasingly irrelevant to society, and that’s as it should be. Try as some might to be keep us in the Dark Ages, time marches on, and the world’s churches will either march with it or be relegated to the pages of history, like Latin and cursive writing (don’t get me started on that). Work from the inside to tip that scale in your congregation toward compassion and justice, or at least make them very uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance of their hating gays in the aggregate but loving the perfectly nice specific LGBT people they see every week at services. Eventually the reality of your humanity will overwhelm the dogma they have been taught.
4. Watch the courts
When the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned, it opened the possibility as more states have openly married, same-sex couples, the walls against LGBT members at many religious institutions might also come tumbling down, with possible state mandates against church staff employment discrimination, to limitations on government grants going to non-accepting religious organizations.
Religions that formed in the days when nonconformance was a burning offense face a period of reflection and great change if they’re going to stay relevant. We can welcome the changes if and when they come. We have to watch for a certain insincere, begruding compliance, though, kind of like how E-Harmony curtailed their anti-gay activities only when forced to legally, or when Chick-Fil-A curtailed its donations to the most virulently anti-gay hate organizations on the planet only after their public relations consultants told them to, or face insolvency. Insincere efforts need to be met with confrontation and exposure; sincere efforts should be met with gracious negotiation. (Churches in the South went through a lot of this after the Civil Rights movement, but southern Protestant churches can still be very segregated). Some churches are very active with “reconciliation ministry”, which is a very sincere effort to bridge the gap between anti-gay churches and their victims, and they have considerable success in some congregations.
One of the most important things for gay men to remember is that you have a RIGHT to your spirituality, every bit as someone straight does. Finding meaning, inspiration, hope, comfort, and making sense of the world beyond the banalities of everyday living is an important part of your existential experience, and your sense of self. Act up. Fight back. Reclaim your practices, traditions, rituals, and relationships of whatever spiritual expression you choose. Much like they say about AA, keep what you want and leave the rest.
You know your own spiritual truth. Walk your own path with grace and peace.
Ken Howard, LCSW, is a gay and poz (since 1990) therapist who has specialized in working with gay men, as individuals and couples, for over 27 years. He helps many gay men and others from the LGBT community reconcile their gay identity with their spirituality.
For help with this, or other challenges, consider sessions with Ken for counseling, coaching, or therapy sessions, at the office in LA (near Beverly Center), or via phone, or via Skype, anywhere in the world. Call/text 310-339-5778 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information.
Ken is also available for expert witness work on gay issues, HIV issues, and issues concerning psychiatric illness or disability, as well as consulting for non-profit organizations, corporations, college campuses, and speaking at conferences.
To get your copy of his 2013 self-help book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, click here. It’s your “portable therapist” for the challenges you face today in your mental health, health, career, finances, family, spirituality, and community.