Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010

A Progressive Religious Agenda Toward Gay Rights

A Response to “Ten Reasons Why Gay Rights Is a Religious Issue” by Jay Michaelson

by Noach Dzmura

Jay Michaelson and I both want religious people to accept gay people, but our tactics are different: his approach is incremental and mine is progressive. I suspect the divergence is rooted in our definitions of queer community and our ideas about how much control one has over the contours of identity. He thinks gay people are born; I think we are shaped. His essay, "Ten Reasons Why Gay Rights Is a Religious Issue," in the July/August 2010 issue of Tikkun was oriented toward moving traditional religious persons toward the middle; in contrast, I'm hoping our culture will take a sieve to notions of left, right, and center so each of us can learn undifferentiated compassion. Michaelson's article suggests that liberals should persuade conservatives to support gay rights using entrenched liberal religious tactics, such as reinterpreting Leviticus 18:22 and mobilizing biblical compassion for the "other." I suggest liberal religions have already done that work and have succeeded wherever it was possible to do so, and that the gender binary is the front line of the culture wars.

One way to parse Michaelson's argument is this: those who employ the dominant religious narrative on behalf of change succeed. Those who instead provide alternatives to that narrative fail. He rightly points out that "many gay activists have justifiably relegated religion to the same mental basement as other repressive ideas," but he goes too far in adding that "so far our current national debate regarding equal rights for sexual minorities ... has included religion on only one side of the argument." This is not so. His article neglects the rise of powerful gay churches and synagogues and the huge gay rights victory that enables transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay (TBLG) people to argue their rights from pew and pulpit, bench and bimah within mainstream traditions rather than from outside in the street.

For more than thirty years a liberal religious narrative has been successful in achieving gay rights. The significant evolution of beliefs and attitudes toward gay people and homosexual sex as a normal sexual practice can already in some part be traced to these liberal religious voices. I am referring to advances won by organizations like the TBLG-inclusive Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which was founded in 1968. Other protestant denominations are fully inclusive: Unitarian Universalism has had an Office of Gay Affairs since 1973  and the United Church of Christ adopted a "Covenant of Openness and Affirmation" in 1985. Gay Catholics (via the national organization Dignity) have organized since 1969. The first gay Jewish organization began in 1972 (the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews). These organizations and others like them exist because their founders believed in and promoted the ten points Michaelson lists in his article. At times, an entire denomination accepted the liberalizing narrative after much soul-searching. At others, in the face of opposition from their traditionalist forebears, the liberalizing narrative caused a split, and the MCC and similar organizations emerged as new entities alongside their conservative brethren.

Michaelson believes it may now be viable for some of us to use these same ten points to persuade conservatives, but I believe a more effective strategy is to pursue a bolder path. Leviticus 18:22 read through liberal eyes won't help a congregation welcome a lesbian transwoman on the women's side of an Orthodox synagogue (nor indeed will it make the congregation any more palatable to her). A rent boy who's putting himself through law school might feel comfortable claiming only one part of his complicated reality when he's invited for Shabbat dinner. While "compassion" might help traditional religionists welcome an old man and his son to synagogue, the discovery that they are not related but rather are in an intergenerational relationship might strain things. A child at summer camp who wants to be recognized as genderqueer rather than male or female by hir peers and counselors might find hirself on a bus home. Consider nonmonogamous relationships, divergent political views, lesbian separatism, the right to claim partners of both sexes in one's triad marriage. Bears. Radical Faeries. Leatherfags. A parade's worth of differences remain unsung in Michaelson's careful strategy to persuade middle Americans.

Some might see Michaelson, a prominent figure in the domain of gay spiritual life, as a spokesperson for the entire community. I was moved to write this article because I felt his strategy could be seen as the queer strategy, rather than one strategy among many. I wish he had acknowledged the liberal religious traditions in his article -- liberal traditions that have made possible so much of our work as queer religious persons. These traditions are valid and effective in the world. As transgender Rabbi Reuben Zellman reminded us at his ordination service this May, liberal religious institutions save queer lives every day.

Why do I find Michaelson's ten points to be a painful compromise with religious tradition? His first point, "It Is Not Good to Be Alone," has already been employed by Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg, in Wrestling With God and Men. Greenberg used that argument to help convince Orthodox Jews that homosexual pairings should be acceptable in Orthodox communities if men partner monogamously and omit from their sexual repertoire the specific act of anal penetration. While some parts of the Modern Orthodox community are moving closer to the center in such a way that "Orthodox homosexual" is no longer entirely an oxymoron, I am not convinced that all queer Orthodox believers would choose to go this route. My concern is that "Not Alone" is typically understood in terms of monogamy and marriage, and Michaelson does nothing to distance his presentation of gay identity to his conservative audience from that norm. It's as though his proposal for tolerance carries alongside it the closet for hiding homosexual "deviance." He writes "For many people, the only way toward healing the split recognized in Genesis 2:18 is in a loving, same-sex relationship." While that might be true for some, for many others "monogamy" and "marriage" don't enter the queer lexicon.

When Michaelson writes that "banning homosexuality because of its potential for ‘abuse' would be like banning heterosexuality because of prostitution," he isn't making a bold argument in favor of the spiritual value of sex work (which another spiritually-minded queer writer might do), and the quotation marks Michaelson places around the word "abuse" aren't nearly strong enough to suggest that the traditional world sees pretty much anything homosexuals do as "abuse." This is too watered-down a strategy for many queer spiritual people to apply without doing damage to their own souls. If the way to persuade conservatives to accept gays is for gays to conform to traditional marriage and fidelity norms, then many of the most vital queer spirits will be left out of the strategy. Michaelson doesn't say that only the married need apply, but he doesn't do enough to argue against the "good gays" approach either. I understand that when he uses words like "lust" and "licentiousness" as pejoratives he is trying to make contact with the conservative worldview, but these are words that TBLG people might use to convey a sacred, life-affirming, sex-positive worldview.

I also take issue with Michaelson's description of gay identity as inherent. Essentialist arguments make it easier to win compassion from heterosexuals, who may understand themselves to be "born that way," and alleviate anxiety in persons who understand sexuality and gender to remain fixed throughout a human lifetime. But these essentialist arguments don't reflect reality. Moreover, they discount the power of choice.

Often people say, "If sexuality were a choice, why would I choose to be scorned?" Clearly, Jews and other religious minorities do "choose" to be denigrated in order to pursue authentic expression. For many of us sexuality and gender identity are a choice in the way that Judaism is a choice. The landscape of human desire is more complicated than our current model and language limitations allow it to be. Today, in many states, transgender people need not choose "sickness" to obtain permission to receive hormones and surgery, but may instead choose "authenticity" as the reason to reconfigure their bodies. Vast communities of people choose to be intimate with particular persons or behaviors rather than with a particular sex or gender identity. There is an entire world of possibilities. We disempower choice at our own peril.

Let us instead create worship and community that celebrates all our relations. We can take a lesson from Siddur Sha'ar Zahav, the prayer book of San Francisco's TBLG synagogue, which contains a blessing for intimacy with a stranger and blessings for gender transition.

A progressive Jewish agenda would dismantle the central tenet of Jewish practice: one must be either a man or a woman in order to be a Jew. All hierarchies are founded on that one. Until this one gets smashed, the entire parade of human variation has to sit outside traditional religions. Destroy one plank and the wall will come down, though. Men having sex with men is viewed as sin in Jewish law because it converts the penetrated partner into a category that is no longer a man, but rather "like a woman." Until "being penetrated" or being "like a woman" is seen as part of the normative definition of maleness, gay rights, women's rights -- human rights -- can't move forward. That's what gay men should be fighting for. The best hope for advance in all civil rights struggles is to seek rights for intersex and gender variant people. The basic inequality between women and men must be removed. Bodies that blur those boundaries can help us to locate basic human rights in all bodies. Such discussions will invariably broaden the knee-jerk sex binary, the assumption of sex/gender congruence, and properly locate the Kinsey 0 and the Kinsey 6 at opposite ends of a spectrum. We know the polar opposites. We need to recognize ourselves within the middle majority.

A truly progressive strategy renders marginal the idea that homosexuality is sin. The very number of our recombinant possibilities reshapes the body contours of normalcy and counts anew the ecological niches in which humans might flourish.

Mr. Dzmura edited Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community; he teaches at University of San Francisco (Jewish studies and social justice). Link to his work via http://tiny.cc/qm65w and http://www.jewishtransitions.org.

Source Citation: Dzmura, Noach. 2010. A Progressive Religious Agenda Towards Gay Rights.  Tikkun 25(5) 72

tags: Gender & Sexuality, LGBT, Queer Spirituality & Politics, Rethinking Religion  
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