Homophobia seems such a complex phenomenon, that getting hold of it in concrete terms is a little like grasping after air. Baha'is often respond, when feeling accused of being homophobic, with something like, "I'm not afraid of gays! I have gay friends. I invite them for dinner in my home. How preposterous that you should think I am AFRAID of gays!"
By homophobia I do not mean that we quake in our boots and run for the nearest bomb shelter when a gay man or a lesbian walks by. But if we believe that homosexuals are "problem humans,", that homosexual relationships are abhorrent to the ultimate good, the Creator of all mankind, that homosexuality subverts the very purpose of human life, that it is a threat to marriage and family life, and to the very foundation of human civilization - that is some serious fear.
Untangling the source of homophobia is a challenge. It seems to me, from observation, that many males have a deeply emotional, visceral fear of homosexuality, apparently related to a fear of women and of their own feminine shadow that lies hidden within their masculinity. Why else the fear among boys of being considered "girly?" Why consider gay men as "pansies," "fairies," "soft"? For some reason, many men appear to be very insecure in their own masculinity and that masculinity is easily threatened, something which must constantly be asserted by macho behavior - this despite the fact that many "macho men" are gay, and many effeminate men are not. Still, there is the stereotypical association of femininity with gay men. Heterosexual men also seem threatened by lesbians because they feel they cannot control or dominate them, or demand their attention, in the way they think men should be able to if they are "real men" - otherwise, again, their masculinity is threatened.
Women's aversion to homosexuality seems to me to be, in general, not the deep, visceral reaction that men have. Rather, it is an aversion secondary to the fear that men have - since women are often dependent on men, they fear being labeled lesbian lest their male support turn against them.
These are generalizations, of course, but one has to start somewhere when untangling a knotty problem.
Another aspect is the traditional patriarchal religious view of homosexuality - if homosexuality is abhorrent to God, the greatest good and our ultimate salvation, then we must guard against it, i.e. be afraid of it - there must be some fearsome potential for evil in it that we do not understand.
Whatever the roots of homophobia are, how do we go about healing ourselves of this social disease? On purely anecdotal evidence, it seems that a lot of social interaction with people who are openly and proudly gay is a start. Once you become close friends with gay families, for instance, it is a little hard to consider them as a threat to civilization. So familiarity with the object of your fear is certainly a factor in overcoming the fear. Trying to walk a mile in their moccasins is another factor - try to imagine yourself gay, familiarize yourself with the restrictions society places on gays as if they applied to you. Sort of a "Black Like Me" approach to understanding homophobia. Imagine that tomorrow morning you will announce to close friends and family that you are a gay man or lesbian. Sound scary? Aha! - that might be a sign that there is such a thing as homophobia.
As an aside, there is a very interesting early science fiction story relating to homosexuality and homophobia. The story is The World Well Lost, by Theodore Sturgeon, published in the 1950s. A synopsis of the story is available here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_Well_Lost. It's a great story, if you can get hold of it. It is in Volume 7, I think, of the collection of Sturgeon's short stories that is being published incrementally by North Atlantic Books (I think I have that publisher's name right?).
Now Gary will contribute some of his thoughts...
Another aspect in the generation of this prejudice could be that many men subscribe to the notion that heterosexuality is an achievement which has to be earned, and not a development that was inevitable for them. Many gays have found that shaming and exclusion, earnest prayer, psychotherapy and cold showers could not change their attractions to other men. If all that doesn't work to reverse homosexuality what could possibly cause heterosexuality to wear off? Surrounded by heterosexuals as gays have been, all their lives, it just failed to rub off on them. However, there seems to be the fear that the small minority of gays could somehow disturb the sexual orientation of the general public.
So where did this idea that heterosexuality is so fragile and in constant need of reinforcement come from? Well, to start with our highschool coaches and staff sergeants somewhere got the idea that being born a man is not enough, and that young males, in particular, need to pass through all kinds of tests and ordeals in order to prove that they really are what they were already. Threatening men with the loss of their sexual identity turns out to be an excellent method for controlling them, and so this method gained momentum from that cause as well. Influenced early in life by these masculine authorities, I suppose, Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung along with almost all of the other early psychoanalysts and developmental psychologists decided that developmental stages were some kind of trial needing to be passed, and that in particular, some abject failures among us flunked early tests, and the result of being such flops made us turn out gay. Hence the idea that a gay male is a failed heterosexual seemed to be confirmed by science. (But has later been thoroughly debunked).
It is only natural, group psychology being what it is, that part of the process of convincing oneself that one represents the epitome of mental and physical development, involves scapegoating and tormenting those who are tagged as sexually malformed. There is reinforcement in contempt. But what if that reinforcement turns out to be unnecessary because there is no need for all that developmental hard work in the first place?
Why is it, if heterosexuality is so frail, that all the straight men didn't suddenly develop erectile dysfunction as soon as Massachusetts legalized gay marriage? Why didn't all our sons run off with their best male friends for gala weddings in Provincetown? Why didn't all the straight families suddenly fall apart? The answer, I suspect, is that heterosexuality and families are not at all the flimsy affairs that some fear them to be.
Now for a guess about why this idea of frail heterosexuality gets traction in the first place. Isn't it obvious? Men, and men alone, can fail in sexual intercourse in all kinds of ways, which I will not bother the reader in enumerating. Let's just say that it is a short hop from any one of these kinds of failure experiences to the conclusion that erection, timed ejaculation, etc. have to be "achieved" rather than just being allowed to happen in their own times and places. And of course, these natural functions can be interfered with by the perception of pressure to "achieve." But the realization that a man is vulnerable in "performing" the act of sex (the idea of "performance" itself in this arena is noxious) does not logically entail the conclusion that heterosexuality itself is a matter requiring constant performance, maintenance and reinforcement. It does not need at all to be protected by a mass of macho character armor. Quite to the contrary, a change of locale, a little pill, a little less alcohol, an argument settled and the heterosexual male is soon fully functioning again; but not, we notice, with a member of the same sex. In truth, these little setbacks in the act don't amount to a heap of refried beans where sexual orientation is concerned.
Men, we can't be forced or seduced to be who we aren't and we don't have to work forcing ourselves to be who we are. We get our sexual identities for free.
For most of us, I think, the core example of infallibility is Euclid's deduction of theorems in plane geometry from his axioms. Given the axioms, the rest follows ineluctibly from them. Deductive logic as best exemplified in mathematics represents the idea of valid reasoning to a compelled conclusion. (However, we should remember that different axioms yield different geometries, etc.).
As for facts in the world, we do feel that we often know them for sure, but our knowledge of them, even in science, is of a different order and much less exact than our certainties about mathematics. For example, statements about the world are less likely to be true the more exact they are. If I tell you that I weigh between 68 and 75 kilos, or that the coast of England is between X and Y thousands of miles long, what I say is much more likely to be true than if I give you an exact number. In fact, no exact number will be true of such things. For another thing, we now know that some realities cannot ever, in principle, be determined exactly, such as the position and velocity of subatomic particles, or the state of a subatomic particle in quantum uncertainty.
This has to do with three problems. First, the world is always changing and exact statements about it do not change with the facts. Secondly, words do not correspond to objects in any precise one to one fashion. We perceive and experience objects as bundles of qualities, and we have words for some of these like "solid," "heavy," "hot," "deformable" etc. but it is obvious that these words do not capture the phenomena in and of themselves, with the exception of some poetic words that yield the qualities they describe, such as the word "hissing" does a bit.
Translation is the third problem. The word "love" in English, or the word "know" or the word "infallible" for that matter, may not translate well into another language. It may mean different things in different contexts, and at different times. If, for instance, I said "James is mad" in 1750 in England it would mean something different from my saying it now in the USA. And think of the phrase "I love you" as it has been said in many languages, in many times and to many different people. There is no single, univocal meaning to that phrase!
In the realm of values, the term "infallible" is simply not applicable. Take any commandment, such as Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Thou Shalt Not Covet, or any proverb such as "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." You can think of situations in which such statements are apt and of others in which they are not. Volumes could be written about possible meanings of "to kill" or "to covet" just for starters, and then volumes more about when such ambiguous concepts should apply and in which sense.
I see moral aesthetic and spritual life as simply too fluid, too ambiguous, and too bound up with quality and emotion for any set of pronouncements to be infallibly, or absolutely, or eternally correct. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the spirit." John, Chap. 3 verse 8, King James Version.
Here is a paradox to chew on: The wise are only certain of being uncertain.
Infallibility, in the sense of decisions by an individual or an institution being immune from any errors whatsoever, seems a nutty notion to me. Who would want such a thing, even if it were possible? Who would want to check their mind at the door and never have to think through and decide difficult moral questions for themselves? Who would want a magic 8 ball in the form of a person or institution from whom/which one could get an error-free answer on any difficult question? We sacrifice our humanity if we give our minds over to such a concept. What kind of world would we create if we never exercised individual conscience to arrive at a decision about what is just or unjust? Spiritual guidance which is open to growth is one thing, error-free pronouncements are another.
Regarding the question of homosexuality and a more just society for gays/lesbians, Baha'is run up against this mistaken understanding of infallibility - a secretary writing on behalf of the Guardian gave an "infallible" interpretation of Baha'u'llah's intention, and our life experience or education or awareness of dissonance with a scientific understanding of homosexuality count for nothing in the face of this "infallible" statement. We use infallibility as an excuse for not independently investigating the facts for ourselves and using our God-given conscience and intelligence to arrive at the truth of the matter.
Baha'is are stuck in the 1950s regarding homosexuality. I flinch at the ignorance of a Baha'i's statement (heard recently) that gays are spiritually "diseased." I shake my head when a Baha'i speaks of changing one's sexual orientation with effort and prayer and the help of a physician. I am further amazed when Baha'is who make such statements go on to profess to others their belief in unity in diversity, the oneness of mankind, independent investigation of truth, elimination of prejudice, and the necessary unity of science and religion. These contradictory positions would be funny if they weren't so tragic. Our position is similar to that of the Catholic Church, which took a few hundred years to catch up to Galileo, because of "infallible" guidance. Enforcing celibacy on gay Baha'is will result in just as much trouble for the Baha'i Faith as the principle of celibacy for priests has for the Catholic Church. Heterosexual Baha'is have the choice to marry or remain celibate. Gay Baha'is have no such choice - there is no provision for a legal, committed same-sex relationship in the Baha'i Faith. BNASAA, the Faith's attempt at some sort of justice for gays, lumps homosexuality together with substance abuse, AIDS, alcoholism, and promiscuity - guilt by association, hardly an honorable point of view, and they leave no room for committed, healthy, same-sex relationships. There has even been talk of, in future, preventing gay folks from ever being birthed. Trying to imagine a world without gay folks, I always think of Rita Mae Brown's statement, "If Michelangelo were a heterosexual, the Sistine Chapel would have been painted basic white and with a roller."
Let's be frank about this - any "infallible guidance" which leads to feelings of shame regarding the essence of one's being and thus to suicide attempts for young Baha'is is guidance in error.
This morning at breakfast I read a New York Times article in the Dining section - White House Pastry Meets Policy, about Bill Yosses, the openly gay pastry chef for the Obamas' White House (he was hired originally by Laura Bush in 2007). Mr. Yosses, described as a cheerful, perfectionist though patient veteran of New York restaurant kitchens, is obviously a happy and well adjusted human being, doing the work he loves, and always willing to teach others what he knows, and he happens to be in a long-term, committed relationship with another man. After I finished the article, I sat and imagined the Baha'is telling Mr. Yosses that he suffers an abhorrent spiritual condition, which he must struggle to overcome if he wishes to become a Baha'i. Of course no well adjusted, self-respecting gay person would want to join such a backward (on this subject) religion. And those who find themselves already Baha'i and realize they are gay, and begin to understand the implications of Baha'i teaching about homosexuality, are caught in a terrible conflict. Understandably, many of them - perhaps most, drift away from the Faith. Some of our young gay Baha'is attempt suicide. The same predicament holds for heterosexual Baha'is who are supportive of gay rights and realize their supposedly progressive and forward-looking religion has a terrible blind spot. Who can support gay rights and be supportive of the Baha'i approach to homosexuality?
A story posted just this morning, from Sean, is reminiscent of the words traditionally attributed to Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who at first supported Hitler because he was anti-communist, and then when he realized the nature of Hitler's regime, opposed the Nazis, and was later thrown into a concentration camp:
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.*
(* There are a number of different versions of this quotation, slightly different and mentioning different groups.)
The idea that it is possible to have one right, infallible (in the sense of free from error) position on any moral question leaves the way open for religious animosity and violence, to say nothing of self-righteousness. It does not leave the way open for a contribution of scientific investigation or life experience to the solving of a difficult question. If we could refer any moral/religious question for an absolute, free-from-error answer, what would be left for us to do but obey? And if we are created only to obey, why do we have reason and moral conscience as the very nature of our being? Why humanity at all? Why not a race of robots to carry out the Will of the Creator? Why do we seek infallibility, certainty, perfection? Because it relieves us of the personal responsibility of decision-making, of wrestling with the meaning of life, as did Job? "The perfect is the enemy of the good" is written inside my prayer book, just to remind me.
Having someone pat my head and say "There, there, dear - don't worry your pretty little head about it, we'll take care of those knotty moral problems" doesn't appeal. Haven't we been there and done that? Having everyone march to the same drummer scares me a lot more than the thought of some people hearing their own tune and dancing to it.
The Universal House of Justice was designed for flexibility and growth - times passes, things change. What a wonderful notion.
Barb (email firstname.lastname@example.org)