We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Joan Didion, title essay, The White Album (1979)
To the Universal House of Justice and the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States of America,
Last time I wrote you I was writing to ask permission to travel to Iran in order to pursue my study of Persian and Baha'i history. It was my hope to become a scholar of the Faith. That letter marked, in many ways, the pinnacle of my immersion in the Baha'i community. Growing up, Baha'i children's classes were held at my house every weekend, and feasts, holy days, firesides, and potlucks joyfully paraded through my home with comforting regularity. I remember crawling out of bed and dangling my legs over the second floor banister to listen surreptitiously to the late night consultations and deliberations of the Local Spiritual Assembly, which included both of my parents. One day I hoped to join their ranks.
My father founded one of the first theater companies in the world to dedicate itself to themes and stories from Baha'i history, and when I was fifteen I began touring with him across the USA, UK, and Canada – enacting plays about the beloved heroes and heroines of the Faith. When I was eighteen I served at the Lotus Temple in New Delhi and later at my university plunged headlong into what could have been subtitled a degree in Baha'i Culture (Persian, Arabic, and Middle Eastern Studies). My marriage vows were Baha'i vows, my daily prayers Baha'i prayers, and my hopes for humanity and myself — those hopes outlined in the sacred writings of the Faith. I write all this, not to brag about my Baha'i pedigree, or to prove a legitimate degree of devotion, but to illustrate how fundamentally rooted I have been in the Faith and to contextualize my profound grief that this is a letter of resignation.
There was a time when the Faith was everything to me and the Baha'i community a family like no other, but for the last ten years I have had difficulty feeling that I belong to it or want to belong to it. There are perhaps several issues at play, but the most fundamental of them has been the official position espoused by the Universal House of Justice on homosexuality. I am a heterosexual woman and I am married to a man, but many of my dearest friends and colleagues belong to the LGBTQ community. You advise that I should consider their sexual orientation to be a kind of "handicap" which they should "pray to overcome", but I find this position impossible to maintain.
As a child and young adult, I prided myself in belonging to a religion that was not weighed down by outdated social laws, not caught up in untangling and interpreting archaic customs to fit the modern age. In comparison to other religions, the principles of gender and racial equality which the Baha'i Faith upheld often felt revolutionary and refreshingly modern. Even in 1914, Abdu'l- Bahá encouraged the marriage of people of different races in America! It felt good to be ahead of the curve and on the right side of history. But when it comes to the civil rights issues pertaining to the LGBTQ community, Baha'is are so woefully behind the curve, that I have for many years been embarrassed to be associated with the community. Current attempts to legitimize the LGBTQ community, such as legalizing gay marriage, do not only represent "changing trends in popular thought" (which to my ear sounds like characterizing significant changes as a superficial fad) but the emancipation of a community that has existed in human society as long as men and women have existed.
Some years ago, when people asked me about my religious affiliation, I started answering that "I was raised as a Baha'i" instead of saying "I am a Baha'i." After the birth of my first child a few months ago, I fell into a deep depression in regards to my ambiguous relationship to my own faith community. It grieves me deeply that I will not raise my daughter within the embrace of the Baha'i Faith, which has meant so much to me. But it disturbs me further that she would be raised to believe that to be loyal to Bahá'u'lláh means to categorize a substantial and precious portion of the human race as "self-indulgent", "shameful", "aberrant", "abhorrent", "immoral", "disgraceful", "handicapped", or "afflicted". When my daughter was born I plunged into a studious and thorough interrogation of the writings on the subject of homosexuality, hoping I would be able to justify a way to return. When I found your letter – dated 9 May 2014 – I realized instead that I would prefer to officially resign.
My father has pleaded with me in the past to stay — to remain in a state of questioning while maintaining my role in the community. He tells me that the Baha'i community needs ardent seekers to ask difficult questions, or it has no chance of evolving and meeting the needs and ailments of the current age. "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," he has said – a metaphor that rings more profoundly in my ears now that I have a baby of my own! But when I read this sentence from your May 9th letter — "It would be a profound contradiction for someone to profess to be a Bahá'í, yet reject, disregard, or contend with aspects of belief or practice He ordained" — it feels as if the Universal House of Justice is calling me a hypocrite rather than encouraging those believers who struggle with aspects of the Faith to persevere. Regardless, I no longer want to live in a constant state of schizophrenia and contradiction. For a long time I maintained that the writings of Bahá'u'lláh are in fact not clear on the issue of homosexuality, and therefore the retrograde attitudes towards homosexuality in the Baha'i community might shift. In regards to the passage often quoted from the Kitab-i-Aqdas ...
We shrink for very shame, from treating the subject of boys.
I was under the impression that "the subject of boys" implied the practice of pederasty, and did not extend to homosexuality in general. Why should it, when sex between an adult and a child (boy or girl) is so very different than sex between two consenting adults? The other passage which is often quoted...
Ye are forbidden to commit adultery, sodomy and lechery.
might seem more explicit, but in fact sodomy (if defined as "anal sex") is anatomically impossible between two women and not strictly a necessity between two men who wish to bring each other to a sexual climax. It feels foolish to delve into the nitty-gritty particulars of the sex act, when it is our immaterial souls that religion should occupy itself with. As you write in your letter dated the 9th of May 2014, it is the role of religion "to cultivate spiritual qualities and virtues – the attributes of the soul which constitute one's true and abiding identity." And yet you have involved yourself in tracing clear prohibitions against the sexual acts of people of the same gender in the Baha'i community. So I feel it is important to be equally explicit that sodomy and pederasty are NOT synonymous with homosexuality. Even if this was not your opinion, you would be amiss to say that two women or two men cannot be part of the "the bedrock of the whole structure of human society" which supports and nurtures the next generation because they cannot issue forth children. I've witnessed many healthy households headed by same-sex parents. Surrogate motherhood, sperm and egg donation, not to mention adoption, has redefined the family structure in the contemporary world.
You write "if such statements are considered by some to be unclear, the unambiguous interpretations provided by Shoghi Effendi constitute a binding exposition of His intent." I agree that the writings of Shoghi Effendi are less ambiguous than those enshrined within the Kitab-i- Aqdas, but are you not an infallible institution, capable of redefining his interpretations in a more enlightened manner without negating the divine covenant that has linked the series of institutions and individuals shepherding the Baha'i community towards its true potential? Do you not exist, not only to interpret and uphold what has already been written, but so that the Faith does not become calcified and intransigent — so that the Faith continues to be a living, thinking entity, able to adapt and respond to the needs and challenges of the age? As I write this letter, I realize I am writing it more for myself and my own sense of clarity than to enact any kind of response or change. I know a single letter cannot change the culture of a worldwide religion, and yet I would feel cowardly to leave the community without some clear act of protest or an attempt to communicate my grief. I wonder if you realize the emotional pain that you are inflicting upon the ardent believers of your community; radiant souls who want more than anything to be able to call themselves Baha'is.
Perhaps I am too rigid when I insist that this is a letter of resignation. The fact that I have decided that I can not be a part of the Baha'i community without being entirely a part of it, and so I must take myself entirely out of it, might, in itself, express a divisive breed of orthodoxy. Still, after much deliberation, I have concluded that this is the route I want to take.
I hereby relinquish my voting rights, and I ask that you strike me from the rosters.
I have no doubt that I will continue to love and respect the founders of the Faith, and to turn to their writings for guidance. I desperately hope that the official position of the Baha'i community in regards to LGBTQ individuals will change one day. If that day should come in my lifetime, I will be your valiant ensign once more.
Sincerely, Anisa George Philadelphia, PA
I'm a Baha'i who is bi in physical orientation, and in my own lived experience, I find the letter of the Universal House of Justice tremendously liberating, rather than oppressive. I would like to share an alternative perspective, which is solely my own.
This Guidance affirms that my nature, at is deepest level, is that of a soul, rather than the socially constructed categories of gender, class, etc. To know that gender and sexuality, while beautiful facets of the human experience, are not the totality of my being is emancipatory, in that I am not obligated to self-define according to someone else's socially contructed categories – that my essence transcendes these shifting definitions. I've felt more exclusion in queer communities than I have in spiritual communities, of multiple denominations. There are many ways too many queer communities send subtle messages of non-inclusion: “You're not muscular or fashionable enough, you're not welcome in this gay space. You haven't read enough Foucault, you're not welcome. You don't drink alcohol, this space is not for you. You're dress and music are not punk enough, you don't belong. You don't have the right body type, you're not welcome.” There is a tremendous pressure to conform to right body image, the right politics, the right brands....and this is called liberation. I recall an experience where I was invited as a guest to a Mormon church, and while I did not hide my political views at the time, I received nothing but warmth, hospitality, and welcome. This was a contrast to my University's GSA, which was cliquish and exclusionary.
If you would like you are welcome to share these reflections with your readers, though I would prefer if you did so anonymously – more out of concern for how fellow queer people would respond than the insitutions. I'll share another example – I went to the Transcending Boundaries conference ( a big genderqueer conference) and was frequently sexually propositioned, to the degree that I felt uncomfortable. When I didn't respond to some activist's advances, I was told that I needed to “not be so repressed” – using the rhetoric of queer liberation to rationalize sexual harassment. That has never happend to me in Baha'i spaces, where I feel much safer from harassment than in queer spaces. Furthermore, as a person in recovery, I cannot frequent many queer spaces because drugs and alcohol are too prevalent.
I'd also like to clarify my use of “bi” – I use this term as a shorthand, to define the way my body is wired. However, I don't define as “culturally bi”, because little of the cultural trappings of “bi” as a scene, rather than as an orientation, resonate with me.
In short, if liberation is about self-determination and autonomy, then I will, as an individual, determine whether I feel oppressed in a given situation or not, and in this one I don't. And isn't mandating that someone feel oppressed, when they do not, itself a form of oppression?
I am so conflicted having read the Universal House of Justice's description of homosexuality as a condition to control and overcome. As a school teacher, I observe many children growing up, and there are always several who are so clearly gay even as youngsters. How is it just to expect people that are genetically not typical to not participate in marriage, family life and child rearing? I don't even know how to pray about this.