Natural Gender and Sexuality in the Bible

by Joan Roughgarden

LGBT Christians, and all Christians who believe in God's inclusive love, need to reclaim the Bible, to learn what it actually says and not what some clergy want us to think it says.

Seven years ago I warily began to seek out the Bible's teachings on gender and sexuality. My goal was to learn what the "opposition" was saying, to discover why most American clergy found me and my loved ones so reprehensible. I wondered if the Bible was overrated. If it really is the word of God, the Bible must acknowledge the full scope of humanity's diversity. Does it? How is diversity discussed? Does the Bible command the persecution of gay, lesbian, and transgender people?

I came away inspired by the Bible-it's not overrated. Its teachings forcefully affirm the value of gay, lesbian, and transgender lives. Examining those teachings reveals that "Christian" activist political groups and senior clergy in many American denominations have unjustly commandeered the Bible as a weapon for prejudice and hatred.

LGBT Christians usually counter religious persecution by citing biblical passages where Jesus teaches love for everyone- "[T]hou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matt. 19:19)-and hope that any condemning passages in the Bible can somehow be downplayed. Perhaps this stance is too defensive. LGBT Christians, and all Christians who believe in God's inclusive love, need to reclaim the Bible, to learn what it actually says and not what some clergy want us to think it says.

Theologians have newly examined the few biblical passages that underpin the gay-persecution agenda. Perhaps the best known is a one-liner from Leviticus: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind" (Lev. 18:22). This passage has long been publicized as a direct prohibition against homosexuality. Not so.

Leviticus 18:22 speaks only of a class of sexual positions defined in antiquity as involving "penetration." Thrusting and entering from either front or rear, depending on whether conception was desired, was reserved for male-female intercourse. In contrast, male-male intercourse using the "intercrural" position was permitted: the couple stands face to face and one party thrusts between the thighs of the other. The ancient Greeks considered this missionary position of male-male sexuality to be "clean."

Gay Christians today deal with Leviticus 18:22 by pointing out various "unclean" practices undertaken by the very Christians who condemn homosexuality, including minutiae such as weaving cloth from two kinds of thread. Jesus invited people to move beyond the Leviticus laundry list of do's and don'ts; however, even those who do want to adhere to Leviticus are constrained only by ancient rules for what constitutes penetration. Thus Leviticus offers no grounds for excluding gays from unqualified membership in the church and from sharing in all its rituals and traditions.

Preparing Harry, 2002. Collage on paper, 6 1/2" x 10".

The story of Sodom (Gen. 19) is also cited as condemning homosexuality. Again, not so. The sin of Sodom was that the townspeople attempted to rape visitors who had accepted their hospitality and protection. Whether the rape was homosexual or heterosexual was irrelevant.

Today, San Francisco is attacked as the Sodom of America by anti-gay activists. No. San Francisco is generous. If San Francisco ceased to care for its homeless, for its victims of AIDS, and for all people who face discrimination elsewhere; if San Francisco ceased to wed its citizens in the rotunda of City Hall; then San Francisco would commit the sin of Sodom, and the majestic dome of City Hall would become a pillar of salt.

Jesus himself does not condemn or even mention homosexuality. One must turn to Paul for any mention at all. In his letter to the Romans, while condemning people who have fallen into worshiping human and animal images, Paul describes depravity that includes "lusts" and "vile affections" (Rom. 1:24, 26). The next two verses place "lust" within a long list of depraved behaviors such as "fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness…" and condemn those who are "haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters" (Rom. 1:29, 30). The people who have abandoned God suffer all these evils. Singling out homosexual from heterosexual lust as the target of Paul's teaching is wrong. Paul's letter does not focus on any particular vice for special condemnation but holds up the whole suite of behaviors as symptomatic of losing touch with God.

Paul does observe that "women did change the natural use into that which is against nature" and "and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly" (Rom. 1:26-27). If formerly God-fearing people abandon God, they act in ways unnatural for them and need counsel to return to God's fold. Hence Paul's letter-to guide them back to God.

"Natural" behavior is someone's usual behavior. People who abandon God end up behaving unnaturally. People who depart from what is natural to themselves abandon who God has made them to be.

Still, Paul places on the table the claim that homosexual sex is "against nature." Is it? Is homosexuality against nature?

Theologians have observed two senses to "natural": personal versus scientific. One could say that homosexuality is against nature in the scientific sense if it were rare or pathological among animals, and among people considered as part of the animal kingdom. But homosexuality is not rare. It occurs in native habitat among over 300 species of vertebrates, including our closest living relative, the bonobo, a species of chimpanzee. Throughout the day female bonobos often rub their genitals together, squeal in pleasure for a several seconds, and then go about their business of gathering food and raising young. These frequent, brief, and socially structured sexual contacts promote bonds of friendship for achieving cooperative solutions to problems. Intimate physical contact facilitates working together, coordination, and team play.

But however useful our current understanding is, it makes no sense to "refute" Paul with contemporary knowledge. The Bible is not an empirical theory subject to scientific test, like Aristotle's ancient writings on animals; it is a spiritual and moral testament.

We return then to Paul's use of "natural" in the personal sense, to matters of spiritual health, to the practical importance of retaining our relationship to God. "Natural" behavior is someone's usual behavior. If someone of normally modest appetite gives way to an eating binge, one would say they were now behaving "unnaturally," a red flag that something was amiss. People who abandon God end up behaving unnaturally. People who depart from what is natural to themselves abandon who God has made them to be.

My Spotter #2, 2003. Collage on paper, 6 1/4" x 3".

The sin being committed today is not homosexuality, but betraying God by misrepresenting the Bible to underwrite persecution.

Still, it would have been helpful for today's times if the Bible had come right out and said something positive about homosexual people. Theologians have established that the Bible doesn't condemn homosexuality, but the Bible doesn't seem to endorse it either.

What are we to make of this silence about homosexuality? Perhaps we're not listening. If we attune our ears, we will hear not merely noncondemnation but full-fledged affirmation of people with varied expressions of gender and sexuality.

When I was a child in Sunday school, passages about "eunuchs" were mentioned briefly and quickly dismissed. Eunuch was an archaic category, not relevant to our modern world. Further Bible study reveals this dismissal as too hasty. The Bible mentions eunuchs in many contexts. Searching the keyword "eunuch" on a King James Bible web site returns 30 verses over ten books. Most importantly, the great prophet Isaiah and even Jesus himself speak at length of eunuchs-not in one-liners or offhand phrases, but entire parables.

In the Hebrew Testament, Isaiah teaches, "For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs … unto them I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name" (Isa. 56:4, 5). In the Christian Testament, Jesus describes three kinds of eunuchs: those "which were so born from their mother's womb," those "which were made eunuchs of men," and those "which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" (Matt. 19:12).

Feats of Magic #3, 2003. Collage on paper, 4" x 5 1/4".

Jesus' characterization of eunuchs matches the Roman description that lumps people who were intersexed (born eunuchs), who were castrated (manmade eunuchs), and who became eunuchs on their own into an all-encompassing category. This category included gender-variant people like the Cybelean priestesses and others who switched gender, usually under religious auspices. Jesus does not describe eunuchs further, but in the next verse continues with his inclusive message, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for of such is the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 19:14). Because of the proximity of the verses, we surmise that eunuchs would be welcome too.

An explicit instruction to include eunuchs within the church appears later, in Acts, where baptism is detailed. The apostle Philip met a "eunuch of great authority" who was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship. He was sitting in his chariot reading Isaiah. The Spirit told Philip to approach the chariot, and the eunuch invited Philip to travel with him. "And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him" (Acts 8:26-39). This baptism welcomes one who is not only a eunuch but a black-skinned foreigner as well, setting a standard of inclusiveness that the Christian church has struggled to attain ever since.

No one disputes the Bible's extensive endorsement of eunuchs in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, but gay-persecutors might argue that the ancient category of eunuchs is obsolete and has nothing to do with the gay, lesbian, and transgendered people of our times. In fact, the Roman description of eunuchs contains our contemporary categories. Some eunuchs were feminine-identified. Firmicus Maternus reported, somewhat disparagingly, on eunuchs who "feminized their faces, rubbed smooth their skin, and disgraced their manly sex by donning women's regalia…. They nurse their tresses and pretty them up woman-fashion; they dress in soft garments." Apuleius said that such eunuchs renounced their previous masculine identities and called one another "girls" in private. Such eunuchs were evidently marrying as women too. Other eunuchs were boyish and partook of homosexual relations with older men. And still other eunuchs were successful in the public space of men, holding powerful positions as ministers in imperial court and leading military campaigns. Eunuchs were common enough that writers referred to them with phrases such as "a crowd of eunuchs, young and old," "armies of eunuchs," "troops of eunuchs," and so forth.

The human sexual diversity that we see in today's America has always existed, on the streets of ancient Jerusalem and Rome as now in San Francisco. These are the very people to whom Isaiah offers "a place and a name," whom Philip affirms "thou mayest" receive baptism, and whom Jesus accepts as having "made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake."

Let's imagine a community of faith that, when a person says, "Let me hold up this about me," responds with "Let us hold this together." In this way we can follow the teachings of Isaiah to give "within my walls a place and a name" for lesbian, gay, and transgendered people.

Searching the Bible for affirmation of "homosexuality" is a waste of time. Homosexuality as a category of personal identity emerged relatively recently-during the late 1800s in Europe. The Bible doesn't speak about MP3 players, bonobos, or gays. These are contemporary categories. The underlying spectrum of human diversity is located in more ancient categories, and the Bible's affirmation of all those people is relevant to us now.

How can we follow the Bible's teaching to give a place and a name to all people? Beyond simply allowing all people who believe in God and Jesus to be baptized, confirmed, married, ordained, and installed in the church, we need to develop a special liturgy to bless gay, lesbian, and transgendered people when they "come out." Few people in the straight, gender-normative majority can appreciate the sense of fear, failure, and disease that people experience when they come out. In some Native American cultures, coming out took place in a public ceremony that endorsed the person's value and future role in society. In our culture, coming out is secret and solitary. Instead, let's imagine a community of faith that, when a person says, "Let me hold up this about me," responds with "Let us hold this together." In this way we can follow the teachings of Isaiah to give "within my walls a place and a name" for lesbian, gay, and transgendered people.

Kali Girl #7, 2005. Collage on paper, 9 1/2" x 6 1/2".

Joan Roughgarden is Professor of Biological Sciences and of Geophysics at Stanford University. Her latest book, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, is published by the University of California Press.

Further Reading

Dover, K. J. 1978. Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Helminiak, Daniel A. 1994. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Alamo Square Press, New Mexico.

Kuefler, Mathew. 2001. The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois.

Roughgarden, Joan. 2004. Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. University of California Press. Berkeley, California.

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