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
Preparing Harry, 2002. Collage on paper, 6 1/2" x
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
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
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
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
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
Dover, K. J. 1978. Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press,
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,
Roughgarden, Joan. 2004. Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and
Sexuality in Nature and People. University of California Press. Berkeley,