Sacred Paths - How Do Spirituality and Sexuality Relate
Is gay spirituality different from straight spirituality? A gay friend insists that it is, and as evidence he told me about a Yahoo ?Mindful Masturbation? group. Sure enough, the description of the group says that for some ?the process becomes a profound spiritual practice.? But this doesn?t prove that straight men masturbating can?t do it spiritually, too.
The question whether gay spirituality is different from straight spirituality has been debated for decades, and I?m not smart enough to know the correct answer.
I do think that oppressed populations naturally tend to develop a sensitivity to social structures that majority populations find difficult to perceive. As I know all too well from my work in religion, majorities simply have different experiences and carry a different set of assumptions than minorities. A classic example is the solidarity that many Jews, who knew what exclusion meant, offered blacks in the 1960s when the civil rights movement was peaking.
A gay black man, Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave the famous ?I Have a Dream? speech, said in 1987, ?The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it?s the gay community . . . which is most easily mistreated.?
But just as the oppression of black people is now somewhat relieved and more subtle, so LGBT folks have achieved some of the dignities of the majority, and both minorities appear to be on the path, still strewn with obstacles, toward full equality.
So the question, ?Is gay spirituality different from straight spirituality?? needs to be sharpened: Is gay spirituality inherently different from straight spirituality, or is it different only because of a shared heritage and experience of oppression?
That oppression can come in the form of being kicked out of the house by one?s parents when they learn one is gay. Or being teased or bullied or shunned or called names by classmates in school?or killed. It may be discrimination in the workplace, a hospital refusing to let a partner see one?s beloved, or the denial of the right to marry. It may mean nothing more than simply being unable to be open about whom one loves in the way straight folks are able to be open. Such experiences do affect one?s spirit.
Some argue that the effect of oppression is incidental to a more basic inherent gay spirituality. They may point to an array of artists throughout history, for example, who were gay and whose work grows from spiritual concerns.
I don?t find this argument compelling. There are lots of straight artists, opera lovers, bodybuilders, gardeners, soldiers, interior designers, and so forth. Even if gays in our particular culture might tend toward certain kinds of work (hairdressing?), how can we know whether this is a result of genes rather than culture?
The more I learn about other cultures and faiths, the more impressed I am with the plasticity of human nature and particularly sexuality. Sex is biological, but sexuality is cultural. Similarly I suspect that the sense of the sacred is a biological capacity but that a particular spirituality arises from within a specific cultural context and personal circumstance.
Because sexuality has been the basis for discrimination against gays, especially by religious groups, it is not surprising that many LGBT folks may have thought more about the relation between sexuality and spirituality than straight people. Joseph Kramer, a priest for 10 years and then creator of the Body Electric School of Massage, first attracted gay men to the techniques of erotic spirituality he developed, but later offered instruction to straight men and women. The attention gays have given to discovering their sexuality as a spiritual process is in fact affecting the larger culture.
However, I don?t see that masturbating as a meditation or sharing sex as a sacrament is a uniquely LGBT activity, nor is the gift of affection the exclusive capacity of LGBT folks. Still, it does seem possible that here and now, guys who know they like guys, and gals who know they like gals, and those who like both, and those who have experienced something of each identity, may be, more than others, especially attuned to the spiritual dimension of the many forms of desire and behavior arising from the sacred urges that dwell within all of us who have bodies. It may be that in offering that awareness to all others, there is great reason for pride. Let us celebrate the universal liberation we intend to achieve.
The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.