Friday, December 11, 2009

Gays, Gay Marriage, and Buddhism

Editorial opinion, Wisdom Quarterly
Gay rights march Oct. 11, 2009 Tallahassee, Florida (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Wisdom Quarterly is sad to corroborate Tricycle's James Shehan in his report on the Dalai Lama's views on homosexuality. Interviewing a very senior teacher, a foreign-born meditation expert and scholar of long standing, the Venerable reluctantly said the same thing. It's not clear whether he thought the questioner was gay or he was being definitive. But when pressed, he unambiguously and uncomfortably called homosexuality "sexual misconduct" (kamesu micchacara). Clearly, it is so in a monastic or retreat context, as any sex is. Yet, as if wishing not to involve himself in the controversy or be quoted on so divisive a matter, he said it was and left it at that.

As one looks at the literal definition of sensual misconduct, it is defined in sexual terms. (See AN.X.206). But it is not likely limited to that. Gluttony is the obvious unmentioned example. It's abuse, an implicit violation, and misconduct. It's harmful. One can imagine that gay sex can be viewed in the same way. It is, however, clear that it is not viewed the same way. There is a great deal of homosexuality around the world, particularly in conservative Asia (in Buddhist and non-Buddhist countries). The world keeps it secretive and hidden, socially condemned, but privately allowed, understood, and condoned in certain contexts.

In ancient times gays were referred to as pandakas (shown here in modern India at a gay rights parade). Pandaka ("eunuch") did not mean "gay" in the Buddha's time, but gay was included in the category as deviancy. Today eunuchs, gays, and satyrs are imagined to be cross-dressing, gender-bending deviants, even as men in heterosexual marriages are involved with them. Sex with such deviants seems to be the prerogative of normative men. And that -- then as now -- seems to somehow make it okay.

The normative men are not condemned and do not call themselves "bisexual" for their activity; instead, they are still viewed, and view themselves, as masculine and dominant in spite of their homosexual conduct (usually wrapped up with cheating on their wives). Maybe that's why this sexual conduct is called misconduct. Whatever the case, gays are despised as well as discounted, even while being utilized like young men in a Greek gymnasium.

And conservative Buddhist countries in general do not let the religion stand in the way of the social behavior even as it dictates the norms and mores. (Like old Europe, people take their cues from monastics and monastic tradition and try to live as close to that as possible). There may be a great deal of bi- and homosexual ideation and behavior. But to accept it would feel like monks were openly allowing it in their midst since it is often lay Buddhists keeping monks in line, if only due to their high expectations and idealistic regard.

Traveling in Thailand, I met a young British woman living there. She was a Jewish lesbian who spoke Thai and lived with a family. She held hands, hugged, and was frequently hugged by the Thai women in the house/business of the Buddhist family she had ingratiated herself in. When I suggested telling them she was a lesbian, she was terrified they find out. I asked about all the hugging, which she said was innocent and explained that it would all be lost if they knew. I was surprised they didn't know or that, as Thais, they would have a problem with it given all the ladyboys and mangirls around. But they would, they certainly would, she explained.

Thailand, with its legendary kathoeys (flaming "lady-boys," actual transsexuals and simple cross-dressers), uncomfortably accepts and even celebrates its third-gender with national beauty contests. But this sexual phenomenon is not limited to Thailand. It is present in Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, China, and (ancient and modern) India. It's probably present in every country in the world, with each country proudly proclaiming, "That doesn't exist here!"

Recent reports of its prevalence in hyper-masculine Afghanistan (a formerly Buddhist country) and the mixed-message U.S. military (where annually 10% of the recruits are homosexually raped by American soldiers) suggest it is practiced here. And it's a dirty little secret bisexual men do not want to let out of the bag, even as it perpetuates a miserable condition for non-normative individuals. As Americans -- the fashion-forward, hegemonic dictators of the world -- we've learned to love gays, at least of the lesbian variety. Or not. But I think we can all agree that the whole world can do without the hypocrisy, secrecy, and double standard.

Should gays marry? Whatever. Is it sexual misconduct? It may be. But what is and what is not "misconduct" has to have something to do with local norms and customs. And as our traditions change to accommodate homosexuality, the world is not really doing anything that hasn't been done before (gays have a hidden place in society) -- other than calling it what it is and accepting it.
  • For an academic treatment of the subject see Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender (Jose Ignacio Cabezon, ed., SUNY Press)
  • Whereas luminaries like the Buddha and Jesus were strangely silent on the issue, Edgar Cayce does talk about the karma leading to homosexuality: Gay tendencies, compulsions, and guilt stem from having made fun of and oppressed gays.

No comments: