[This talk was given on the panel, “Staying and Leaving: Responses to the Fear in Our Traditions”, at the Harvard Divinity School, Gay Conference, 23 April 1999.]

Gay Liberation & Humanism

by John Lauritsen

Good morning. It's a pleasure to be speaking at the Harvard Divinity School — if a bit strange, as I'm a humanist who's been polemicizing against religion for a good quarter of a century. Let me state where I'm at now, and then I'll try to describe how I got there.

I recently joined the Unitarian-Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown, motivated by a desire for fellowship. When you're gay and middle-aged, and you move to a tiny town at the edge of the world, it can be a lonely experience. Through the UU I'm becoming part of a community.

I was raised as a Presbyterian, though I'm not sure I ever believed such things as the miracles or the items in the Apostles Creed. I enjoyed organ recitals and church dinners, especially those in the German Lutheran church. (They had the best cooks.)

In my freshman year at Harvard I studied ancient philosophy under Raphael Demos. My intellectual horizon broadened and I became more skeptical.

Though still a virgin, I knew I was intensely attracted to other males, and used the resources of Widener Library to research the topic. I read the Kinsey studies, Havelock Ellis, Gide, Ford and Beach, Donald Webster Cory, and John Addington Symonds, as well as rubbish written by psychiatrists. Clearly the condemnation of male love was not universal. The Greeks had accepted male love as a part of life and granted it a place of honor. The Greek gods themselves had male lovers.

In my sophomore year I finally came out sexually. The circumstances were far from ideal, but it didn't matter. I knew then, as strongly as I've ever known anything, that male love is good. If the world condemned it, then the world was wrong.

When I fully realized that the Judeo-Christian moral code was responsible for the opprobrium suffered by me and my kind, I rejected the Christian religion. I became active in gay liberation in 1969, and by the mid-70s had become a representative of gay atheism.

Our panel today addresses the “fear in our traditions”. Well, fear is not necessarily bad or irrational. Fear can be a warning to real danger. And gay men have good reason to fear the Jewish and Christian religions.

We are almost afraid to confront the ultimate source of “fear” for gay men, the Holiness Code of Leviticus. Because of a sexual taboo, contained in the prohibitionist gobbledygook of Leviticus, gay men over the centuries have suffered dishonor, imprisonment, torture, castration, and death.

It is amazing how little the Levitical taboo on sex between  males has changed in 2500 years. Formulated about 500 BC, Leviticus 20:13 states: “If a man lie with mankind as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

Skip ahead about a millennium to the end of the fifth century in the Christian era. Christianity is now the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the culture of classical antiquity is being ruthlessly extirpated. The Theodosian Code of 490 demands death by burning for gay men. The legal text is introduced by the words: “Moses says: If anyone hath intercourse with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination. Let them both die; they are guilty.”

Going forward another millennium or so, we find all-male sex punishable by death in the American colonies. Most of the laws quoted Leviticus. For example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had as a capital crime, “a man [who] lyeth with mankind, as he lyeth with a woman”; both parties were put to death. Connecticut cited the exact text, chapter and verse, Leviticus 20:13.

Let's move up to recent times. In the 70s and 80s Christian Fundamentalists openly called for killing homosexual men; bumper stickers appeared saying “Kill A Queer For Christ!”; the Moral Majority issued a literal Declaration of War. A Vatican statement of 1986 gave back-handed support to violence against gay men. In Brooklyn the Jewish Press reaffirmed its approval of the Levitical death penalty for the “abomination” of sex between males. New York City Councilman Golden read the full text of Leviticus 20:13 in speaking against a gay rights bill being considered; at the same hearings orthodox Jews cheered and applauded at the mention of gay men dying from AIDS.

It is painful for gay Christians and Jews to confront traditions that have been so consistently hostile, but it must be done. At a New York City forum in 1981 gay scholars critiqued the work of a leading gay Christian revisionist. I said then:

It is regrettable that one must be harsh on a work with such considerable merit, but dishonesty in a scholar must not be condoned. Boswell's attempts to whitewash the crimes of the Christian Church are not innocuous wish-fulfillment fantasies. They undercut a basic argument for gay liberation: that our oppression is not due to a spontaneous revulsion on the part of the majority population, but rather to a particular theological tradition; that our oppression is rooted in superstition; that the Judeo-Christian taboo on all-male sex is the core of the problem. (“Culpa Ecclesiae: Boswell's Dilemma”, speech delivered in 1981. Online at: <http://pinktriangle.org.uk/lib/hic/index.html>.)

As a humanist I believe that the human mind and body are good, and therefore reject religious traditions which regard the human intellect as dangerous and the human body as shameful. Believing in Free Enquiry, I reject religions which have killed people for such sins as “blasphemy” and “heresy”. Believing that ethics should be based on Reason, I reject ethics based on primitive taboos.

A moral code, which condemns men to death for loving each other, is a vicious and evil moral code. Gay men and all rational people should demand that the Jewish and Christian religions abandon and repudiate the hateful and ridiculous taboos of the Holiness Code of Leviticus.

However, that being said, humanists need fellowship as much as anyone else. We should not be forced to play Timon of Athens. In the United States, it's necessary to get along with religionists, because that's what almost everybody is.

I learned last year that Unitarian Universalism welcomes humanists like myself. We can be part of a fellowship, even a worship service, without having to leave our reason at the door. The Provincetown UU Meeting House is a very mixed bag: gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, humanist, deist, pagan, and who knows what else. An odd menagerie, but it seems to work. And there are bagels, cream cheese and coffee after the service.

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