This talk was delivered on 24 March 2000 at the Sixth Annual Symposium on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues at the University of Rhode Island.]

Gay Liberation & Humanism

by John Lauritsen

My talk is about difficult decisions that gay men have to make. It's not easy, but at some point every gay man has to confront the condemnatory sexual morality of the prevailing religions. He'll need to make certain decisions, both personal and political. I'll begin with the personal — tell where I'm at now and then try to describe how I got there.

A year and a half ago I joined the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown. My decision was regarded as strange by those who knew me, and one of my friends said I was going soft — for I am a humanist who's been polemicizing against religion for a good quarter of a century. Within the gay liberation movement I'm known as an exponent of gay atheism and a thorn in the side to gay religionists.

My motivation for joining the UU was 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. If any of you have ever spent a winter in Provincetown, you know what I mean — the times that solitude, which is necessary for a writer, crosses over into isolation.

I was raised as a Presbyterian, though I never believed such things as the items in the Apostles Creed. I hated having to sit through a church service, but I enjoyed organ recitals and church dinners, especially those in the German Lutheran church. (They had the best cooks, and good music afterwards.)

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.

My outlook was forever changed by two works I read in my freshman year: Plato's dialogue, “The Symposium”, and John Addington Symonds's 1883 essay, “A Problem in Greek Ethics”. Scales fell from my eyes as I learned that, in historical perspective, the condemnation of all-male sexuality is not universal. The ancient Greeks, the founders of Western Civilization, 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 is responsible for the opprobrium suffered by me and my kind, I rejected the Christian religion. I became active in gay liberation in the summer of 1969, and by the mid-70s had become a representative of gay atheism.

Shifting now to the political: In the history of the homosexual emancipation movement, different stances have been taken towards the prevailing religions. In the early movement, which began in Germany in the 19th century and lasted into the
fourth decade of the 20th century, the leaders were almost all anti-clerical. They saw our cause as a struggle against superstition.

In contrast, the leaders of the American homophile movement, which began in 1951, took great pains not to offend the religionists, whom they regarded as potential allies.

The gay liberation movement, which began in 1969, has been a very mixed bag — gay atheists and humanists co-existing with gay Christians and Jews, not to mention Radical Faeries.

Both for intellectual and political reasons, it's necessary to get to the heart of things, to a historically specific taboo. And curiously, gay men are almost afraid to acknowledge the ultimate source of our oppression: 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 fourth 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 390 demands death by burning for gay men. The legal text is introduced by the very words of Leviticus: “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 simply 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 truly painful for gay Christians and Jews to come to grips with traditions that have been so consistently hostile. A number of Christian revisionists have attempted to plead for greater tolerance for “homosexuals”, while simultaneously exonerating the Church from her historical responsibility for fostering intolerance. The first major revisionist was Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey in his 1955 book, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. The best known revisionist in this country was John Boswell, in his 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.

In a 1981 forum I and two of my colleagues from the Scholarship Committee of the New York Gay Academic Union critiqued the Boswell book.
* Warren Johansson, one of the most brilliant scholars in the history of our movement, demolished Boswell's re-interpretation of I Corinthians 6:9-10, in which St. Paul states:

Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakos], nor abusers of themselves with mankind [arsenokoites] ... shall inherit the kingdom of God.”

Boswell, in a lengthy appendix, had claimed that the Greek word malakos did not refer to homosexuals, and the Greek word arsenokoites merely condemned male prostitution.

After examining ancient texts, as well as the Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, and Church Slavonic texts of the passage, Johansson concluded:

In summation it may be stated that the evidence of the Letter of Aristeas, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Sybilline Oracles, pseudo-Phocylides, Philo Judaeus, and Josephus Flavius conclusively shows the taboo on male homosexuality to have been fully developed in Hellenistic Judaism at the beginning of the Christian era, and that the condemnation of both the passive and the active participant expressed in Leviticus XVIII 22 and XX 13 is unambiguously continued in I Corinthians VI 9. It remained only for the Christian Church, once it had gained the state power in the Roman Empire, to make the sodomy delusion normative for Western civilization as a whole.”

At the same forum Wayne Dynes, Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, tore apart Boswell's absurd claim that the cause of antihomosexual bigotry is not religious belief, but rather the indigenous prejudice of the countryside.

In my talk I concentrated on the statute of 390, which I've already mentioned. Boswell had made the claim:

The first corporal penalty for an act related to homosexuality was imposed in 390 for forcing or selling males into prostitution.”

I argued that this interpretation was wrong, and probably deliberately so, as Boswell neglected to provide the reader with the text of the statute, either in Latin or in English, although his book is filled with footnotes and with hundreds of lines of Latin. Far from merely outlawing prostitution, the statute of 390 very clearly condemns men who have sex with each other to death by burning.

Does all of this matter? I think so, and concluded my 1981 talk with the words:

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.”

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. It should be fought tooth and nail.

I myself have rejected the religion in which I was raised. And I believe that every any self-respecting gay man should reject the religions that have caused so much suffering for him and his kind. He may draw assurance from the knowledge that male love is as old as human­ity itself, em­bodying some of the noblest traditions of Western Civiliza­tion — whereas the condemnation of male love is the product of barbarous and ignorant superstition.

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 made the decision to join the Provincetown UU when I learned, a couple of years ago, 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 is diverse, to put it mildly: gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, humanist, deist, pagan, and who knows what else. An odd menagerie, but it seems to work. If my experiment, or compromise, as it were, fails, I can always leave. But for right now I enjoy meeting people on Sunday and socializing over bagels, cream cheese and coffee after the service.

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* The three talks on the Boswell book are online.  Click here.