Homosexuality and Gender Non-Conformity: A Closer Look (Mathew Idikkula)



Since the time of antiquity, humanity has been struggling with the social, cultural, and ethical questions concerning homosexuality and gender non-conformity. Meanwhile, many people across the world reacted in responseto these key questions by getting polarized mainly into two groups-one that supports and the other that opposes-based on their beliefs. Those who support believe that gay and transgender people are born with such traits that cannot be changed, leaving them no scope for choice. Whereas, those who oppose consider gay and transgender people abnormal-meaning they don't conform to the conventional or biological concepts of gender norms-resulting in their condemnation, ridicule, and discrimination. Here the question arises as to whether there is a higher truth beyond what we generally know about sexual orientation and gender non-conformity regarding which millions of people have been put to shame, oppression, and bullying for centuries. For truth alone, may be in the form of an educational insight, can set them free of their agonies that continue to the very present day.

The Origin of Homophobia   

Let us, therefore, set the stage for the widespread homophobic behavior towards those who are identified as being gay or transgender. What did trigger, some might wonder, the homophobia in the first place? There must be a cause behind the cause-a prime cause, so to speak-that has been pervasive and powerful enough to shape the choices of millions on these hot topics. Studies have pointed to certain passages found in the main scriptures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as the prime cause. Apparently, the homophobic behavior that has been prevalent over the centuries has had a genesis.   
In the New Testament, St. Paul says, "God delivered them over to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The men were inflamed in their lust for one another." The Old Testament says, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination." In the Koran, Prophet Lot rebukes the people of Sodom and Gomorrah by saying, "Do you commit abominations such as no people in creation ever committed before? You practice your lusts on men in preference to women. You are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds." Obviously, all these passages are explicit in terms of conveying powerful sentiments against homosexuality and gender non-conformity.

Hindu Scriptures on Homosexuality

Let us now turn to Hinduism to explore its insights on the same topics. Hinduism, which is not a religion in the conventional sense but a philosophy of life, is based on the four Vedas: Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva. There are no references to homosexuality or gender non-conformity in any of the Vedas. However, scriptures that were composed at a later period, namely, the Dharmasastras, which are collections of rules and principles for rightful living, do consider these topics. For example, Manu Smriti, one of the Dharmasastras, says, "A twice-born man who has sex with a man, or has sex with a woman in an ox-cart, in water, or during the daytime, shall bathe dressed in his clothes." As you can see, this passage prescribes only taking a ritual bath for religious purity; it doesn't condemn same sex relationship.
With regard to women, another passage in the same scripture says, "A woman who has sex with a virgin shall have her head shaved or two fingers cut off, and be made to ride a donkey." Admittedly, this is a more severe penalty for which the offense here is not same sex relationship but corrupting a virgin girl. Likewise, the Manu Smriti prescribes a similar penalty for men who rob a girl of her virginity. Like the previous passages, this also doesn't condemn same sex relationships, but it prohibits sexual activities that harm someone. It is noteworthy here that in Hinduism, the main principle of Dharma or Righteousness is Ahimsa-Harmlessness. Any sexual activity, regardless of being homosexual or heterosexual, is considered adharmic or unrighteous if it harms someone.
Based on what we read from Manu Smriti, we can rightfully conclude that Hinduism neither condemns nor condones homosexuality. As for why, we have to consider how compelling the Bhagavad Gita and other major scriptures of Hinduism are in stressing the importance of practicing spiritual values like tolerance, equanimity, and acceptance of things that we can't change.For instance, Bhagavad Gita declares with a deep sense of emphasis, "Yoga is equanimity." Rightly understood, Yoga is a state of even-mindedness at which we see everything in nature through a lens of equality, where we see no distinction whatsoever. Simply put, Yoga demands that we refrain from judging people, things, and events in life to be either good or bad.
Likes and Dislikes
On the contrary, most of us are habituated to pass judgement on anything and everything that comes to our attention to be either good or bad. Unfortunately, the idea of good and bad is a tricky one-a play of our own senses. For example, what is good for you might be bad for someone else, and vice versa. Furthermore, what is good now may turn out to be bad later. Typically, good is what we like, and bad is what we don't like. Believe it or not, likes and dislikes are deeply conditioned habits, and they play out as if in a one way traffic in our mind where we always go after the pleasant and run away from the unpleasant. As a result, the very act of liking and disliking becomes so rigid in us that it makes us stubborn in our outlook, belief, and response, thus preventing us from gaining a higher perspective of truth in all worldly matters.

Being Non-Judgmental
Naturally, we have to drop our habitual judgements of good and bad, and instead we cultivate equanimity by keeping an objective and unbiased view in all our worldly interactions. To illustrate this point with an example, consider red hair and freckles. They are neither good nor bad; they are neither desirable nor undesirable. They simply are; they are natural. We have equanimity towards them because we realize that red hair and freckles are natural parts of God's creation.
The message that is implicit in the above example-in which we hold an objective view of everything in nature besides being non-judgmental-must be the premise upon which we develop equanimity towards the gay and transgender people as well. As in the case of red hair and freckles, gay and transgender people are also natural parts of God's creation. To stress this truth further, they are as natural as our own skin color, something that can't be changed or chosen. To judge them as immoral, undesirable, or defective is contrary to truth and therefore unrighteous.
Regardless, there are many who hold on to the view that being gay or transgender is unnatural-opposed to nature-and thereby subject to condemnation. To them, male and female sex relationship alone is unique, separate, and firmly fixed.

Scientific Perspective
By contrast, however, the scientific community has a totally different conclusion to offer.  Scientific studies have revealed that nature has no fixed boundaries between male and female, and no rigid separation of genders either. The truth remains that nature is far more complex and far more diverse than we could ever fathom.  According to scientists, there are many plants, fish, and reptiles with both male and female reproductive organs; they are not exclusively male or female. Moreover, researchers have observed homosexual behavior among animals, including birds, sheep, elephants, and apes.
Among humans, there are numerous people who are born neither male nor female. One in 1500 babies is born with some kind of intersex conditions in which their anatomy is neither male nor female. There are cases where babies are born with male and female sex organs. Nearly five percent of people in the U.S. identify themselves as being gay, and one in 200 people as transgender. The point is that the diversity of nature is indeed beyond our grasp. Any attempt on our part to limit that which is limitless is utterly absurd.
In the wake of many studies on these topics, professionals in medicine and mental health no longer regard being gay or transgender as psychological disorders. They now understand that sexual orientation and gender identity are inborn-something not acquired but fundamental to our own existence. According to science, we are born either male or female because of our genetic factors. A recent study that links same sex behavior to genetics says, "Now, the largest-ever study of the genetics of sexual orientation has revealed four genetic variants strongly associated with what the researchers call non-heterosexual behavior."

The Genesis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Let us consider the Indian perspective on the genesis of sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the doctrine of karma, we are born male or female because of our own deeds in past lives. It is most likely, therefore, that the doctrine of karma also determines one's sexual orientation and gender identity. No matter how you choose to look at it, all that diversity we see and experience around us is all natural.
True, the ancient sages of India didn't have access to the science of today. However, they understood by means of their spiritual wisdom that being gay or transgender is natural and normal by all accounts. Look at a passage in Manu Smriti describing the biological process that determines the baby's sex: "When male seed predominates, a boy is born. When female seed predominates, a girl is born. When neither predominates, non-male is born, or boy and girl twins are born." Here the word non-male signifies a neuter gender-a third gender. According to the sages, human beings are of three sexes: male, female, and neuter gender.
It is worth noting that the Hindu scriptures all assumed a three-fold view of gender, and, as such, there are several depictions of gender diversity in some of those scriptures. For example, some puranic scriptures depict Lord Siva as "Ardha-narishvara," a bi-gender Deity, whose right half is Lord Siva and whose left half is GodessParvati. Likewise, there are many stories in various scriptures all of which depict one or another aspect of gender non-conformity. Yet, none of these stories involve any ridicule or condemnation.
As you might be aware, the Hindu culture is considered a product of its scriptures composed by the sages. Nevertheless, why is it then that people who are gay or transgender happen to be treated with so much contempt in India today?  According to scholars, this particular social bias in India is the result of foreign influence in the past. Historically, Muslims and the British ruled India for centuries during which the Islamic and the Christian rulers imposed their respective beliefs on their Indian subjects, which gradually crept into the Hindu culture.
Had it not been for the foreign influence, perhaps we wouldn't have witnessed what we have witnessed in India in the form of homophobia over the centuries for the precise reason that Hinduism has always accepted the diversity of nature by all its aspects. To recognize and respect the diversity of nature, it should be treated for what it is-a grand display of diversity in which there is no error and nothing unnatural. Whether we understand or not, everything in nature, without any exception, is Divine. That also means everything in nature happens by Divine Will.
If that is the case, who are we to judge His Will? But we do it always; we do it because our habit of likes and dislikes compel us to judge almost everything. When we judge people, we also divide them mentally. More specifically, we are setting ourselves apart from others and judge. Let us not forget that the goal of spiritual life is to go beyond divisions and judgements to discover that all of us are one. Even though the nature appears as a massive diversity to all of us, the fundamental principle underlying that diversity is unity.
Our definitions involving sex and gender classifications are our own arbitrary rulings, based on our limited understanding of nature. Let us, therefore, refrain from judging and thereby cultivate a culture of acceptance by getting rid of the stigma of shame once and for all. Instead, we accept people for who they are by their innate nature. Also,let us acknowledge the truth that gay and transgender people are indeed being true to themselves, in which case there is nothing for us to judge, nothing to shame. Finally,in order to keep the right attitude in any conflict of this world, first and foremostwe need to embrace the supreme truth that we are all one family in which no one is left out, no matter what.

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