Question: You marched in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade. Was this your first time? What did you think of it? Did it give you a new sense of gay issues?
Answer: Thank you for asking. Yes, this was the first time I marched in a gay pride parade. It’s the first time I even attended one. I’ve been thinking about “gay issues” for a long time, but my experience of the parade (including the hecklers) gave me more to think about.
Marching in the Parade
First the parade: As a student of ritual I should have attended one years ago. Gay pride festivals and parades are mounted around the world today, especially in North America and Western Europe. But I’ve seen pictures of Gay Pride festivals and parades also in Australia and Singapore. Gay pride restores the word “gay” to its original meaning as “festive.” Gay Pride activities have become a new form of carnival or festival. And, like all carnivals and festivals (think of Mardi Gras), it is, as anthropologist Edward Muir says, about “the lower body” (see his Rituals in Early Modern Europe). This means that there will be a strong element of blatant displays of sexuality. In pride festivals around the world you see a lot of men and older youth parading in or attending parades in briefs and flip-flops and women marching bare-breasted except for tape over their nipples (because of local ordinances that prohibit exposing breasts) as well as cross-dressers and gender-benders.
We arrived at the designated line-up areas. The religious groups were all together on the east side of one block. This float was on the west side of the street.
The waiting time as we lined up gave us a chance to meet one another in the Episcopal and other religious groups as well as marchers in some of the other floats and contingents, including from the float across the street.
As we marched along I started getting into the spirit of the parade by slapping or grasping the hands of those attending (a million along the parade route in Chicago). Parade goers like interaction with those parading. Sometimes it was just for fun, but a few along the route held my hand a little longer and said things like “thank you, Father.” There were a few huggers along the route, and as I accepted their hugs I started getting behind. I found myself marching with the Catholic Dignity contingent. There was no Catholic priest with them, which I thought was too bad since Pope Francis has encouraged the posture of “accompanying” gay brothers and sisters in the faith. On the very day of the Gay Pride parades in many cities around the world, the pope said to reporters on board his return flight to Rome from Armenia, “I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally.”
Encountering Anti-Gay Protesters
After a couple of blocks I caught up with the Episcopalians. Around a bend toward the end of the parade route there was a group of “Christian” anti-gay protesters exercising their right of free speech. Some of our group countered their shouts of “God hates fags” with shouts of “God is love.”
This kind of witness is not likely to result in any dialogue, much less the repentance these Christians undoubtedly want from homosexuals. The attitude of newly empowered gays is more likely, “I’m gay, get over it.”
There were also those along the parade route who held signs that expressed sorrow for Christian hate.
Some of these anti-anti-gay protesters received hugs from marchers.
As I returned from the end of the parade I walked on the sidewalk behind parade goers, including the anti-gay contingent, who at that moment were heckling the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) float with admonitions such as “You’re sending your children to hell.” A large sign above the anti-gay protesters’ stand quoted 1 Corinthians 6:9. I don’t know which version of the Bible they were using. In their version, among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God were “the effeminate” and “homosexuals.”
What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say
When I got back home I checked eight English versions and none of them used both of these terms, although the Living Bible is the worst by joining together St. Paul’s two Greek words, malakoi and arsenokoitai, as “homosexuals.” Here’s how the New International Version renders the text: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men…” “Men who have had sex with men” joins together St. Paul’s two Greek words, each of which have specific connotations.
The Greek New Testament doesn’t use the word “homosexual” because it is a modern term used by German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in Psychopathis Sexualis (1886) to describe persons with a same-sex orientation in contrast with the term “heterosexual,” used to describe those with an opposite- sex orientation. St. Paul uses the specific words malakoi, which suggests someone who is “soft” or “effeminate” or taking the submissive role in sex, and arsenokoitai, which suggests someone taking the dominant role in sex. In modern gay parlance these terms refer to tops (givers) and bottoms (receivers) in anal sex.
Arsenokoitai is a neologism, which means it is a unique word. Why would St. Paul use a made-up word when Greek terms referring to male-on-male sex were generally available? Some commentators have suggested that St. Paul is trying to find a Greek equivalent for the Hebrew term in Leviticus 18:22, which refers to male-on-male sex as an “abomination.” The term “abomination” in the Old Testament is usually reserved for idolatrous practices, including cult prostitution. Paul could have been referring to cult prostitution in one of the Corinthian temples since “idolaters” are mentioned in the list of those who won’t enter the kingdom of God. The city of Corinth had a huge temple to Aphrodite in which sacred sex was practiced. A further issue, especially with regard to temple prostitutes, is that slave boys were given to the temple for this purpose as a contribution by devotees.
Or Paul could have been referring to male prostitution in general in which the submissive (bottom) person is usually the male prostitute and the dominant (top) person is the paying customer. A port city like Corinth had many brothels. Boys and young men would be desirable sex objects for men. These call boys would be malakoi, “soft ones,” i.e. boys or youth.
Pederasty was widely practiced in ancient Greece and was socially accepted, although much discussed among the philosophers. It would also cover both terms (both submissive and dominant roles). It had been a cultural practice for centuries in ancient Greece for men to become mentors to boys and initiate boys into adult social life, including sexuality. These mentors were usually mature married men active in civic life. The expectation was that boys would marry and assume their expected roles in society as husband and father. But then they too would become mentors to boys. There are explicit drawings of pederastic relationships on ancient Greek urns.
Cult prostitution, regular prostitution, pederasty–these are the types of possibilities available to Paul in terms of male-on-male sex. I think the suggestion of cult prostitution is the most likely candidate since there are other terms Paul could have used for general prostitution or pederasty. Those who participate in pagan cult activities would certainly not be eligible for the kingdom of God without repentance. But certainly this text is not equivalent to saying that “all homosexuals are going to hell.” In fact, there is no reason to believe that those who practiced these kinds of male-on-male sex are “homosexual,” as we understand the term today as a same-sex attraction or orientation, since male-on-male sex was pervasive in ancient Greece but few of the ancient Greeks were exclusively same-sex oriented. Pederasty in particular was pervasive in the ancient Greek culture as a rite of passage. Neither the “students” nor their “mentors” nor prostitutes and their clients were exclusively homosexual.
The terms St. Paul uses certainly don’t cover young men and women exploring their gender identities and sexual orientations. As the father of two gay sons I have no idea why someone is gay. Genes? Environment? Nature? Nurture? We know why persons of opposite sex are attracted to each other. Why are persons of the same sex attracted to each other and not to persons of the opposite sex? Human sexuality is still a mystery that we haven’t totally unraveled with all the studies of same-sex attraction in biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology.
The Bible isn’t as helpful in dealing with these issues as we might think. Every reference which suggests same-sex activities deals with specific situations. Certainly the Sodomites in Genesis 19 (inhabitants of ancient Sodom), who wanted to gang rape the two angels, were not homosexuals since Lot thought he could deflect their lust by offering his virgin daughters. The “abominations” condemned in Leviticus 18 may have referred to cult prostitution, which was rampant in ancient Canaan in goddess temples and Israelite men and women made themselves available for “sacred sex” for pay. The debaucheries of Roman high society in Romans 1:26-27, in which both women and men “exchanged their nature” (i.e. as “heterosexuals”) to have sex with persons of the same sex, or worse. This is not referring to those who have an exclusive same-sex attraction since “exchanging their nature” was Paul’s indictment.
The problem in Romans of “exchanging natures” was that free men should not take a submissive role and women should not take a dominant role in the sex act. These sexual positions for men (dominant) and women (submissive) continued to be taught by the medieval church as the proper sexual roles for husbands and wives! In fact, any departure from the so-called “missionary position” that husbands and wives practiced only for the sake of procreation was considered a venial sin.
St. Paul didn’t know about homosexuals, he only knew about sexual behaviors that were idolatrous or culturally taboo. However — and this is a part of the text that doesn’t receive enough emphasis — , after a long list of “every kind of wickedness” in Romans 1:29-30, in addition to the “unnatural” sexual practices mentioned in 1:26-27, he goes on to say in 2:1, “…you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” The apostle is leading up to his main point in 3:23 that “Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Homosexuals are sinners like everyone else, and like everyone else who “fall short of the glory of God” they are “justified by God’s grace.”
When I review all these biblical passages, I find no clear biblical condemnation of homosexuality in terms of our modern understanding of it as an exclusive same-sex orientation and attraction. This doesn’t mean that exclusive same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world, but the Bible is silent about it. We can’t just read stuff into the Bible. Most importantly for Christians, Jesus says nothing about homosexual activities. He may have had a chance to do so when he healed the centurion’s servant boy. Roman military officers often traveled with a slave boy who could provide comfort and sexual release while they were away from home. I don’t think this kind of arrangement would have been unknown. But Jesus issued no words of judgment; he healed the boy.
The Concept of “Homosexuality” and HomophobiaT
The use of the term “homosexuality” as a clinical category may have helped to advance gay liberation in Western societies. But I think a case can be made that it may also have contributed to homophobia. As Michel Foucault points out in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, in ancient and medieval law codes “sodomy was a category of forbidden acts.” The nineteenth century clinical category of “homosexuality” applied to the entire being of the person, not to homosexual acts. As Foucault wrote, “Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away” (p. 43). Before this one could be punished for same-sex acts like “buggery” (as the English called anal sex). But if the homosexual was a species of being, then homosexuality had to be suppressed lest it infect the whole of society. That’s what we’ve lived with for the last century.
The downside of this development is that fear of men (homophobia) became a response to any kind of male intimacy. Men especially didn’t want to show intimacy with another male because others might think that they are gay, even though in past times male intimacy wasn’t an issue. Men were now wondering, “If I get too friendly with a gay guy, will he turn it into something sexual?” And they don’t want others to think they are gay if they show too much body touching or, horror of horrors, kissing of other men.
Of course, homosexuals, like all sinners, commit sins, including sins of the flesh, that are in need of repentance, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. We need a moral theology that helps us to sort out these transgressions. I think such sins would turn out to be not unlike heterosexual sins of the flesh — i.e. having more to do with relationships than biology, such as being insensitive to the sexual needs of others, demeaning others for their physical attributes, rape, and taking unfair advantage of others in sexual matters.
In any event, I’m glad I went to the Gay Pride Parade. I’m glad I made a witness to the God of love made known to us in Jesus Christ, at least by my presence as a Christian pastor accompanying gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, and queer brothers and sisters and providing comfort to their parents and families just by participating.
Many clergy and churches have yet to figure out how to provide appropriate pastoral care to LGBTQ church members. The Gay Pride celebrations in 2016 have also been celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is a civil right and therefore should be legally recognized. This is a separate issue because the Bible is clear about marriage as the conjugal union of a man and a woman. It says nothing about same-sex marriage, even though it was practiced in the Roman world. Maybe that is our clue. The Bible doesn’t help us on that issue. So the church has to figure out how to respond pastorally to this new legal right available to its members.
The starting point for many is overcoming homophobia. How do we accompany those whose sexuality makes us uncomfortable? We might begin by becoming comfortable with hugging gays and lesbians. For me I had to become comfortable hugging anyone since there wasn’t any hugging in my family of origin when I was growing up. But besides my wife, I also had two gay sons and a daughter to practice on.
Pastor Frank Senn
And the pride party goes on…