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Sigmund Freud once said, “the behavior of a human being in sexual matters is often a prototype for the whole of his other modes of reaction in life.”

That suggests that many religions hands-off approach to sex – feel free to take that phrase figuratively or literally – has been a serious disservice to our moral and spiritual guidance. As the supposed guideposts for spirituality – the instructive link between mortal humans and the divine – religious institutions have forever struggled with the question of how to deal with sex.

Take a look at any of the dozens of major religions today and it won’t be long before you find dead-ends of denial and repression. Some beliefs hoist this banner proudly, while others pay less lip service to their ancient texts commandments of who you are allowed to share your body with.

Yet a number of religious organizations have kept in sync with liberal views toward sexuality and gender. Indian-born physician and spiritual writer Deepak Chopra recently wrote that “sexual energy is the primal and creative energy of the universe. All things that are alive come from sexual energy … Sexual desire is sacred and chaste. The suppression of sexual energy is false, ugly and unchaste … Sex is a means of escaping our little self or ego. It is many peoples’ only experience of meditation.”

Religions that have embraced the practice of meditation often turn out to be the ones with the most progressive views toward sexuality. While meditation appears in many faiths and countless forms, it commonly involves the process of deep relaxation and letting go – to the discovery and removal and unwanted forces and prejudices, intending to reveal natural truths about yourself and the world around you.

This is quite a contrast from Western religions, which often tell believers what to think and do, instead asking practitioners to look inward to find the answer.

“Buddhism is a very compassionate, accepting religion,” said Shaya Mercer, Kitchen Director for the Boulder based Dharma Ocean. “We really aren’t about being an organized religion. We’re about supporting ourselves and each other, helping one another be fully expressed and free.”

The process of removing labels and boxed-in thinking from the self is a major spiritual goal for Mercer. Waiting until the age of 26 to come out as a lesbian, she said it wasn’t until she found the right woman that she embraced this side of her sexuality. After becoming involved with the practice of Buddhist meditation, Mercer slowly came to discover that such a binary label didn’t reflect the complexities of her sexual anatomy.


The 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso


An English translation of the Kama Sutra


Muslim women in prayer


Native American Two Spirit (artistic portrayal)


Rev. Mel White was a speechwriter for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell – now he’s an out gay man and LGBT spiritual leader


Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’


An altar at a Jewish Synagogue


Rev. Scott Anderson, who resigned as a minister in 1990 when he came out as gay, was re-ordained in the Presbyterian Church as the first out gay minister now that the body has reversed its position to allow lesbian and gay clergy


Tibetan prayer flags


“A lot of the culturally inherited tension we have around sexuality can be revealed through meditating with the body, bringing new awareness into the body, relaxing the body and opening things up,” Mercer said. “When I started meditating I was convinced I was a straightforward lesbian. Over the years I’ve come to understand that that’s just another box, another label. For me personally it was shutting down the possibility of a more universal sexuality. The more I relax my body, the more I just let myself be, the less I need to identify any particular way. The more I connect my heart with other human beings, the more I can make a conscious choice about how I want to express myself sexually without it being so black or white.”

Mercer said she was never coerced by any Buddhist leaders about where her sexual energies should be directed – it was a process of self-discovery. In her experience, she has never encountered any opposition to LGBT persons within her own Buddhist community. That’s not to say the 2,500-year-old faith doesn’t have its own anti-gay undercurrents.

The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist sect and often seen in the West as a figurehead representing Buddhism as a whole, has often been of two minds on the subject of same-sex partnerships – seemingly conflicted between ancient Buddhist texts forbidding “unnatural” sexual conduct (which includes masturbation, oral, and anal sex regardless of the genders involved) and the moral edict to “do no harm to others, do no harm to yourself,” often used as a pro-LGBT position in Buddhism.

In a 1994 interview with OUT Magazine, the Dalai Lama said “If someone comes to me and asks whether homosexuality is OK or not, I will ask ‘What is your companion’s opinion?’ If you both agree, then I think I would say ‘if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is OK.”

Though three years later he qualified his statement by acknowledging “from a Buddhist point of view [lesbian and gay sexual activity] … is generally considered sexual misconduct.”

Many believers find confirmation of their sexuality through the ancient texts of their religion. Throughout some of the many Hindu religious texts are references to what is known as a “third gender” – or hijra – in many parts of South Asia. Hijras are mentioned in the Mahabarata and Ramayana, as well as The Kama Sutra, probably the most well known holy book about sex.

Those references were factors of the U.K. Hindu High Council issuing the 2009 statement “Hinduism does not condemn homosexuality,” which followed a decision by the Delhi High Court legalizing same-sex relationships, abolishing a hangover law from British colonialism that banned them.

For Hindus in England, this could perhaps compare to President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage earlier this year. Imagine if the Vatican or Mormon Church made a similar statement.

Like Hinduism, most Native American faiths make reference to a third gender in their spiritual traditions.

“Many Native American tribes, if they observed a boy playing with girls and learning feminine skills … may have a ceremony to guide him in that direction,” said Alistair Bane, a Denver resident and descendent of the Shawnee tribe, explained in our reporting on the Two Spirit tradition.

“Then the missionaries and the U.S. government came and heavily persecuted Two Spirit people,” Bane explained. “They wanted Two Spirit people who dressed like men to dress like women. And so if someone you love is persecuted for being who they are, you begin to be secretive about who they are.”

To this day, seven countries in the Middle East and northern Africa have laws permitting the death penalty for people of the same gender caught having sex. Despite a growing movement to bridge the gap between Islam and LGBT persons – and plenty of traditions and examples of same-sex sexuality in predominantly-Muslim countries, often reinterpreted to be something other than homosexuality or sex – many predominantly-Muslim nations interpret same-sex relations as forbidden in Islamic law.

Yet Muslims throughout the world are reconciling conservative traditions with LGBT identities, creating spaces for communal worship while leaving some traditional understandings at the door.

“In normal mosques, women have to sit in the back seats and wear a headscarf and gay men are afraid of both verbal and physical aggression,” said Muhammad Zahed, a French-Algerian man who plans to open the world’s first gay-friendly Mosque in France later this month. “After performing the Hajj (a religious pilgrimage to Mecca), I realized that a mosque for gays was a must for gay Muslims who want to perform their prayers.”

Zahed, who legally married his male partner in South Africa this year (later having it approved by an Imam), said that his mosque will allow women to pray with the men and will be welcoming of all LGBT persons.

And while he is able to run a gay mosque in France without fear of criminal penalties, Zahed’s marriage is currently not recognized in France.

While we continue fighting for marriage equality in the U.S., the idea of capital punishment for gays and lesbians seems wildly medieval – yet in the 1980s, radical Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. sometimes seemed to be recommending just that.

It was stirred up by an emergence of anti-gay religious rhetoric that arose with the Evangelical movement, inflamed by the AIDS crisis. During the decade, Jerry Falwell, televangelist Pat Robertson and American religious icon Billy Graham launched a movement to characterize homosexuals as disease-spreading child molesters, appealing to the American government to protect us all from the scourge of these sexual deviants.

And one of the men feeding them their words was gay.

Despite being reared in the hetero-normative world of Evangelical America, Mel White, a man who would become a speechwriter and ghostwriter for the nation’s most prominent religious conservatives always knew there was something different about him. “I wanted to know, why didn’t I feel the same way about girls that my friends all seemed to feel?” he wrote in his autobiography, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, recalling his conflicting urge to ask his pastor about his conflicting sexual urges. “Why did I want to tape pictures of boys and young men on my walls instead of pretty young women? Why did I want to hold hands with Steven and not with Joanne?”

Twelve year-old White never had his questions answered, later explaining in his book that sexuality was never discussed by church leaders at the time. He goes on to lament that today Pastors talk about sex all the time, demonizing those who do not fit prescribed norms.

“Imagine what young gays or lesbians face today in the churches of their childhood with televangelists calling gays ‘a plague upon the nation.’” Yet White must, at the very least, accept responsibility for paving the road for that change to happen.

Throughout the 1980s, White lived as a heterosexual with a wife and two children, making his living writing for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham and Jim Baker. During this time White believed the rhetoric of the men he wrote for, that homosexuality was a sinful disease and that he needed “treatment.”

While keeping this secret separate from his career, White entered religious treatment centers in hopes of straightening himself out, undergoing psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and even an exorcism. After a failed suicide attempt, White amicably divorced his wife, came out to the church, and began dating men.

White devoted this new chapter of his life to discrediting the anti-gay agenda of his former colleagues, working with at-risk LGBT youth, forming the interfaith movement for gays, Soul Force, and writing books on maintaining a Christian identity within a world of religious bigotry. He never gave up on the quest to convince his old friend Jerry Falwell that God does not hate gays, going so far as to move across the street from the Reverend, and regularly attending Falwell’s church with his male partner (whom he married in 2008).


Fred Phelps, pastor of the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas


Activists from the pro-LGBT faith group Soul Force demonstrate in Colorado Springs


Rainbow flag hanging over a pro-LGBT church


Falwell shunned White after he confessed being gay – Falwell doubling down on his church-funded efforts to ban same-sex marriage in state constitutions and his accusations that Teletubbies were homosexual propaganda and gays and lesbians were responsible for 9/11.

After Falwell’s death in 2007, Mel White was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on the death of the most publicly anti-gay American. “He [Falwell] helped rally us,” White told CNN. “He made us interested in achieving justice for ourselves. I don’t think Soul Force would have happened if Jerry Falwell hadn’t been so [vocal] about gay people.”

So in a kind of backwards way, it could be argued that Jerry Falwell and his church really did help educate the public about sexuality.

When Falwell or Focus on the Family’s James Dobson have preached about the scourge of a pro-LGBT society, they usually call the LGBT movement evidence of modern world gone wrong – that progressive groups like the ACLU and television shows like Will and Grace have perverted what would otherwise have been a chaste and moral civilization.

But many pre-Christian societies used sex as a form of worship. Sexuality (in many forms) has a role in ancient Hindu practice, and was intertwined in pre-Christian pagan rituals for centuries.

“Many Canaanites and Egyptians worshipped a goddess of love and fertility called Astarte or Ishtar,” wrote Reverend Jeff Miner in The Children are Free: Re-Examining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Marriage. “Sexual intercourse was considered especially effective for gaining the goddess’s favor, because the male worshiper was offering his greatest possession, semen, to the goddess through her priests.”

Early Jewish and Christian theologians saw some of these sexy rituals as getting out of hand: “During the rituals, whole families, including husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles would sometimes have sex [with each other and temple prostitutes],” Miner wrote. “In short, every kind of sexual practice imaginable was performed at these rituals, including homosexual sex.”

Miner believes that knowledge of these boundless orgies provided the context in which the Old Testament book of Leviticus was written – including its passages most commonly quoted by conservative believers attacking LGBT sexuality today. But Miner said these passages are often taken out of context.

“Leviticus 18 and 20 are clearly directed at homosexual temple prostitution,” he wrote, “and that is how they should be applied … Since we are not bringing a question about the appropriateness of cultic sex practices for modern Christians, we can safely set aside these clobber passages.”

Religion does not exist outside culture, and often serves to create a boundary or contrast between its community of believers and the rest of the world. It’s a look at the historical contexts that inspired those passages – and similar passages in the dominant religious texts of other faiths – that modern theologians and scholars use to understand their intent and often re-interpret them in an LGBT-inclusive way.


A traditional Jewish wedding between two gay men


Many new religious movements – denominations within and outside major world religions with ancient roots – have developed similar contrast between themselves and the rest of the world. This time, the contrast is with a world of religions that are littered with conflicted perspectives on sexuality and sexual diversity. Denominations like the United Church of Christ, the New Age movement, Reformed Judaism and Unitarian Universalism are explicitly and intentionally pro-LGBT.

In turn, they form a changing religious landscape welcoming LGBT people who can reconcile themselves with the beliefs they were raised in, making religiously-sanctioned same-sex relationships possible, and strengthening the bridge between faith and the individual as not only a soul, but a spirit with a body, too.