In many ways, the civil rights question of our time is LGBT+ rights. The recent push for recognition of gay marriage, for example, has been a proxy for this larger debate. While thinking in much of the world in the last 10 years has changed radically, this is still a relatively new field of acceptance for many people, especially in more traditional and conservative countries (or pockets of communities). This is a topic that is rife with emotional and physical suffering. As my small contribution to this on-going discussion, I thought I would offer my thoughts on how I see all of this through the lens of Dharma.
Before I begin, it is first worth noting I do not pretend to say my views are in any way the definitive Dharma view of all of this, rather, this is just my understanding. Also, I think it is always a bit dangerous to discuss politically charged topics from a religious perspective. The first danger is if people politically disagree with our position, there is a risk they could wind up rejecting the Dharma entirely because they think that then requires them to think in a particular way which politically they don’t want to. The second danger is mixing Dharma with politics.
If I’m careful, I believe in writing this I can avoid both dangers. I can avoid the first by saying feel free to ignore everything I am saying, I’m simply sharing my thoughts. I welcome any other thoughts and am happy to discuss with anybody who has an open-mind. If you disagree with me, perhaps you are right. I don’t know. The problems of mixing Dharma with politics primarily come from using the power of the state to enforce one person’s religious views on another. I am clearly not doing that here. Dharma practitioners are allowed to have political opinions. Political life is part of modern life, and our job is to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life. Politics is also necessarily worldly, so it is important that Dharma does not become worldly as we try to make it fit our political predispositions.
With these caveats in mind, I think the Dharma teachings provide a very useful lens for compassionately and wisely understanding the experience and life of LGBT+ individuals. I would in particular like to explore three dimensions – emptiness, karma, and compassion.
According to the teachings on emptiness, a “name” is appropriate if the aspect and function of the basis of imputation are appropriate for that name. It is clearly inappropriate to call my iPad a toothbrush, for example. The teachings on emptiness also say objects come into existence when we name them and that naming is appropriate with the aspect and function. In thinking about gender issues, I find it helpful to think of things along three axes – biological sex, socially constructed gender, and sexual attraction. Biological sex refers to the physical make up of our body, including, but not limited to, our genitalia. Socially constructed gender refers to societal conventional conceptions of male and female personality and interests. Sexual attraction refers to who somebody is naturally sexually attracted to. For example, somebody could biologically have male genitalia, conventionally be a manly man, and be attracted to women. This would be a heterosexual male. Somebody could be biologically male, conventionally a manly man, and be attracted to men. This would be a gay man. Somebody could also be biologically female, conventionally manly, but attracted to men. In the past, this was called a “tom boy,” but now we might call this person a trans man. In total, there are 8 combinations of these three binaries, or 27 combinations of we include the point in the middle of each binary, and queer theorists have come up with “names” for each one. These are observable facts we see in the world. We can find examples of all 27 in the world, people who have a biological sex, who conventionally are more masculine or feminine, and who are attracted to men or women. Having names for each one of these combinations of basis of imputation seems entirely descriptive. So no problem here.
Unfortunately, there is a great deal of suffering related to gender questions. The sufferings of sexism arise when we place value judgments saying that which is male is somehow more valuable than that which is female. The sufferings of heterosexism arise when we place value judgements saying two of these 27 combinations (heterosexual male and heterosexual female) are somehow more valuable than the other 25.
Understanding karma enables us to break out of these binaries and realize that each of the three axes are actually spectrums. Somebody might have a penis, but physically more feminine than Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example. Somebody might be attracted to both men and women, but mostly women. Somebody’s personality might be very masculine, feminine or anywhere in between. So there are not just 27 combinations, there are as many combinations as there are people. And one’s position on this matrix is not fixed. In one life, you might be a gay man, in another life a trans woman. Even within one life, one’s positionality is not fixed. I know people whose sexual attraction has changed over time, and I know people whose physical gender has changed. Impermanence teaches nothing is fixed and unchanging. An infinite diversity of past karmic actions will quite naturally give rise to an infinite diversity of possibilities.
The different types of karma also helps us understand the nature of these three axes. One’s biological sex is the ripened effect – born with certain physical characteristics. One’s sexual attraction is largely a product of tendencies similar to the cause of having been attracted to men or women in the past. One’s socially constructed gender is a combination of tendencies similar to the cause and environmental effects of the culture/society we are raised in. Whether one is discriminated against or accepted arises from the karmic effects similar to the cause of how we treated others in the past.
The teachings on compassion are also very helpful in thinking about LGBT+ experience. It is basically undeniable that we live in a heterosexist society, but we seem to be moving in a direction of greater acceptance of the diversity. In the past, LGBT persons suffered from very powerful negative societal value judgments. This caused many to suffer from bullying, guilt, beatings, and sometimes suicide – not to mention the “repression” of being in the closet – pretending to conform to societal value judgments when that didn’t conform with what they felt inside.
Even today, this still occurs. My son, for example, is biologically male, but there is zero doubt that inside he feels more like a girl and personality wise acts more like a socially constructed girl. And he has gotten a tremendous amount of ridicule for it – from his cousins and from his classmates at school. This ridicule made him suffer inside, doubt himself, pretend to be different just to fit in, and become very angry at the frustration of dealing with it all. My daughter is biologically female, but has almost no sexual desire at all, and feels judged or guilty for not ever having had (or really wanted) a boyfriend, like something is wrong with her. When I was growing up, I never got along with “the boys” because I just wasn’t into the same things and I felt socially excluded for a long time until high school when it became OK for a boy to have mostly friends who were girls. My wife was a total tom boy, but in a sexist society that is more acceptable. These are just four examples within one family. I would guess nearly everyone has some experience where their positionality on the three axes gave rise to some degree of suffering due to the value judgments society places on certain positionalities. There are many people who spend their whole life in the closet, there are many who commit suicide, there are many who come out of the closet who lose their family’s love as a result. The examples are endless.
From a Dharma perspective, it seems to me there is no basis for these value judgments, favoring one positionality over another. A diverse ecosystem is a more adaptive and creative one, so too a diverse humanity is a more adaptive and creative one. Who are we to judge one person’s positionality as being somehow better or worse than another? From the point of view of emptiness, all are equally valuable, just in different ways. There is also no denying people suffer from these value judgments, so as compassionate individuals, it seems to me we should accept everyone as they are and as they define themselves to be. They are not hurting anybody, so what is the problem? If somebody is hurt by another’s gender identity (for example, a parent who can’t accept their child is a lesbian), the parent might need to learn acceptance and the child might need to learn how to be skillful in how she expresses herself in front of her parents to give the parent time and space to adapt.
Grasping at gender identity can even become an obstacle to our tantric practice. Some men, for example, really struggle with being a Vajrayogini practitioner because they think it might make them gay or they grasp so tightly onto their current gender construction that they can’t realize the infinite possibilities – creating an obstruction to their tantric practice.
None of this is easy – for LGBT individuals, their families, or society – but learning how to think about these things in a way that leads to less suffering seems to me to be part of the bodhisattva’s way of life. I might be wrong. If you think I am and you have an open mind, let’s discuss. If you don’t have an open mind about it, feel free to ignore me. I’m OK with that. 😉