Happy National Coming Out Day: How Emptiness and Karma Can Explain LGBT Experience

The great Buddhist master Shantideva said in the 7th century:

(9.87) Therefore, what intelligent person
Would develop attachment for this dream-like form?
And since there is no truly existent body,
Who is truly existent male and who is truly existent female?

Needless to say, Shantideva was ahead of his time. On National Coming Out Day, I wanted to use this verse to provide a Buddhist perspective on LGBT experience.  A heteronormative view grasps at inherently existent males and inherently existent females – where one’s gender identity and one’s biological gender are the same. A heterosexist view grasps at males necessarily being sexually attracted to females, and females being sexually attracted to males. Anything that deviates from this “normal” is held by such views as an aberration. In contrast, how do Buddhists who understand both emptiness and karma explain the wide variety of gender and sexual orientations?  

According to the laws of karma, each time we engage in an action we create four different karmic causes. The ripened effect results in a future rebirth with a bodily basis somewhere within samsara. The tendency similar to the cause is a future tenancy to engage in similar actions, both bodily and mental. The effect similar to the cause results in us experiencing effects that are similar to the causes that we created in the past, for example, if we hit somebody we are likely to get hit back. And the environmental effect is that which surrounds us in our different rebirths.

Somebody who is a cisgender straight male is someone who has the ripened effect to be born male, and the tendencies similar to the cause to be attracted to females. Somebody who is a cisgender straight female is someone who has the ripened effect to be born female, and the tendency similar to the cause to be attracted to males. A gay man is someone who has the ripened effect to be born male and the tendency similar to the cause to be attracted to males. A bisexual person is someone who has the ripened effect to be born either male or female, but the tendencies similar to the cause to be sexually attracted to both males and females. A lesbian is someone who has the ripened effect to be born female and the tendencies similar to their cause to be attracted to females. A transgender female is someone who has the ripened effect of a male body, but the tendencies similar to the cause to think and feel in ways that are conventionally considered female. A transgender male is someone who has the ripened effect of a female body, but the tendencies similar to the cause to think and feel in ways that are conventionally considered male. A trans person can be sexually attracted to either males or females, in dependence upon the tendencies similar to the cause they have of being attracted to different genders. Since there is an infinite variety of karma that beings can create, it follows that there is an infinite variety of combinations in which this karma can ripen.

To simplify matters, we can think of things as existing along three axes. The first is the ripened effect of being born into a body that is biologically male or female. This has a spectrum of things, from those who are biologically extremely masculine males to effeminate males to masculine females to extremely feminine females. The second axis is what tendencies similar to the cause of how one thinks and feels are ripening. This determines how one individually identifies oneself as being male or female, which can be quite distinct from one’s biological basis. Once again, this exists upon a spectrum, from very strong male tendencies to very strong female tendencies. It is worth noting that what is male or female in this context is purely conventionally constructed based upon cultural norms. There are certain things that we identify with being conventionally male and conventionally female, although they are not inherently so. A two-spirit person is someone who has multiple nodes of tendencies similar to the cause of how one thinks and feels, both male and female. The third axis is the tendencies similar to the cause of what we are sexually attracted to, from being strongly attracted to males to being strongly attracted to females. Again this exists upon a spectrum. Someone who is asexual word for example be at zero along this axis.  A person’s gender and sexual identity can fall anywhere within this 3-dimensional space. From the perspective of karma and from the perspective of emptiness there is no basis for saying any one combination of these is better or worse than any other.  They are all simply different karmic possibilities.

How does the environmental effect factor into this? Some people live in very heterosexist societies where any deviation from the heteropatriarchal norm is considered wrong or bad in some way, and the societal structures create penalties for those who deviate from these norms. Other people live in an environment in which there is no judgment or no penalty, and everyone’s individuality is celebrated. How does the effect similar to the cause factor into this?  Some people experience persecution based upon their sexual identity whereas others do not. It is possible for someone to live in a heterosexist society, but themselves not experience any particular discrimination or oppression. Someone else might live in a very open society but nonetheless experience discrimination and oppression. Just as it is possible for someone to be born with any combination of the three axes of gender and sexual identity described above, so too it is possible for someone to be born into a wide variety of combinations of environments that are either oppressive or accepting and to experience either oppression or acceptance. While difficult to visualize, from a karmic perspective, we can imagine a five-dimensional space with five axes, and living beings being born into any number of possibilities.

In this way, we can understand that all of the different experiences and all of the different possibilities that arise with respect to LGBT experience can be understood from the perspective of the karma we have created. From a Buddhist perspective, there is no basis for value judgments about one combination or another. If we contemplate these different karmic effects deeply we can hopefully come to a greater understanding of the wide variety of human proclivities and human experiences as they relate to LGBT experience. The hope as if we understand how karma and emptiness work, we can all relate to each other with greater wisdom and compassion.

One thought on “Happy National Coming Out Day: How Emptiness and Karma Can Explain LGBT Experience

  1. It’s nice that you’re thinking through how a perspective of karma and emptiness can lead to the conclusion that no particular sexual orientation or gender identity is superior to any other.

    And, your description of trans people does not ring true to the stories of actual trans people that I have heard and read. One good resource is the podcast, blog, and now book “How to Be a Girl”, by the mother of a trans girl. When her daughter (assigned male at birth) started to identify as a girl, the mother initially said things like “you can be a boy who plays with dolls” or “boys can like pink”, her daughter said no, I’m not a boy who likes girl things, I’m a girl. It was a very clear distinction in her mind, and this is before age 5. Transgender people are not people who think and act in ways that are conventionally of the opposite gender, they are people who _identify_ as a gender other than they were assigned. Otherwise, there’s no difference between a trans man and a tomboy.

    Another wrinkle is that biological “male” and “female” are not as simple as we were taught 40 years ago; it’s not just X vs. Y chromosomes. There are multiple genetic factors are play, so there are multiple ways that someone can physically fall outside those two neat boxes; the umbrella term for this is “intersex”.

    It’s good that you’re considering a framework like this, with a good motivation. And the part about trans men and women really needs some research and a rewrite.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s