Religion’s War on Sex: Thoughts on a Day of Silence

I’ve heard Zac’s story twice. The first time I was standing on stage with him, one of 150 members of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, listening rapt as we stood silent between musical numbers. The second time I was sitting in the audience, too sick to perform, but desperate to show my solidarity with my friends, my sisters and brothers in the gay community. Both times I wept.

Zac grew up in Nebraska, a small farming town. When his friends discovered he is gay, he was taunted at school, harassed through the streets of town. They smashed in the windows of his car. Slashed his tires. And one evening a gang of thugs followed him home and beat him half to death, breaking teeth and bones and dignity. And hope.

One night Zac took his father’s gun out into the cornfields, loaded it with bullets, and put it into his mouth. He could taste the cold tang of the barrel against his tongue. It tasted of freedom. Freedom from jeers and slurs and fists.

Zac pulled the trigger.

The gun did not go off. He had failed to load one of the chambers. And he is alive to tell his story today.

***

Zac’s story is harrowing, but far too common. What is truly horrifying is that what distinguishes Zac’s experience from so many other tales of despair from young queer people is that he failed where they succeeded. Today, April 15th, we are called to a Day of Silence to honor the experiences of people like Zac: people who are cast out, despised, beaten, hated, broken, because they love differently.

As we sit in silent contemplation, though, it is valuable to consider why this happens. Why do some people, predominantly religious, hate us so much they are willing to fight to make us second-class citizens? Why do they care who we sleep with?

Sure, it’s about fear, and wariness of difference, and the human need for a scapegoat – all dark aspects of the human soul which bequeath us racism and other forms of hatred. But really, it’s about power.

Sexual desire is one of the strongest human urges. After the necessities of shelter, food and sleep, sex is our most powerful driver. Our sexual attraction to each other is gripping, fierce, difficult to deny. If you could build a social mechanism with the capability to tame our sexual desires, you could use that mechanism to control almost anything about a person. Next to lust, moral values are easy. Compared with passion, political opinions are a cinch. If you can control sex, you can control anything.

The attempt to control desire is nothing less than the attempt to control humanity itself. Reporter Jeff Sharlet, in his book C Street, recognizes this. Interviewing David Bahati, Ugandan member of Parliament and leading supporter of the gay murder bill (he introduced it, with its sentence of death for repeated homosexual “offenses”, into Uganda’s Parliament), Sharlet writes:

To [Bahati], homosexuality is only a symbol for…a greater plague: government by people, not by God. “The original sin,” according to “Jesus Transcends All,” a sermon distributed to guests at the National Prayer Breakfast (Bahati had been twice, in 2007 and 2009), “was not murder, adultery, or any other action we call sin. The original sin was, and still is, the human choice to be one’s own god, to control one’s own life, to be in charge.”

The “sin” of controlling your own life, of making your own choices. This is at the root of the religious hatred of homosexual love. Queerness and the rejection of traditional gender binaries are proxies for the human desire to be master of our own fate, captain of our own soul. That is what fundamentalists and religious repressives are afraid of. They are terrified of the sexual revolution because it represents humankind’s increasing mastery over itself, a giant leap toward greater freedom and self-control. Self-control, not control by spiteful, vindictive, unloving, outdated concepts of God.

In contrast, Humanism offers a sex-positive view. The 1973 Humanist Manifesto II is astonishing for its forward-thinking, life-affirming declaration of the right of all people to pursue sexual fulfillment:

In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct… While we do not approve of exploitive, denigrating forms of sexual expression, neither do we wish to prohibit, by law or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered “evil.”

We understand that consenting sex, a congress which brings pleasure to all parties at minimal cost, is a moral good, and should be promoted. We understand that sexual expression is central to the formation of identity, and that it should not be stifled due to ancient moralizing. We understand that sexual freedom is an irrevocable component of human freedom, and we stand up for both.

Zac survived his ordeal, and is now a student at Boston University. When he spoke out at the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus concert he broke the silence that engulfs to many queer youth (you can hear him speak out here). Today, let us observe a moment of silence those who no longer have a voice. Then let us roar like thunder to save those whose voices might be dying out.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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