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Abstract:
Argues that our culture's current understanding of sexuality is relatively new, is materialistic, and ultimately unjust, especially in the highly politicized discourse about homosexuality.
Notes:
Presented at the "Building the Kingdom Conference", Milwaukee Wisconsin, June 29 2001.

Sexuality, Self, and the Shape of Society

by Holly Hanson

2001-06
      I am Holly Hanson, and this presentation is "Sexuality, Self, and the Shape of Society." I have written and thought about the Bahá'í Revelation and how it affects society - some of you may be familiar with my book on Bahá'í social and economic development, or with essays I have published on Bahá'í ideas regarding overcoming racism, the creation of social justice, and related topics. I teach history at Mount Holyoke College, and this talk builds on the understanding of the history of sexuality which I have developed as a professional historian. I am one of the very many Bahá'ís in this country who was not raised a Bahá'í -- my parents were radical social reformers, and I grew up in a home that was emphatically atheist until I discovered the Faith and became a Bahá'í at the age of fifteen.

      This talk is about the painful, bitter conflict about sexuality which is vexing us in the United States -- and which we are imposing on the rest of the world. I want to look at the consequences of this conflict, which are greater than we realize, I want to show how we arrived at the point of thinking the way we do. We will explore how our ideas and our experiences of sexuality have changed over the past few hundred years as our society has taken its modern shape. The angry, hurtful debate in this country about whether our lives and our legal and social structures should be "gay-affirming" or should reject homosexuality is an aspect of a profound, encompassing transformation in our organization of society, and our understanding and experience of ourselves. These changes are complex, but they have to do with an assertion of the primacy of the material dimensions of human beings. I want to argue that the patterns we have created over the past several hundred years are not good for us. We have created them and we live inside them, but if we look at them, we may see that we would prefer lives that are not so incessantly material. In order to be happy, in order to develop the capacities God has given us and in order to make the world the manifestation of justice that God wants it to be, we need to change the shape of society and change our understanding of our own selves.

      I want to begin with two observations. First, discussions of sexuality in this society tend to be fundamentally coercive: people are telling each other what to think. As a Bahá'í, I cannot do that and I do not want to. A core principle of the Bahá'í Faith is that every person has to seek and understand truth for herself or himself. This is the capacity of every person and the obligation of every person. I believe that Bahá'u'lláh's words enable human beings to create well-being in the world, and in this talk I am sharing with you how I have understood what the Bahá'í Revelation says about sexuality and society. Perhaps these ideas will be useful to you; perhaps you will have thoughts about how I can expand my understanding of this subject, perhaps you will find these ideas totally useless. The last part of the presentation will be discussion and questions, and I hope we will all learn from each other. But as you listen to me, I want you to keep in mind that I absolutely am not telling you that you ought to agree with me.

      Second, it is possible that some people have chosen this presentation because they want support in being Bahá'ís who experience same-sex desire, or in being the fellow community members of those believers. The Bahá'í writings clearly forbid homophobia, but at the same time Bahá'í law only allows sexual expression inside a marriage between a woman and a man. Many people find this confusing or difficult to accept. We will get to those issues, I promise.


Gay-Affirming versus Gay-Rejecting: A Conflict that is Harmful to Everyone

      Let's imagine the current discussions over homosexuality in our culture. On one side is the gay-affirming position, which says "God loves everyone, God loves homosexuals. Any group that denies gay people the possibility of sexual expression is fundamentally unjust. Religions have to discard their outdated teachings, so if your religion is not gay-affirming, you should change it." We can imagine this person here, wearing a rainbow pin - maybe it says, "we are everywhere" or maybe it says "I'm straight but not narrow." On the other side of this polarized conflict is the gay-rejecting position, which says "All the holy books of all the world's religions say it is wrong to be gay, and the acceptance of homosexuality is a sign of the decline of civilization. Any person who thinks they want to live a gay lifestyle should just pray to God to change, and they can change, (and be like us)." We can imagine this person here, with a book that he is quoting, to tell the other side they are wrong.

      People's hopes for the world and their sense of themselves as good people are caught up in this conflict. Part of the gay-affirming position, is that the world will become better -- more tolerant, more accepting, more celebrating of diversity, through active acceptance of homosexuals. There is also a demand for visibility - "we are here - do not deny our existence." The gay-rejecting side also understands its actions to be a social necessity -- that the world will be a better place if people pay attention to religion and obey religious law. These people's identity is also invested: they believe the way God wants people to be is the way we are.

      Underneath the rational gay-affirming argument there may be anger and pain at having experienced intolerance and rejection. Underneath the gay-rejecting position may be fear: that same-sex desire is scary because it does not make sense; that things are more and more out of control in the world around us, and attacking same-sex sex seems to be a way to make things more stable.

      This highly charged, highly polarized debate makes it impossible to think about the issues in another way. People want to know, are you gay-affirming? or are you gay-rejecting? and no other answer is possible. The costs of this conflict are high. It hurts us, when people feel they are being attacked -- and they are being attacked-- on both sides. It divides us, when people are forced to take sides. It distracts us, when this conflict overwhelms other concerns: who receives health care? who pays attention to children after school? How do we counteract AIDS? More profoundly, it hardens and confirms limited, unproductive ways of thinking about our own reality.

      In order to see this, we need to consider the underlying assumptions which the gay affirming position and the gay-rejecting positions share. The gay-affirming side views sexual desire as something that defines human beings: experiencing same sex desire makes a person a homosexual: a person can acknowledge that, and define himself as gay; a person who experiences same sex desire but does not adopt a gay identity is gay and experiencing internalized homophobia. There is not any other choice, it is permanent, and it is defining. The gay-rejecting side also views sexual desire as defining, because it asks people to stop experiencing same-sex desire, which is bad, and change themselves so they experience heterosexual desire, which is good. Again, sexual desire defines people.

      Both sides share a vision that in order to be happy and fulfilled, an adult person needs to find a partner who will meet one's needs for emotional intimacy, physical closeness and sexual expression, for financial support, for practical life support, for socializing, and for reproduction. This unit will be legally recognized, but it also, in practice, will be defined by jointly owned possessions. The jointly owned possessions. In this society, aren't wedding presents the difference between a couple living together and a married couple? And if a couple own property separately, do we ask, are they really married? Access to legal recognition for this unit is a main concern of gay rights activism; and marriages are the organizing principle of people's lives for the gay-rejecting side. Both sides are looking to this legally defined, possession-laden unit to make people happy; they are relying on it, to the exclusion of any other relationship or social institution, to meet people's needs. Of course marriage, life-partnership, is a powerful institution that supports people. But we have impossible expectations of what it will accomplish for us. One partner-person cannot give us emotional, physical, and financial security, and children, and sexual satisfaction, and fun and companionship, and help with life's difficulties, and a sense of purpose, for all of our lives. No one can do that for us. Complete dependence on one other person will not work. But partnership as the exclusive strategy for personal happiness is an underlying assumption of the gay-affirming and gay-rejecting points of view.

      Both sides in this argument also have a fundamentally static view of society: the changes that are necessary are other people becoming more like them. The gay-rejecting side asks everyone to have families like theirs, which they perceive to be traditional. The gay-affirming side asks everyone to be tolerant, like they are. Both sides see the world as having the social structures we have now, although the gay-affirming side wants the benefits of marriage extended to homosexuals.

      The underlying assumptions of both sides of this conflict are wrong. Sexual desire does not define human beings. A long term relationship with one person is not the cause of human happiness. And no one is the living model for the society God wants us to create. To think about the world in this way is a really bad idea. I am not saying that recognition of the existence of homosexuality is a bad idea, I am saying the whole cultural framework, our whole perception of heterosexuality and homosexuality and of human nature as fundamentally material, sexual, and acquisitive is a bad idea. Our culture's way of thinking about sexuality flattens, narrows, and diminishes what it is to be human; it distorts us. Furthermore, it interferes with the process of imagining and creating a just society, because it naturalizes oppressive gender roles, acquiesces in the loss of social responsibility of members of a community for each other. It freezes attention on the simple question of what do people do with desire, blocking out consideration of any other dimension of what might be just or unjust about society.

      How did we arrive at such an unproductive way of thinking and acting? Our materialistic, body-centered way of thinking about ourselves and the world has emerged over the past several hundred years. This is really important: the biology of human reproduction may be constant, but the way human beings understand sex is constantly changing, just as all human patterns of thought and institutions are constantly changing. "Nothing is stationary in the material world of outer phenomena or in the inner world of intellect and consciousness."[1] Society transforms through a dynamic interplay between people's efforts in the world and their responses to its influences. We are not entirely creators of our destiny, because circumstances shape us; but we are not robots either, because we can change those circumstances by the actions we take. Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Bahá'u'lláh and the leader of the Bahá'í Faith for the middle third of the twentieth century wrote:
"We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions."[2]

      Race is a good example of this feedback loop. We know that race has no reality. But the existence of racist structures and institutions in a society affect its members: people will be shaped by those elements of a society, perceive race, and perpetuate it. But people who want to overcome racism can take deliberate steps to change their own thoughts, to deliberately break down habits of racial separation -- their actions can have an affect on the shape of the society. The effects go both ways.

      Another concept to keep in mind is that not all transformations are progressive. A selfish action can have consequences far beyond the intentions of the initiator. In 1914, travelling in the United States, Abdu'l Bahá stated that national and racial distinctions were created by despots and conquerors who sought to dominate others:
"We are all human, all servants of God and all come from Adam's family. Why, then, all these fallacious national and racial distinctions? These boundary lines and artificial barriers have been created by despots and conquerors who sought to attain dominion over mankind, thereby engendering patriotic feeling and rousing selfish devotion to merely local standards of government."[3]

      When we look at the origins of our culture's ideas and practices about human nature and sexuality, we see people being shaped by and shaping society, and we also see the far-reaching, tremendously destructive consequences of ideas imposed for the benefit of some people only.

      A set of changes in how people in Europe experienced sexuality, which started in the late eighteenth century, happened at the same time as other profound cultural changes. For about half a century before this, European intellectual life had been revolutionized by a group of thinkers who prioritized human reason and knowledge derived from the senses over religious knowledge. There were economic changes also. Wealth became more concentrated and productive activity became more centralized. This had social consequences: relationships between people which had in the past had social and economic dimensions became solely economic. Gradually, everything in life came to be exchangeable for money - this process is called commodification. Although this process created a lot of wealth, many people lost their ability to control their productive life, and work became more regimented. The kinds of communities that people lived in as a result of these transformations were different than the kinds of communities people lived in before industrialization. These changes in the practice of production and the organization of wealth led to changes in the way that people thought about society and human nature. Organic models for society, which included God and the soul, got replaced by economic models, in which all the elements of the systems were material. Thinkers began to conceptualize social relations in terms of purchase and of human beings as bundles of needs which could be met by consumption.

      We can trace these transformations in the history of sexuality. Until the late eighteenth century, people in Europe thought men and women had the same sexual organs: in women these organs were inside, and slightly inferior; in men they were on the outside, in their perfect form. The organs were basically the same. This was replaced by the concept that female and male bodies were diametrically opposed, and women were perceived to be entirely controlled by their sexual organs, while men were perceived to be in control of theirs sexuality, in the same way that men were thought to be in control of shaping the world through engagement in the market economy.[4] As social classes solidified and industrialists sought to create markets for the massive output of nineteenth century factories, women's sexuality became divided by class. Women who worked in factories in Europe were considered to be inherently impure, their work made them hypersexual. Part of the rationalization for a migrant female labor force in American textile factories was to protect the workers from sexualizing consequences of labor.[5] Wealthy and middle class women, on the other hand, were perceived as asexual, and the Victorian woman's purity, which she created by staying in a home full of possessions, healed her husband from the spiritual wounds he received as an industrialist. Since this work involved breaking expectations of reciprocity which had governed social relations previously, it makes sense that people thought work harmed men spiritually. The division between sexual working class women and asexual middle class women ended in the early twentieth century when, in an effort to sell automobiles to women, women's magazines began to promote the concept of "the modern woman" who was just as sexually free as a man, and who created a romantic life with a romantic partner.[6]

      European or North American concepts of masculinity were also shaped by industrialization and the emergence of a culture of consumption. In the colonial period, manhood involved reproduction, and court records show cases of women taking their husbands to court for being impotent. In the mid-nineteenth century, as the culture stressed middle class men's calm, cool capacity to control the economy, manliness involved control of sexual impulses. Doctors and public speakers warned of the disfigurement and disease that men would suffer if they used up the energy they needed for active engagement in the world with unnecessary sex. In the early twentieth century, as a culture of consumption became entrenched, doctors urged men to find means of sexual release in order to be healthy.[7]

      Our ways of thinking about homosexual desires and actions have followed the same trajectory. In the late nineteenth century, same-sex sex stopped being a verb - an action some people took, and became a noun - a quality that defined a category of people. A rethinking of human nature which began to focus more thoroughly on the body, the rising status of medical discourse, and the activist efforts of people who believed that those who participated in homosexual sex should not be punished all contributed to this transition.[8]

      There is another level of connection between social and economic insecurity and our concepts of sexuality. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are ideas that make sense together. The idea that deviant desire defines some people makes sexual desire a determining characteristic of everyone's identity. The idea of a homosexual -- a person who wants to have sex with someone of the same sex is an identifiable kind of person -- came into existence at the same time as the idea of a heterosexual -- that a person who wants to have sex with someone of the opposite sex is a particular kind of person. Before that, people were people, and what they might have desired, or what they might have done sexually, did not define them. Historians have argued that people began to create these new categories as a result of the disturbance in family life that accompanied the consolidation of industrial capitalism. People's loss of control over their own lives, and also the cultivation of higher levels of consumption that industrial production necessitated, led to more rigid distinction of male and female social roles. While in the more distant past most same-sex sex between men involved adult men and boys, communities of men who assertively rejected male gender roles began to emerge in the nineteenth century.[9] For a while, these men did not call themselves homosexuals ( for example, in New York in the late nineteenth century they made sharp distinctions between men who cross-dressed and displayed feminine characteristics, men who followed the culture's norms of behavior for men but wanted to sleep with men, and men who had wives or girlfriends but were willing to sleep with men). However, men who did not display feminine characteristics (and tended to be middle class) wanted to be understood as something different from normal men, and also different from effeminate men (who were more likely to be working class). They began to define themselves as homosexual, which helped to create the patterns that psychologists and medical men labelled.[10] Furthermore, men who perceived an erosion of their manliness through a narrowing of their ability to control their work lives and through new assertiveness of workers and women also participated in the creation of this category by defining their manliness as sexual interest in women only. Their changing perception of themselves helped to create the category of heterosexual.[11]

      The establishment of the categories of heterosexual and homosexual drastically changed patterns of friendship among people of the same sex. Nineteenth century women and men established life-long, deeply intimate friendships with people of the same sex, friendships which had an intensity which we would now perceive as deviant. Once sexuality became a part of how people defined themselves, this pattern of emotional closeness ceased in U.S. society.[12]

      Our current way of thinking, that divides people into heterosexuals and homosexuals, came into being about one hundred years ago. It is real: we both shape and are shaped by the societies that we live in. Since these categories are so firmly established, it makes sense that we experience our own reality as defined by desire. Sexual identities are very comforting to people - both people who identify themselves as homosexuals and people who identify themselves as heterosexuals.

      However, if we look at how we have arrived at the conception that people are defined by desire and find happiness in possessions and a romantic partner, we may ask ourselves whether we really want these ideas shaping us, whether this is the best we can do for ourselves. We have come to this pattern of thought through a long process that involved an increasing focus on the human body and the loss of a consensus about humanity's spiritual reality. It followed a drastic reduction of the richness of people's social relationships. It accompanied a profound anxiety about the direction of social change, which led to intensely rigid gender roles, a narrowing of the realms of activity considered acceptable for women and for men. After several hundred years of this process, we experience ourselves as bundles of needs which can be satisfied through consumption. We are so accommodated to the degradation of human beings as objects of the desire of others that it seems normal. We objectify ourselves, and whole industries exist to help us do it. We have commodified every conceivable social relationship: we pay people to talk to us and to take care of our aging relatives, we have learned to express our emotions in purchases. As a result, we live with material excess whose results will be inscribed on the planet for generations. The set of beliefs and practices we have about sexuality are less than useless. The theories are pernicious, the standards are false, the claims are hollow, the habits are perverse, and the excesses are sacrilegious.[13] This was my first point. When people ask me where Bahá'ís stand on the question of homosexuality, I say, we disagree with our culture's conception of sexuality, all of it, heterosexuality and homosexuality, the whole way we think about it and act on it is not useful to us as human beings, and we need to change it.

      This brings me to my second point. While our culture's conflict over sexuality is focussed on whether or not people who experience same-sex desire can change or should change, the Bahá'í perspective is that all of us need to change. We need to change ourselves for our own sake, and for the well-being of society. We do not think that people who are now defined as homosexuals, need to stop being who they are and start being people who are straight with family values. We think that everyone, whatever we desire, however we understand ourselves, needs to deliberately engage in a process of individual and social transformation to make the world into what God wants it to be. This is the purpose of religion, as Bahá'u'lláh explains."...is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God's universal Manifestations would be apparent."[14]

      The courage we need to imagine that we can live differently, and the vision of what God intends, and the capacity to accomplish it come from the Word of God.

      There are beautiful statements in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh that define human reality as an expression of God's love: the image of God is engraved on us. "O Son of Man! Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty."[15] To be most fully human, according to Bahá'u'lláh, we need to focus our attention and understanding on our connection to the divine inside of us. "O Son of Spirit! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty powerful and self-subsisting."[16] If we think about human beings this way, holding sexual desire -- or any other desires -- at the center of our understanding of ourselves does not seem that useful. The word of God may change our experience of ourselves as primarily material beings. Bahá'u'lláh says this: "Were any man to ponder in is heart that which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed and to taste of its sweetness, he would, of a certainty, find himself emptied and delivered from his own desires, and utterly subservient to the Will of the Almighty. Happy is the man that hath attained so high a station, and hath not deprived himself of so bountiful a grace."[17] Bahá'u'lláh is saying that far from being fixed, impermeable, and at the core of our beings, desire disappears, it evaporates, it empties out of us when we taste the sweetness of the word of God.

      What about strategies for human happiness? What else might we consider, besides finding a partner and owning a lot of stuff together? Bahá'u'lláh makes many clear statements about this. He says "Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavours be spent in promoting your personal interest."[18] Abdu'l Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh, wrote "Supreme happiness is man's, and he beholds the signs of God in the world and in the human soul, if he urges on the steed of high endeavor in the arena of civilization and justice. And this is man's uttermost wretchedness: that he should live inert, apathetic and dull, involved with only his base appetites."[19]Pursuing our physical longings, Abdu'l Bahá says, creates human wretchedness, and happiness comes from making strenuous efforts to facilitate civilization and justice.

      This is what communities are for. They are our means for facilitating civilization and justice. In communities, we can deliberately, systematically, work to change the conditions that created the degraded conception of reality that entraps us. All of us, together, are responsible for creating the conditions in which each of us lives as an individual. Social patterns that cause alienation and humiliation, such as those we have now, make it more difficult for people to live in a way that is characterized by connection to God. We need to purposefully create the dense web of connection, of love between many people, of habits of service to each other, which is the pattern of life in harmony with our true nature. When we do this, the lives of people struggling with difficult spiritual tests will be easier. For example, Bahá'u'lláh requires that His followers express gender equality in their personal lives and in their patterns of social interaction.[20] The Bahá'í writings affirm that the world needs men who are sensitive and intuitive and women who are strong and effective in the world. The actions that we take as communities to establish gender equality and to eliminate rigid gender roles are important for all of us, but they are especially important for a member of the community whose own life moves beyond constrained gender roles. All of us struggle to prioritize spiritual longings over material desires in the way we live our lives, and the structures that a community creates - of meetings for worship and study, of interpersonal interaction that draws out our spiritual capacity, make this easier. These structures may be particularly valuable for believers who experience same-sex desire that they cannot act on as Bahá'ís. A community that is loving, respectful, and focussed outward on creating well-being in the world, will unfold and develop the capacities of all of its members.

      Some people reject the idea that deliberately engaged communities, trying to be obedient to the will of God, is a wholesome environment for people who experience same-sex desire. They say, "you say you love and include everyone, but if the gay people can't have sex, it is not fair." I want to disagree, to suggest that the injustice to people who experience same sex desire is the way their inner lives have become fodder for a highly politicized fight.

      Chastity, in a society that asserts sex is everything, is certainly not easy. But the individual lives of people who experience same sex desire are burdened by the way religioun is used in the debate over homosexuality. Two principles of spiritual growth have been drawn into opposition with each other in the increasing politicization of sexual desire in our society. One of these is the principle that truthfulness is the foundation of spiritual progress for a soul.
      Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity. Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized.[21]

      The other is the principle that we make progress spiritually through constant movement towards God.
      Creation is the expression of motion. Motion is life. A moving object is a living object, whereas that which is motionless and inert is as dead. All created forms are progressive in their planes, or kingdoms of existence, under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life. The universal energy is dynamic. Nothing is stationary in the material world of outer phenomena or in the inner world of intellect and consciousness.[22]

      The gay-rejecting strand of religious thought about sexuality seems to ask people with same sex desire to not tell the truth about themselves, to seek a conversion experience that makes them straight. At the other extreme, some strands of gay politics ask people to hold an unchanging, solidified experience of desire at the core of their being. Although both of these strategies are presented as the means of achieving emotional and spiritual health, both are flawed: the pray-for-miracle-that-will-make-you-straight strategy lacks a recognition that truthfulness is the foundation of spiritual progress. Divine virtues unfold by our being truthful, so how could denying one's experience and knowledge of self be a good thing? It is unjust to ask this of people. The gay-identity strategy asks people to achieve emotional and spiritual health through telling the truth about their same-sex desire and holding it at the absolute center of their lives, with a higher priority than anything else. This lacks a recognition that the essence of human nature is our connection with God, and that all material desires are ephemeral. If the love of God burns away our desires, why insist that people continuously put them back in place? It is unjust to ask people to do this.

      People who want to know more about Bahá'ís dealing with same-sex desire may want to get in touch with BNASAA, the Bahá'í Network on Aids, Sexuality, Addiction, and Abuse. This is a group that is other people as well but includes gay Bahá'ís, committed to supporting each other in their efforts to be obedient to Bahá'í law, in a context of confidentiality. This is an institution under the sponsorship of the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada. Their email address is bnasaa@home.com, and their web address is http://member.home.net/bnasaa, or you could watch for their meetings, which appear on the schedule of the permanent Bahá'í schools.

      Finally, I want to consider how the Bahá'í community might be doing a better job of loving and supporting its members who experience same-sex desire. Shoghi Effendi told the Bahá'í community in the 1950s that it should not discriminate against homosexuals, and the Universal House of Justice made a clear statement about this a few years ago: "To regard homosexuals with prejudice and disdain would be entirely against the spirit of the Bahá'í teachings."[23] Transcending the homophobia which is part of our society requires honesty. Are we afraid that other people's experience of same-sex desire might be contagious? Are we accepting negative stereotypes? Like many other prejudices, a fear of homosexuals can operate on a very subtle level. One manifestation of this is to assume that anyone who experiences same-sex desire is having sex with someone. We understand that people can have heterosexual desires and not act on them: this is what we expect of all the single people in our communities. We need to be careful to treat Bahá'ís who experience same-sex desire with the same kind of respect: to recognize these members of our community as also capable of chastity, and interact with people in a way that shows that. We need to recognize that we are all people who have tests and are struggling, people who experience same-sex desire need the same love and support that everyone else needs.

      Abdu'l Bahá said in 1914 that "To accept and observe a distinction which God has not intended in creation is ignorance and superstition."[24] The distinction which we accept and observe regarding sexual desire in our society is a manifestation of ignorance and superstition, and it oppresses us, all of us. It diminishes our perception of our true reality, it accepts an impoverishment of social bonds and community, it legitimizes false distinctions in gender roles. It confirms an enervating materialism. We are shaped by these ideas, but we don't have to be. We can change them, we can "urge on the steed of high endeavour in the arena of civilization and justice" and make the world different than it is.


Notes

[1] Abdu'l Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p 140.
[2] Shoghi Effendi through his Secretary, quoted in Universal House of Justice, Research Department, Statement on Conservation of Earth's Resources.
[3] Abdu'l Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 354.
[4] Thomas Laqueur, "Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology," in Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur, eds., The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 1-41.
[5] Holly Hanson, "Mill Girls' and 'Mine Boys': the Cultural Meanings of Migrant Labor." Social History
[6] Pamela S. Haag, "In Search of 'The Real Thing'" Ideologies of Love, Modern Romance, and Women's Sexual Subjectivity in the United States, 1920-40, in Fout and Tantillo, 161-192.
[7] Kevin J. Mumford, "'Lost Manhood' Found: Male Sexual Impotence and Victorian Culture in the United States," in John C. Fout and Maura Shaw Tantillo, eds., American Sexual Politics: Sex, Gender, and Race since the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 75-100.
[8] Jeffrey Weeks, "The Body and Sexuality" in Stuart Hall, David Held, Don Hubert and Kenneth Thompson, eds., Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies, (Malden: Blackwell, 1996), 364-393. Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality originated this arena of inquiry.
[9] Weeks, 383-4.
[10] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York: BasicBooks, 1994), pp. 21-2.
[11] Chauncey, pp. 117-9.
[12] Carroll Smith-Rosenburg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America", Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, (Oxford, 1985). Chauncey,
[13] Paraphrasing Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice, p. 25.
[14] Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Íqán, pp. 240-1.
[15] Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words, no. 3.
[16] Bahá'u'lláh, Hidden Words, no.13.
[17] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 343.
[18] Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 138.
[19] Abdu'l Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 3-4.
[20] "Exalted, immensely exalted is He Who hat removed differences and established harmony. Glorified, infinitely glorified is He Who hath caused discord to cease, and decreed solidarity and unity. Praised be God, the Pen of the Most High hath lifted distinctions from between His servants and handmaidens and, through His consummate favours and all-encompassing mercy, hath conferred upon all a station and rank on the same plane. He hath broken the back of vain imaginings with the sword of utterance and hath obliterated the perils of idle fancies through the pervasive power of His might." Bahá'u'lláh, Women, p. 1
[21] Abdu'l Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith, p. 384.
[22] Abdu'l Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 140.
[23] Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá'ís of the U.S., September 11, 1995, published in The American Bahá'í, November 23, 1995.
[24] Abdu'l Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 76. Abdu'l Bahá was speaking about the equality of men and women.
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