Understanding Sexual Orientation
Posted January 15, 2005
Devotees often express startling misunderstandings about homosexual people and sexual orientation in general, but until we understand and define these topics correctly, how can we possibly expect to address them reasonably?
For someone like me, who has lived an entire lifetime with homosexual orientation and experienced it firsthand, it is especially frustrating to hear devotees expound misinformation about these topics. Homosexuality should be understood through appropriate Vedic references, modern evidence, and by conversing with the gay and lesbian people themselves--not by quoting verses out-of-context, adopting questionable Christian ideology, or maintaining an "I know everything" attitude.
We need to understand sexual orientation properly and define homosexual people cohesively if we wish to deal with these subject matters effectively. Otherwise, all of our debates and discussions will be fruitless and we'll end up talking in circles about completely different things. In order to help the Vaishnava community increase their grasp of these topics, I would like to submit the following list of basic, important things to know about homosexuality and sexual orientation.
Nine Important Things To Know About Homosexuality and Sexual Orientation
Understand sexual orientation properly.
- Sexual orientation is a part of the body's biological and neurological make-up.
- A person's sexual orientation is never simply a preference, disposition, tendency, habit, adopted vice, etc.--it's the way a person's body is biologically geared. (A good comparison would be to being born left-handed.)
- External environmental factors such as upbringing, association, etc., can play a role in how a person expresses or suppresses their sexual orientation, but they are never underlying causes. People cannot change their essential bodily constitution and sexual orientation.
- There are three types of sexual orientation:
a) Heterosexual - attracted only to the opposite sex (fixed).
b) Homosexual - attracted only to the same sex (fixed).
c) Bisexual - attracted to both sexes, either simultaneously or at different times in life (mutable).
- Sexual orientation occurs along a natural base line within any given human population:
a) Exclusively heterosexual people account for approximately 85% of the population.
b) Exclusively homosexual people account for about 5%.
c) Bisexuals for approximately 10-15%.
- Sexual orientation and gender variation are a part of nature's vast and complex diversity. As a natural phenomena, all three types of sexual orientation are observable throughout the animal kingdom--among mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, etc.--and a great deal of research has been conducted in this regard. Many species even exhibit higher ratios of bisexual and homosexual orientation than humans do.
Define homosexuality and homosexual people properly.
- Homosexuality refers to people with exclusive and lifelong homosexual orientation. In general, it should be distinguished from bisexuality and other forms of same-sex behavior.
- Homosexuals are attracted to the same sex by nature ("prakriti").
- They have not chosen their orientation or acquired it through external conditions.
- Homosexuals are only attracted to the same sex. They have never, and will never, experience attraction for the opposite sex.
Know that sexual orientation is independent of behavior.
- Sexual orientation is defined by a person's natural attraction, not their behavior. A homosexual person may refrain from same-sex behavior altogether, but he or she will still have homosexual orientation. Similarly, not everyone engaged in same-sex behavior is necessarily homosexual. Bisexuals and even heterosexuals sometimes engage in same-sex behavior, but that does not make them homosexual.
- The vast majority of young people, gay or straight, discover their orientation prior to any sexual experience.
- People with homosexual orientation may or may not be sexually active. Just because someone is openly gay and acknowledges they are homosexual does not mean they are pursuing or engaging in sexual behavior. Never make assumptions about people.
- Homosexuality is not a "lifestyle." Other than having homosexual orientation, gays and lesbians are essentially no different from other people and the cultures in which they live.
- Educating people about homosexual orientation and promoting gay tolerance does not encourage more homosexual behavior or cause more people to "become" gay.
- Proper behavior and sense-control, including celibacy and monogamy, can and should be encouraged for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
Distinguish between the three types of same-sex behavior:
- Homosexual - Homosexuals engage in same-sex behavior (when not otherwise celibate) because that is their only orientation and attraction. They are exclusively homosexual by nature and are never attracted to the opposite sex.
- Bisexual - Bisexuals have attraction for both sexes and may therefore choose to engage in either same-sex or opposite-sex behavior. Their involvement may be simultaneous, or it may switch back and forth from one preference to the other at different points in time. Sexuality is mutable for them and sometimes even confusing and unclear.
- Heterosexual - Heterosexuals also sometimes engage in same-sex behavior for reasons other than natural attraction. This typically occurs in prisons, for instance, and in situations where the opposite sex is not available. Heterosexuals may also engage in same-sex behavior for ulterior motives such as prostitution, drug favors, as a display of dominance, etc.
Use scriptural passages in their proper context.
Scriptural quotes can be easily misinterpreted and misused, so make sure you carefully consider the context of any verse before making sweeping generalizations about them. For example, does your quote refer to all homosexuality or just one specific type of same-sex behavior? Are the characters homosexual by nature or are they actually bisexual or heterosexual? These distinctions are all very important to note. Here are a few simple guidelines and examples:
- Homosexuality - Verses about homosexuality will mention people who are exclusively homosexual by nature and who have no attraction for the opposite sex. Descriptions of this type can be found in the Kama Shastra, where homosexuality is mentioned as a third nature ("tritiya-prakriti"), and in Srila Prabhupada's comments about the homosexual and transgender "eunuch" communities of India (which he describes as being third-gender "by nature").
- Bisexuality - Scriptural passages about bisexuality will mention people who engage in relations with both men and women. Such verses should not be considered the same as homosexuality. An example of a verse referring to bisexual behavior can be found in Srimad Bhagavatam 12.3.37, where it is stated that in Kali-yuga men will have relations with "the sisters and brothers of their wives"--a clear reference to bisexuality and not homosexuality.
- Heterosexuality - Verses referring to same-sex behavior devoid of any natural attraction or affection involve characters that are heterosexual by nature. Most scriptural statements typically refer to this unnatural type--the classic example being the demons that attacked Lord Brahma for sex but who are later revealed as being naturally attracted to women (Srimad Bhagavatam 3.20.23-37). Taken in context, narrations such as these clearly do not refer to people with exclusive homosexual orientation.
Be as specific as possible.
- This is extremely important in order to avoid confusion and unnecessary misunderstandings. For instance, when you say, "We are against homosexuality" do you mean "We are against homosexual behavior" or "We are against people with homosexual orientation"? The statement could be taken either way, so be sure to specify!
- Clearly identify the type of person you are referring to. A bisexual is not the same as a homosexual and vice versa. If you are going to label people, label them correctly. For example, to say, "He was a homosexual, but later on became heterosexual" is not accurate--the person would obviously be a bisexual who first identified as gay and later on as straight. The reason why many people are often so confused about homosexuality is because they fail to distinguish between bisexual and homosexual people.
Give appropriate advice.
People who cannot follow celibacy should be encouraged to form monogamous relationships after carefully considering their own specific sexual orientation and nature. Advising gays and lesbians to marry the opposite sex against their nature, with the hope that they will become "cured," reveals a great deal of ignorance on this matter and is even forbidden in scripture (Narada-smriti 1.12.15). On the other hand, bisexual people typically are advised to marry the opposite sex with the understanding that this may or may not work out (Narada-smriti 1.12.14). Heterosexuals who cannot follow celibacy are always advised to marry the opposite sex and refrain from any type of same-sex behavior.
Understand that homosexuality is inborn.
This is probably the most important point to grasp. Until people understand that homosexual orientation is something innate and unchangeable they will never be able to grasp this issue properly. If the basic premise of an equation is wrong, it follows that all the answers will be too. A person's sexual orientation is a fixed part of their biological make-up and cannot be chosen, changed, acquired, adopted, converted to, etc. The expression of such ideas displays an astonishing degree of ignorance not only to gays and lesbians (who know better), but also to people closely familiar with them and, indeed, most educated people in general. The understanding that homosexual orientation is inborn can be supported in three ways:
- Modern Science - Nearly every modern scientific study conducted to date indicates that homosexuality is most likely inborn and not acquired. To cite one example, The American Psychological Association has issued the following statement: "...psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can voluntarily be changed. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, plays a significant role in determining a person's sexual orientation." (APA Public Interest Report, 7/98). The physical and neurological sex of any embryo is developed through a delicate balance of hormonal influences within the womb, and since some babies are known to be born anatomically intersexed (with both male and female organs), there is no reason to doubt that some are also born neurologically intersexed (as homosexual and transgender). External environmental factors can play a role in how a person expresses or suppresses their sexual orientation and gender identity, but they are never underlying causes.
- Vedic Science - Surprisingly enough, Vedic science concurs with the above conclusion, and indeed, if Vedic texts are studied carefully and in proper context they actually reveal a good deal of knowledge about the nature of gender and cross-gender phenomena such as homosexuality and transgender identity. In the Manu-samhita (3.49), for instance, it is stated: "A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal a third-sex child [with both male and female qualities] is produced...Ó Similar verses in the Sushruta-samhita (3.2.42-43) state that girls who behave like boys, and boys who behave like girls, are produced as such during the earliest moments of conception. I have yet to find any Vedic verse describing homosexuality as something externally acquired or whimsically adopted, such as one would adopt a vice like drinking or smoking. Rather, it is typically addressed as a matter of inborn nature and gender ("tritiya-prakriti").
- Personal Experience - Listen to others! From my own personal experience and from every gay and lesbian person I've even spoken with or known--along with countless thousands of psychiatric interviews and studies--the vast majority of homosexual people emphatically affirm they have been gay ever since they can remember and insist that nothing external caused or created their homosexuality. There is no plausible evidence to suggest that homosexuals are more likely to come from broken homes, divorced parents, or bad neighborhoods; or that they had absent fathers, overbearing mothers, or were molested as children. These may be popular wives tales, but the personal experience of every gay and lesbian stands as a testament against them.
Concentrate on the humanistic aspect of homosexuality.
Homosexuals are not demons from a lower planet! They are not plotting to take over the world, destroy the social fabric, or corrupt the minds of young children. Neither are they any more disordered, disturbed, insane, or sinful than others. While these viewpoints are obviously ignorant and uninformed, many devotees cling to them and incorporate such ideas into their Krsna conscious philosophy and preaching. The truth is that except for their innate homosexual orientation, gays and lesbians are essentially no different than anyone else and share all the same basic human needs and requirements. We should remember that all human beings are precious and deserve genuine understanding, treatment, and compassion. Punishing, stigmatizing, or excluding people just for their homosexual orientation has a negative impact not only on the homosexuals themselves, but also for society as a whole.
I hope these nine points will help devotees understand sexual orientation and homosexuality more clearly and cohesively. We are not these bodies. We are eternal servants of Krsna and must always identify as such. However, practically recognizing a person's present material body-type and dealing with it appropriately in Krsna consciousness is not the same as misidentifying with the body. It's just common sense.