A Plea For Non-Discrimination Clauses in ISKCON's Constitution
Posted September 8, 2007
My hope is that ISKCON's new constitution will contain clear, carefully worded non-discrimination clauses to protect women and minorities. As president of GALVA (The Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association), my particular concern is with GLBTI-embodied devotees and temple guests.(1)
We have already witnessed regrettable discrimination against women in our society's recent history and there should be no doubt that various minority groups experience similar types of discrimination.(2) Such unfair bodily prejudice, when it occurs, can be damaging not only to the individual involved but also to our movement's image and ISKCON as a whole. The purpose of this plea is not to instate anything new but rather to maintain Srila Prabhupada's original mood of all-inclusiveness, bodily transcendence and fairness to every member of ISKCON.
This plea does NOT involve changing Srila Prabhupada's standards or definition of illicit sex. Nor does it involve a demand for "across-the-board" equal rights for things such as gay marriage. It is simply a request that GLBTI devotees--following all the rules and regulations of spiritual life--be treated fairly according to Srila Prabhupada's vision and example. Similarly, GLBTI devotees and guests who fall short of the standards are to be treated just as other devotees who fall short are.
Any GLBTI devotee who strictly follows the rules and regulations set by Srila Prabhupada should be allowed to engage in all basic temple activities and receive privileges for which they qualify, just like anyone else.(3) There should be no doubt Srila Prabhupada set this example with his GLBTI disciples. Similarly, GLBTI devotees and guests who fall short of the standards should nevertheless be warmly invited to participate in other various ways while living outside the temple, just as Srila Prabhupada exemplified through his dealings with his fallen GBLTI disciples, or with friends and guests such as Allen Ginsberg.
I applaud the GBC's efforts to correct discrimination against women but there are various minority groups whose grievances have yet to be addressed. At any given ISKCON center, for example, a GLBTI devotee or guest may be warmly welcomed, greeted coldly or even told in no uncertain terms to leave--simply because of their material body-type. There are many examples of this and ISKCON offers no explicit, uniform protections and guidelines in this regard. In my work with GALVA, I receive frequent complaints of discrimination and in many cases members join non-ISKCON groups because they are perceived, correctly or not, as more inclusive. One ISKCON website in particular even warns gay-embodied applicants not to bother applying for ashrama membership because they will be rejected automatically! I worry about the type of message this sends not only to new bhaktas but also to the community at large. If nothing else, it demonstrates the need for uniform standards facilitated through clear and specific non-discrimination clauses in our ISKCON Constitution.(4)
I pray to Srila Prabhupada and Krsna that anti-discrimination protections for women and all minorities will be included in the new ISKCON Constitution, set forth by good leadership. Even a few strong statements in this regard will work wonders and help remind everyone of our most basic philosophy:
"One who has knowledge of the soul and how the soul transmigrates from one body to another does not pay attention to the body, which is nothing but a covering dress. 'Panditah sama-darsinah.' Such a person sees the soul, which is part and parcel of the Supreme Lord. Therefore he is a 'sama-darsi,' a learned person." ("Srimad Bhagavatam" 9.1.33, purport)
If my plea seems like overstating the obvious, you may be surprised. Many devotees, both new and old, require constant reminders and steadfast guidelines in this regard.
(1) - GLBTI = Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersexed. I personally prefer the umbrella term "third-gender" but defer to those who have problems with it.
(2) - While the main subject matter of this article concentrates on eliminating discrimination against gender minorities (GLBTI persons), I encourage all minorities to speak up and express their own interest in this regard.
(3) - These would include basic temple activities and privileges such as living in the ashrama, taking initiation, performing "seva," cooking, worshiping the Deity, leading kirtana, giving Bhagavatam class, assuming administrative roles, receiving standard benefits, and so on.
(4) - I stress the words "clear" and "specific." History has shown that general non-discrimination clauses without specifically-named classes are ineffective and ignored at whim. The classes I would specifically suggest for protection are historically the most discriminated against and listed below:
- Gender Minorities (GLBTI persons)
- Race (Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, etc.)
- Nationality (Indian, Mexican, Iranian, etc.)
- Ethnicity (Hispanic, Jewish, Arab, Gypsy, etc.)
- Religion (previous for devotees; current for guests)
- Caste/Class (mundane birth, wealth, family occupation, etc.)
- Disability (according to written/legal guidelines)