Ponderlust: Practicing patience in the Valley of Search

PONDERLUST

By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

“There are resources to help you change.”

“I’m not sure I want to change,” I say quietly, as if it were really an option.

The stapled print out of religious verses on chastity and obedience, with their implications of lifelong repression, feel heavy in my clenched hand.

I need time and space to think. The picnic table is constricting me. The best I can muster in one of life’s defining moments is, “I’m not sure.” But I am sure.

The prior fall I had read a passage from the Bahá’í Writings at a 9/11 memorial service. It advised: “In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.”

Something grew in my big gay heart all right: a hard queer crush on the dreamy, androgynous senior photo editor of my college paper.

This new interest combined with my apathy toward Cosmo’s “Guy Without His Shirt” feature flipped a switch. Women’s Studies 100 and Kate Bornstein’s “My Gender Workbook” confirmed it: I was a homosexual.

So when an old high school friend reached across the backseat of our friend’s car to touch my hand, I didn’t question what I was feeling. But it was dark that night, and we were among “family.” The rest of the world would be less kind, including my religious parents.

A few weeks later, with coffee cart smoothies in hand, we sat in the sunny public park and talked. They still loved me, but we all knew what the Bahá’í Faith — the faith I had freely chosen an inquisitive middle schooler — had to say about homosexuality.

Most Bahá’ís I interacted with at the time (the faith has no clergy) treated me with aversion, pity, or outright antagonism.

It didn’t make sense. My religion had taught me that women and men are equal, that the soul has no gender, that honesty is paramount, and that faith is all about love. But that same faith labeled my affections as an affliction, threatened to punish me for being myself too flagrantly.

So, I took a step back. I resigned as president of the Bahá’í Campus Association I had helped found, sent an email to my Bahá’í classmates explaining my departure, and proceeded to nervously avoid eye contact if they saw me with my girlfriend. In return, they stopped inviting me to holy day observances, gatherings at the Boston Bahá’í Center, and dinners. I’m not sure I blame them.

With one chord cut, the others became weaker and some snapped. I tried alcohol. I stopped fasting. My prayers became infrequent. But I never floated away completely. I reached out to other LGBTQ Bahá’ís online, where we created a close-knit community.

Last spring, a few of us video chatted for the first time. I recognized that long-lost feeling of connection that had fed me as a youth. My spirit felt lifted.

Emboldened by the support of my far-flung virtual family, I recently attended a talk at the Portland Bahá’í Center on “Homosexuality and Social Discourse.” I was nervous. Despite living within walking distance of the center for two years, I’d only attended one or two Bahá’í gatherings in the last decade.

I won’t lie — there were a few cringe-worthy moments. Phrases and assumptions that stung. But on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by how sincerely interested the group was in learning about the experiences of LGBTQ people, in the faith and society.

We focused on the following quote from a 2010 letter sent by the Bahá’í Faith’s elected governing body, the Universal House of Justice:

“The fundamental purpose of the Faith of Bahá’ú’lláh is the realization of the organic unity of the entire human race, and Bahá’ís are enjoined to eliminate from their lives all forms of prejudice and to manifest respect toward all. Therefore, to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice or disdain would go against the spirit of the Faith. Furthermore, a Bahá’í is exhorted to be ‘an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression,’ and it would be entirely appropriate for a believer to come to the defense of those whose fundamental human rights are being denied or violated.”

One attendee asked about the fundamental human rights LGBTQ people are denied and sparked a discussion about struggles we face that have little to do with sex, love, or marriage. Another posited that Bahá’ís may sometimes use Bahá’í law to justify their homophobia, instead of working to root it out like we do racism and sexism.

As one of the two out (and possibly only) queer people present, I answered more questions than I asked. And people listened.

To an outsider, these may seem like small victories, but I’ll take them. If my parents can look at my relationship and see past who I love to how well they love me, perhaps one day my faith community can shift its focus from my body to my spirit.

Bah-what? Use your Google finger for the basics and hit me up your theological musings at erin@pqmonthly.com.

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