God and gays: Does the Bible actually condemn us?

By Neil “Nikki” Heilpern, PQ Monthly

Author Jay Michaelson spoke at the Q Center in April. Behind him, Debra Kolodny, rabbi for Portland’s Jewish Renewal congregation Pnai Or, checks out his book, “God vs. Gay?” Photo by Neil Heilpern, PQ Monthly

Why does one group of “religious” people wave “God Hates Fags” signs, while others display signs reading “My God Loves Everyone!”?

Two concepts stand out in the message of author Jay Michaelson: “understanding” and “compassion.”

We need more accurate knowledge of what religious texts actually say about homosexuality, he says, but LGBTQ people need to learn compassion not only for themselves as a persecuted minority, but for the many people who have been erroneously taught negative ideas about gays based on misinterpretations of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

We are urged to love our neighbor, but nowhere do Bibles say “except gays, lesbians, or transgenders,” Michaelson said during talks held April 17 at Portland State University and the Q Center. Michaelson was in Portland to promote his book, “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality.”

Michelson’s message: “Religious people should favor gay rights because of religion, not despite it.”
A student of the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) and the Christian New Testament, he calls sexual diversity “part of the divine plan.”

“Not only does the Bible not prohibit same-sex intimacy, it honors values of equality, intimacy, love, justice, diversity, and compassion,” he wrote. “Careful study of both teachings actually supports gay rights.”

Anti-gay activists have little understanding of various biblical passages that are often pulled out of context, he noted, calling the small handful of verses dealing with same-sex behavior, “ambiguous, limited, and widely misunderstood.”

The sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, he said, but of unethical behavior, rape, and not being welcoming to strangers, violating both Hebrews 13:2 and Romans 12.“The Babylonian Talmud also associates Sodom with abuse of strangers, pride, envy, cruelty to animals, theft, murder, and injustice,” Michelson added.

The Sodomite people who lusted after two strangers (angels) visiting Abraham’s nephew Lot were not gay, but they were rapists. Loving intimacy that one can find in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships had nothing to do with what happened in Sodom.

The Hebrew word “toeveh” is erroneously translated as “abomination.” Careful examination of the 103 times “toeveh” is used in the Tanakh shows the reference is to “non Israelite cultic practices,” not homosexuality.

“Homosexuality is unnatural,” some people claim. Not so, argues Michaelson, noting modern science reveals hundreds of animal species with homosexual pairings as a regular part of the “natural” mixture in God’s plan.
Deuteronomy 23:18 and I Kings 14:24 tell of the Canaanites’ “gedeshim,” sacred prostitutes, both male and female, who enacted roles of god and goddesses in ecstatic, sexual rituals. This is another case of the Bible forbidding idolatry, said Michaelson, who found “toeveh” mentioned in several other books.

“Homosexuality is not a lifestyle,” Michaelson said in his chapter about not bearing false witness, including lying to others just to be safe. He called the closet “a death style.”

“Coming out is a religious act,” he added — a revelation, a struggle, with a surrender and renewal, similar to the process of “being born again” or having a “religious conversion.”

“I refuse to cede my spiritual heritage to those who do not even know of what they speak,” he wrote. “The pretenders to religious certainty do not know the geography of my soul. Our religious mandates for compassion and truthfulness require us to base decisions not on stereotypes but on reality.

“We do not know why, but we do know that sexual diversity is entirely natural, healthy, and reflective of the unknowable will of the Divine.”

The biblical quotes which right wingers use to bash gays are what Michaelson calls “clobber texts.” While some are motivated by hate, the vast majority of religious people don’t know what to do with this incorrect information they have grown up with. They are in a quandary.

“What do you do about these ‘clobber texts’ and negative chatter?” asked Michaelson. “To tell people to ‘just get over it’ isn’t understanding and doesn’t move the discussion forward.”

Michaelson urged his listeners to be aware of their internal values and be willing to give testimony to those values. This doesn’t mean we incessantly argue and debate with our detractors, but we talk of love and understanding, and share that love is a universal thing with no limits in the Mind of God.

Michaelson said taboos against homosexuality and cross dressing had nothing to do with spirituality, but were “culturally-related taboos” not supported by biblical reference.

“We are up against a fear, not wild hatred.” Noting that there are always people filled with hate, he said, “If they believe that, they are less likely to cross the divide.”

Rather than seeing ourselves fighting those who hate, Michaelson said we should be using our energy getting into discussions about mutual positive values with those in the “movable middle.”

“We just need to get them to move a little. Our first goal is to get them to stop marginalizing people. We have to remember what is at stake: our validity in the world.

“I’m not concerned about a dialogue with people who play the chess game to see who is most powerful, but I want to reach the people who are listening to them.”
Audience member Rob Lowe wanted to know “how to speak to that person with compassion,” noting they are in a vulnerable position. Michaelson responded that many Christians who have been taught supposedly anti-gay quotes from Corinthians and Romans really want to do the right thing. He says these people are in crisis and now they need another way to deal with people who are LGBTQ.

Rather than arguing and feeling a sense of opposition, he said, “We need to be queer positive. You can’t oppress the other if you see yourself as the other.”

Debra Kolodny, rabbi at Portland’s Jewish Renewal congregation Pnai Or, called Michaelson’s ideas of compassion and open conversation  “impressive.”

“The process is meaningful — understanding the love of human beings, the love of God,” Michaelson told PQ Monthly. “If more people can have more love in their lives, I’ve done my job.”

He called for a religious conversation, “not to win arguments, but to speak heart to heart with the millions of Americans who are not bigots or homophobes, but who are sincerely troubled by equality for gay people.”


Jay Michaelson is founding director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture and Spirituality, a nonprofit organization which builds community for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews, partners, and allies. His website is www.jaymichaelson.net/.