Religion's Contribution to Homophobia

April 1996

Homophobia: A behavioral syndrome involving intense fear, hostility, hatred and intolerance of homosexual behavior.

The most recent and divisive issue in Utah is the proposed organization of gay and lesbian clubs in public high schools. Last December, an East High student in Salt Lake City petitioned the school to form a gay and lesbian club, justifying its need because she believes "many gay students feel like they're alone." Studies verify the fact that gay teens are ridiculed and rejected more often than others, and as a consequence, lose self-esteem, frequently fail classes, drop out of school, or even commit suicide.

State Senator Charles Stewart, Provo, (over)reacted to the student proposal by labeling homosexuality as "bad" and "bestial." The church-owned Deseret News followed with an editorial urging the Salt Lake City School Board to "draw a clear line" against such clubs because homosexual activities are "an abomination." The article even suggested that homosexuals should get help to change their orientation. This admonition was congruent with the 1991 Mormon First Presidency's statement which reads, "such thoughts and feelings, regardless of their causes, can and should be overcome, and sinful behavior should be eliminated."

On February 20, the Salt Lake School Board decided by a 4-3 vote to eliminate all student clubs in order to keep the gay/straight club out of the schools. Three days later, hundreds of students from both East and West high schools protested the Board's decision by walking out of school, some marching to the Capitol where Utah legislators were meeting. There appeared to be two reasons for the student walkout. One side supported the gay alliance, and the other side was angry about the banning of all clubs in school.

On the same day of the protest, the Utah Senate passed Bill 246, which "prohibits school employees from supporting immoral or illegal conduct." As an educator, I am offended with the implications in the Bill because of its effect on our First Amendment right to express a private opinion. I am also disturbed with the hasty, and allegedly illegal manner in which our senators passed the Bill, which brings me to my premise: Religious belief can contribute to the irrational fear called homophobia.

John Boswell, a historian, asserts in his book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, that "for many centuries Catholic Europe showed no hostility to homosexuality. The primary ammunition for the Church's position against homosexuality came from the writings of Saints Augustine (b. 354 AD), and Thomas Aquinas (b. 1224) who both suggested that any sexual acts that could not lead to conception were unnatural and therefore sinful. Using this line of reasoning, the Church became a potent force in the regulation (and punishment) of sexual behavior. While some homosexuals were mildly rebuked and given prayer as penitence, others were tortured or burned at the stake."

It is high time we recognize that homophobia is a maladaptive fear-a vestige from the ancient, superstitious past which needs to be eradicated because it results in hostility, hatred, and intolerance of others. Those civic leaders who use scriptures or ecclesiastical edicts to justify their legislative decisions need to realize they are favoring the majority and ignoring many citizens who do not believe in their prejudicial premise. We should be wary of politicians and religious leaders who imply they know what god wants for all of us. Carol Tavris, social psychologist, writes, "There's a difference between what God wants and what fallible humans believe God wants to suit their own purposes."

What we're contending with is a State Legislature whose composition is 90% patriarchal, the majority of whom believe have they have a direct line to the Almighty. However, Supreme Court Justice Blackmun reminds us of the dangers when religion attempts to supersede the democratic process. "Democracy requires the nourishment of dialogue and dissent, while religious faith puts its trust in an ultimate divine authority above all human deliberation. When the government appropriates religious truth, it transforms rational debate into theological decree. Those who disagree no longer are questioning the judgment of the elected, but the rules of a higher authority who is beyond reproach." (1992) In the long run, it will be interesting to see if "theological decree" will overrule the democratic principle of "equal treatment under the law."

This volatile issue also raises the question, "Shouldn't lawmakers, school boards, and other civil leaders make decisions based on the most recent scientific data available, rather than rely on the medieval, and harmful opinion that homosexuality is sinful, bestial, and abominable?" Scientific studies now indicate that sexual orientation is mostly determined by the time of birth, through hormonal factors and/or genetic coding; and that trying to change one's nature through a zapping behavior modification program is almost impossible.

We have an obligation as human beings to behave in a rational and civilized manner by providing equal treatment and equal access, especially in our schools. It's contradictory and discriminatory to provide one group an incredible amount of State support (such as the LDS seminary program, where use of public school personnel is an everyday occurrence) and not provide the gay/straight alliance any recognition at all. Our school boards and legislators need to be reminded that the purpose of the First Amendment and the function of the Supreme Court is to protect the rights of unpopular minorities.

We should be comforting the lonely and confused by practicing the democratic and humanistic principles which help people function better. Bette Chambers, editor of Free Mind, put it well when she wrote, "All human life must seek a reason for existence…and it is love coupled with empathy, democracy, and a commitment to selfless service, which under gird the faith of a humanist." We can only have faith that reason will prevail as the powers in Utah wrestle with the realities of this important Civil Rights issue.

--Nancy Moore