About Your Sexuality: Religion and the Homosexual

Richard S. Gilbert – Rochester, NY – April 13, 1975


This is a call to the living,
To those who refuse to make peace with evil,
With the suffering and waste of the world.

This is a call to the human,
Not the perfect,
To those who know their own prejudices,
Who have no intention
Of becoming prisoners of their own limitations.

This is a call to those who remember the dreams of their youth,
Who know what it means to share food and shelter,
The care of children and those who are troubled,
To reach beyond the barriers of the past
Bringing persons into communion.

This is a call to the never-ending spirit of the human person,
That person’s essential decency,
That person’ s integrity beyond all education and wealth,
That person’s unending capacity to face death and destruction and to rise again
And build from the ruins of his or her life.

This is the greatest call of all
The call to a faith in people.

READING: The Span of Life Passes

The span of life passes, and the time of our years is all too brief.
Let us, therefore, make room in our fellowship for those who have need of our love.

  • make room for the interim person who has given up the past but cannot find a future;
  • make room for the withdrawn who alone know their own woes

and have not yet found the courage to share them.

Let them sense that ours is not a judging fellowship
and that each of us at some time is agonized by our own regretful conduct
and stands in need of forgiveness;

  • make room for the proud who know all the answers – except the important ones;
  • make room for the sophisticate who knows how to act – except in crisis;
  • make room for the maker-of-waves who disturbs the status quo but cannot always improve upon it.

All these are the fabric of which human progress is fashioned, and all these have need of our fellowship.
There is so much in modern life hostile to human nurture.
Let us, therefore deal gently with each other and let us make room in our fellowship.
For the span of life passes, and the time of our years is all too brief.

—The Rev. Fred Cappucinno Pointe Claire, Quebec

Letter from Freud to Mrs. X – April 19,1935

Dear Mrs. X:

I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you, why do you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.) It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis.

By asking me if I can help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies which are present in every homosexual, in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of the treatment cannot be predicted.

What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed. If you make up your mind, he should have analysis with me (I don’t expect you will) he has to come over to Vienna. I have no intention of leaving here. However, don’t neglect to give me your answer.

Sincerely yours with kind wishes.


P.S. I did not find it difficult to read your handwriting. Hope you will not find my writing and my English a harder task.


At the 1973 General Assembly of our denomination in Toronto I was handed a balloon one festive evening by a fellow minister. It bore the careful inscription “straight caucus” playfully satirizing the many caucuses (black, gay, woman’s) which spring up at these tribal gatherings. He felt I was the logical founder of such a group, and so was born in jest the Unitarian Universalist Straight Caucus. As I began listing qualifications for membership including sexual orientation, style of hair and dress, marital fidelity and the like, I concluded I knew of no one else who would be eligible., We, I disbanded. Straighter than your minister there are not many (at least in some matters).

This, then, is my perspective on homosexuality. I will further confess my contact with homosexuals is somewhat limited. One of the most significant encounters was an eye-opening meeting with two homosexuals in a seminar at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley in 1970. That same year our denomination passed a resolution opposing laws prohibiting homosexual behavior between consenting adults. I supported it in principle but with little passion. Subsequently, I have had contact with members of the Unitarian Universalist Gay Caucus and of Rochester’s gay community. And for the past several weeks I have immersed myself in the literature and listened to a fascinating tape on homosexuality.

My view of homosexuality has been a rather traditional one. In my youth I learned the standard repertoire of homosexual jokes. Later, I developed a considerable distaste for homosexual activity believing first it was a sin (or its Unitarian Universalist equivalent) and later a sickness. Now that bur denomination has funded a controversial Office on Gay Affairs, the issue rises in consciousness again and demands rethinking, especially since there is a new caucus to end funding for that office. This sermon, however, will not be on denominational politics, though I personally favor the office, but on the phenomenon of homosexuality itself which informs the debate and how religious people might respond to it.

What is homosexuality? That may seem too simple a question for so informed a group as this congregation–but allow me. The term is derived from the Greek “hom” – “the same”, rather than the Latin root “homo” — “man’!  It is a life style in which persons find their basic source of intimacy, including sexual intimacy, in members of the same sex. The term “lesbian” refers to female homosexuals — lesbian from the Isle of Lesbos where the poet Sappho wrote in the 6th’century B.C. E.

Beyond this basic definition there are three questions with which we must grapple if we are to understand what has been called “the love which dares not state its name.” Is homosexuality a sin as some theologians aver? Is it a sickness, as some psychiatrists claim? Is it a variant life style, as most homosexuals claim? Sin? Sickness? Life-style?

If one reads Judeo-Christian history carefully it will soon be discovered that homosexuality is condemned as a sin before God. The Old Testament story of Sodom has been interpreted as God’s punishment for homosexuality though modern Biblical criticism challenges that view. It is unequivocally condemned in Leviticus along with masturbation, intercourse with a woman during menstruation and other offenses. The reasons appear to be a repudiation of the homosexual excesses of the pagan world and a desire to replenish this depleted nomadic people — spilling seed would violate God’s command to be fruitful and multiply.

There is nothing of homosexuality in the Gospels, but Paul, as usual, speaks out forthrightly against it. This sets the scene for centuries of condemnation and persecution of same sex practices. When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century there was intense persecution of homosexuals and the act was outlawed. Augustine and Aquinas continued the trend which was to inform the Western legal tradition.

The German theologian Helmut Thielke forcefully states one contemporary Christian view of homosexuality. He maintains it is basically “unnatural;” that is, it violates the created order of God which is heterosexual after the Creation story in Genesis. It is not a “Christian” form of encounter between .two persons though “it is nevertheless very certainly a search for the totality of the other human being.” A person should be “saved” from homosexuality if possible. Aversion to this orientation is ineradicably embedded in human nature. And while arguing against any legal restraint on homosexual behavior between consenting adults, he concludes the most Christian thing for a homosexual is to sublimate his or her sexual urges. Thielke illustrates the contortions through which many Christian scholars go to use the Bible as an ethical norm for the present.

Most realize Biblical teachings are conditioned by the culture in which they were written and read, yet there seems to be a compulsion to somehow justify that ancient position. More important, however, is Thielke’s contention that homosexuality is “unnatural,” against God’s “created order.” I am not as confident as he that I know what God had in mind for human sexuality, if we can speak of God as mind at all. I am more of the naturalistic view that human evolution has favored the human species because of our capacity for variety of expressions – racially, temperamentally, sexually. It should also be noted that anthropological studies of 76 societies indicate that in only 1/3 of them is the practice disapproved. That, plus the fact that homosexuality is common in the animal kingdom, raise a serious doubt as to whether we can say it is” unnatural” or “out of tune with the universe.”

Furthermore, I do not agree that sin is a state of existence, be it homosexuality or heterosexuality, but that we human beings are living processes capable of much evil and much good. The good or evil in a particular sexual orientation or act is not in some abstract teaching about violation of the “created order,” but what the orientation or act means and does to the people involved. Any sex act can be right or wrong depending on the situation — love, respect for self and other, care, concern, self-giving, fidelity or inhibiting growth, manipulation of persons, violation of love – these are what determine the rightness or wrongness of an act.

Before we turn away from religion’s negative contribution to sexual ethics in self-righteousness, I might point out that Horatio Alger, Jr., that monument to the American idea of success, that apostle of the straight-laced was, without very much of a doubt, homosexual. Further, it seems he left the Unitarian Church of Brewster, Massachusetts, in disgrace for “the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys.” There is a skeleton in the Unitarian Universalist closet — and think what this might do to modern day apostles the Horatio Alger myth.

A corollary of homosexuality as sin is homosexuality as crime. Sodomy (the term derived from the Old Testament’ story) is a’ crime in 45 of the 50 states, and while it refers to such “unnatural acts” as anal and mouth to genital intercourse, those who have been prosecuted under it by and large are homosexuals. Furthermore, while we fear for our life in the streets, many policemen are “entrapping” homosexuals in parks and bars. Were the laws to be equally and stringently enforced, it is likely our whole prison system would collapse.

Our archaic laws on this matter stem directly from inhuman elements in our religious tradition. Homosexuality was a crime punishable by death in England until 1861 when a life-term was substituted. Then came the Wolfenden Report, and the 1957 law which stated that “homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private can be no longer a criminal offense.” Slowly we are making legal progress — a similar law in New York City was recently passed and very recently two male homosexuals were granted a marriage license in Colorado.

The irony of our legal approach should not escape us. We send persons to prison for homosexual behavior when our prisons are notorious for their often brutal homosexual activities. A second irony is found in a graffiti from a San Francisco washroom: “I won a medal for killing four men and got a dishonorable discharge for loving one. Vietnam Vet.”

Is homosexuality a sickness? There is much debate on this question in psychological circles with no clear resolution. It is true that members of the American Psychiatric Association in 1974 voted to remove homosexuality from the list of recognized disorders, stating it is not a disease but a form of sexual orientation that requires treatment only when the individual concerned is disturbed by it. A mere vote will not settle the issue, however. Is homosexuality a deviation, which implies a moral judgment, or a variation which recognizes difference of orientation without judgment? Freud, despite his later view that it was variation not sickness, generally felt any sexual orientation taking precedence over heterosexuality represented a defect in psycho-sexual development. Some variation of this view has dominated the field until recently. Interestingly, psychiatrists meet mainly the gays coming for treatment because they are sick; if I were to judge heterosexuality by couples coming to me for counseling, I might conclude it too was a sickness.

There is no one generally accepted theory of the cause of homosexuality which gives us a clue on the deviation/variation question. There is apparently no compelling evidence for a biological cause; the theory of the dominant mother/passive father has as many detractors as backers; I know two staunch heterosexuals from such an environment for at least one exception. In short, we simply do not know very much about the complex dynamics of homosexuality or heterosexuality as a preference. There is even a small but growing body of evidence that homosexuals are not only as healthy as heterosexuals but, in some cases, more healthy. The studies are mainly the work of a gay psychiatrist whose objectivity I questioned until I realized most research on the Gay Community is done by heterosexuals. When one considers the persecution, discrimination and repression directed at homosexuals, one wonders at strength of personality to withstand the attack and maintain the lifestyle.

If there is a sickness in the gay community, it may be self-hatred engendered by a prejudicial society. This week I heard a young boy on tape say suicide was a constant companion because of the hostility of society, including even his parents. I also heard the vituperations heaped on young Bill Johnson, a West Coast gay minister seeking ordination, by churchmen: “You make me sick. All my life I’ve been a good family man. You’re a disgrace, not a man. If this is what the church wants, I won’t be a part of it.” And another Christian: “I hope you’re happy, you pervert. This is going to destroy the church!” And he spit in Bill’s face.

Dr. George Weinberg, in Society and the Healthy Homosexual, writes about a sickness which he calls “homophobia”—fear of homosexuality. He believes no one can be mentally healthy who has not conquered prejudice toward gay people. He describes homophobia in much the same way Gordon Allport describes racial prejudice, emerging often out of a need to feel superior. He believes homophobia is irrational social prejudice, an acute conventionality which condemns because of difference. It would seem that homosexuality as sin or sickness mainly has the liability of being different, the title of a very moving book by Merle Miller. Fortunately, that difference is becoming no longer a cause for self-hatred but a source of pride in the Gay liberation movement. The closet door is coming open and replacing “homosexuals” are proud and gay human beings.

Is homosexuality then a life style and nothing more? I think one of the most helpful delineations of homosexuality was developed by Kinsey’s studies. He tries to break out of labeling or categorizing people, writing: “Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.” His continuum has seven points beginning with a zero category for those who exhibit exclusively heterosexual behavior, moving toward the center position 3 for the bi-sexuals who find sexual enjoyment in both sexes and continuing to six for those who exhibit exclusively homosexual behavior. There are perhaps 2-4 million males in this latter category, about 1/3 as many females, and about 15 million in the country who are exclusively or predominantly homosexual. Many more have had homosexual experiences but would not be classified homosexual.

In life style homosexuals are more like heterosexuals than not. One theologian writes: “…gay people have careers. They have straight friends. They have mothers and fathers. They have sons and daughters (by heterosexual marriages). They celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. They eat out and laugh, and cry and argue. They have indigestion and unmown yards. They are affronted and befriended. They pay taxes, go to school, attend church, and have birthdays. In short, they have an everyday just as straights do. This day doesnt last from 8pm until 1am when the bars, are full. Their lives aren’t all spent in bed, in tears, in therapy, in prison or in ecstasy.”

It should be pointed out in all honesty that gay males tend to have short term relationships — for several_ reasons: men are less stable in relationship (I am told); society discourages same sex relationships; there are usually no children to, keep them together. But it should also be pointed out that according to Kinsey the lesbian relationship tends to be more stable than the heterosexual relationship.

What do gays do sexually in this variant life style?” They do everything heterosexual couples do except penile-vaginal intercourse — nothing more exciting or mysterious than that. As one author said: “What characterizes an act as homosexual is not the act itself but the fact the partners are of the same sex.”

There are so many stereotypes I should like to explode: that one can spot homosexuals, which reminds me of a story told by a homosexual, of a dinner party where a Member of the British Parliament said to him in fatherly tones: “You’ve no idea how many of them there are about. I’ve got a knack of recognizing them, and if you’d seen as many as I have, you’d be horrified by it!” The myth of playing the traditional male/female sex roles should be ended. Furthermore, homosexuaLity is not contagious on contact. It is heterosexuals who are the main child abusers. And so. on it goes.

And Gays can be gay: This story appeared in the Unitarian Universalist Gay Caucus Newsletter: “Two gay men were walking along a beach and this absolutely terrific, very beautiful woman walked by. The two men stopped and gazed at the lovely woman, and one sighed and said to the other: “You know, it’s times like this when I wish I were a lesbian.”

But we are left with a disturbing challenge by those who oppose both the Office on Gay Affairs and “The Invisible Minority,” an award-winning filmstrip on homosexuality in our “About Your Sexuality Curriculum.” The ‘challenge is this: for some heterosexual family life is normative in our society. Our current denominational programming, it is contended, will encourage our young people into homosexual behavior, thus deviating from the norm and threatening the stability of the family. How are we to respond to that view?

I want to do it in the most personal way, by asking myself this question: would I want my sons to become homosexuals? I suppose if am honest with myself I would have to say no. I would fear the discrimination they would face; I have a personal proclivity for heterosexual behavior in a married setting; I have a personal preference for the joys of nuclear family life, including my sons; I would not want that experience denied them.

Yet my answer cannot stop there, for I also want my sons to know about the gay world, about a variant life style which they will surely contact in friends and acquaintances. I do not want to hide this life style from them, nor do I want to brainwash them in my own predilections. They will know where I stand, how I feel — .what is my preference; but they will also know I value my contacts with men and love them, that I have been physically affectionate with them as well as with their mother; that they are free human beings in a religious tradition which cherishes the right of each to choose his or her own lifestyle.

This rhetorical question I ask myself has some deeper meanings. I know now that I have become pre-occupied with genital sexual activity in my understanding of homosexuals. Everything is squeezed through sexuality. First and foremost, homosexuals are persons with ideas, feelings, beliefs, values and a particular sexual orientation that tells me something about them as persons, but emphatically not all. I would be tempted to name history’s homosexuals without whom our culture would be greatly impoverished: Plato, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and more, but why need I?

My question further suggests that what I must affirm above all else is human love – hetero or homosexual. All of us have an intense need for human intimacy, and that need we will seek to satisfy, or we are psychically and spiritually dead. Who am I to say that two men or two women have not found that human intimacy with each other as I have found it with my wife? Who am I to make so bold a judgment that this love is inferior to the love I celebrate in marriage? It smacks of an arrogance I cannot bear.

One lesbian stated it well when asked about her guilt as a homosexual: “I have always associated my ability to love with the best things in me.  It was a positive feeling and not a negative one. I thought it was the best I could offer, when I loved somebody and wanted us to be happy. I always associated it with the beautiful and the true and the best I could think of, and therefore there was no shame.”

If my sons should choose a homosexual life style, I suppose there would inevitably be initial disappointment. I can only hope this would soon give way to affirming them as persons and cherishing. variation in human experience. I would only hope and pray I would continue to affirm them as my sons and hope for them human intimacy which would further enrich their humanity.

A nun wrote this letter to her younger brother who told her he was homosexual: “Dear Michael: Today you revealed to me an intimate part of your Life. Something I have long suspected, but now it has been verbalized. I did cry for one moment; one short, yet eternal moment. I cried because you doubted my acceptance of you. I will, I always will.”

We are all more human than otherwise. We need each other – gay and straight – male and female. We must learn to celebrate our common humanity in full recognition of our differences. We are all more human than otherwise.

I close with the conclusion of Merle Miller’s book On Being Different: “Gay is good. Gay is proud. Well, yes, I Suppose. If had been given a choice (but who is?) I would prefer to have been straight. But then, would I rather not have been me? Oh, I think not this morning anyway. It is a very clear day in late December, and the sun is shining on the pine trees outside my studio. The air is extraordinarily clear, and the sky is the color it gets only at this time of year, dark, almost navy-blue. On such a day I would not choose to be anyone else or any place else.”


We are all of one life.
We share a common origin and a common destiny.
Whatever there is in life of good or evil,
We are of it together.
There is enough of suffering and waste in the world,
Every life is precious.
We owe it to one another
To make life sweet, not bitter.

Richard S. Gilbert

The Rev. Dr. Richard S. Gilbert retired in 2005 after serving 44 years in the Unitarian Universalist ministry in Cleveland, Ohio, Golden, Colorado, Ithaca, New York, and for 32 years at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York. He received an M.Div. from St. Lawrence University Theological School, a D.Min. from Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and honorary doctorates from St. Lawrence University, Meadville Lombard Theological School, and Starr King School for the Ministry.

He is the author of the Building Your Own Theology adult religious education series, as well as three Skinner House Books: The Prophetic Imperative: Social Gospel in Theory and Practice, How Much Do We Deserve? An Inquiry in Distributive Justice, and In the Holy Quiet of This Hour, a book of meditations.

Leave a Reply