Conversation with Terry Murray on Sexual Minorities, Religion, and the UK

SJ: What is the general perspective of the Christian population of the sexual minority population in the United Kingdom?

TM: I’m an ex-Christian so I can’t speak as a member of that group. My answer will be my impression as an outsider.  For sexual minorities of faith, there is always a dilemma between reformation or apostasy. The problem for those who wish to reform from within, which is a worthy aspiration, is that their efforts may be repeatedly thwarted for decades, with little more than nominal “changes” occurring.

We saw a good example of that last February when The House of Bishops report was received with widespread disappointment by lesbian and gay members of the Church of England. While the report said the church needed to repent of homophobic attitudes and called for a “fresh tone and culture of welcome and support” towards lesbian and gay Christians, it also said that it did not propose to change its “one man – one woman” definition of marriage. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s chief executive Tracey Byrne said: “The Church of England has spent almost three years and £350,000 in a careful process of ‘Shared Conversations’ about sexuality” and that “LGBTI+ people who have participated in this process in good faith, at considerable personal cost, will feel angry and disappointed that there appears so little real change.”

In July 2017, however, The General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion on welcoming transgender people. Members of Synod, meeting in York, supported a call for the House of Bishops to consider preparing nationally commended liturgical materials to mark a person’s gender transition. The vote comes after bishops overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for a ban on “unethical” conversion therapy for gay Christians. I think most LGBTI Christians will be naïve in viewing the embrace of ‘transgender’ blessing ceremonies as a progressive move by the Church, but I have argued that the ‘transgender’ identity itself functions as a diagnostic label, and is itself just a highly persuasive (and apparently ‘liberal’) re-branding of gay conversion therapy. This would explain the Church’s inconsistency in maintaining its homophobic ban on same sex marriage while showing encouragement towards re-naming ceremonies for people who claim they are transgender.

Now, instead of being subjected to conversion treatment by parents or doctors, self-described ‘patients’ have voluntarily consented in using gender reassignment surgery as a cure for their ‘condition’ (gender dysphoria). The problem is that this whole conceptual model is deeply conservative in its premises about gender, as well as in its methods and tactics (basically stigmatizing and then censoring anyone who disagrees with those premises as some kind of bigot, which actually reverses the real situation).

SJ: Is religion one of the major sources of bigotry against sexual minorities?

TM: Without doubt. However, religion is not univocal. In the ‘big three’ monotheistic religions there are humanitarian, modernising liberal strains and more traditional conservative doctrines. But conservative religious figures can always monopolise the religion, as is happening in Islam with Salafi-Wahhabists defining how Islam is actually practiced in Muslim immigrant communities. Meanwhile, well-meaning fully integrated Muslims who do not live in conservative sub-communities sanitise the image of Islam, unaware that they are helping Salafists to maintain good PR.  In each of the big three monotheistic religions, the authorities tend to be conservative. In general, they also have an inordinate fixation on sex – and particularly on female sexuality. This might explain why pornography is most popular in religiously conservative countries like Pakistan where sexual relations are strictly policed. According to data released by Google, six of the top eight porn-searching countries are Muslim states, with Pakistan toppings the list at number one. Repression breeds perversion and leads to a distorted fetishization of human sexuality, not as a natural part of human life like anything else, but as a ‘problematic’ area that must be obsessively policed and controlled.

Conservative religious views of ‘creation’ cling to the view that all healthy humans possess innate heterosexuality – a belief based on the compatibility of male and female genitals for procreation (reproduction). Accordingly, homosexuals are defective or disordered heterosexuals. Even when the Vatican finally acknowledged that homosexual orientation is innate (not a choice) in its 1975 Encyclical Persona Humana, they pathologized it in the same stroke, calling it “intrinsically disordered” and “incurable”. Effectively they regarded the homosexually orientated person as born with an innate predisposition to ‘sin’, which made the person’s homosexuality a kind of moral illness or defect.

What makes this diagnosis interesting is that ‘illness’ is religiously defined. The ‘patient’ actually feels better than ever when he expresses his inner (“disordered”) nature; he finds a sense of well-being that repressing his “incurable disorder” had rendered impossible.  But natural theology would nevertheless say that he is sick.

SJ: Are sexual minorities more or less likely to be religious?

TM:  A PEW survey of Americans (I can’t find stats for the UK) found that LGBT adults are less religious than the general public. Roughly half (48%) said they have no religious affiliation, compared with 20% of the public at large. Of those LGBT adults who are religiously affiliated, one-third said there is a conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexual orientation or gender identity. And among all LGBT adults, about three-in-ten (29%) said they have been made to feel unwelcome in a place of worship.

Many sexual minorities have no safe choice but to live as though they were heterosexuals, and in many cases they also choose prudently to live as though they were believers. More than seventy countries continue to outlaw homosexual behavior, with penalties ranging from one year to life imprisonment.  Six Islamist states impose the death penalty, and in provinces of other countries gay and lesbian acts are punished under Sharia law by stoning. Even in states where it is perfectly legal to ‘come out’ many homosexuals risk rejection and disinheritance from their families if they do so.  This might explain the higher rates of depression and suicide among homosexual teens. Recent North American and New Zealand studies of large populations (especially the US Youth Risk Behavior Surveys from several States) indicate that gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents (and males in particular) can have rates of serious suicide attempts which are least four times those in apparently heterosexual youth. It also explains the higher rates of homelessness among LGBT youth. The UCLA Williams Institute, found that 40% of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBT. This is especially alarming given that LGBT youth represent a relatively low percentage of the general population.

Then too, many religious sceptics are forced to live as though they were believers. A recent Pew Research Center analysis found that, as of 2014, about a quarter of the world’s countries and territories (26%) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and that more than one-in-ten (13%) nations had laws or policies penalizing apostasy. The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death.  The Study found laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, but blasphemy laws can be found in all regions, including Europe (in 16% of countries) and the Americas (29%).

Many sexual minorities have been brought up within a religious culture. Religion may form an important part of their belief system or ‘identity’. But a person’s religious identity can come into conflict with other aspects of the person’s identity, such as his or her sexual orientation or his or her intellectual curiosity. I like how Amartya Sen thinks of identity not just as something we discover, or find ourselves inhabiting, but as something we acquire and earn. It is not that we can just chose any identity we wish to, as though we had no background conditions, but that we have some freedom of choice (within cultural constraints) in the priority we give to the identities we may have.  Despite the tyrannical implications of putting persons into the rigid boxes of their given “communities”, says Sen, “that [communitarian] view is frequently interpreted, rather bafflingly, as … individual freedom.”  Sen asks, I think rightly, whether a person’s relation to [his nation] must be mediated through the “culture” of the family in which he or she has been born.

SJ: Does the irreligious community provide protections for sexual minorities in the United Kingdom from the dominant faiths that tend to explicitly (in religious texts and in social life) express open bigotry and even contempt for sexual minorities?

TM: There is a genuine will to do so among secular organisations and in the UK there are also ex-Jehovah’s Witness organisations and Ex-Muslims groups.  However, the latter face constant accusations of bigotry – the new trope used by real bigots (religious bigots) to shut down freedom of speech and criticism of their intolerance.  Sexual minorities within the practicing religious communities face real dangers and threats of violence from family members and others in the community.  They can always leave the community if they have sufficient financial means and language ability, but some do not…. especially women.

Then too there must be a frame of reference from which an individual can recognise his own possibilities.  One cannot recognise oneself as “gay” or “lesbian” if one cannot fathom this possibility. Homosexuality is frequently the love that has no name. I know this myself from my own past experience. I had internalised my community’s Christian homophobia to such an extent that I was homophobic, and it takes a long hard struggle to shake that off and to recognise one’s own longings for what they are. One needs opportunities to meet homosexuals or at least to see them represented in some form.

SJ: What is the main confusion about sexual minorities that people simply don’t get?

Heterosexuals just know, and do not need to be taught, what turns them on (sexually). It is the same for homosexuals. All of the available empirical evidence suggests that being homosexual is not defective heterosexuality, but another natural variant of human sexual nature. Now one could wonder how homosexuality could conceivably be natural, since it seems to contradict the reproductive function of the human genitals.  Apparently, homosexuality could only be a malfunction or ‘mis-match’ between the brain and the genitals.  But this is to read the body too literally, and not down to the genes and chromosomes, where most evidence for a ‘naturalistic’ homosexuality is to be found.  Darwin himself understood that survival of the species is not only about competition but also about cooperation.  Only Herbert Spencer’s followers and Social Darwinists over-emphasised the competitive ‘survival of the fittest’ competitive struggle. Where resources are scarce, and the population is growing at a rapid rate, homosexuality provides a benefit to the population by lowering the birth rate and thereby the population. This means that there are more resources available for the population as a whole.  Not all humans have to reproduce. It is actually better for everyone if some do not.  Aesthetically, heterosexuals may not like people who do not conform to stereotypical ideals of masculinity or femininity, but biodiversity is not only about human constructions and tastes…. it is about us as a diverse species with beneficial variations.  We eliminate biodiversity at our peril.

SJ: What will it take to broaden the landscape of perception about sexuality and gender identity?

TM: I will sound biased for saying this, but less religion and myth. Fewer cultural fantasies that are propagated by religion, the mass media and porn industries, and more empiricism. This is unlikely, however, since all of our experience, our empirical observations, are today ‘mediated’ through the lenses of a culture that powerful capitalist hegemonic forces have implanted in our minds from a very early age, and projected onto our experiences. So it is hard to see the world stripped of mythical prejudice or bias.  Taking off those lenses is almost impossible but I think a return to Plato’s cave analogy is appropriate here – we need to see the light of day.

SJ: In a way, the mainstream faiths have been around longer and have forced through even threat of death the idea of a sexual binary, or the idea that men and women were created in God’s image in the Garden of Eden.

They have been around longer and have used harsh and brutal methods to inculcate this in societies, whether through the Russian Orthodox Church in the Putin Regime, in Constantinian Christianity with Constantinople, as well as America with evangelical Christianity, and so on, to take one faith.

Then when fields such as gender studies conceptualize a broader landscape, granted in over-complicated terminology, about human sexuality and gender identity, the dominant faith representatives, who are often heterosexual men, grumble, moan, and hurl epithets such about “radical gender ideologues.” How do we bridge the gap, broaden the landscape, and not get bloodied in the process?

TM:  Well, as I said above, the dominant faith representatives will embrace new conceptualizations and new semantics about sexuality so long as doing so confirms their idea of a sexual binary. One thing most people don’t know is how insidious religion is. For example, despite the traditional wisdom that “Hollywood is run by Jews”, the Catholic Church have a very longstanding ‘relationship’ with the Hollywood film industry, which now has global reach.

Religious authorities today continue to spread the gender ‘binary’ faith – ironically – through the Trans movement, which they support. This is because the Trans concept maintains the gender binary and its conservative stereotypes about men and women, as I have argued elsewhere.

The epithets go both ways.  Gender-critical feminists like myself are liable to be branded and stigmatized as “femiNazis”, ‘TERFs’ or “Transphobes” before anyone actually listens to our arguments. A better term for us would be ‘Trans-sceptics’. !  I come to this topic as someone who personally (before giving it much reflection) self-diagnosed as “gender dysphoric”.  As my understanding of the role of gender in patriarchal culture deepened, and as I came to understand that the disciplinary technologies and institutions like medicine work in a less than objective way, I came to realise that I had been duped.

As soon as Trans Activists see that we have some reservations about the “Trans rights” movement, they dismiss us, assuming that we could only be motivated by bigotry.  This is dangerous not only for us but equally for them – because Trans sceptics are trying to explain how the category of “Transgender” has been incorporated into a medical framework that will be used eugenically in the future, and not for the progressive ends of fostering diversity.

One thought on “Conversation with Terry Murray on Sexual Minorities, Religion, and the UK

  1. Sexuality is just the animal nature we all share. Plants are less obvious actors. Removing sexual activity from the public space seems to be a requirement for civil order, except for the plant kingdom. Can you imagine some born-again railing against interspecies pollination.

    It is very likely that all the subsets of sexual identity would fade away if it weren’t for the omnipresence of religious practice. Naturally society will have to maintain sexual criminality standards to protect us all. Sexual conduct between privately consenting adults is what has to be normalized. If we keep on suppressing freedom to choose we will perpetuate people being overly concerned about ordinary human life as practiced on a daily routine.

    What we should be obsessing about is the dire need to practice healthy family-planning heterosexual relationships. The gay community is way out in front on this important agenda.

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