Modern religion and queerness certainly have a complicated relationship with each other. While many queer people are religious, faith is also the foundation of some of the most virulent strands of bigotry and homophobia that exist today. But things weren’t always that way.
Where did the church’s opposition to homosexuality even stem from? The Bible, right? Well, surprisingly enough, the Bible barely mentions homosexuality at all. Only seven verses out of 35,527 (that’s .02%!) could be interpreted as being anti-queer. But more often than not, the homophobic point of view used so often to justify modern bigotry was often the result of mistranslation, miscontextualization, or misinterpretation.
Let’s look at two of the most notorious sections that are supposedly anti-gay. First, the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is where the term “sodomy” derives from, so this is clearly a foundational justification for modern religious homophobia.
Genesis 19 depicts God’s targeted wrath against the two cities, razing them by “sulfur and fire” for their wickedness. But what specifically was the “wickedness” that God took such issue with? Well, for over 1500 years after the writings of Genesis, no biblical scholars equated said wickedness with homosexuality. And modern theologians today agree that what God punished was the citizens’ lack of generosity towards others.
It wasn’t until the first century A.D. that a philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, mistakenly equated the cities’ grave sins with homosexuality. And even after that, it took centuries for Christians to accept the philosopher’s misinterpretation as correct, and thus the term “sodomite” was born. And all because of Philo’s misunderstanding!
Second, there’s the Book of Leviticus, the most oft-cited and influential book of the Bible when it comes to religious-based homophobia. Most of the book’s teachings are actually centered around the prohibition of incest.
The most famous passage, Verse 22 - “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” - seems to deal most directly with the question of same-sex attraction. However, new analysis - such as that of Dr. Idan Dershowitz, a Biblical scholar - indicates that it wasn’t included in original versions of Leviticus and that it was actually added years later by an editor.
The Bible’s depictions of same-sex affections aren’t entirely negative. One notable positive example is the story of Ruth and Naomi, a daughter and mother-in-law noted for their supreme devotion and affection to each other.
In fact, centuries ago, the Catholic Church - the most dominant voice in Christianity - had a much more relaxed stance when it came to homosexuality. While it was officially opposed to same-sex attraction, up until the 12th century, the church’s own priests were allowed to be open about their same-sex desires and even have relationships with other men. But things began to change around the 12th century. In 1179, The Third Lateran Council outlawed “sodomy”, and the Church used that word (thanks to our bigoted interpreter, Philo) to demonize queer activity for centuries thereafter.
It’s also important to note that Christians before the late 19th century had no concept of sexual orientation - in other words, identifying as gay and straight - so, in many ways, homophobia is a wholly modern invention. It’s a testament to the fact that same-sex affection and love have existed throughout human history, no matter what people today choose to believe.
Robert K. Gnuse, “Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 2015.
Lisa McClain, “A thousand years ago, the Catholic Church paid little attention to homosexuality,” The Conversation, April 10, 2019.
Idan Dershowitz, “The Secret History of Leviticus,” The New York Times, July 21, 2018.
John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, Villard Books, 1994.
John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Deryn Guest, Mona West, Robert E. Goss, Thomas Bohache, The Queer Bible Commentary, United Kingdom, SCM, 2006.
S. D. Powell, Do not press me to leave you: Narrative desire and the book of ruth, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 2015.
John C. Stephens, “The dreams of Perpetua: An historical application of the continuity hypothesis,” Stephens International Journal of Dream Research Volume 6, No. 2, 2013.
Philo Alexandrinus, Francis Henry Golson, George Herbert Whitaker, Ralph Marcus, Philo - Volume 6, Heinemann, 1929.
St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, “The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicity, MM: A New Edition and Translation of the Latin Text,” United Kingdom, Sheed and Ward, 1931.