In at least one discussion that I had, the assertion, that homophobia exists because of religion and that religion is the origin of homophobia, is made.
Let me first start by defining homophobia. It is the aversion to, or even hatred of, homosexual relationships. Christianity has various edicts against homosexuality. But why? The answer rests with the distinction between sex and gender and the gender roles of ancient society. While modern western gender roles tend to align with sex, that has not always been the case. Ancient Greece and ancient Rome had clear distinctions. It is less clear whether or not ancient Israel had these distinctions. However, analyzing Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, the two key passages in the old testament which pertain to prohibitions on homosexual relationships, it is not difficult to argue that such a distinction did exist, and that neither passage actually prohibited same sex relationships, but rather violations of gender roles.
Sex and Gender
What is the distinction between sex and gender? First, sex is a biological feature. Generally speaking, humans are either male or they are female, as determined by whether they have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, or two X chromosomes. There are some variations as some people have other chromosome configurations and some people have abnormal activation of genes leading to them having sex characteristics of both males and females.
Gender, on the other hand, is a construct of culture. Many cultures have two genders, which aline with the two common sexes. Some have more, and at least one has no concept of gender. In ancient Greece and Rome gender did not align with sex. It aligned with “sexual dominance.” For lack of a less vulgar characterization, those who performed the act of “penetration” were “masculine,” while anyone who was “penetrated” was “feminine.” In addition, anyone who was “feminine” whether female or otherwise, had only limited rights. And for that reason, people who had full rights as “masculine” Roman citizens, could not be on the receiving end of sexual intercourse, as this would result in the person being “feminine.” Essentially, Rome had a secular opposition to homogenderous relationships. In Greece, preadolescent males were treated separately, but that preadolescent male was not yet a citizen.
Now let’s consider the prohibitions in the old testament. The important points are the use of the Hebrew words “zakar” and “ish” and the euphemism “lie down” The word “zakar” refers to males, while the word “ish” refers to men. 18:22 reads “V’et-zachar lo tishkav mishk’vei ishah to’evah hi” or “and with a male, thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed; it is an abomination.” while 20:13 reads “V’ish asher yishkav et-zachar mishk’vei ishah to’evah asu shneihem mot yumatu d’meihem bam” or “and a man who will lie down with a male in a woman’s bed, both of them have made an abomination. Dying they will be put to death; their blood is on them.” While lie down is accepted as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, there is a question of who is doing what to whom. Walsh 2001 argues that the usage specifically involves penetration and specifically, being the receiver. Therefore, both 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit a man from being on the receiving end of sexual intercourse with a male. This interpretation would make the prohibition consistent with other prohibitions of sexual relations involving two males, in the ancient world. It is not a prohibition against homosexual relationships, but specifically against a man (an eligible Israelite citizen) taking a role in sex, which conflicts with his gender role and which would put his citizenship in jeopardy.
As further evidence, consider the word “to-evah” which is often translated as “abomination.” This article does a fair job of addressing the meaning of the term. It does not mean “abomination” so much as it means “culturally forbidden.” This makes sense, if the prohibition was to ensure the maintenance of gender constructs and citizenship roles among the Israelites.
The issue seems to be that over time, as gender roles changed and aligned with sex, the true meaning of the prohibition was lost, and instead of reading Leviticus for what it was, it became a prohibition against homosexual relationships. But there is no reason why this has to be the case. Even if you are religious and follow the bible, your religious text never forbids homosexual relationships. And because we no longer base citizenship based on sex or gender, there is no reason for a prohibition to exist at all. Similarly, those who attack religion for its homophobia, realize such homophobia is not a product of religion, but is rather a product of the lack of understanding of the distinction between gender and sex.