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Personal Reflections from an Imperfect Pen

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Location: New Mexico

Publications: Japji Sahib: The Song of the Soul by Guru Nanak translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Anand Sahib: The Song of Bliss by Guru Amar Das translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Available through www.sikhdharma.org.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Proposition 8, Gay Marriage and the Sikh faith

(Please note: the opinions expressed in this essay are strictly the personal views of the author and do not in any way reflect upon the ministry of Sikh Dharma International)

Last week, the California State Supreme Court upheld a voter amendment, Proposition 8, which banned same-sex unions in the state. Ever since the amendment was passed by voters last November, there has been a lot of discussion about protecting the idea of traditional marriage versus the US Constitution’s promise of equal rights for all people under the law. For the most part, when this issue of gay marriage has come up in my presence, I have kept relatively quiet – partly because I haven’t wanted to “out” myself. In my early 20’s, I was a partner in a non-traditional marriage. My live-in boyfriend turned husband was bi-sexual. We had an agreement that he was free to explore his bi-sexuality within the confines of our relationship, as long as he told me where he was and what time he would be home. Naturally, out of courtesy, the agreement extended both ways. During that period of my life, I was blessed to be part of a wonderful gay and bi-sexual community. I wanted to fit in and belong. Yet I discovered that, basically, I was straight and instinctively monogamous. So the agreement was theoretical on my side. We lived together in this non-traditional way for 3 years before deciding to get married, and during that time, I did my best to support his process of understanding his own sexual identity.

Looking back, perhaps it was inevitable that the relationship would fail. Nine months after we got non-traditionally married, we went through a very traditional divorce. Not too long after, he met a woman from California who was bi-sexual for real and they have been in a non-traditional, open relationship ever since. He has sworn that I was his first and last foray into the realm of marriage. We loved each other then and still care deeply about each other now. How many people can say that their former husband sent them a beautiful gift on what would have been their ten-year anniversary? Yet, he did just that. My relationship with this man taught me a great lesson: that just because you love someone, it doesn’t mean you will spend the rest of your life with that person.

So when people ask me: Do you support gay marriage? the first question that comes to my mind is, “What type of marriage are you talking about?” One of the fundamental issues in this discussion is whether or not the institution of marriage is an appropriate vehicle for non-traditional relationships.

Thorny and Complicated Issue

The reason this issue becomes so difficult to unravel is that there are two distinct and separate aspects to the institution of marriage. One aspect is related to property, taxes, inheritance, and protecting children who are born or adopted by a couple. This aspect of marriage is governed by state and federal law. The courts are being asked to decide to whom those laws apply. The US Constitution guarantees equal rights for all people. Logically speaking, it is not such a big leap to see that “equality” means everyone – gay, straight, bi, whoever. People who decide to be together as a couple ideally would be treated equally under the law regardless of gender.

It is the second aspect of the institution of marriage that is making all of this much more difficult. The second aspect is spiritual. Unless someone is atheist or agnostic, marriage involves the blessing of the union by a Higher Power. For many people, what defines marriage is a spiritual and religious issue, not simply a legal one. What is the meaning of marriage? What is its purpose? What moral and spiritual duties and responsibilities do partners have towards one another when they are married?

Because of the separation of church and state in the US Constitution, the spiritual aspect of marriage is under the domain of the respective congregations and spiritual communities in this country. The US Bill of Rights promises freedom of religion. So ideally every religious definition of marriage would be protected. Many congregations consider it immoral for people of the same sex to engage in sexual activity. Therefore, same-sex marriage is completely out of the question. Yet, for a growing number of congregations and spiritual communities, there is no moral problem with people of the same sex engaging in sexual activity. Therefore, marriage between people of the same sex is absolutely acceptable. Theoretically, under the US Constitution, all of these beliefs are equally protected.

What the actions by the Supreme Court in California have done is to extend the power of the government beyond the concerns of property and protecting minors, into the much more subtle realm of spirituality. The court ruling has legitimized a definition of marriage that aligns with the religious beliefs of some congregations. Yet by the nature of that definition, it has made the beliefs of other congregations illegal.

This situation becomes even more complicated by the fact that communities from the same faith traditions are divided amongst themselves about the morality of same-sex unions. Many faith communities have either a very public or a very private fight going on about this subject. And the reason is fairly straight-forward. Homosexuality is part of the human condition. Wherever there is a community of people, there will be a percentage of them that are gay. This is not a Christian issue, a Sikh issue, a Muslim issue, a Jewish issue, a Buddhist issue, a Hindu issue, a Baha’i issue or a Pagan issue. This is everybody’s issue.

Proposition 8 and the ruling by the California Supreme Court has taken what is, for many people, an issue of faith and has made secular judges the arbitrators of the debate. The fact that these religious differences are being played out in a court of law to me is a sign that we leaders within faith communities are not doing our jobs properly. If we had the courage to create dialogue within our communities about homosexuality and marriage, and try to work with all perspectives to find common ground, perhaps the time and money spent in court fights could be going to more worthy causes. I could be wrong about this, but it seems there is a very real shadow energy in Proposition 8. It is the shadow that says, “I am afraid to engage the issue of spirituality and homosexuality in my own life. So I will hide behind the word ‘tradition’ and avoid the deep conversation about God and human life that this issue provokes.”

How to Dialogue about this within the Sikh community

Fifteen years after my divorce from my first husband, I have been blessed to become a minister in the Sikh community. I love my adopted faith. I find it incredibly universal, tolerant and powerful. Yet, at times there is a profound divergence between what I have understood from studying the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, and what I see practiced in the culture of the Sikh community. The issue of homosexuality is one of these areas where I feel the strain of this contradiction.

The highest authorities of the Sikh tradition in India are adamantly opposed to same-sex unions on moral grounds. When people ask me, as a minister, if I would ever defy that authority and support a gay couple getting married in a Gurdwara (Sikh Temple), I take a deep breath. In my heart, I keep looking for common ground. Many years ago, Yogi Bhajan said to me, “Destroying a structure is not serving a structure.” Is there a way for this issue to be handled so that it doesn’t result in undermining the religious structure within the Sikh community nor does it result in gay Sikhs being ostracized? I disagree with the position that there is something morally wrong with same-sex unions. The Sikh Gurus taught that everything and everyone is created by the One Creator for a purpose. Everything that happens is within hukam – is within the Divine Will and the Divine Plan. So how can homosexuality be “wrong” when the Divine created it? It is my personal belief that there is no moral problem with same sex unions from the perspective of Gurbani (the Guru’s teachings.) But I also acknowledge that this prejudice exists within our community. So rather than answer the question of whether or not I would officiate at a gay marriage in a Sikh Gurdwara, I feel the first step is to have us within the Sikh community ask ourselves some deeper questions about our faith, and the purpose of marriage.

Gay people in the Sikh community are often asked to choose between these two identities: are you a Sikh? Or are you gay? Some few brave ones embrace both worlds. But many people under the pressure of their families or their communities make a choice. They either try to suppress their gay identity and fit in. Or they leave the Sikh faith altogether. The first question is: can we, as community members, create a supportive environment where someone who is gay does not feel pressured to make this kind of a choice?

Being a Sikh is a special, spiritual identity. It is a universal path, accepting and loving; it is the path of a spiritual warrior – defending those who cannot defend themselves; it is a path of service and prosperity – working by the sweat of your brow and sharing what you have earned with others. It is a path of profound prayer and meditation.

Being gay is also a special identity. It means finding love, companionship, partnership and a life journey with someone of the same sex. It means forever being a minority and having the unique privilege of facing the challenges and prejudices that come with the territory. It takes tremendous heart and courage to be openly gay in a world where many people wish that homosexuality would go away.

It is a blessing to be Sikh. And if we take the words of the Sikh Gurus to heart, being gay is hukam. It is something written for the person by the Creator before he or she was even born. The Sikh faith was founded on including everyone, even the lowest castes in India. So in the 21st century, do we as a community chose to make homosexuality a barrier to being a Sikh? Can the four doors of our most sacred temple, the Harimander Sahib in Amritsar, be open to all; but not be open to people who are gay?

Our first dialogue needs to be whether or not we as a community can acknowledge that every person has the right to be a Sikh, and sexual orientation is no limitation. Gays Sikhs have always and shall always exist. They are part of us. Can we support them? Can we accept them so they can embrace their identity fully and live with dignity as members of the Guru’s Court?

The second issue about marriage is much more subtle for me.

To my mind there, is a difference between getting married under US law and getting married in a Sikh Gurdwara, in the court of the Guru. US law governs the most basic property agreements between partners, and the US Constitution promises equality for all people. For the sake of honoring the Constitution, recognizing gay marriage would be a wonderfully healthy affirmation of the practice of equality that this country is founded upon.

On the other hand, the Sikh marriage ceremony, the Lavan, is a binding spiritual contract between two souls. It is a significant spiritual and moral commitment founded in a clear faith tradition. Ideally, the Sikh marriage is a life-long promise that two people will serve each other, meditate together, live in the purity of their own consciousness, and accept the guidance of the Shabad Guru throughout their lives. It is a decision to create the Grisht Ashram – the home that serves as a spiritual center for the community. The Sikh marriage is about two souls becoming one. It is to face the tests and challenges of life together, the partners promising to let their heads roll but not let their hands go. In the Sikh faith, marriage is the highest spiritual practice. It is the highest yoga. For in marriage, we face our darkest demons, our deepest shadows, and through the Guru’s guidance and grace, emerge victorious.

The Sikh marriage is not the realm for sexual promiscuity. It is not the foundation for mindlessly pursuing wealth, status and power. It is not for the sole purpose of having children, though children may come as a result. A Sikh marriage is the way that two people can serve each other and support each other to cultivate virtue, clear their karmas, and merge into the Deathless Light of Divinity that lives in each of our hearts. It is a commitment to the Guru, to each other, to the Creator and to the community to consciously grow in your spiritual practice and your capacity for service. This kind of marriage is the foundation upon which the future of the faith is built.

In this sense, for any couple, gay or straight, to be married in front of the Guru in the Gurdwara is a deep and profound commitment. This commitment is not to be entered into lightly. It has become easy for some couples to get married in front of the Guru without understanding what this ceremony is about. In some cases, the Sikh marriage has become a mere formality and ritual, and in that, the true meaning of the Lavan has gotten lost. So when someone talks about gay marriage in a Gurdwara, my first instinct is to say – let those who value the Lavan get married in the Gurdwara. Let those who do not want to live that discipline and commitment get married somewhere else. To me, this conversation about what the Lavan means and what marriage means to our faith as a whole is a precursor conversation to whether or not gay people “should be allowed” to get married in the Temple. The depth, power and importance of that commitment needs to be fully understood by everyone. Then we can see which couples feel called to live that commitment, and which ones do not.

The issue of gay marriage reflects a deeper dynamic in the world – the question of how the human family is going to live together in peace. It is my prayer that those who are called to be custodians of their respective spiritual communities will use this moment in history as an opportunity to dialogue about the principles of their faiths. A conscious and loving dialogue that involves deep listening on all sides and includes all voices. It is my hope that such a dialogue will strengthen the relationship we have with our Creator, and broaden our understanding about how to live with love and good will towards all of our brothers and sisters on the earth.

The answer to the question of whether or not I would personally officiate at a gay wedding inside of a Sikh Gurdwara is this: yes I will do it when doing so will not inflame or divide community members against each other. And I am willing to commit to working so that such a day can come. When that day happens, it will come because we have understood the teachings of the Sikh Gurus in a new way, and renewed our relationship with the purpose and meaning of the Sikh marriage. Then those beautiful souls who have the unique privilege of being Sikh and being gay can stand with honor and respect as equals in the Guru’s court.

If I have offended anyone with this essay, please know this was not written for anyone to take offense.

With Divine Light.

Yours sincerely and humbly,

Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa