FAQ Rainbow Sangha: Frequently Asked Questions
What do ‘Queer’ and ‘LGBT+’ refer to?
Why a Rainbow Sangha?
How can we help the Rainbow Sangha?
What do ‘Queer’ and ‘LGBT+’ refer to?
There is no single definition of ‘queer’ but in the broadest sense it refers to those people whose sexuality or gender identity does not fit the accepted social models of their time and culture. That is how we use it within the Rainbow Sangha, but we are aware that queer has multiple meanings and is sometimes used in a more restrictive way (for example to refer to sexuality only).
Our present culture is strongly biassed by the Judeo-Christian world-view in which there are only two sexes (male and female) and one sexual orientation (hetero, or heterosexual, also called straight). Solid scientific research has since proved that this binary view is wrong (in history as well as in anthropology as well as in biology). The sexual reality is much more diverse than what Western/Christian societies considered acceptable.
Gender is a very recent term, first used by John Money in 1955. Money noticed that there is a difference between sex (as a biological characteristic) and gender (as a social construct). In ‘gender’ male and female refer to a set of social norms and expectations describing how a specific society sees masculinity and femininity. These norms and expectations differ greatly for various cultures and also change over time within the same culture. Trans(gender) is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Historically, ‘queer’ was used as an insult to denigrate gay people, but it has been picked up by the LGBT+ community as a badge of honour (similar to the history of the term ‘Protestant’ in Christianity).
Gay is an old term, dating back to the Middle Ages (and maybe even to Ancien Greek myths in which the man Ganymede was one of Zeus’s lovers). It refers to a person who is [predominantly] sexually attracted towards someone of the same sex. In this sense gay refers both to men attracted to men as well as to women attracted to women. At present, gay is mostly used for men only, in which case (gay) women are called lesbians (referring to the famous poet in Ancient Greece: Sappho from the island Lesbos) [Note that not all men who have sex with men would self-identify as gay].
LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. The + refers to a wide range of other ways by which queer people self-identify. There are many variations on LGBT+, the longest (so far) being LGBPTTQQIIAAP.
Some more queer vocabulary
SOGI: This is an acronym for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Bisexual: In his world famous research, the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey proved that the Judeo-Christian world-view on sexual orientation was wrong (published 1948 & 1953). Most people, Kinsey argued, are to a certain degree attracted to both sexes. He developed the Kinsey-scale which measured various degrees of bisexuality
Intersex: There was more wrong with the Judeo-Christian world-view than its limited view on sexual orientation. The strict binary division in biology between men/male and women/female (based on the book Genesis in the Bible) was equally fictional. Intersex refers to those people who do not fit in this binary, because they have a difference in anatomy, hormones and/or chromosomes. Most of them were assigned as male or female at birth (even with surgical ‘corrections’) which is not always how they self-identify.
Cis(gender): A term for people who self-identify the same way as their sex assigned at birth (from the Latin meaning ‘on the same side’)
Closet: For centuries gay people (and by extension all queer people) were told it was wrong and unacceptable to be who they are. They were subject to the Triple Insult, telling them that being gay was simultaneously a sin, a crime and a mental disorder. They were bullied out of the public space and pushed into what became commonly known as ‘the closet’, which made them not only invisible, but also subject to abuse.
Pride: Fifty years ago in NYC, LGBT+ people no longer accepted being pushed into the closet. The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 were an uproar against the systematic bullying of queer people by the New York Police and the discriminations within society at large. Stonewall was the culmination of a decade of such protests across the USA. Every year, the Pride parades remember the Stonewall riots. Pride marches are advocating equal rights for LGBT+ people as well as embracing and celebrating diversity as a positive thing. Pride is not only about non-discrimination but also about being proud of who you are, rather than being told you should feel ashamed.
The rainbow was first used as a symbol for the LGBT+ community in the USA in the 1970s when the famous San Franciscan gay politician Harvey Milk (1930-1978) met designer and drag queen Gilbert Baker (1951-2017).
On 8 Nov 1977 Milk – nicknamed ‘the mayor of Castro Street’ – became the first openly gay US politician to be elected to hold office. He would be murdered on 27 Nov the following year. Milk realised how important it was to the LGBT+ community to have a positive message of hope and solidarity, and not only a story of fighting discrimination and prejudice. To achieve this, he asked Baker to create a new symbol that could replace the pink triangle symbol commonly worn in reference to the pink triangle that the Nazis had forced gay men to wear in the concentration camps. Baker replaced this symbol of persecution with the rainbow flag: “Flags,” he would say, “are about proclaiming power.” “We needed something beautiful, something from us.” The first rainbow flags were handmade (dyed and sewed by Baker with the help of about 30 volunteers) and flown at the United Nations Plaza for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on 25 June 1978:
“It all goes back to the first moment of the first flag back in 1978 for me. Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see. It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightening – that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us. It was the most thrilling moment of my life. Because I knew right then that this was the most important thing I would ever do – that my whole life was going to be about the Rainbow Flag.”
Rainbows are both natural and beautiful, they symbolise unity in diversity. The different colours do not refer to various ways of being LGBT+, but each symbolise a component of the whole queer community.
The original flag had 8 colours: hot pink (for sex/sexuality) at the top, followed by red (for life), orange (for healing), yellow (for the sun/brilliance), green (for nature/natural), turquoise (for art/creativity), indigo (for harmony), and violet (for spirit/spirituality) at the bottom.
The symbol was so powerful, that the first year (before mass production of the rainbow flag) queer people started using almost any flag with colourful stripes, including Buddhist flags. For various reasons, the standardised rainbow flag was reduced to six banners (skipping pink and indigo) and some colours were changed to more standard colours that were easier available for flag production at the time (old glory red was replaced by Canadian red, emerald green by bright green and turquoise blue by royal blue).
In 1994 Baker created a mile-long rainbow flag to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots (NYC 1969). This ‘Stonewall 25 Rainbow Flag’ was recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest flag.
In many Asian Buddhist cultures, Sangha (literally ‘the community’) refers to the Buddhist monastic community alone. But in Early Buddhism, Sangha referred to the whole Buddhist community, not only to the monks and nuns. Over time, the difference between lay and monastics became sharper. Many lay people were less educated and they definitely had less time. Their spiritual life got focussed on devotion, prayer and the material support of monks and nuns. Monastics on the other hand could dedicate their life full time to spiritual training and studying Buddhist philosophy.
Due to the social revolutions of the 20th century, lay people were more educated and had more free time than ever before. Spiritual training in Western Buddhism in particular became predominantly a lay phenomenon. In this context, the difference between lay and monastic is fading and Sangha refers again to its original broad meaning of the whole Buddhist community.
“A Buddhist community – a Sangha – is not something one is merely born into or chooses to join, but something one is challenged to create. A Sangha provides a matrix of communal support for people to realize their commitment to a common vision or concern. […] Yet rather than theorizing about the nature of such a Sangha, we need to act. The challenge is to imagine and then create a communal structure that works in practice. As with all good experimentation, we need to proceed with an open mind free from attachment to the outcome. We must be ready to learn from whatever historical alternative models already exist: from the non-celibate yogic tradition of the Tibetan Nyingma school to the Japanese system of hereditary priests. We also need to learn from history’s mistakes and work to create a Sangha that is no longer ridden with the sectarianism, dogmatism, authoritarianism and sexism endemic to many Asian traditions.” [Stephen Batchelor, ‘Creating Sangha’ in Tricycle. Vol 5, no. 2. New York: Winter 1995]
The Buddha said: ‘Friendship is the whole of the Holy Life.’ Hence, we use Sangha to refer to a Buddhist community that comes together in spiritual friendship. Mostly, such gatherings happen along rather cultural criteria such as being a member of an existing Buddhist tradition (most of which are linked to a specific Asian region). But Buddhists also come together along other lines, for example the European Buddhist Union and National Buddhist Unions in European states, or Sakyadhita for Buddhist women.
The Rainbow Sangha is a non-sectarian Buddhist community of Queer/LGBT+ people and their friends and allies. In here, Sangha does not refer to a community of monastics alone, but to a community of all Buddhists who want to meet with an open mind, sharing the existential challenges related to gender and sexuality. We do not intend to create a new Buddhist tradition but are complementary to existing traditions. We want to co-create a Sangha of Friendship, free from sectarianism, dogmatism, authoritarianism, sexism, homo-negativity or trans-negativity.
Why a Rainbow Sangha?
The fact that queer Buddhists sometimes meet separately from their traditional Sanghas is often met with some caution. The question ‘Why do you need a group of your own?’ is probably asked more often to LGBT+ Buddhists than to other groups such as Buddhist women having meetings on their own. The question often reflects an underlying fear of potential separation but also of possible failure. If you are fully welcome, why is there then still a need to gather separately at times? The existence of Rainbow Sanghas might feel to straight Buddhists as a failure in meeting the needs of their queer members, rather than a positive event celebrating diversity.
There is no single answer to this legitimate question, but below we share a few thoughts.
The most straightforward answer is this: wherever there is suffering, there is a case for Buddhism: identifying, alleviating and ultimately eliminating suffering is at the existential heart of Buddhist practice.
To Buddhists, it is important to acknowledge the specific types of suffering people experience. For the LGBT+ community this includes family and social rejection, discrimination, oppression, bullying, and physical assault. In many countries today, persecution, criminalisation, imprisonment and torture of LGBT+ people persists, sometimes punished with the death penalty. Centuries of homo-hatred leave marks in our cultures and in the hearts and minds of the present generations. Even in countries with a good legal framework towards equality of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, there is still a lot of social stigma that queer people need to deal with.
Solidarity with those in isolation
Measures to reduce stigma and accept diversity on the other hand have a positive outcome on the well being of the whole population. A recent study showed for example that the legalisation of same-sex marriage resulted in a drop of teenage suicide rates of all young people, not only of those who identify as LGBT+: the suicide rate fell with 14% for LGB teens, but also dropped with 7% amongst all teens [JAMA Pediatrics, 2017; 171(4): 350-356]. An important aspect was that young people in hostile environments felt less isolated and rejected. Straight people often do not realise how for centuries queer people have been subject to the Triple Humiliation, telling them that being gay (the hostility towards gay people is historically the best documented) was simultaneously a sin, a crime and a mental disorder. They were bullied out of the public space and pushed into what became commonly known as ‘the closet’, which made them not only invisible, but also subject to abuse.
Visibility and expressing solidarity are thus extremely important. This is the mission of Amnesty International with regard to human rights in general. It is equally important for LGBT+ human rights. Buddhists are often silent about LGBT+ issues. This is primarily an accepting silence because most Buddhists are non-judgemental about sexual and gender diversity. But it is important for LGBT+ Buddhists to be visible too. One of the core messages of the Rainbow Sangha is a message of support and solidarity to those people living in isolation and despair in hostile environments: “You are not alone.” Queer dharma groups also rightly exposed that Buddhist silence does not automatically lead to more tolerance and acceptance, but can also result (even unintended) in maintaining the status-quo of a heterosexist or homo-negative society.
A welcoming message
An accepting environment where you don’t have to ‘stay in the closet’ and hide who you are is obviously extremely important, and a friendly spiritual home is for many LGBT+ people a central part of this. In all cultures of all times there have always been people who were both queer and religious, and throughout history almost all cultures gave some space to sexual and gender diversity within their societies. Today however, the theological model of the Christian Middle Ages (in which everyone is ‘created’ heterosexual and cisgender, and in which sex that is not exclusively opposite-sex and in function of procreation is labelled as ‘unnatural’ because it is not according to the ‘design’ of the creator) has colonised the world. The globalisation of this world view took even place in cultures that are traditional Buddhist, although these concepts make no sense within Buddhism because Buddhism rejects the notion of a creator god. This medieval model is authoritarian: it condemned sexual and gender diversity as abnormal and immoral; excluded more people than any other in history; and pushed queer people into illegality and psychiatry.
In summary: to be LGBT+ in the West meant to be rejected; not just by society at large, but especially by the churches. This fuelled the conviction – by Christians and queer people alike – that there is an opposition between gay and god. In other words, you can’t be both LGBT+ and spiritual. When queer people were looking for a spiritual environment that accepted them the way they are, the answer most often given was that there was none.
However, while dominant response within Christian churches was one of firm rejection, the main response within Buddhist communities was one of gradual (in some traditions even immediate) acceptance. Buddhism also rejects the concept of sin that is so central to theistic religions. Early queer dharma groups often focussed on dealing with ‘internalised homo-hatred’ (where people felt ashamed of who they are because they believed they were born immoral sinners). The Rainbow Sangha wants to send a clear message to spiritual queer people that there is a place where they are loved and welcome. It is ok to be LGBT+ and also be a Buddhist. You don’t have to choose between these two parts of yourself and don’t have to pretend to be someone else.
karuna (compassion in action)
Many LGBT+ people were and are attracted to Buddhism’s non-judgemental approach to sexual and gender diversity. A major motivation for straight Buddhists (who were/are mostly not very familiar with LGBT+ issues) to support and accept this diversity was, and still is, the Buddhist engagement for karuna (compassion in action) to all sentient beings, personalised in the figure of the nursing Buddha, or the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or by Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow to save all beings without any discrimination.
Traditions like Jodo-Shinshu, Zen and new movements such as Shambhala, Soka Gakkai International and Triratna have, motivated by compassion, not just silently accepted queer people in their midst or actively campaigned for more social justice, but also taken extra steps to become more inclusive. Jodo Shinshu for example not only performed the first Buddhist same-sex marriage in the West (in San Francisco in the early 70s) but also showed flexibility to include bisexual people. In 2016, for the first time, a trans-female member of the Triratna Buddhist Order (originally ordained as a man) conducted the ordination of a cis-woman: a radical step in a tradition where ordination is always single-sex.
Non-discrimination, non-violence and compassion are core Buddhist values. LGBT+ Buddhists are accepted for who they are within Buddhism. It also means that discrimination of LGBT+ human rights in the name of ‘freedom of religion and belief’ can never be done in the name of Buddhism. On the contrary, many Buddhists have argued during such debates that it is also their freedom of religion to NOT discriminate (for example in the debates on same-sex marriage where Buddhists stated that freedom of religion should imply that they were given the right to perform same-sex marriages).
Developing kalyana-mittata (spiritual friendship)
Despite the absence of hostility within most traditions, heterosexual Buddhists were rarely confronted with, or even aware of, LGBT+ discrimination. If you are a heterosexual person in a heteronormative society, you will of course not be reminded every day of your sexual orientation. If you are cisgender in a cisgender society, it’s not always easy to know how it feels to be transgender. And even gays and lesbians are not always aware of what it means to be non-binary. LGBT+ Buddhists therefore felt the need to have their own space from time to time: to heal from the wounds inflicted by hostile environments, to share thoughts and experiences, to practice together, and most of all to develop spiritual friendships.
The roots of LGBT+ Buddhist groups date back to California in the 1970s and ‘80s, when organisations such as the Gay Buddhist Fellowship of San Francisco were set up by and for people who identified both as fully Buddhist and fully gay. At present, almost all major Buddhist traditions in the West host events, meditations, and retreats specifically for LGBT+ practitioners. Many have queer teachers too. The success of these groups shows that the need for LGBT+ Buddhists to have their own space has not diminished since the 70s.
LGBT+ Buddhists groups also study, interpret and teach the Dharma in a similar way as feminist Buddhists do. They also keep the history of queer Buddhism alive for future generations. By doing all this, they function as a spiritual mirror, and make the broader Buddhist communities aware of their own cultural prejudices on sex, sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Queer Dharma reminds us that our mind is tempted to use binary pigeonholes all the time. The urge to push people into male or female gender roles for example is so strong that the Buddhist feminist Rita Gross identified this as ‘the prison of gender roles.’ The patriarchal worldview divides people into rational, logical, self-controlled male subjects and emotional, unpredictable, chaotic female objects. It is therefore ‘unnatural’ for women to seek positions of responsibility and power in society. Similar arguments were used based on race: it was ‘natural’ for blacks to be slaves and serve (white) masters. American psychiatrists even invented ‘drapetomania’ (the ‘madness‘ of slaves running to freedom). Buddhist history is not free of binary divisions either: some monks for example consider themselves at the doorstep of Awakening, while they believe other Buddhists can only hope for a ‘better’ rebirth (as a lookalike of themselves, i.e. a male heterosexual monastic).
Queer dharma addresses our mental prisons by which we classify sexual orientation and gender identity. Theistic religions also often link our mental binary categories to a (divine) moral judgement between good/superior/healthy versus bad/inferior/ill. Queer dharma reminds us that such moral dualism is alien to Buddhist spirituality. It reminds us the non-dual nature of the Awoken mind. This Buddha nature is neither male nor female, neither heterosexual nor gay, neither cisgender nor transgender. Dividing society into rigid, binary categories and using these for moral judgements are characteristics of the untrained mind. It is a goal of Buddhist spirituality to overcome such preoccupations.
How can we help the Rainbow Sangha?
Many Buddhists want to know how they can support the Buddhist LGBT+ community.
Below we give some suggestions:
- Cultivate awareness:
We live in a society that has been heteronormative and cisgender normative for centuries. Just remember that not everyone is straight or cis-gendered and try to see how the way we talk and organise ourselves might affect the queer members of our communities.
Look for areas where your organisation can be more inclusive.
- Celebrate diversity:
Buddhism has a tradition of non-judgmental silence. But sometimes there is also a need to be explicitly supportive to those who are openly discriminated in our societies. Organise events for LGBT+ people in your organisation and see if you can take part in your local Pride Parade.
Also, let us know if you do have any groups or events for LGBT+ Buddhists, so we can share this with the broader community.
- End isolation:
You can make an explicit statement on your website that your Buddhist organisation is non-judgemental about sexual and gender diversity.
Make the Rainbow Sangha known to your friends and organisation, for example by adding a link to our website and our FaceBook group:
https://www.facebook.com/RainbowSanghaNetwork (public page for everyone)
https://www.facebook.com/groups/EBURainbowSangha (closed group, not public)