Homophobia in ISKCON is a pernicious impediment to Krishna Bhakti

ISKCON homophobia
Kirtan Practice — with Cogen Bohanec, Penny Elliott and Susan Lourme.
Kirtan Practice — with Cogen Bohanec, Penny Elliott and Susan Lourme.

In recent years, my religious orientation toward the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition has become increasingly strong with myself, and by diffusion, my wife, and people who are close to me in my community. For the last couple of years, I have been organizing a small japa meditation group where, in addition to chanting the mahamantra communally, we perform basic pujas and have some kirtana sessions, often for many hours on end! In short, despite my own novice identity as a Vaishnava, I have been somewhat of a leader in bringing a small group of my close friends to krishna-bhakti.

To gain association, I have been attending a local temple every chance I get, and have very much enjoyed the services there. I often go and chant in the temple when no one else is there, and am inspired when I’m in the presence of the Deities.

ISKCON temple president homophobia incident:

However, recently I have discovered a glaring blemish within this tradition that I have come to deeply love. During a recent visit to the temple I was feeling quite elated after a couple hours of chanting and I was feeling very emotional and connected. My wife and I joyously departed to the local vegan restaurant (as vegans we do not eat the prasadam at the temple, which usually includes dairy products where it is the standard industry practice to kill the baby males and use the mothers for hamburger meat). While we sat perusing the menu, out of the blue, the temple president appeared at our table and began talking to us.

We have had several positive interactions with him, and at first, I was glad to offer him a seat. I had recently visited another temple on the other side of the country, and conveyed the regards of that president (who had unfortunately spent a large portion of his lecture talking about why the Christians are wrong, why the Muslims were wrong, and why other Gaudiya Maṭhas were wrong. I really just wanted to hear about the joy of krishna-bhakti and that was pretty off-putting). Oddly, he visibly rolled his eyes, and began to apprise me on some internal politics that I really had no interest in, and it seemed a little inappropriate to tell me about, given I am a new devotee that he hardly knows.

But when I mentioned that I was seeking association with another Swami whose work had inspired me, the conversation took an unexpected turn. In a non-sequitur digression, he bursted into a homophobic diatribe that was unlike anything either my wife or I could remember hearing for a very long time. I gathered that the Swami I had mentioned supported the idea of gay marriage (a subject that was completely tangential to our conversation), and this particular president (with whom we were speaking) was vehemently opposed to this issue.

While I find the position of denying homosexuals the equal right to marriage to be disturbing in itself, what was perhaps even more disturbing was how obviously bigoted his views on homosexuality were. He would say things like “until a gay man can give birth to a baby through his ass, it’s unnatural” or how he would feel very uncomfortable knowing that one of his children was gay. He then gave an example of a man he had seen naked in a public setting that he had assumed was gay, and implied basically that that’s how all gay people are. He would even start his sentences saying, “I don’t want to sound homophobic or anything, but…” With each statement there were layers and layers of blatant critical thinking errors (“unnatural,” “not normal,” etc.), erroneous and highly pejorative stereotypes, and basically bigotry like I have rarely encountered ANYWHERE. My wife and I were horrified.

He continued. And he continued. And he continued. It seemed like he would never shut up. With each statement, our despondency increased, and it was a heartbreaking experience. The degree to which my heart sunk was proportional to the degree of elation I had only minutes before felt doing japa in the presence of the temple Deities.

New Jagannatha Puri Deities. ISKCON Berkeley
New Jagannatha Puri Deities. ISKCON Berkeley

His pejorative attitudes were not restricted to homophobia. At one point, my wife got up to use the restroom. As soon as she left the table, he said, “I wouldn’t say this in front of your wife because she is obviously too emotional,” and then proceed to say even more awful slurs against gay people. I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to say to my face that my wife was “too emotional.” Something deep and primal stirred in me that I had to use all of my effort to restrain. The misogynistic attitude of women being “too emotional” coupled with the sexist idea that we would somehow relate “as men” on the issue of homophobia was extremely offensive, especially when talking about my wife, who, I must add, was demonstrating the utmost restraint. While she did defend the gay community in a respectful and gentle way, it could hardly be characterized as “too emotional.” The fact that she didn’t vehemently berate him demonstrates she was not at all “too emotional,” and was in fact very level headed. She later wrote:

This was only the second time that I had encountered him, so I found it really foolish of him, not knowing me at all, to give such negative information about other devotees, and to be so homophobic. Just so undiplomatic I’m really shocked that he is “president” of anything! I would like to say that even though he found me ‘too emotional’ I feel that I was very restrained in my responses and expressions of concern for the gay community and maintained respect and courtesy even though I wanted to spit fire at him!”

Like most other homophobes, he insisted that his position was not “hate” or “discrimination” and repeated the same, tired old “between a man and woman” rhetoric that we’ve all been fed ad-nauseam from public discourse. But he would visibly wince when he talked about the idea of a man being with another man, and made no effort to conceal his disgust for homosexuality.

What is hate?

Let me take this opportunity to suggest that this is exactly what hate is. Hatred does not necessarily mean that one wants to inflict violence or directly harm the object of one’s hatred (although it certainly can). Discrimination against others is a form of hatred. When we deny rights to an entire group of people based on their sexual orientation (like gender or race), that is hatred. And if one were to question whether this type of homophobia is actually hatred, then there is a simple experiment one can do. When talking to a person who is against gay marriage, or denies equal rights to gays, or is otherwise against gayness in general, try substituting the words “Black,” “Jews” or other ethnicities in sentences where they use the term “gay.” For example:

I would horrified if I came home and found my daughter with a black man.

It is against our religious tradition to let two Jews get married.

It’s not that I hate Blacks, it’s just that I don’t want my child dating one.

Allowing Mexicans to get married is abnormal and unnatural.

I don’t hate Blacks, I just don’t want them in my congregation.

I treat Filipinos equally, I just don’t approve of their lifestyle.

These statements certainly sound backward, or even absurd by modern standards, so we must ask why it is any different to discriminate against homosexuality in the same manner. And these were the types of statements that this temple president used freely.

Homophobia in ISKCON is inimical to Krishna Bhakti

However, the point of this post is not to argue why homosexuals [obviously] deserve equal rights. Rather, I seek to show how homophobic attitudes are inimical to the spread of krishna-bhakti, and are pernicious to the Krishna Consciousness movement. As such, they are against the social (if not moral, religious, scriptural, and philosophical) aspirations of Krishna Consciousness. I will instantiate this claim in what follows:

I’m conflicted about whether I will ever return to the temple again, knowing the views of the president of that temple. If I do not, this will certainly diminish my association with the tradition, and weaken my connection to it. In turn, this could weaken the connection to krishna-bhakti that people under my leadership have been enjoying. I could see a devotee losing faith in the tradition in general, and leaving Krishna consciousness completely because of such interactions, especially if they were gay. When one devotee is alienated, we should also count this as an incalculable loss to the potential devotees that they might have been inspiring (or may one day inspire) to follow krishna-bhakti. Turning people off from identifying with a religious tradition by using that tradition to uphold discrimination against the gay community represents an incalculable loss to the tradition.

This episode was especially upsetting to my wife, and I feel has unfortunately made her question her religious identity as an aspiring Vaishnavi, which was already a new and tenuous development for her after identifying as an atheist for most of her life. I feel like years of trying to create positive religious associations for her were undone right before my eyes (a slight hyperbolae, but it’s how I feel). She has been slightly downtrodden following this event, and has not been as enthusiastic with her kirtana and chanting, I suspect because of this.

I’m trying to convince her that these types of views are not representative of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, despite said president offering evidence that Srila Prabhupada himself was against gay relationships and gay marriage. I have told her about the Gay and Lesbian Vaiṣhṇava Association (GALVA), and have mentioned my many conversations with Vaishnavas who are supportive of the gay community. I have also attempted to convey Swami Tripurari‘s highly compelling synopsis on the issue, which I also cited in the conversation to the said president. Although she accepts these things on a rational level, I can tell that her attachment has been shaken on a deep level. It is very difficult for her to go against the atheistic grain of her left-leaning activist peers (she is a professional animal rights activist) by identifying as religious, and this encounter instantiated their stereotypes of religion (as “anti-gay”) perfectly. I hope that she can heal from this.

Support of homophobia in ISKCON is a disgusting act of violence

Cogen and his wife Hope Bohanec
Cogen and his wife Hope Bohanec

Damaging an aspiring devotee’s attachment to Krsna consciousness through blatant expressions of homophobic attitudes is not only a loss to the movement, but I would argue given the value of krsna-bhakti to one’s spiritual development, it is an act of violence to those devotees (what to speak of the violence against the gay community). This is a type of violence known as “religious wounding.” And in this way I am enraged that this man used his position of power as a temple president to hurt my wife (and possibly many others) on such a deep level.

I had been in negotiations to have another ISKCON Swami come and speak for our group, but since this event I have tentatively backed out of these arrangements. I fear that if a venerated devotee were to express homophobic attitudes to our group, our people would stop participating in a religion that is presented as being anti-gay. This event has unfortunately diminished my willingness to invite devotees to our space. This is certainly a loss to the movement because it inhibits my ability to bring teachers to our sanga.

I had recently signed up to be a monthly donor to this temple, which is obviously struggling financially. I had been uncomfortable about the possibility of my dollars going to purchase dairy from sources that do not honor cow protection. But after this incident, I have cancelled my monthly donations. I do not feel comfortable offering financial support to an institution that is run by a president who has such blatant homophobic attitudes. This represents a financial loss to the movement.

My heart goes out to any gay members of the congregation, and it truly hurts to think of how they would feel if they heard such backwardness from their temple president. I’m certain that there are several devotees in the congregation who are gay. I wonder if they know his views, and I fear for how painful it will be for them do discover this level of bigotry at a place that is a sacred home to them.

I feel that I am naive at being so shocked by this, but really nothing can prepare you for such a situation. This event was profoundly disturbing, disheartening, and we were both quite horrified that such bigotry could exist within the sanga, and especially in such a liberal area that we are in. I don’t know how to proceed. I really had fallen in love with the services at the temple, and now I feel weird about going back there, especially if this post goes public. I don’t know if I should confront him, or write a letter to his superiors, or what. One of my dear friends, who is a devotee, suggested that it would be therapeutic for me to write a letter, and might help “to remind devotees that there is still a lot of prejudice and ignorance in our movement that needs to be addressed and is turning people off.” So here it is.

Love and acceptance is how Hare Krishna movement will spread

In closing, if you are against gay marriage, and generally have pejorative attitudes against gays (find it “disgusting” or would be “horrified” to know that someone you love is gay, etc.) I would encourage you to rectify this clearly flawed perspective. But if you do decide to “agree to disagree” on this, please keep these feelings to yourself, and don’t express them to anyone (except maybe your therapist). The current momentum of our society’s attitudes are overwhelmingly in favor of gay rights and expressing disdain against this inevitable wave of progress will only cause pain to yourself, to others, and to the spread of krishna-bhakti in a world that needs it now more than ever. If Krishna consciousness is to spread, it will do so through the vehicle of love and acceptance, not through discrimination, which is perhaps the most pernicious form of hatred. Hare Krishna!