Being Gay at Ananda
July 24th, 2013
When the Supreme Court heard arguments in two same-sex marriage cases this March, Facebook surged with expressions of solidarity, some from Ananda folk. Rachel Andersen superimposed an equals sign over her profile picture, prompting me to say “thanks.”
“It just makes sense,” she said.
Bhagavati equated gay marriage with the civil rights movement.
“You don’t know how much that means to me,” I typed, “coming not just from a person of color, but from a fellow gurubai.”
“I’m sorry we’ve been so long in showing our support.”
“The real travesty,” I replied, “is when people feel forced to give up on a spiritual life due to short-sighted religious institutions.”
Nirmal Vadgama, a former karma yogi and “Living with Spirit” participant, saw what I wrote to Bhagavati:
“I’m intrigued to find out you’re gay,” he messaged. “Well, so am I. I haven’t made it publicly known yet, but I have told a few close friends. Regarding your comment, are you referring to Ananda or SRF, or to a previous religious affiliation? I’ve been interested in Yogananda from a young age. Seeing that he did not explicitly state his opinions on homosexuality, I have asked some Ananda ministers of their thoughts and was happy to receive a supportive response. I am curious to know what you may have personally experienced within the community.”
It’s a question I’m regularly asked.
Yesterday I posted on “Rainbow Hearts,” a Facebook group for Master’s gay devotees:
“As a long-time Ananda Village resident, I was pleased to learn that Ananda Seattle ministers are about to marry two same-sex couples, and that Jyotish Novak, Ananda’s Spiritual Director, gave it his blessings! All it would take for this to happen at Ananda Village, it seems, would be two people in love.”
“That sounds like a positive shift,” came the reply. “I’ve often heard Ananda had much more narrow views towards same-sex devotees in the past.”
“That’s true,” I said. “Ananda folk, though, are extremely good-hearted, the times have changed in general, and there’s a solid commitment to right action. In short, Ananda appears to have grown with the rest of the world.”
It’s been a long time coming.
In 1986, on the verge of my leaving Ananda (in which “leading a gay lifestyle,” played a prominent part), Swamiji questioned me on my friendship with men.
“Why does it have to be sexual?”
The gist of my reply was to wonder why sex was such an issue. In my closest relationships, it had long been superseded by something greater. I reflected on the previous seven years, when my inability to suppress the sexual urge (while living at Ananda) had meant a de facto double life: being “good” for long periods, then mixing with completely worldly people outside.
“I don’t know anyone like this,” I offered, “but if there was someone at Ananda, a fellow devotee, who wanted to grow together with me toward God, I would be willing to stand before the whole community and defend that relationship as a vast improvement over the status quo.”
“I hope you would talk to me first,” Swami said.
“And that would very likely be a good thing for the community,” Jyotish said later, adding, “I’ve always been neutral on this.” The problem, he explained, was that Ananda lacked consensus.
Fast-forward to gay couples being allowed to live at our centers, though not at the Village. Jump to 2004, when Swami, in a stunning reversal, quietly told our ministers that, for one thing, it was hypocritical of us to have two policies, and that, more importantly, Ananda was “interfering in their private lives,” meaning gay Ananda members, who would now be permitted at the Village to partner up. In that moment, a second, far more significant double standard was simultaneously resolved.
For Ananda is a practical place. From the outset, Swami recognized that, for most people, overcoming sex in one, fell swoop is not realistic. Thus he prescribed moderation, and a gradual weaning – to straight couples, that is. To me, he suggested chopping wood (or something similar) coupled with prayer, and intimated that Ananda might not be the place to be. Indeed, until 2004, life at Ananda Village for a gay person was not unlike the military’s (since-discarded) policy, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Moderation applies equally now to all.
The real question for a gay person wanting to come, not just to Ananda, but any spiritual community is: “To what extent are you a devotee first?” No longer is anyone going to insist you stop being gay before being spiritual, even if such a thing were possible. But is being gay your primary self-definition?
You would not be reading these words if it were. Indeed, what happens on the path, as one evolves, is that self-definitions of every sort drop away: man, woman, artist, architect. Being gay becomes an aspect of one’s nature – and valid – but no longer who one is.
Sexuality blurs. Men, guided generally by reason, get more in touch with their feelings. Women grow less emotional and more pragmatic. This is a problem for gay people (who are already in touch with their opposite side), because it makes it hard to tell the gays from the straights. And the straights might not understand why we care — unless perhaps we’re interested in them sexually. In this, they fail to appreciate the life-long bond gay people share.
They don’t understand what it means to have fought, not just society, but oneself.
One wonders why we would choose such a thing. Yet I can honestly say that, while difficult, facing the discrimination that comes with being gay has been the greatest blessing, for it’s made me a kinder, more compassionate, less judgmental human being. And, if the broader karmic picture could be seen, it would not surprise me to learn that, in fact – in past lives – I have been the very bigot I’ve struggled so hard to overcome.
That is what the spiritual gay person discovers in the end, and it turns out all to have been worth the cost.