Does Islam deny equality by prohibiting same-sex sexual behavior but allowing opposite-sex sexual behavior?
Well, it depends on how you conceptualize that elusive, ambiguous concept known as equality.
Think of it like this. Islam certainly does not prohibit sexual release. Everyone has a possible sexual outlet (with the opposite sex) because, ultimately, sexual pleasure is something “mechanical” to a greater or lesser extent. Now, hear me out. If the right body parts are engaged in the right ways, that more often than not leads to the desired result, regardless of the gender of one’s partner. So, everyone is equally able to marry the opposite sex and experience that. Equality at its finest. No discrimination in sight.
Now, the obvious objection to this is: No, Daniel. Gays and lesbians simply cannot experience sexual fulfillment with the opposite sex. They can only experience it with the same sex.
Well, maybe. But certainly not in principle.
What if a man said he can only experience sexual fulfillment with supermodels? Or a lady said she can only experience sexual fulfillment with millionaires?
Would we think that that man or that woman were being somehow fundamentally deprived sexually if they lived their whole lives without finding their supermodel(s) or millionaire(s) respectively? If not, why not? Is it because we don’t take their claims for what they need for sexual fulfillment seriously? Well, if we don’t, why should we take the claims of self-labeled gays and lesbians seriously?
Now, you might say that my examples are preposterous. But why? Is it because about 3% of the population considers itself to be gay/lesbian but, relatively, there just aren’t many people who claim they can only get sexual fulfillment through supermodels and millionaires?
Well, that’s not a relevant difference, I think. I think conditioning and social influence has a major effect on what people believe they need for sexual fulfillment. What is “sexual fulfillment” really? Seems like a made-up concept. Who can really know what he needs to be “sexually fulfilled”? Is it something you can anticipate beforehand? What if what you need to be “sexually fulfilled” is a very specific Australian office worker exactly 5 years your senior who has a predilection for hamburgers and long walks on the beach? What if this and only this is what you need and your whole life, you never knew it. Sorry! Guess you won’t ever experience sexual fulfillment! You might mistakenly assume that you are sexually fulfilled, you poor naive fellow. But nope! You are missing out!
The idea of sexual fulfillment seems to be a wholly modern concept coming from 20th century psychology. It is as if one’s entire sense of self and well-being somehow depends on whether the stars align and one reaches this elusory point of fulfillment. In pop psychology, notions of love also come into the mix. In reality, this is all a hodge podge of contemporary metaphysical goop created to justify popular cultural notions of acceptable sexual behavior, which only very recently has come to include same-sex behavior between adults.
Conditioning through these cultural structures is quite powerful. It sets up people’s expectations for what they need to be happy. With enough media control, you could condition a good portion of the population to think that they really do need supermodels to be sexually satisfied and fulfilled. In fact, this is something that has already occurred to some extent due to pornography. Studies show that young men are less satisfied with “conventional” sex because pornography has completely distorted their expectations for what sexual fulfillment consists of. Their brains have been rewired due to the influence of the online stimulus.
But women are not off the hook. Women’s expectations of an ideal husband have also been distorted by things like Disney movies with prince charming, magazines, romance novels, the tendency of social media to selectively highlight happy couples doing happy things, etc. This all has an influence. Studies show how increases in marital dissatisfaction on the part of women. The average man has a hard time living up to unrealistic, over-inflated standards of a romantic fantasy some women have built up in their imaginations. Women, as a result, are left unfulfilled.
So, in reality, sexual fulfillment is elusive for an increasingly large percentage of the population (far greater than the percentage of those who believe that only the same sex can provide them sexual satisfaction).
But do we think people are truly being deprived? Do we believe that all these people are victims of oppression or systematic inequality that allows some people to experience sexual fulfillment but not others? Is there really discrimination run amok?
Of course not. People’s expectations just need to be adjusted.
This is how the Islamic prohibition of same-sex behavior does not discriminate. In the Islamic conception, it is understood that people can experience all kinds of desires (shahawat). But in most cases, these desires cannot or should not be pursued or fulfilled. This includes desire for the same sex. In context of such a panoply of diverse desires, it would be strange to fixate on one particular desire or set of desires and claim that one can only be “sexually fulfilled” if that particular desire is met. Who says?
Whether that desire is for supermodels or millionaires, the expectation is that one must control that desire. If it can be fulfilled and it is a permissible desire to fulfill, then fine. If otherwise, then one must simply exercise self-control. This requirement for self-control is only “oppressive” and “discriminatory” if one has decided a priori that fulfilling said desire is a “fundamental necessity” for “sexual fulfillment,” etc., etc. Who gets to decide that? As we have seen, such a claim is tenuous at best, for numerous reasons.
Can those with same-sex desires adjust their expectations and mindset?
What I mean by this is, can those with same-sex desires get rid of the expectation that they can only experience “sexual fulfillment” by being intimate with someone of the same sex? It might be difficult, but shouldn’t be impossible. The same-sex attractions might not always be something that can be eliminated — but that’s not my point. My point is, it is probably more healthy in terms of one’s iman not to think that God has created a world where a segment of the population is categorically barred from attaining this special, life-enriching, life-changing, euphoric state of “sexual fulfillment.” If you do think in those terms, then it becomes very difficult not to see God as unjust or Islam as not discriminatory. It all goes back to how sexual fulfillment is defined and delineated.
Ultimately, a lifetime of conditioning is a difficult thing to counteract. But there are resources to help. At the end of the day, however, Islam is not systematically oppressing people by prohibiting certain sexual behaviors. LGBT normalization is oppressing people by making them believe and feel that they need to engage in self-destructive same-sex behaviors in order to be fulfilled.
By the way, it is a real shame that the Supreme Court did not pursue this line of reasoning in their ruling on same-sex marriage in 2016. Even the dissenters in the Obergefell case did not seriously question the other side’s charge that prohibiting same-sex marriage would be discrimination and, hence, a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Technically it is discrimination, but so are laws that allow 16 year olds to drive but not 15 year olds. The question is, is this the kind of discrimination that causes unnecessary harm and disadvantages people in debilitating ways while not serving an overall greater interest for the individual and society overall? The answer to that obviously depends on how we are conceiving harms and benefits. But, in light of religious understandings of sexuality, it is fairly easy to understand these things in a way that makes the answer to the question a resounding, “No.”