So much for the Buddhist concept of conventional marriage. But what would be a Buddhist position on same-sex marriage? It is perhaps important to point out that the idea of state sanctioned, legally recognized same-sex marriage is a very recent one, and perhaps an even more radical social innovation than the woman’s liberation movement starting in the 1960’s, and that Buddhism everywhere in Asia is generally conservative. I know of no Asian Buddhist leaders, scholars or thinkers who have commented on this same-sex marriage as yet, but I imagine they would find it a perplexing concept. However, if we accept that same-sex attraction and behaviour should be judged the same as their heterosexual equivalents, it would seem that Buddhism should have no ethical or philosophical objections to same-sex marriage. Having said this, traditional Buddhist cultures are changing at far slower rates than Western societies are and same-sex marriage is unlikely to be advocated or receive support for many decades.
For Buddhism and Buddhists in the west and in developed Asian states and regions such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, etc, the situation is different. Several arguments can be put forward for the desirability of legalizing same-sex unions, whether with the same status as heterosexual marriage or with something similar to it. The most cogent of these arguments is that loving partnerships are good for the individuals involved and for society in general, and when given social acceptance and legal recognition are more likely to endure.
Until recently homosexuality was illegal in most Western counties and was almost always only referred to within a criminal context. Consequently, not only did the general public associate homosexuals with criminality, homosexuals thought of themselves as criminals too. Even when they did not live in fear of the law, they could be subject to ridicule, contempt and, perhaps just as soul destroying, pity, if their fellows knew of or suspected their inclinations. Such things shaped the homosexual character and outlook – secretive, anxious, never letting the guard down, delft at pretence and hypocrisy and often self-loathing. Even the comfort of religion was denied to them by the churches’ stand on “the unspeakable vice” and the doctrine that it was punished by eternal damnation. It is hardly surprising that homosexuals had such a high rate of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and depression. Psychiatrists and criminologists took this as evidence that homosexuality was a sickness, failing to see that they were a part of the very mechanisms that were creating such problems.
Fortunately things are changing for the better. The decriminalization of homosexuality, the gay pride movement, the “coming out” of many popular and even esteemed public figures, and the positive depiction of homosexuals in the media, etc., are now changing the perception of homosexuals and their perception of themselves. The stigma of perversion, malignancy and sleaze is starting to fade.
As a result the psychological well-being of homosexuals has improved markedly, although there is still a long way to go. It can only benefit a society when all groups within it are happy and healthy, when they find emotional fulfilment and develop their own unique abilities and contribute them to their society.
The next positive step that could be taken is to legalize same-sex marriage, or civil partnerships, and allow same-sex couples to adopt children. Research has shown that people in long-term loving relationships benefit physically and psychologically. It has also been shown that having children helps bind couples together. A tragic number of homosexuals indulge in and fall prey to shallow promiscuous lifestyles. Marriages or partnerships that were recognized by the state and affirmed by society would offer a healthier alternative. (For more on this issue see Why Buddhists Should Buddhists Support Marriage Equality, by Bhikkhu Sujato http://sujato.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/1430/)
Most of the things said by the Buddha and in the Buddhist scriptures about conventional marriage would be applicable to same-sex marriages (see above Buddhism and Marriage). A same-sex couple should “speak loving words to each other”, live together “with joyful minds, of one heart and in harmony”, come together “in harmony and out of mutual affection”, and consider that “to cherish one’s children and spouse is the greatest blessing”. As with heterosexual couples same-sex partners who love each other and bond closely may be able to renew their relationship in the next life, if they have similar kamma. The Buddha told his disciple Nakulapita: “You have benefitted, good sir, you have greatly benefitted, in having (your wife) Nakulamātā full of compassion for you, full of love, as your mentor and teacher.” There is every reason to assume that homosexuals in close loving relationships should be similarly blessed.