It has recently come to my attention that Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) has a practice whereby LGBT youth are excluded from SRF summer camps, and that gay and lesbian camp counselors have been systematically let go. These actions, while not officially called a policy on the part of the organization, have been enacted in a quiet way, and to my knowledge at least, the policy (which is what it is) has not been publically announced on the official website of the organization, nor in any of its publications.
I know a little bit about SRF, inasmuch as I was an active member for several years back in the 1970’s. And even now, having been a daily meditator for over forty years, I still consider myself to be a follower of the founder of SRF, Paramahansa Yogananda, and am immensely grateful for the meditation techniques and other spiritual practices taught by him.
One of the most important teachings of Yogananda, it has always seemed to me, is that everyone is a co-equal creation of the Divine Spirit. Indeed, that the Divine Spirit has become us, and it is our task, aided by deep meditation, to come to realize who we are, our highest identity in Spirit. It, therefore, puzzles and troubles me to hear that the organization founded by such a great mind has descended into exclusionary practices. The Bhagavad-Gita, one of the great works of Hindu philosophy and religion, which Yogananda wrote an extensive commentary on, says in Book VI (I am quoting from the classical Sir Edwin Arnold translation – Lord Krishna is speaking to his disciple, Arjuna): “Whoso thus discerneth Me in all, and all in Me, I never let him go, nor looseneth he hold upon Me.” Who then is included in this “all” spoken of by Krishna? Does it include gay and lesbian youth and camp counselors? And if the answer is “yes,” as I assume it must, then on what grounds does SRF feel they have the right to exempt LGBT people from its groups?
Organized religions seem to have a problem with sexuality in general, and with gay sexuality in particular. Why is this? I can only speculate, but my guess is that too often they are uncomfortable with the body. Religions like to teach that we are spiritual beings, exiled temporarily on the earth (“in this vale of tears,” as I was taught in my Catholic youth), and simply awaiting release into something higher. But is that so? Why would a Divine Spirit create people, human beings, to say nothing of all of the other creatures on this beautiful planet, only to tell those creatures that they are not good enough? And while it is true that Immortal Spirit has become us, and that our bodies are all too mortal, there is also nothing wrong with those bodies either. As the great Anglo-Irish poet (and Jesuit priest) Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best, but uncumberèd.” Part of being in a body on a planet on the physical plane is to engage in the sexuality of those bodies. The restrictions placed on how and when and with whom that sexuality is expressed are man-made rules, not Divinely inspired, and as such, these rules are subject to the limitations of human consciousness, to say nothing of its penchant toward exclusion, prejudice, and bigotry.
Lesbian and gay people know very well what this means. We have for centuries been excluded, and worse. We have been thought of as immature, immoral, degenerate, or simply insane. It is only now in the 21st century that some small measure of fairness and legal protections have been forthcoming, and then only in certain places. Gays and lesbians continue to be prosecuted, even killed, in many countries of the world, from Russia to Saudi Arabia to Uganda. Even within the United States, there are still areas where, if you are gay or lesbian, it is best if you keep your head down and your mouth shut.
So, does Self-Realization Fellowship wish to add to that kind of intolerant and discriminatory activity? And does it not consider how the exclusionary tactics referenced above are seen and felt by LGBT youth? How does a gay adolescent feel if he or she is told that it is forbidden for them to be part of a youth group, not because of any action on their part, but simply because of who they are? The same can of course be said for lesbian and gay camp counselors. The most immediate reaction, especially for young people whose personalities have not been fully formed and who may be overly swayed by outside opinion, is to feel that they are not good enough, that they are somehow less than their friends and family who are not gay.
At very least, if SRF insists on following these kinds of ostracizing policies, it should have the courage of its convictions. If it truly believes that gay and lesbian youth and youth counselors are somehow toxic to the mix, then let them stand up and say so openly. Let them put it front and center on the website, let them print it in their official publications for all to read. But let them not hide the policy until an unsuspecting youth attempts to join in, only to be told “quietly” that they are not good enough.
Or, as I continue to hope, let them reevaluate such flawed and hurtful policies. If, as the Lord Krishna says, we are all one in Him, then let LGBT people join in as well as part of the human race, created by the all-loving and all-accepting Divine Spirit. Or else, in the end, what is SRF’s teaching? How far have they strayed from the high-minded ideals and goals of the great Yogi who founded the organization?