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Seán Rayshel (center) with his parents, Barry and Jo Ann. Photo courtesy of Rayshel.

Meet A Baha’i Activist Pushing For LGBTQ Tolerance In His Faith

Meet A Baha’i Activist Pushing For LGBTQ Tolerance In His Faith

By Iain Carlos | Religion UnPlugged

CHICAGO— While filming a documentary, Seán Rayshel stopped at a prophet’s shrine in Haifa, Israel. Prayer book in hand, he asked God if he was on the right path.

The question was only natural, considering his film would fly in the face of his lifelong faith’s orthodoxy.

Rayshel aims to make his religion, the Baha’i faith, more tolerant of its LGBTQ adherents. While making his documentary, “No Matter How Fine a Love” — which he’s airing in pieces in a YouTube series — Rayshel traveled across the U.S. and to Israel to shine a light on the struggle of LGBTQ Baha’is. He also heads one of the better known social media presences focused on LGBTQ Baha’is, called the LGBTQ Baha’i Experience.

At a glance, one might think Rayshel’s work is out of place. The Baha’i faith, which boasts over 5 million adherents worldwide, delights in its cosmopolitan ethos, its belief in equality across gender and race, and the iconoclastic history of its founding. 

But as in many religions, gay relationships, sexual intimacy and marriage are frowned upon in mainstream interpretations of Baha’i law. Those found violating the law can face sanctions from the Baha’i administration, including being cut off from community gatherings and participating in Baha’i elections. This has led many LGBTQ Baha’is to suffer in isolation, caught in a conflict between a religion that imbues their lives with purpose and their immutable identities. Rayshel counsels Baha’is in this conundrum regularly.

“This is what I do, this is my purpose in life, I feel, is to be this voice and to help people,” Rayshel said. “I’ve known people to commit suicide over this. It’s the most horrible thing to know that the person that you talk to one week is gone the next.”

Rayshel has been dancing in the same struggle for some time.

Growing up in the Riverside, California Baha’i community

The 43-year-old activist grew up in Riverside, California, a third-generation Baha’i. Well, kind of. His truth seeking “quasi-hippy” parents, Barry and Jo Ann Rayshel, became Baha’is before his grandparents on his mother’s side. In quasi-hippy fashion, Barry and Jo Ann did their best to not instill gender roles while raising Seán and his sister, Erica. Seán played with dolls; Erica played with trucks.

Though a religious minority in Christian-majority Riverside, Seán Rayshel felt at home in the city’s Baha’i center. His memories of the Riverside Baha’i community are almost all happy, he said.

A precocious child, Rayshel was reading Baha’i religious texts and history from the age of five. He also had an early penchant for calling male celebrities handsome. His parents didn’t make much of it, but Rayshel knew early on that he was different, he said.

Rayshel remembers taking in the texts, bringing him to close grips with the tenets of the faith. The Baha’i faith holds that there is one God; that The Báb, who led a religious movement in mid-19th century Persia, was the long-awaited Twelfth Imam of Twelver Shia Islam, and that he was the herald of the next great prophet of God, Bahá’u’lláh. The Baha’is believe in progressive revelation, which holds that the great characters of many religions — Zoroaster, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad — were all prophets of God, gradually revealing greater spiritual wisdom to humanity as it matured. They hold that Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation will remain the most current revelation of God for 1,000 years, before another great prophet reveals the wisdom of a new era. All of humanity, across the axes of race and gender, are equal, and humans should seek to establish a global order of peace and harmony, according to the faith.

Young Rayshel read the texts and took in their radical vision of unity. But when he was 11, he was horrified during a reading of the Synopsis and Codification of the Laws and Ordinances of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas — a summary of the faith’s most holy book — when he came across a passage that seemed to condemn gay relationships.

“Imagine an 11-year-old reading that and just falling to pieces,” Rayshel said.

Thus began a struggle between two parts of Rayshel’s being that has defined much of his life.

Rayshel’s initial response to the conundrum was deep and silent despair. He ate his sadness into obesity. On numerous occasions he thought about committing suicide, he said.

He had flickers of hope. The Baha’i faith holds that science and religion are compatible, and that on issues where religion doesn’t offer clear answers, people should defer to science.

“There was always this part of me that thought, once science figures this all out, they’ll realize that homosexuality is just a normal part of nature,” Rayshel said. “And the Baha’is that were more liberal-minded would agree and say, ‘you know what, science will figure this out,’ and once science does, then the faith will be on board, and homosexuality won’t be considered a taboo subject anymore.”

That didn’t happen during Rayshel’s teenage years. It still hasn’t happened. The Baha’i administration has acknowledged that there may be biological explanations for homosexuality. But it has argued that a predisposition being biological doesn’t have relevance as to whether acting on it accords with Baha’i law. In the same way, it wouldn’t follow from the existence of biological predispositions to alcohol addiction that Baha’is may drink alcohol — they are forbidden to do so by Baha’i law.

Along these lines, the administration has also said any and all Baha’is, including “those with a homosexual orientation,” are worthy of love and shouldn’t face prejudice from Baha’i communities. And that “the efforts of those with a homosexual orientation who strive to live the Baha’i life are worthy of admiration.”

One might wonder why, aside from the urge to spread tolerance, it matters so much to Rayshel and other LGBTQ Baha’is what the religion’s official stance on LGBTQ issues is. Other religions have sects and schools that range in their tolerance toward the LGBTQ community — couldn’t Rayshel and other LGBTQ Baha’is settle in the more tolerant arenas of the faith?

Yes and no. All Baha’i communities, aside from the tiniest schisms, are ultimately under the jurisdiction of the Universal House of Justice, the head administrative body of the religion that oversees global affairs and resides in Haifa, Israel. The Universal House of Justice oversees other administrative bodies, with the hierarchy going all the way down to Local Spiritual Assemblies, the governing bodies elected by local Baha’i communities. 

That doesn’t mean every individual Baha’i or community thinks or acts the same. Quite the opposite, Baha’is are encouraged to come to their own conclusions about spiritual truth where revelation has not been clear. But it does mean that, even for those who have found local communities that aren’t sticklers for certain rules, Baha’is can be sanctioned by higher authorities for their transgressions if deemed necessary.

Within these circumstances, the experiences of LGBTQ Baha’is have varied. Some LGBTQ Baha’is have remained under the radar, straddling their faith and identity without publicly demanding reform. Others have done their best to suppress their identities to keep the law, as described in “I don’t want to be Tāhirih,” a master’s thesis by Hanna A. Langer at Ludwig-Maximilians-University — one of the only scholarly works on the experience of LGBTQ Baha’is. Others still acknowledge their identities but maintain a life of celibacy.

Coming out

After years of anguishing over the passage he read on homosexuality, Rayshel started coming out to his family after he finished high school.

First, he came out to his sister. She was the closest member of his social circle and who he was most confident would accept him. Plus the two had started going to underground clubs together, and Rayshel wanted to be able to be himself around her. She was fine with the news.

Then came his mother. This time, Rayshel would artfully capitalize on his family’s affinity for the ‘90s sitcom “Ellen,” timing his coming out with Ellen DeGeneris’ in a 1997 episode of the show. His father was away at a Baha’i meeting when it aired. She took the news well.

Rayshel was most nervous about coming out to his dad, probably because of cultural conditioning, he said. It was “so stupid, in retrospect” for him to be so worried about it, given that his dad had always had gay friends. Barry took the news well, though his feelings were hurt by the fact that he got the news last in the immediate family.

Within the year, Rayshel had come out to his grandparents and the majority of the Riverside Baha’i community.

“It’s like the whole world was lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “It was the most rewarding experience; it was the most loving thing I could do to myself, was to be honest about who I was and live my authentic life.”

Still, Rayshel was apprehensive about ever serving on Riverside’s local spiritual assembly, the nine-member governing body elected by local Baha’i communities. Though the community knew he was gay, Rayshel wanted to get out in front of the possibility of someone reporting his sexuality to a higher authority.

So, he enlisted the help of an auxiliary board member for protection. Auxiliary board members for protection are entrusted with promoting unity and spiritual knowledge in multiple Baha’i communities under their regional purview. Having known the auxiliary board member since he was a child, he trusted them with the job.

The Riverside Local Spiritual Assembly was surprised when Rayshel and the auxiliary board member came to meet with them. They told the auxiliary board member they already knew Rayshel was gay, and that they loved him, Rayshel recalls them saying.

The auxiliary board member explained that Rayshel just wanted to be sure he’d be protected and never face repercussions for his sexuality. The assembly said they’d always protect him. 

The secretary of the assembly did note that the assembly had received five reports from Baha’is in and around Riverside effectively saying, “Rayshel is gay — what will be done about it?” But the assembly responded that it was none of their business, Rayshel said.

Not long after, Rayshel was elected to serve on Riverside’s local spiritual assembly. It’s very rare in Baha’i history for openly gay people to serve on an assembly as far as Rayshel is aware.

In addition to the community’s tolerant disposition, Rayshel also avoided sanction by taking advantage of the way Baha’i doctrine against homosexuality is structured. It’s not being gay in and of itself that warrants discipline; rather gay relationships and sexual intimacy violate the law. Rayshel kept his romantic life separate from his religious one, and the Riverside Spiritual Assembly never delved into his private affairs, Rayshel said.

Things continued to look up. His fellow assembly members appreciated Rayshel’s deepness of belief and rich knowledge. The auxiliary board member asked Rayshel for his input on how the Baha’i faith could be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community. He suggested leaving LGBTQ Baha’is to love the faith without prying into their private lives.

“I thought, jeez, I’m making some major strides — this is unheard of,” Rayshel said.

Soon after that, on the now defunct dating website gay.com, Rayshel met Rich Tarpening, a non-Baha’i TV journalist based in Palm Springs. They’ve been together ever since their first date in late 2001.

Seán Rayshel with Rich Tarpening at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Rayshel.

Rayshel moved to Palm Springs to be with Tarpening but didn’t get involved with the local Baha’i community there for a few years. When he did, the community discovered how learned he was and quickly suggested he hold a seat on the Palm Springs Spiritual Assembly.

Rayshel told the community that he was openly gay and had a partner. He asked if they would accept him for who he was. They did so warmly, Rayshel said.

Surprised at having been embraced by two assemblies, Rayshel thought, “Maybe the faith is slowly, locally changing,” he said.

But Rayshel still had to be careful.

Having learned about the Baha’i faith from Rayshel, Tarpening was interested in becoming Baha’i. But whenever Tarpening brought up the topic, Rayshel danced away from it. Frustrated, Tarpening finally cornered Rayshel about it, and Rayshel shared the sad conclusion he’d come to.

“You know, honey, I love you, but I just don’t see how we can be active together in this religion if I can’t technically be in a relationship with you,” Rayshel remembers telling Tarpening. “Once word gets out, I’ll lose my administrative rights, you’ll lose your administrative rights, and then where are we?”

Opposing Baha’i condemnation of homosexuality

In 2007, a few years into Rayshel’s service, the Palm Springs Baha’i community phone line was ringing off the hook.

Multiple media outlets reported that there was Baha’i participation in a rally against homosexuality in Kampala, Uganda, which was held in response to recent calls from Ugandan LGBTQ community members for equal rights.

An interfaith group called the Interfaith Rainbow Coalition Against Homosexuality organized the rally. The nature of Baha’i participation is unclear.

Curiously, while Christian and Muslim community leaders were explicitly mentioned and pictured in media coverage of the rally, ReligionUnplugged.com couldn’t find named mentions of Baha’is participating in the event. When ReligionUnplugged asked one of the coalition’s leaders, Pastor Martin Ssempa, if there were any Baha’is affiliated with the coalition, he said, “Not any I can recall.”

Nonetheless, the Universal House of Justice would later confirm in a letter to Rayshel that there was some Baha’i participation in the association. “The Baha’i representative to the interfaith association was unwittingly drawn into this controversy. Some reports have incorrectly characterized the Baha’i involvement in the matter. The National Spiritual Assembly of Uganda is taking steps to ensure that such issues are handled appropriately in the future,” the Universal House of Justice wrote.

Jarrett Hobbs, the manager of the Office of Community Administration at the National Spiritual Assembly in the United States, said that there was a Baha’i spokesperson affiliated with a local community that participated in the interfaith organization — without knowledge of the association’s involvement in politics, though, he isn’t very familiar with the details of the situation. 

In response to Baha’i participation in the anti-LGBTQ coalition, Rayshel signed a petition addressed to the Universal House of Justice. The petition said signers opposed Baha’i condemnation of homosexuality and Baha’i backing of anti-LGBTQ politics. His sister Erica also signed. His parents refrained.

“They just were like, ‘I don’t know Seán, this is kind of rocking the boat,’“ he said.

Unafraid of some boat rocking, Rayshel emailed the petition to local Baha’is in and around Palm Springs, explaining that the issue needed to be confronted, and that “the House of Justice needs to know this is not acceptable,” he said.

There were repercussions for Rayshel’s dissidence, he said.

Rayshel heard rumors of uproar over his sharing of the petition bubbling east of Palm Springs in nearby Baha’i communities. This culminated when the topic of Rayshel’s perceived insubordination dominated a cluster meeting of Baha’i communities in the region, which Rayshel heard about from a fellow Palm Springs Spiritual Assembly member in attendance. Attendees discussed that he and Erica could be branded “covenant breakers” for compelling the Universal House of Justice to change their position on LGBTQ issues, Rayshel was told

To be labeled a covenant breaker is the greatest punishment in the Baha’i faith, reserved for those trying to form a schism or otherwise organize dissent to the point of threatening the unity of the religion. Only the Universal House of Justice can label someone a covenant breaker.

Riled by the “backbiting,” Rayshel reached out to his then auxiliary board member for protection, Sam Delchad — the Baha’i occupying the post changes over time. He asked Delchad to meet with him and his family in his home to discuss how the situation could be addressed.

What Rayshel expected to be a helpful meeting in his home turned into “a three-hour interrogation,” Rayshel said. Delchad asked for the names of other LGBTQ Baha’is and sympathizers, the name of the person who created the petition and where they lived, and the status of the Rayshel family’s loyalty to the Baha’i law and administration, Rayshel said.

Rayshel refused to give up the names of LGBTQ Baha’is, said he didn’t know anything about the creator of the petition and affirmed his loyalty to the faith.

Delchad could not be reached for comment at the time of publication of this article. Rayshel provided emails to ReligionUnplugged.com indicating that Delchad and he met at his home.

Delchad told Rayshel that his name wasn’t being discussed negatively in meetings, which contradicted what he had been hearing. Delchad did say, however, that the Universal House of Justice could elect to brand him a covenant breaker for signing the petition and encouraging fellow Baha’is to follow, and that Rayshel’s signing and spreading of the petition had prompted an investigation into him at the Baha’i World Centre.

Delchad asked Rayshel and his family to sign a document recognizing that they were challenged by Baha’i laws on homosexuality and thus challenged by the prophethood of Bahá’u’lláh. In other words, “our belief in Bahá’u’lláh was being questioned,” Rayshel said.

Rayshel wasn’t having it. 

“I stood up, and I said to my family, ‘We are not signing that goddamn thing here, and how dare you ask us or question us about our belief in Bahá’u’lláh?’“

Then he told Delchad that he knew members of various religions who struggled with particular rules and aspects of their faith, and that to interrogate him and his family in this fashion was “bordering on cult-like behavior,” Rayshel said. 

After some tense back and forth, Delchad left, Rayshel said.

Fearing his actions may get him and his sister labeled covenant breakers, Rayshel contacted the Universal House of Justice to let them know he regretted signing the petition, ask whether there was an ongoing investigation into his actions, and ask for the Universal House of Justice’s forgiveness.

The Universal House of Justice wrote back to Rayshel, assuring him “that no such investigation is being conducted” and of its good spiritual wishes for him.

The turning point: a wedding

In 2008, California made gay marriage legal. So Tarpening and Rayshel got married on Sept. 20 that year. They invited Baha’is to the wedding and posted photos of the ceremony to Facebook.

The wedding didn’t seem to stir any trouble, Rayshel said. That was, until 2014, when he got a phone call. 

It was from Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, then a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States. National spiritual assemblies are the highest Baha’i administrative bodies in each country. Left Hand Bull had been tasked by the Universal House of Justice with meeting Rayshel in person to discuss his wedding, she explained over the phone according to Rayshel.

Left Hand Bull, who wanted to be clear that she speaks only for herself and not for the Baha’i faith as a whole, told ReligionUnplugged.com she doesn’t recall the contents of the conversation but does remember it happening. She also doesn’t remember the Universal House of Justice tasking the National Spiritual Assembly to speak with Rayshel but said that this telling of events “makes sense,” she added.

Hobbs, who serves in the Office of Community Administration at the Bahá’í National Center in the United States, said Left Hand Bull was tasked to counsel Rayshel solely by the National Spiritual Assembly, not the Universal House of Justice.

Rayshel provided emails exchanged with the National Spiritual Assembly indicating that the conversation took place.

Left Hand Bull explained that at least six Baha’is reported directly to the Universal House of Justice about Rayshel’s marriage and the fact that there were members of the Riverside Spiritual Assembly in attendance immediately after the wedding.

Rayshel asked why the issue of his wedding was being addressed six years later. Left Hand Bull never really answered the question, he said. Rayshel thinks his recent questioning of the faith’s stance on LGBTQ issues online may have spurred the sudden interest in his marriage, he said. He had launched the LGBTQ Baha’i Experience Twitter account in 2012, and many of his tweets were critical of the faith.

Left Hand Bull said she doesn’t know what prompted her task to speak with Rayshel, but said the National Spiritual Assembly wouldn’t be asked to counsel a Baha’i unless their violation of the law was causing disunity in a Baha’i community.

Hobbs said the National Spiritual Assembly was not aware of Rayshel’s marriage until 2014, and it was likely brought to the assembly’s attention by Baha’is in and around Rayshel’s local community.

It’s possible Rayshel’s counseling was due solely to his marriage and not his dissidence, as he isn’t the only openly gay Baha’i that managed to avoid sanction from higher ups until marriage. Daniel Orey, an openly gay and vocal Baha’i, only lost his administrative rights when he married his husband, he told ReligionUnplugged.com.

Rayshel told Left Hand Bull he was willing to speak on the phone but didn’t want to meet in person. Then he asked her why the issue of his marriage had been reported directly to the Universal House of Justice rather than to local spiritual assemblies or an auxiliary board member. She didn’t answer the question, he said.

Rayshel asked Left Hand Bull if she was asking him to divorce his husband. She said that wasn’t exactly what she was saying and that he was putting words in her mouth. He said he wouldn’t get a divorce.

She said the matter was between him and God, and that the Baha’i administration would get back with him after he’d prayed on it. 

Again, he told her he wouldn’t divorce his husband and asked what the consequences would be.

She said he would lose his administrative rights, either entirely or partially, depending on what would be deemed appropriate. 

That would cut Rayshel off from the 19 Day Feast — a spiritual meeting that takes place every 19 days and is comparable to a church service. He also wouldn’t be able to donate to the faith, go on pilgrimage to Haifa, Acre, and Bahjí in Israel or vote in Baha’i elections. The punishment is isolating and humiliating, Rayshel said.

As to whether Left Hand Bull recalls telling Rayshel his rights could be removed, she said, “It’s possible. I don’t remember saying it, but I think that it’s possible that I did,” Left Hand Bull told ReligionUnplugged.com. “If it came to the National Assembly for a decision, then we’d have to say, these are the laws, Seán.”

Leaving the Baha’i faith or reclaiming it?

Between his coming humiliation and understanding that the Baha’i faith wasn’t going to change its stance on homosexuality any time soon, Rayshel officially left the religion in 2015.

But he wasn’t going to be quiet about it. Rayshel wanted to do something to better the lives of LGBTQ people in the Baha’i community and challenge the orthodoxy that had for years alienated and gnawed at him, he said.

Tarpening agreed that Rayshel should do something and, being a TV journalist, naturally suggested that Rayshel make a documentary. Rayshel agreed.

He wanted it to be as loving as possible, not bellicose. The name for the film, “No Matter How Fine a Love,” was derived from a passage of a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, Baha’u’allah’s great grandson, that reads, “No matter how devoted and fine the love may be between people of the same sex, to let it find expression in sexual acts is wrong.” It was a phraseology Baha’is would be familiar with, Rayshel said.

Filming began in 2018. Rayshel and Tarpening traveled to Las Vegas; Sacramento, California; Chicago; Wilmette and Evanston, Illinois; and Israel to film and interview LGBTQ Baha’is and Baha’is affected by the treatment of LGBTQ people they’re close with.

A couple of years into filming, COVID-19 struck, putting the brakes on the project. The pandemic made traveling harder, and several subjects who had agreed to be interviewed didn’t want to risk in-person contact, Rayshel said.

During the lull, Rayshel contemplated ending the project. The work, while rewarding, brought him renewed grief. And this was on top of the stress he already felt supporting the many LGBTQ Baha’is emailing him each month asking for his consultation and support.

“It’s a lot on my shoulders — sometimes I feel like it’s all on my shoulders,” Rayshel said. “I’m one of the only vocal LGBTQ Baha’is out there. It’s a lot to take on.”

Moreover, Rayshel was finding it hard to attract much interest in his work. His efforts to shop it around were fruitless.

“The LGBTQ media really had no interest in this story whatsoever,” Rayshel said. “They were like, ‘Too small a religion, not enough numbers in the U.S. It’s too obscure a religion.’“

Mainstream outlets said the same thing.

Undeterred, Rayshel has decided to upload the documentary in pieces in a YouTube series, which has been well-received thus far, he said.

The goal of Rayshel’s activism has changed over the years.

“At this time, my goal is just to educate people on the status of LGBTQ Baha’is and what they actually do go through, their lived experience,” Rayshel said. “This is a topic that has been pretty much off limits, so anything is better than nothing.

“I don’t think I can change the Universal House of Justice on this. I don’t think they would ever give the appearance of being able to be swayed. They are very rigid and they don’t make apologies about it.”

Even so, Rayshel is hoping “to sway Baha’is around the world to start a dialogue, and also to get them to challenge, personally, their local authorities, or their national authorities or the Universal House of Justice.”

The first episode of the documentary Rayshel released was a 27 minute interview of Dan Ware, a gay Baha’i from Walla Walla, Washington, and his daughter, Alexis Ware.

Dan Ware explained that what initially attracted him to the Baha’i faith was how diverse and welcoming it was in juxtaposition to a relatively homogenous Walla Walla. He officially became Baha’i in 1970 and became deeply involved with the faith in the next few years. He became employed at the Baha’i National Center in 1975 in a role that saw him give conferences and help develop media for the faith, he said.

In accordance with the religion, Ware married a woman and had two children. He had gay experiences before his marriage but did his best to suppress that part of him, he said.

But he couldn’t keep it buried. He had an affair that would eventually lead to his divorce. A member of the National Spiritual Assembly met with Dan to inform him that his administrative rights had been removed.

“This was like the world had collapsed in front of my eyes because my family, my social and my work structure, every part of my being was connected with the Baha’i faith, and it was like it had all been just destroyed,” Ware said.

Thinking of the future, Ware asked the National Spiritual Assembly member whether, if he made the decision to cohabitate with a man in the future, it would be assumed that he was violating Baha’i law — other gay Baha’is have found themselves in this predicament, Rayshel said.

The National Spiritual Assembly member told him that it would be viewed as a violation of Baha’i law if he cohabitated with a man, and he couldn’t do it if he wanted to regain his administrative rights.

Ware saw this as a “death sentence,” he said. He didn’t comply.

He still draws on Baha’i teachings. He founded a travel company that takes gay people around the world, partially because of the Baha’i belief that all humans are global citizens.

But the exclusion of LGBTQ members from full participation in Baha’i life has made it impossible to still identify as a Baha’i.

“If the promise of the Baha’i faith to unite the world is to happen, it cannot happen if there is this one segment of humanity which is prohibited from full participation,” Ware said. “No matter how it is dressed up in flowery language from the Universal House of Justice as being a false dichotomy or anything like that, it is plain and simple wrong to attribute to this one group of people a lesser status and an inability to participate fully.”

As for the Baha’i administration’s perspective on the implications of the law, an important principle is that “Baha’is willingly accept the law and strive to live by it,” Hobbs said. “The Baha’is don’t impose that on others, and the Baha’i administration doesn’t impose that or judge others that aren’t Baha’is by that standard. This one critical aspect of the Baha’is is that we don’t judge what other people do, and even within the faith we shouldn’t be judging each other, but certainly not those that are not committed to these laws.”

In his interviews with ReligionUnplugged.com, Rayshel went back and forth from referring to himself as a Baha’i and a former Baha’i. Rayshel still holds that Baha’u’llah had a revelation from God, but his following of specific Baha’i laws and teachings has subsided in the years since he formally left the religion.

Nonetheless, Rayshel doesn’t view his work as contradicting the core of the Baha’i religion. The jury is far from out for the likes of Rayshel and many LGBTQ Baha’is and Baha’i allies as to what exactly Baha’u’llah was referring to when he seemingly condemned same-sex relations.

As far as the Universal House of Justice is concerned, this isn’t an issue it can simply legislate out of existence. The laws of Baha’u’llah are clear, the body has said, that homosexual relationships are not permitted.

On that view, if Baha’u’llah’s revelation really is spiritual truth, what it says about homosexuality can’t be disregarded.

For some Baha’is, like Tom Price, a well-known musician and speaker in the faith, there doesn’t need to be readily comprehensible justification for the law. Fundamental to the Baha’i faith is the idea that prophets have wisdom others simply don’t have access to.

“That is the fundamental principle of spiritual law,” Price said during a series of talks he gave called the Science of Spirituality. “If one cannot accept this aspect of spiritual law, then nothing else really matters when we talk about spiritual law. We need to first accept this fundamental concept that there is a God, there is a manifestation that reveals this law, and it is plausible that from his vantage point on the twigs of the tree of eternity, that he can see things that we can’t see.”

But to Rayshel, what Baha’u’llah was condemning was pederasty, which was common practice in the time he lived. This reading is discussed in “I don’t want to be Tāhirih.” It is a contested idea among some Baha’is.

For the Baha’i administration, whatever ambiguity there is in Baha’u’llah’s writings on homosexuality is done away with by the writing on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in the “No matter how fine a love” passage, Hobbs said.

The recognition of Shoghi Effendi as one of the “authorized interpreters is really fundamental to Baha’i belief,” Hobbs said.

But Rayshel and other Baha’i LGBTQ activists argue that ambiguity remains in how homosexuality ought to be interpreted in Baha’i law, as Shoghi Effendi didn’t write about homosexuality himself — only his secretary did, in a letter to an individual Baha’i.

“Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages,” a secretary of Shoghi Effendi wrote in another letter.

The letter of the law aside, Rayshel sees what he’s doing as abiding by the loving spirit of Baha’i law and embodying Baha’u’llah’s vision of unity.   

“I also want history to know that we existed, and that in this religion that claims to unite all of humanity and talks about unity and diversity, that they are not living up to their true selves,” Rayshel said. “To me it’s very hypocritical, and it’s going against what Baha’u’llah stood for.”

Iain Carlos is a reporter for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and formerly participated in the Dow Jones News Fund for American business journalists. He graduated from St. Olaf College with a B.A. in religion.

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