I have updated this post as of October 2015. Check out the new version here.
In many cultures, there are religious traditions that incorporate deities and worship practices that involve same-sex attractions and relationships, gender-bending, gender switching and many other ideas that we would today label gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and/or transgender. In ancient Greece and Rome, powerful gods had sexual appetites for conquests both female and male. Zeus/Jupiter was most famous for this, but this was also true of Apollo and other gods. This, in itself, doesn’t tell us much. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered same-sex attraction a fairly normal appetite, and the gods reflected this.
Many cultures throughout the world have a phenomenon more like the example of Tiresias of the Greeks. Tiresias was the famed blind seer who switched from a man to a woman for 7 years. This gender-switching gave him a unique and powerful perspective: a power to see a more complete picture of the world and of humanity. The Greeks and Romans also had a transgender or, perhaps more accurately, intersex god called Hermaphroditos (Greek) or Hermaphroditus (Latin).
In cultures from the Americas and Africa, from the Ojibwe to the Dogon, gender non-conforming people were considered to have a sacred role, particularly when it came to their connection to the deities and to the other world. They often took seer or shaman-like roles. In Asia Minor and India, there are examples of male devotees dressing as women, sometimes even removing male genitals, all in order to bring their bodies and behavior in closer alignment with a worshipped goddess. Here is an article showing some examples of gender non-conforming behavior around religious practices in various cultures.
I think it’s difficult to fit some of these beliefs and practices into modern understandings of religion and gender. It’s very tricky to try imposing modern Euro/American cultural understandings of concepts like sexual and gender identity on cultures where the thinking on these subjects is so different. But LGBTQ people do find certain inspiration/reflection of paths that may be open to them.
As neo-paganism emerged in Europe and America in the 19th and 20th centuries, many paths creating new traditions such as Gardnerian Wicca were focused on fertility magic that revolves around strictly defined male and female roles. They can have a dualistic God/Goddess pantheon and women and men are assigned to enact only the deity corresponding to their gender in rituals. Same sex relationships were irrelevant at best and sometimes looked at with some hostility.
Since the 1970’s, a number of Pagan paths and groups have emerged with men who love men in mind. The Minoan Brotherhood emerged in the 1970’s as a deliberate reaction against the heterosexism in Paganism and Wicca. They follow a path for men loving men inspired by ancient Cretan traditions. They have expanded into chapters in a number of cities and also there is a Minoan Sisterhood, created as a related organization for women.
Brotherhood of the Phoenix is a Chicago-based neo-pagan order for men who love men. As I have mentioned, I have attended their rituals and their novitiate training and I have applied to be initiated. Like the Minoan Brotherhood, this group has formed to be a spiritually affirming force for gay, bisexual and transgender men.
The Unnamed Path is another path for men who love men that has emerged in past few years. I have only recently been aware of this path, and sadly just as the charismatic leader Hyperion died at the age of only 38. His background with Hoodoo and Santeria has colored this tradition. I hope that the leadership of that group has the strength to continue in spite of this stunning loss.
Another interesting development has been the worship of Antinous, the “gay god”, reclaimed from Egyptian/Roman tradition. In life he was the lover and partner of the Emperor Hadrian, but due to the manner of his death (drowning in the Nile), he was deified. In the late Roman Empire, his worship spread throughout the Europe, the Near East and North Africa. The Ekklesia Antinoou or Via Antinoi has emerged as a revival of the worship of this god. A key figure in this revival has been P. Sufenus Virius Lupus. The group does not limit worshipers to men who love men (or even to men), but is open to all. That said, it is clearly another emerging tradition that affirms a men-loving-men perspective.
Many other more recent neo-pagan traditions have become more welcoming to diverse sexual identities, especially those that emerged from the feminist spiritual movements of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Reclaiming tradition is certainly welcoming to diverse sexual identities and even Druidry and traditional Wicca have become more open around these issues.
As Paganism can be particularly attractive to women who sought out an opportunity for representations of the divine feminine, so it is for LGBTQ people who seek a reflection of their own sexual and gender identities.