Due to my websites about sexual identity issues, I receive many inquiries from people asking why people are gay. Recently, a note from a mom writing about her son caught my eye. She wrote:
He saw a Christian counselor for 2 months in the summer after his Freshman year in college, where they explored the reasons why he felt he was gay, he (my son) came to the conclusion that “I have a great relationship with my Dad, and I don’t fit into any other the other categories of being gay [e.g., sexually abused], so God must have made me this way.”
This young man may yet return to his faith, same-sex attractions and all. His parents are certainly praying for their boy to come home, change or no change. As I read her impassioned email, my thoughts were turned to numerous conflicted people over the years who ask me, “Why do I have these feelings?”
Currently, there are two dominant explanations for homosexual attractions, with evangelicals more likely to believe environment, particularly family dynamics is key, whereas, those outside the church more frequently lean toward the belief that homosexuality in innate.
However, advocates in both camps, eager to contradict the other side’s view, have oversold what we know about sexual orientation. In the evangelical world, the most common explanation is that homosexual feelings occur due to deficits in relationship with the same-sex parent early in life and/or sexual molestation. From a research perspective, the supporting evidence for these factors being true of all homosexually inclined people is not strong. More practically, when this scenario doesn’t fit the facts on the ground, as in the case of the young man described above, then what? The general absence of other, more nuanced views makes the prevailing media-fueled, pre-natal explanation look plausible. And this is unfortunate because the research evidence for the extreme inborn position is likewise incomplete with many complex and contradictory findings.
The extreme views inside and outside the church mask the fact that no one knows for sure why homosexual attractions occur for any given individual. There is evidence that supports the operation of both environmental and pre-natal factors, perhaps in different ways for different people. Furthermore, men and women are quite different. And almost everybody who studies this topic agrees we have no consensus.
However, the polarization in the culture is undeniable. Pollsters ask us which side we’re on as if the issue is of the either-or variety. For instance, Gallup’s recent youth poll asked respondents, “Is homosexual something you are born with or is it due to outside factors?” If I was asked this question, my answer would take much more space than a typical pollster or reporter has room or patience for.
It is unfortunate in this sound bite culture that advocates take sides at all about a scientific matter where there really are no sides. I have a hard time understanding why evangelicals fear biological or pre-natal factors playing a role in our sexuality. Such factors play a role in almost everything us about what it means to be human. Why not about sex?
At the same time we resist biological reductionism, we should also question psychological reductionism. Reducing the cause of homosexual attractions for all people to a poor relationship with one’s parents or to any singular factor is to make the same mistake as those who are stuck on the innate view. We are more complex than that.
It seems to me that whatever we learn about the causes of sexual attractions, the question of what we ought to do about sexuality is another matter. The cause question can obscure the more fundamental task of deciding how one should live no matter what causes same-sex attraction. I submit that whether one is born gay or is socialized to become gay, (or some combination of both factors), one still must make a value based decision about how one wants to live.
In the case of the young man described above, a counselor’s allegiance to environmental theories with weak research support and numerous exceptions in the real world had unintended consequences. Certainty about specific environmental causes is not necessary to counter a worldview that proposes inheritance is destiny. We are still responsible to reflect morally about our inclinations, even if they derive in full or in part from pre-natal roots.
Finally, it seems to me that the relentless pursuit of why can actually take us away from what religious faith offers that can be the most dynamic—the gifts of community and grace to pursue a valued life, even if that means denying ourselves.