Yoweri Museveni recently based his decision to sign the bill outlawing homosexual expression in Uganda on the fact that he understood homosexuality to be largely influenced by environmental factors. If homosexuality could be proven to be genetic, then he said he would consider not signing the bill. But if research pointed to the environment, then he believed they could make changes in the environment to suppress homosexuality. I personally don’t understand how proof that it’s caused by environmental factors would mean it can be eradicated, as it seems clear that people don’t choose their orientation either way, and that homosexual desires have been present among some people in most cultures throughout history, but aside from that: the research doesn’t seem nearly as clear as he concluded.
That got me thinking about how this idea—that homosexuality is the result of childhood wounds or societal influence—is predominate in many Christian circles as well, and it often leads to different problems. I’m not an expert here, but scientists who have devoted their lives to these questions say the research indicates that a gay orientation is likely caused by a number of factors. Both biology and the developmental process likely influence a person’s sexual orientation, and the extent to which one is more influential than the other probably differs from person to person, as sexuality is so layered and complex.
I’m not too concerned with where it comes from, but I am concerned about what people often do with the assumption that it’s strictly caused by one source or the other. For instance, many want to say that if we can prove it’s the result of biology, then we will have no choice but to affirm gay sexual relationships. That doesn’t ring true to me because we’re all born with desires that are (in some way) to be redirected toward a proper end. The Fall affects every area of our lives—including biology—and we all experience the world in a manner that reflects the fracture. Etiology doesn’t speak to ethics here, and questions of how to express our sexuality should be separate from questions of causation.
At the same time, perhaps partially as a reaction to the claim that if it’s genetic then affirmation of gay sexual expression is the only reasonable response, many Christians rely heavily on developmental theories. It’s common for folks to attribute gay attractions to a complicated childhood relationship with the same sex parent, or to sexual abuse, or to a culture that celebrates unrestrained sexual liberty. Those kinds of experiences influence the way any person experiences the world, no doubt, but many straight people were sexually abused and many gay people were not. Many straight people had verbally abusive same sex parents and many gay people felt warm attachments to both parents.
I think it’s helpful for everyone to examine childhood experiences to consider ways they affect us now, but problems arise when people assume that if a gay orientation was caused by childhood wounds, then we can work through the “root causes” and experience a straight outcome. My experience actually fits rather neatly into the developmental theory. I was filled with hope when I first heard it because I concluded that if my orientation was caused by these wounds then I could work through them, find healing, and experience a diminishment in my attraction to women. I dove into an inner healing curriculum and returned for three rounds of it, spent seven years in various support groups and five years in therapy. I’ve examined, journaled, processed, and prayed through my childhood wounds enough to have earned a doctorate degree in My Childhood Wounds—and I still like women.
I’m grateful for the years of examination because I’m more well-adjusted and my relationships are significantly healthier, but my orientation is still directed toward women. Many of my straight girl friends had stories similar to mine growing up, and after years of examining their issues, they’re more well-adjusted and have healthier relationships, but their orientation is still directed toward men. When we bring baggage into adolescence or adulthood, it’s good to work through that baggage, but we run into serious problems—false promises followed by dashed hopes—when we assume a shift in orientation will follow healing. We also run into serious problems when we impose a theory on a gay person who didn’t experience the assumed root causes. I can’t tell you how many incredible dads have been strangled by shame when they were led to believe they caused their son to be gay.
What’s important to understand is this: regardless of where it comes from, a gay orientation isn’t chosen and it’s likely not going to change. If there has been dysfunction in a family system, it’s good to seek reconciliation and greater intimacy with other family members. This will lead to deeper bonds within the family and greater health and well-being for the gay person, but they’ll probably still be attracted to the same sex. This doesn’t need to lead to hopelessness, however, because the Christian hope was never about heterosexual attraction; the hope is to be renewed from the inside out and bring glory to God in all our endeavors.
I’m grateful scholars study questions of etiology, but I think the church would do well to focus more on the question: How should we play the hand we’ve been dealt? Regardless of how we got here, we have choices about the nature of our relationships, the way we allow our minds to wander, and what aspects of our experiences we choose to form our identities around. While we might not be able to choose who we’re attracted to, we can choose how we’re going to express it. Gay and straight people alike are on level ground when it comes to misdirected desires and choices of how to honor God with our sexuality, and it’s been helpful for me to move past the idea of “fixing” the gay so I can focus more on flourishing in friendship and finding a family in the church.
If you or those you love are sifting through all the information about causation and you find developmental theories helpful in highlighting areas you might need to further explore, I think good things can come out of that journey. Like I said: I’m grateful for many of the things I learned during the process because I have experienced tremendous healing—that healing just looks different than I anticipated. If you’re a father or son with a strained relationship, then I hope the revelations will encourage you to work through issues and grow in intimacy with one another. I hope you’ll approach it with an open mind, however, doing it for the sake of love and intimacy with one another instead of an assumption that it will lead to a shift in orientation. Maybe you will experience some degree of shift in attraction, but I hesitate to say that because it’s rather rare and it seems to surprise those who experience it rather than being achieved as an expected outcome. A little humility about what we do and don’t know, and a sense of openness to what will or won’t happen, will hopefully minimize the potential for shame and disappointment among those on the journey.