What causes homosexuality? Is it OK to be gay if you are born that way?

The origins of same-sex attractions are not fully understood, and many people who experience such feelings do not choose or want them. There has been much debate over the question of nature versus nurture, but scientists have been unable to find a genetic cause for homosexuality. Dr. Dean Hamer (who coined the phrase ‘‘gay gene’’ ) said, ‘‘We have not found the gene—which we don’t think exists—for sexual orientation.’’[1] Another study concluded, ‘‘Critical review shows the evidence favoring a biologic (genetic) theory to be lacking.’’[2] Although genetic factors might play a role in sexual attractions, we know that it is an overstatement to say that their genes cause people to be ‘‘born gay.’’ After all, identical twins share the same genes, but do not always share the same sexual attractions. Furthermore, if some men and women are ‘‘born homosexual,’’ why do their reproductive systems compliment the opposite sex? The mystery that science seeks to explain is why their bodies are oriented one way, while their desires point them in the opposite direction.

There may be genetic factors that have yet to be discovered, but this is beside the point, according to one columnist on a homosexual advocacy Web site. In his article ‘‘Nature? Nurture? It Doesn’t Matter,’’ he explained the origin of homosexual attractions:

“We discover them; we do not invent them. So we must be born this way, right? Wrong. For several reasons. No one is born with romantic feelings, much less engaging in sexual conduct. That comes later. . . . The fact is that there are plenty of genetically influenced traits that are nevertheless undesirable. Alcoholism may have a genetic basis, but it doesn’t follow that alcoholics ought to drink excessively. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to violence, but they have no more right to attack their neighbors than anyone else. Persons with such tendencies cannot say ‘‘God made me this way’’ as an excuse for acting on their dispositions. . . . We do not determine whether a trait is good by looking at where it came from (genetics, environment, or something else). . . . Remember: bad arguments in favor of a good cause are still bad arguments—and in the long run not very good for the cause.”[3]

Even this gentleman, who sees nothing wrong with embracing the homosexual lifestyle, recognizes that we can’t merely look to genetic or even environmental factors in order to approve or condemn human behaviors.

He’s right. If homosexual attractions have their origin in biological or environmental factors, then those things should be studied for their own sake, not for the sake of making ethical judgments based upon them. Some people who identify themselves as gay or lesbian are offended by the idea that their attractions might have been influenced by their upbringing or life-experiences. But these things influence all of us, and even if people’s unchosen attractions were not shaped by their past in any way, their past may have shaped the sexual behavior they did choose.

Many psychologists believe that the development of homosexual desires is sometimes rooted in an individual’s upbringing.[4 ] Here are some ways in which this could be the case:

One: Sometimes the person experienced sexual abuse. Certainly not everyone who suffers sexual abuse develops homosexual attractions, and not everyone who has homosexual attractions was abused. But if a man abuses a girl, she may subconsciously think, ‘‘Men must all be like you, and no man will do that to me! I don’t want to be hurt that way again.’’ At times, homosexual relationships become a shield for the heart and a sort of haven to escape the hurt of abusive relationships. It is understandable that a person hurt in the past would want to avoid future relationships that cause pain—and pain may be all a person knows of the opposite sex. Also, children who are sexually abused by a member of the same sex can become confused about their sexual orientation.

Those who experience same-sex attractions should not dismiss this connection simply because they have not experienced it themselves. I recall having a long and friendly conversation with a teenage girl and her girlfriend. Over the course of our discussion, she mentioned that she used to date guys. I asked her if anything particular made her lose interest in them. She replied, ‘‘No, I was born lesbian.’’ Sensing some hesitation on her part, I asked, ‘‘Are you sure? Nothing turned you off from guys?’’ She quietly answered, ‘‘I was raped four times, if that’s what you mean.’’ Who could blame this young woman for being repulsed by men and finding greater security in the companionship of another female? The purpose of recognizing a connection between sexual abuse and homosexual attractions or behavior is not to condemn the person but to assist him or her in healing the original wound instead of running from it.

Sometimes the abuse a young person witnesses is not sexual. One individual who experiences same sex attractions shared with me the following scenario: ‘‘A female witnessing an abusive father with her mother often times views the mother as weak and splits from identifying with her mother. She tells herself that she doesn’t want to be like that (weak). She feels anger toward her father and even anger toward the mother for not defending herself. Often times, the girl will identify with the father’s emotions seeing that he gets his way and is in control. Thus, the young girl takes on male traits (i.e. tomboy).’’ While these childhood experiences might have played a role this person’s future relationships, it should be noted that each person processes suffering in a different way. Some young girls who witness domestic abuse might respond by avoiding marriage, while others might focus on marrying a kind husband. The point is that human experiences often shape human behavior, and those who experience same-sex attractions are not immune from such influences.

Two: Sometimes the opposite-sex parent is too enmeshed in the life of the child. For example, a mother and son can rely too exclusively on one another for needs that should be met elsewhere. Through this behavior a mother might inadvertently impede a boy’s masculine development, which might lead him to feel that he ‘‘doesn’t belong’’ among his peer group. This can contribute to gender identity confusion in the child.

Three: The same-sex parent may be emotionally or physically absent, which could lead a child to think that he or she is unloved. This perception has power—even if it is untrue. For example, imagine a father who works tirelessly in order to provide for his family. He was raised in a home that wasn’t particularly affectionate, and he isn’t the best communicator. His children might assume he doesn’t like them, although they probably mean everything to him.

In the case of a young man, the real (or perceived) absence of a father may lead to feelings of inferiority or rejection by peers when it comes to things such as athletic endeavors with other guys. This can cause a young man to feel an inability to relate to men, and yet a yearning to be accepted by them. If his own father failed to affirm him as a man, he’ll naturally look for that masculine affirmation elsewhere. If he begins to explore homosexuality in response to this yearning, he may gradually come to believe that his orientation is homosexual. But the attraction may have existed simply because others possessed a degree of masculinity that the young man admired and feared he lacked.

These three considerations do not apply to everyone. Each person’s experience is as unique as the individual himself or herself, and there’s no such thing as a ‘‘one-size-fits-all’’ explanation to such a complex topic. Those who experience same-sex attractions will rightly explain that not everyone with such attractions has had traumatic life experiences or dysfunctional families. But the fact remains that both positive and negative experiences can shape our attractions. There are external factors in all our lives that go back beyond what we remember and that influence us in some way. The brain is an organ that can be shaped throughout our lives, and this is true of all people, regardless of to whom they are sexually attracted.

People have spent decades searching for genetic clues in order to better understand sexual orientation. In their quest for microscopic evidence, they miss what is plainly revealed in the body. God made us male and female, and our bodies reveal that we are called to make a gift of ourselves. However, this gift of self doesn’t need to be expressed in a sexual way. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and only by loving as God loves will we find true fulfillment and meaning in our lives.

Some people mistakenly think that the Church condemns people for experiencing same-sex attractions. The Church would be unfair if it did this. Sin is something you choose, but attractions are not chosen. Therefore, it is not a sin to experience homosexual attractions or temptations. For good reason, the Church distinguishes between the person, the inclination, and the actions.

Although our attractions in themselves are not sinful, they can lead us to sin. For example, Scripture and Church teaching condemn homosexual actions (Rom. 1:24–27; Gen. 19:1–29; 1 Tim. 1:8–10; CCC 2357–2359). However, a person does not need to give in to his or her temptations. As the Bible says, ‘‘No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it’’ (1 Cor. 10:13). Although temptations and attractions are not chosen, we do have a choice regarding them: Do we reinforce and intensify them or do we seek God’s help when the desires arise? By looking to the examples of unmarried people such as Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Jesus, a person who experiences same-sex attractions can see that it is possible to give up certain pleasures in this life in order to experience a deeper union with God, now and in the life to come.

It might seem far-fetched to compare yourself to these individuals, but it’s important to realize that there are other people living this out in the world. You may not see them, but they are there, striving to live a holy life through the joy of pursuing fulfillment in Christ above all else. I know some of them, and they radiate a peace that is rooted in self-honesty about their attractions and about their ultimate identity in Jesus Christ. They are seeking to grow in holiness and are amazing examples of how Christ’s love can and does transform lives and bring joy!

The Church has canonized saints who have struggled with all kinds of difficulties, and I look forward to the day when the Church will canonize people who experienced same-sex attractions and chose to glorify God with their bodies through a life of purity. This isn’t a naïve wish on my part. I know many of them, and they serve as a powerful reminder to me that God is calling each one of us to holiness, regardless of our attractions.

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[1]. R. McKie, ‘‘The Myth ofthe Gay Gene,’’ The Press NZ, July 30, 1993, 9. As quoted by Neil and Briar Whitehead, My Genes Made Me Do It! (Lafayette, La.: Huntington House Publishers, 1999), 135.

[2]. W. Byne and B. Parsons, ‘‘Human Sexual Orientation: The Biological Theories Reappraised,’’ Archives of General Psychiatry 50 (1993), 228–239; ‘‘Gay Genes Revisited,’’ Scientific American, November 1995, 26.

[3]. ‘‘Nature? Nurture? It Doesn’t Matter,’’ by John Corvino (August 12, 2004), Independent Gay Forum.

[4]. E. Moberly, Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic (Cambridge, U.K.: James Clarke, 1983); G. van den Aardweg, On the Origins and Treatment of Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Reinterpretation (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1986).

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