From the NARTH Collected Papers, 2004
Julie C. Harren
Typically, the biological explanation is preferred by homosexuals as this explanation helps to generate greater tolerance and also helps to build their case for minority status. Since education on the developmental contributors to homosexuality discredits the theory that it is completely inborn, some people are opposed to this type of education. Although education on the developmental contributors is not always viewed positively, it is very important that this information be shared. In this paper, less offensive, and therefore more effective ways of educating the public on the developmental contributors to homosexuality are described.
Educating the Public on the Origins of Homosexuality
In the recent presidential debates, a question came up regarding the nature of homosexuality. The moderator asked both candidates, "Do you think homosexuality is a choice?" President Bush answered that he didn't know, and Senator Kerry answered that he did not believe homosexuality is a choice, but that people are born that way. He referred to Vice President Cheney's daughter, saying that she, as a lesbian, is "being who she was, being who she was born as" (personal communication, October 14, 2004). I believe President Bush's and Senator Kerry's answers illustrate two aspects of a serious problem regarding the origins of homosexuality.
The first part of the problem is that there is a great deal of confusion regarding the causes of homosexuality. There is a clear need for education on this issue. Many people simply do not know what causes homosexual inclinations. Many others have believed the erroneous theory that homosexuality is solely biological. Most people have not been informed about the developmental contributors to homosexuality.
The second part of the problem evidenced in this presidential debate is illustrated in the moderator's question. He asked if they believe homosexuality is a choice, "choice" being the popular alternative to the biological explanation for homosexuality. The problem indicated here is that there seems to be only one alternative explanation for those who realize that the biological explanation is incomplete. In much of society there seems to be only two popular explanations: either people are born gay, or else it is a choice. Unfortunately, however, as NARTH members are aware, neither of the two widely held beliefs provides a comprehensive explanation for the origins of homosexuality.
The research has never revealed that people are born gay. In fact, the research indicates that there are many factors, including possible biological and environmental factors, which contribute to a homosexual orientation (LeVay, 1996; Whitehead & Whitehead, 1999).
While homosexuality is not simply biologically based, neither are homosexual attractions a conscious choice. Attractions and desires are like feelings; they come from deep within us and are not a conscious choice on our part. Furthermore, the idea that same sex attractions are a choice is extremely offensive and hurtful to those who have these desires. Promoting the perspective that it is a choice often perpetuates judgmental attitudes towards homosexuals.
Although neither of the common explanations for homosexuality is accurate, the biological position is the one that is promoted by the gay community and secular society. This explanation, though incomplete and misleading, is extremely widespread. In the media and popular culture it seems to be assumed and implied that homosexuals are simply born that way. Flawed research studies are often cited as evidence for the biological basis of homosexuality.
There are a number of possible explanations for the popularity of the biological argument. Certainly if there are only two options, that it is biological or that it is a choice, it is clear that the biological option would be the preferred option, especially in the age of political correctness, in which tolerance is often the goal. Anything that promotes greater tolerance is more widely accepted. The biological explanation is used to do just that. It is assumed that if homosexuality is strictly physiological, society will be more compassionate and tolerant for homosexuals. In addition, the biological explanation is used as a platform for homosexuals seeking minority status. Many homosexuals will not entertain the idea that it is not biologically based, because any other explanation is often perceived as a threat to their cause. Thus, we are left with the promotion and widespread acceptance of information that, while considered politically correct, is incomplete and misleading.
Ironically, however, if people were taught that homosexuality is neither biological nor a choice, but a combination of both biological and environmental factors, the results of such education would include some of the advantages that homosexuals are seeking. When we educate on the environmental, developmental contributors to homosexuality, one of the outcomes is greater tolerance for homosexuals. Some of the results of education include: a deeper and more widespread societal understanding of their struggles, increased compassion for the hurts they have encountered, and decreased hostility. Hence, there are many advantages for society in general and for homosexuals in particular when expansive explanations are provided. Tolerance and respect are the result of education, even for those who do not approve or accept homosexuality as a moral lifestyle. Therefore, it is not only important to educate on this issue, but appropriate and beneficial to do so. Education on the developmental contributors to homosexuality does not have to be viewed negatively by homosexuals. As I have educated on this important topic I have found that education produces positive results for all people.
Education on this issue includes information about environmental contributors to same-sex attractions. When I educate I begin by explaining the various developmental needs children have, needs for connection with the same-sex parent and same-sex peers. I explain that children are not simply born with a sense of their own gender but that their gender identity is formed through connections and interactions with others, primarily members of the same sex. I explain that children look first to their same-sex parent and then to same-sex peers to form their own identity: to understand how they measure up, how they fit in, what value they have as male or female, what it means to be male or female, etc. When children do not form healthy same-sex bonds and their needs for same-sex connection go unmet, these needs do not go away; they simply intensify or take on another form. Typically, near puberty, these unmet needs take on a sexual form, the emotional needs become sexualized (Satinover, 1996).
These developmental factors, combined with genetic temperament, which impacts perceptions, all go into the development of homosexuality. Other factors such as sexual abuse or traumatic experiences may also contribute to the formation of same-sex attractions. Since this information is largely unknown to the general public, it is very important that we begin to share it in order to generate a more widespread understanding of this issue.
I believe there are various ways of educating on this issue, some more effective than others. I believe that if we are going to be effective in our educational attempts we must do so in non-offensive ways, in ways that promote tolerance and are acceptable to all people, both heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Although education on the origins of homosexuality has not always been well-received, I believe there is a way of doing so that can be non-offensive. As I have educated on this issue, I have found a way that seems to work well. I believe there are two keys to educating effectively: our motivation behind educating and our emphasis in educating.
Our motivations for what we do greatly impact the outcome of what we do. Our motivations are often evident in the delivery of the information we are sharing. The motivation that seems to yield the most acceptable results is love. I have a brother who is gay, whom I love dearly, and with whom I have a wonderful relationship. When I educate the public on the causes of homosexuality, it is my love for my brother that motivates me. My love for him produces in me a desire to raise awareness about the origins of homosexuality. My goal in educating is to decrease hostility towards homosexuals (especially within conservative faith-groups) and to increase compassion. With that as my goal, I share the information in a way that is not only palatable to heterosexuals, but also acceptable to my homosexual brother, his partner, and their homosexual friends.
On the other hand, if our motivation to speak on this topic is anger or outrage at homosexuals, I believe we lose some effectiveness. When anger motivates, the message we offer tends to contain a tone of hostility, which is not usually as palatable as a message given in love. When the information about homosexuality is presented in anger, the message often becomes lost in the delivery. An approach to education which conveys anger or intolerance will repel, rather than attract, listeners. I believe that education on this issue is absolutely imperative, but it must be done in a way in which people will listen, a way which draws people in rather than turns them away.
In addition to having motives that help rather than hinder, our emphasis, that is, what we choose to emphasize or highlight, also makes a big difference in regards to our effectiveness. I believe that we must highlight the positive contributions of education on society, positive implications for both heterosexual and homosexual members of society. Educating on this issue can have a positive impact on homosexuals in that education offers a more complete understanding than either of the two inaccurate explanations which are currently promoted. When we educate, we are most effective if we emphasize the benefits of sharing the information, that is, a complete understanding of the issue yields more positive results for everyone than either of the two popular misconceptions. For example, in contrast with the false idea that homosexuality is a choice, understanding the developmental nature of same sex attractions yields a much more compassionate response towards homosexuals. When people who believe it is a choice are educated on this issue, they gain understanding, have greater levels of compassion, and become less judgmental. Tolerance is the outcome when people who believe it is a choice learn that it is instead developmental. All people, including homosexuals, should be treated with respect and dignity even by those who may not approve of their lifestyle.
When I have educated on this issue to conservative faith groups, greater kindness to homosexuals is often the result. I continually receive feedback from seminar attendees regarding their new resolve to become more loving and kind to homosexuals. One person, who recently attended one of these seminars, doing so reluctantly, at his pastor's bidding, was so impacted that he stood up at the end of the seminar to share his newly gained insights. He said that he had a co-worker who was gay, and of whom he strongly disapproved. He explained that he regularly demonstrated his disapproval by treating his co-worker with contempt. However, upon attending our seminar, he expressed a new awareness of the need to simply love his co-worker and show kindness to him instead of contempt. When participants learn of the needs humans have for same sex connection and the results of those unmet needs, compassion is their response.
Understanding the developmental nature of homosexuality is not only a better alternative to believing it is a choice, but it is also better in some ways than believing it is solely biological. Believing homosexuality is biologically based is actually quite limiting to homosexuals, and therefore has negative implications. For homosexuals who are not happy in the gay lifestyle, the biological explanation gives no hope for any other option. I have met countless homosexuals who were told by psychotherapists that their condition was unchangeable, despite the fact that they were very miserable and were seeking change. Believing that it is biologically based implies that change is impossible. In a society that highly esteems freedom of choice, it seems ironic that we accept and promote a theory of homosexuality that leaves the homosexual with no other options. Taking away all hope for change seems restrictive at best, detrimental at worst. On the other hand, when we educate we promote the truth that people can seek change if they so desire.
The developmental understanding of homosexuality offers more options and increased hope. Of course, educating does not mean that homosexuals who are uninterested in changing should ever be coerced into trying to change against their will.
Information about the developmental contributors to homosexuality must be shared. Our society has been saturated with misinformation. Yet educating must be done in a way that is effective, a way that promotes kindness and compassion. Educating effectively requires right motives and a right approach. I believe if we lovingly share information that has positive implications for all people it will be much better received. The need for education is great, but the way it is done will determine how effectively that need is met. As we educate, it is imperative that we consider our motives and our emphasis and that we seek to promote a greater understanding in the most effective way possible.
LeVay, S. (1996). Queer Science, MIT Press.
Satinover, J. (1996). The gay gene? The Journal of Human Sexuality.
Whitehead, N., & Whitehead, B. (1999). My genes made me do it. Lafayette, LA: Huntington House Publishers.