November 24, 2008

In my research and work as a counselor and psychology professor, I have come across many misconceptions regarding homosexuality. In this brief article, I want to highlight three that are often relevant in Christian ministry.

One - All gay people are attracted to the same sex because they did not bond with their parents or were sexually abused.

Untold pain and confusion has been caused to parents and their same-sex attracted children by well-meaning writers and counselors who promote this unsupported view of homosexual origins. The usual evangelical narrative is that persons attracted to the same sex did not get sufficient bonding or love from the same-sex parent and seek these experiences in the present via sexual relationships from members of the same sex. For males, the concept of an over involved, smothering mother is often thrown in as an additional family factor. In addition, claims have been made that most if not all same-sex attracted people have been sexually abused.

The truth is that research on causal factors in sexual orientation is still in the early stages. However, we do know from experience that there are many same-sex attracted people who had loving homes and were not sexually abused or otherwise mistreated as children. On the other hand, some say they believe their sexual desires were shaped in some way by unhappy growing up experiences. What we cannot identify with any certainty is why any given individual experiences same-sex sexual attractions.  Recent research on twins suggests that pre-natal factors are associated with same-sex attraction, as are individual environmental experiences which vary among homosexuals. The best we can say at present is that different pre- and post-natal factors may operate differently in different people. For now, not only is it unnecessary to pigeon hole people, it can be harmful and intensely discouraging for parents and children alike to pursue therapy for non-existent problems of bonding or parenting. Where abuse or bonding problems exist, they should be addressed but successfully dealing with issues from the past will not of necessity lead to sexual reorientation.

Two - Gays can change if they try hard enough.

Closely related to the prior misconception is the one the places the success of change squarely on the motivation of the same-sex attracted person. Like cause of sexual orientation, the research on sexual re-orientation is marked by a paucity of research. Anecdotes of change abound, but so do anecdotes of those who have tried to change and did not.

The most recent study conducted by Stanton Jones of Wheaton College and Mark Yarhouse of Regent University found that over three years, only 15% of homosexually attracted participants reported the development of heterosexual attractions. Even many of these individuals continued to experience same-sex attractions.  Most of the study participants reported satisfaction with their effort to remain true to a chaste life, but only a minority reported change.

Three - The Christian response to homosexuality is to promote change of orientation.

Closely related to the above viewpoint, efforts to change sexual orientation have been advocated historically by many Christian ministries to homosexuals. However, the change is possible mantra has discouraged many Christian people who are sincere believers but simply find their brain responses remain directed toward the same sex. However, in my view, the proper focus of Christian ministry is fidelity to the teachings of Christ which, in this case, may lead to a celibate life or an acceptance that same-sex attractions may persist unfulfilled alongside opposite-sex attractions and heterosexual marriage.  Some people may experience varying degrees of change, but any such change should not be considered a test of motivation or devotion to faith.

This point is less a misconception than it is a statement of belief.  Trusting Christ removes the penalty of sin but the act of conversion does not render anyone, gay or straight, a perfectly sinless , temptation-free person. We do not expect newly straight people to lose their sexual temptations, why would we expect same-sex attracted people to suddenly change? Heterosexuals cannot adopt “straight pride” when it comes to the sexual arena and expect to be taken seriously by already skeptical gays.

People who identify themselves as gay, lesbian and/or bisexual are wary of the Church due in part to the culture wars regarding status and marriage. Our gay neighbors are also offended by stereotypes regarding their family background, and the persistence and durability of sexual and emotional desire for same-sex relationships. Without compromising doctrine, those working with same-sex attracted people should bring the good news of forgiveness and grace, unburdened by misconceptions, to those who often see the church as an enemy.


Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy in the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College. He blogs at Crosswalk.com.