Latter-day Saints who experience same-sex attraction often face and overwhelmingly difficult and seemingly unsolvable dilemma. “How do I reconcile my strong feelings of attraction and arousal toward those of my same gender with the love and devotion I feel toward the gospel of Jesus Christ?” For many this dilemma becomes apparent early in their teenage years. It is frequently accompanied by almost unbearably painful emotions. These often include intense guilt, shame, confusion, hopelessness, and an overwhelming sense of isolation.
I have never forgotten one young client telling me that he prayed to his Heavenly Father “Please, God, let me die so I can stop being such a horrible person.” If we do not understand this kind of pain then we do not understand the experience of same-sex attraction as it occurs in the lives of many church members.
Over the last 25 years I have spent many thousands of hours in one to one conversations with Latter-day Saints who experience same-sex attraction. The great majority of the individuals I have spoken with find their attractions to be in conflict with their deeply held spiritual and religious beliefs and are seeking help, hoping to be able to more completely live according to those beliefs. In all of that time I do not recall ever talking with any of them about changing their sexual orientation. In fact I try to make it clear to them that any therapy we do together will not eliminate, or even reduce, their ability to experience sexual attraction towards persons of their same gender.
Yet in spite of this lack of change in sexual orientation many of these individuals find that their feelings of same-sex attraction become much less of an obstruction in living the gospel and moving on with their lives. How can this be? I tell the individuals I work with that the single biggest thing I can do to assist them, is to help them to think differently about the feelings they are experiencing. In order to help them think differently about their feelings not only do I not talk about changing their sexual orientation, I try to help them understand that even thinking in terms of having a sexual orientation is not very helpful. Let me illustrate by sharing a brief thought experiment I often use with clients.
Suppose I hold a pen out in front of me and then I let go of that pen, what will happen to it? Of course it will fall. But why will it fall? Most of us will respond to that question with a single word: “gravity.” The truth however is that we don’t really know why it falls. We simply know that everything that is unsupported falls. Science has yet to achieve a full and precise understanding of why this happens. Nevertheless, we still say that things fall because of gravity. But then we do something I find very interesting. We talked about it as though we have explained it, when really all we have done is label it. We say:
“Why do things fall?”
“Because of gravity.”
“But how do you know there is gravity?”
“Because things fall.”
“But what makes them fall?”
So you see it simply goes in a circle. Calling it “gravity” adds no real information to the fact that things fall. It simply makes it more convenient to talk about.
We do the same thing in the social sciences. Take for example the concept of self-esteem. Self-esteem began as a description of what people were doing. People who said or thought good things about themselves were said to have high self-esteem. People who said or thought bad things about themselves were thought to have low self-esteem. But what began as a description of what people were doing–saying or thinking good or bad things about themselves–quickly came to be talked about as though it was the reason they were doing it.
“Why is that person saying such bad things about himself?”
“Well, it’s because he has low self-esteem.”
“How do you know he has low self-esteem?”
“Because he says such bad things about himself.”
“But why does he do that?”
This form of reasoning is common in our culture. It permeates and dominates the social sciences. We diagnose, label, categorize, and classify people and then we explain their behaviors and traits as occurring because of these diagnoses, labels, categories and classifications. We label, and then talk as though we have explained.
In many instances this habit may be relatively harmless, and occasionally might even do some good. I fear, however, that when it comes to the issue of same-sex attraction and the way many individuals think about themselves and the desires and emotions they experience, that it does great harm.
“Why is that person sexually attracted to other men?”
“Well, it’s because he’s gay.”
“How do you know that he is gay?”
“Because he is sexually attracted to other men.”
“Why is he sexually attracted to other men?”
“Because he is gay.”
Through our labels and classifications we have created a different kind of person, a different species, the homosexual or gay person. We have identified and labeled something called a sexual orientation and given it the power to cause people to experience specific kinds of strong attractions and desires.
When I meet with the clients seeking help in dealing with the conflict between their same-sex attraction and their faith, I ask them “If you could get an answer to any question regarding this issue what would your question be?” The great majority of them respond by asking, “Why? Why do I have these feelings?” Much of their confusion, shame, and hopelessness, appear to hinge on their not understanding why they have these feelings. Thinking clearly about cause seems central, not only to decreasing their confusion and shame but also to recognizing what reasonable and credible options are open to them.
Most ways of understanding the cause of same-sex attraction fall into one or more of five general categories. I want to describe each of these, and explain why I believe one of them encompasses more truth, and is therefore more helpful than the others.
This is dangerous ground. Because of the overwhelming pain often associated with same-sex attraction, individuals and groups often hold strong beliefs regarding its cause, and feel threatened, and even angry, if those beliefs are questioned. I don’t blame them. Many individuals have wrestled long and hard deciding what they believe regarding the “why” of their feelings. They sometimes feel they have finally found understanding, peace, and direction for their lives, based on their answer to that question.
For many others however, none of the answers they have considered have brought them peace. It is to those individuals that I offer an invitation, to think differently about same-sex attraction.
The 1st explanation some people have turned to when trying to understand the cause of same-sex attraction, is that individuals have somehow chosen to have those feelings.
In some ways this seems to be a good explanation. It gives the impression of being compatible with our beliefs regarding agency. It also appears to offer a solution. If I am choosing to have these feelings I can choose not to. If I just try hard enough to repent I can stop these feelings.
However the consistent experience of the over whelming majority of Latter-day Saints who experience same-sex attraction is that they have–at least at some point in their lives– wanted desperately to be free from these feelings. They have no sense of having chosen them. Many describe praying to the point of exhaustion, pleading with the Lord for the strength to stop thinking or feeling this way. The belief that they have somehow chosen to have these feelings has produced not a solution, but instead has contributed to feelings of shame, guilt and self-loathing. It has also led many to eventually question their faith and their relationship with God.
A 2nd explanation that people have sometimes turned to as they have attempted to understand the cause of these feelings is that same-sex attraction is actually a symptom of deeper emotional or psychological problems. These deeper problems are sometimes thought to result from unmet emotional needs in childhood. In this way of thinking same-sex attraction is less a matter of morality and more a matter of psychopathology. This would explain why people who experience these attractions have no sense of ever having chosen them. It would also explain why they are so difficult to change. Here the central solution to the dilemma of same-sex attraction shifts from one of repentance to one of therapy and emotional healing.
Many find this explanation offensive. They do not want to consider themselves to be psychologically or emotionally “damaged goods.” For most the results of therapy based on this approach include not change in sexual desires, but only continued shame now compounded by disappointment, frustration, and a sense of personal failure.
“Born that way”
Currently, when attempting to understand the cause of same-sex attraction, most people accept a 3rd explanation: that those who experience same-sex attraction were born that way. According to the popular understanding of this explanation all sexual and romantic feelings towards one’s own gender are entirely biologically determined. This perspective suggests that such feelings are an indication of who a person really is in the most fundamental biological sense.
The idea people are born that way, does seem to solve several problems caused by the previous two explanations.
Unlike the idea that people choose these feelings it does not imply that the same-sex attraction is an indication of a moral failing. Therefore it appears to reduce unnecessary and harmful guilt and shame. Also, unlike the idea that these feelings are a symptom of mental illness, it reduces the probability that individuals will feel psychologically broken or defective. It can also relieve the guilt placed on parents who may believe that it was defective parenting that caused the problem.
For many people this explanation also radically shifts the responsibility for a resolution between feelings of same-sex attraction of the teachings of the church. It is no longer the individual who can or should change, but those who embrace the traditional version of chastity, that must reevaluate their position.
Nature, nurture and agency
Noticed something interesting about the 3 approaches to cause we have described so far. Nearly everyone who has ever taken an introductory psychology class is familiar with the idea of nature versus nurture. Nature commonly refers to my physical body and more specifically to my genetic makeup. Nurture is generally thought of as any and all environmental factors, including culture. In psychology these 2 factors are thought to explain all of human behavior and experience. They make us who we are. Some people however, including those of us who hold religious beliefs, add a 3rd factor to the nature and nurture mix. This 3rd factor is agency or free will.
It is interesting that the 3 approaches to cause that we have described up to this point reflect these 3 factors. If we believe that these feelings are chosen, then they are a matter of agency. If we believe that they are a symptom of psychological problems resulting from childhood experiences then they are a matter of nurture. And if in fact people who experience same-sex attraction are “born that way” these feelings result directly from nature. The problem with any one of these approaches is that nearly all human behavior is now generally understood to be a result of complex interactions between these various factors and not simply the result of any single factor.
Cause is not important
Over time, as these 3 explanations have competed for acceptance, a 4th approach to cause has become increasingly popular. This is the idea that understanding the cause of same-sex attraction is actually not very important. According to this approach the important thing is not why these feelings occur but how we respond to them. With all of the confusion and contention surrounding the cause of same-sex attraction, might it not be best to simply focus on how a person responds to these feelings?
As attractive as this idea can be there is a problem with it. For many individuals I have seen, the single biggest predictor of how they will respond to their experience of same-sex attraction is how they understand the cause of those feelings.
If every time I feel sexual desire for someone of my same gender I believe that I have chosen these feelings and if I just try hard enough to repent these thoughts and feelings will stop, that will effect how I respond to those feelings. If however I experience these feelings and instead believe that they are a symptom of some deep psychological problem stemming from my childhood that will affect how I respond to them. If I experience such feelings I believe that they are an inevitable result of fundamental biological drives I was born with, that will affect how I respond to them. And finally, if I struggle in utter confusion, with no hint as to why my feelings are occurring, that will affect how I respond to them.
Of the 4 approaches we have discussed this one seems to be the most ambiguous in offering solutions. Aside from an ongoing encouragement to live the gospel–and let’s never underestimate how important that is– little clear direction is offered regarding how to deal with these feelings. Each individual is left to find their own unique path with little specific direction that might be helpful to everyone.
Of course offering no specific solution may well be a better alternative than offering solutions that, while well intended, simply have not worked.
So where does that leave us? I suspect that majority of members of the church, and particularly young adults, have more or less accepted the idea that people are born gay. Some have embraced this idea consciously and specifically while others might hold it simply as a vague assumption.
Of the 4 approaches we have discussed why is this one the most popularly believed? For most people a major reason is simply the fact that this is the one they have heard the most, like name recognition helping a candidate win an election. If you were to ask many young adults why they believe that people are born gay, they may respond “everybody knows that. And besides scientists have proven it, haven’t they?” By the way, in case any of you were unaware, they have not!
I think there is another reason why so many people in our culture adopt this explanation. The idea that same-sex attraction is a mental illness or a symptom of psychological problems has been largely discounted in our culture. Also, I suspect that for most people, the idea that cause is not important remains a nice-sounding idea, which they might superficially accept but which does not truly inform their thinking.
These 2 approaches having been largely discounted then–for most people the debate regarding the cause of same-sex attraction finally boils down to some form of this question: are people born that way, or do they choose it? I believe that it would be difficult to overstate the impact that this phrase, and the idea behind it, has had on our culture, including among members of the church. This simple dichotomy seems to permeate nearly all discussion regarding same sex attraction as it occurs in popular culture.
If born that way or chose it are the only two possibilities that are considered, and if the overwhelming tide of public opinion-and rightfully so-is that people did not choose these feelings, there is only one alternative remaining, people are born that way.
If ever there was a phrase that deserved the title “false dichotomy” it is “were they born that way or did they choose it?” Let me illustrate that point. Let’s do a brief thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that you had never watched a child learn to speak, and that nobody had ever described that process to you, wouldn’t the most obvious assumption you could make be that you were born speaking English? Do you remember a time that you did not speak English? Do you remember choosing to speak English?
So here we have something quite fundamental to our experience of life– the language with which we think and make sense of the world, the language through which we establish and maintain relationships with others–and yet we were not born that way and we did not choose it.
In [a] similar way the idea that people were either born gay or that they chose it, on closer examination seems to be entirely unreasonable. In my opinion this idea has also been a major factor in misleading and distorting popular opinion regarding the nature of same sex attraction.
Something you know how to do
This then leads us to a 5th approach to understanding and dealing with the cause of same-sex attraction. This 5th approach is the one that I believe is the most truthful and accurate and therefore ultimately, in the long run, the most hopeful and helpful of the approaches. When a client seeks help from me, telling me that their goal is to more fully live the gospel, I try to persuade them to adopt this approach and to allow it to inform their thoughts and feelings regarding their experience of same-sex attraction.
What I tell clients is that the 5th approach to cause is simply this: that same-sex attraction is just something you know how to do. I then tell them that I’m going to be a human thesaurus. I tell them that same-sex attraction is simply something you know how to do. It is merely something you know how to do. It is only something you know how to do. It is nothing but something you know how to do.
Like the language you speak, it is not something you had any choice in. Also, just as you were not biologically destined at birth to speak in any specific language, it is not something you were biologically hardwired to do. And finally, as with language, is not something that can, or needs to be fixed or cured.
At this point it would be important to point out that what I have said about homosexuality, or same-sex attraction, also applies to heterosexuality. I believe that no specific sexual arousal pattern is hardwired at birth. I believe that all of these are acquired in a cultural context in which, while a person participates, they have little or no choice.
While a person is not born hardwired for any specific language they are born hardwired with an overwhelming propensity to acquire some form of language, as soon as they are physically and mentally able.
Even so I believe that we are not born with any specific arousal patterns but are born with a strong propensity to acquire such patterns as our bodies mature. In fact, it seems to me, that the idea that people are hardwired for the development of heterosexual arousal has been a major cause of misunderstanding regarding homosexuality.
If heterosexuality is a strong biological imperative, which is utterly preprogrammed and inescapable for most people, it follows that if this pattern does not develop in some people, something very significant must have caused this variance. It would take a powerful force to derail the locomotive of heterosexuality that is barreling down the biological tracks. That powerful force might consist of genetic programming, mental illness, or evil choices. But what if, like language, all sexual arousal patterns are learned? Then perhaps the development of same-sex attraction doesn’t require such a large or powerful cause.
I believe that this 5th approach to cause, that same-sex attraction is something a person knows how to do, is congruent and compatible with more facts regarding human sexuality than any other explanation.
- It is, like language, compatible with the fact that those who experience same-sex attraction seldom if ever have any sense of having chosen it.
- Is compatible with the fact that, for most, same-sex attraction appears to be difficult to alter and impossible to eliminate.
- Is compatible with the fact that most individuals who experience same-sex attraction appear to have a least average mental health, and in some cases very good mental health.
- It is compatible with the fact that if a gay man has an identical twin there is a roughly 80% chance that his twin will not be gay.
- It is compatible with the fact that those who are born and raised in large cities are more likely to experience same-sex attraction that those who are born and raised in small towns or rural communities.
- Is compatible with the fact that there appear to be cultures in which same-sex attraction does not exist.
- It is also compatible with the fact that there have been cultures in which, at least for men, same-sex attraction was, at least in some form, a nearly universal experience.
- It is compatible with the well documented phenomenon of sexual fluidity, the fact that for some individuals sexual attraction does change and evolve over time.
- It is further compatible with the fact that when sexual attraction does change it does not shift from one form of attraction to another but expands. Like most things we know how to do, we do not forget how to play the piano when we learn to play the guitar. We do not lose old attractions but we do, sometimes, gain new ones.
- It is compatible with the fact that the great majority of those who experience same-sex attraction also experience significant levels of opposite sex attraction. People simply do not fall into the discrete categories that have been constructed for them.
The idea, that same-sex attraction is something a person knows how to do, fits comfortably with my own experience when completing my doctoral dissertation. As I interviewed men who reported that they had quote “overcome” same-sex attraction, each of them told me something like “I could still do it, I still know how, I just don’t want, or need to anymore.”
The idea that sexuality is something that a person knows how to do is also fully compatible with the idea that things we know how to do are always influenced by our biology.
If we were to take, say, an NBA basketball star and a concert pianist, and if we had the ability to look deeply enough into their genes and their biological makeup do you suppose that we would find genetic and biological factors that correlate with the abilities? Almost certainly, and yet we would still consider these to simply be things that they know how to do. We could also be quite certain that, while these genetic or biological predispositions may be present, they would not manifest themselves in individuals who were raised in cultures where there were no basketballs or pianos.
[Note here there is a break from the text to include = same kind of world–Earth from outer space–social constructs are important–cross-cultural examples of sexuality–sex is highly programmable]
While this way of understanding same-sex attraction does not offer easy answers or quick fixes I believe that it does open up a range of possibilities that the other approaches to cause do not. Like Buddhism, it follows a middle path. It rejects extreme explanations, which either leave no room for moral agency or which ignore the powerful and pervasive influence that our biology and our environment have in forming that “sphere in which God has placed…” us to act.
It decreases shame and guilt. It allows an individual to understand that what they’re experiencing is not the result of their unrighteous choices. While acknowledging that these feelings were not the result of choice it nevertheless opens up the possibility that they may now be able to exercise agency in the pursuit of chastity. It can be difficult for someone to believe that they can “bridle all of their passions” if they are led to believe there passions are not “something they know how to do”, but are biologically mandated and therefore inescapable. For many of my clients simply the idea that what they’re experiencing is not a symptom of some other thing including genes, unmet emotional needs from childhood, or evil choices, is itself liberating.
The idea that all sexuality is something they know how to do also encourages those who experience some level of same-sex attraction [to] not discount their experience of opposite sex attraction. Most of the individuals I talk with experience significant levels of opposite sex attraction. Having grown up in a culture that tells them, however, that if they experience any same-sex attraction they are in fact gay, leads them to discount their experiences of opposite sex attraction. They view them as unimportant anomalies instead of hopeful indications of future possibilities.
There are [a] number of other ways in which believing that same-sex attraction is just something you know how to do, allows individuals to find solutions to the dilemmas they face. I wish we had time to discuss more of them. Some of these solutions I point out to clients and some they discover for themselves. Regardless, nearly all are built on the idea that same-sex attraction is just, only, merely, simply, nothing but, something they know how to do.