Sexuality and Gender

Nature or Nurture?

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 07/01/2013

Lady Gaga’s mega-hit song, “Born this Way,” expressed what many believe: Homosexuality is hardwired in the genes. And if genetic, immutable. And if innate, nonvoluntary. And if not chosen, morally benign. There is therefore (to paraphrase Paul), now no condemnation for homosexuals.

To many, that reasoning flows unhindered given Gaga’s starting point. But was she right?

Birth of the Born-that-Way Theory

The “constitutional homosexuality” conviction was launched in part by a landmark study by Harvard-trained neurobiologist Simon LeVay, published in Science in 1991. LeVay noted that the hypothalamus of homosexuals was smaller than in heterosexuals,1 leading some to believe homosexuality had a biological basis.

Two years later, Harvard geneticist Dean Hamer published his research in Science, arguing there was a “statistical confidence level of more than 99 percent that at least one subtype of male sexual orientation is genetically influenced.”2

LeVay and Hamer’s studies received worldwide coverage. The implications were obvious. Since homosexuality had a bio-genetic cause, it’s immutable and morally acceptable. Case closed.

What never made the headlines was the storm of scientific criticism that followed, prompting LeVay to clarify his research. In Discover Magazine he wrote, “It’s important to stress what I didn’t find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn’t show that gay men are ‘born that way,’ the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work.”3

Hamer’s conclusions also came under fire. Attempts to corroborate his claims failed,4 so he retreated. “The best recent study,” Hamer conceded, “suggests that female sexual identification is more a matter of environment than heredity.”5 He told Scientific American that homosexuality was “absolutely not” rooted solely in biology.

Research involving identical twins had disproved that theory.6 Since identical twins have identical genes, if one twin was homosexual, the other should be, too. That’s not what the research showed, though.

Using a registry of 25,000 twins, Northwestern’s Michael Bailey showed that homosexuality occurred in both twins only one in nine times.7 Bailey concluded that the data “did not provide statistically significant support for the importance of genetic factors” for homosexuality.8 The study also failed to rule out environmental factors. Since most twins share the same home, it’s possible their common environment was a factor in their common same-sex attraction (SSA).

Despite the growing scientific evidence against it, though, the born-gay theory persists.

Choice to be Gay?

Cynthia Nixon, star of Sex and the City, recently infuriated the gay community when she told the New York Times she chose to be gay. “For me, it is a choice,” she said. “I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice.”9

Nixon’s case is an exception, however, and doesn’t explain most homosexuality. Clearly, the vast majority of homosexuals never chose their orientation. Indeed, some try to repress homosexual impulses, but are unsuccessful. Many Christians with SSA would happily choose otherwise if they could, but they can’t. SSA is not a choice. People choose behaviors, but they don’t choose desires.

If homosexuality is neither genetic nor a choice, what explains it? There is no single cause; multiple factors contribute. Some pathways, however, predominate. The following explanation, though not the only one, resonates with a high percentage of same-sex attracted people in the United States.

Made, Not Born

Homosexuality is a developmental condition, not principally about sex, but about gender identity. In short, homosexuals are made, not born.

Gender identity, like personality, is a non-physical trait. It’s a person’s subconscious belief about what sex he is. Though everyone is born biologically either male or female, psychologically their gender identity develops over time, primarily between early childhood and puberty.

Here is the key factor: A person is always attracted to the biological sex that is the opposite of his or her psychological gender identity. A male gender-identified person (either male or female) will be attracted to a female body. Likewise, a female gender-identified person (either female of male) will be attracted to a male body. Opposites always attract.

A person’s psychological gender identity is strongly influenced—though not determined—by his biological sex. Most boys develop a male gender identity and most girls develop a female one.

A heterosexual’s gender identity matches his biological sex. A homosexual’s gender identity is opposite his biological sex.10 Because male homosexuals psychologically identify as female (I’ll explain how later), they’re sexually attracted to other males. They don’t consciously think they’re girls (though some may). Rather, their gender confusion is subconscious.

Heterosexual Development in Males

In normal heterosexual development, a boy develops a male identity when he identifies with and bonds with his father (and other males around him) during his first years of life.

Though a boy initially deeply connects with his mother as she holds and feeds him, the mother-son bond extends to the father when he gives his son attention, affection, and affirmation. When Dad provides these three essentials, his son’s source of gender identification shifts from mother to father.

As he grows, the boy will continue to draw his identity from males. He’ll pursue male friends. He’ll model male behavior and mannerisms. He’ll understand other boys. Maleness will become familiar to him.

Girls, on the other hand, will seem mysterious and odd. They talk, play, and relate so differently than boys he’ll take less interest in them. Females—the other gender—will become increasingly unfamiliar to him.

At puberty when a boy’s sexual interest emerges, his mysterious opposite—girls—begins to intrigue him. Their former “weirdness” is now attractive, even stimulating. “Exotic becomes erotic,” Cornell’s Daryl Bem quipped.11 The foreign gender is the sexually appealing gender. Again, opposites attract.

Homosexual Development in Males

This process isn’t automatic, though. Under certain circumstances, gender identity development follows a different path.

Sometimes with boys the identification with mother fails to transfer to father. In some families, the son won’t connect with a father who seems weak, passive, withdrawn, or hostile. Bonding is difficult if the boy thinks his father is unsafe. Further, if his mother has a strong personality and the son is overly attached to her, it will be especially hard for him to connect with his dad.

An unhealthy marriage complicates matters. When parents don’t relate well to each other, the father is less involved with the family, thus appearing passive instead of strong, interesting, and benevolent—the role model his son needs.

The assertive, over-involved mother steps into the gap—understandably—lavishing the needed attention, affection, and affirmation on her son. Because her marriage is unfulfilling, Mom may unwittingly use her son to satisfy her emotional needs, making it even more difficult for the boy to attach to his father.

In cases where the son is sensitive and introspective, every experience is intensified. The father’s disinterest in or rejection of him—whether actual or perceived—is magnified and internalized. The result: The son feels anxious or ill-at-ease with his father and other males.

Sexual abuse by an older male may also result in homosexuality. The physical and psychological trauma may cause the boy to view men as dangerous. Instead of connecting with his father and other boys, he’ll gender identify with the “safer” females.

Because of his failure to transition, the boy develops a self-protective “defensive detachment” towards masculinity, causing him to feel anxious around other males. Though he has a natural longing for male bonding, he might grow up with a subtle, hostile disposition towards males.

The boy will look to his mother, sister, or other girls as his gender role models. He’ll mimic their mannerisms and model their behaviors, eventually identifying more with them than males.

Boys, on the other hand, will become increasingly unfamiliar to him. Because of his psychologically defensive posture, he’ll grow more distant from them. They’ll become the different, mysterious, other gender.

At puberty when his sexual interest emerges, he’ll perceive males as his opposite. The male gender—the different and exotic—will seem erotic. The website,, created by former homosexuals, summarizes the process:

As long as we felt that men were the opposite from us, while we identified with women as our sisters, we remained attracted to our opposite—the mysterious, unknown masculine.... Being sexually attracted to them felt natural. Initially, at least, we didn’t feel homosexual so much as we felt genderless and, lacking sufficient maleness within ourselves, attracted to that which we felt would make us feel masculine and whole.

Growing up masculine-deprived, homosexual men pursue other men to satisfy their craving for the male connection and the affection they never received as children. Their desire is not principally about sex, though. Instead, they hope to achieve wholeness through sexual acts with men who appear to have the masculinity they lack. The encounters don’t satisfy, though, since the underlying gender identification needs are not met.

Does this explain every case of homosexuality? No. Not all homosexual males have a female gender identity. The majority of men with SSA that I12 speak to, though, do have gender identity issues. Almost every time I teach on homosexuality, a homosexual man tells me his upbringing included many of the elements just described.

Sometimes gender identity is not the issue, though. When men in prison have sex with each other it’s usually more about dominance than gender identity. Also, in the Middle East, strict gender segregation encourages young men to sexually experiment with other men.

Though the list of causes given above is not exhaustive, these patterns are commonly reported by gay men. No particular dynamic dictates a boy will lean towards homosexuality. Scientific research, though, indicates that psychological factors play a key role in SSA.

Biology and Gender Identity

Though not the primary influence, nature can play a secondary role in gender identity. It doesn’t predetermine orientation, but it can predispose it when biological factors influence a boy’s ability to identify and connect with other males.

For example, boys born with athletic abilities are more likely to play team sports, allowing them to connect and identify with other boys. Those who are less athletic, but more creative and inclined towards the arts are less likely to experience the male bonding those on sports teams experience.

Also, children born with sensitive dispositions are more likely to internalize real or perceived rejection by their fathers or other males. Boys with rough-and-tumble temperaments are less sensitive to emotional wounds and tend not to internalize them as deeply.

Homosexual Development in Females

At least three possible pathways lead to lesbianism. First, at some point in childhood a girl subconsciously decides that being female is either unsafe or undesirable, so she begins to identify with the male gender. This can happen for several reasons.

A girl might view her mother or other females as weak. Some husbands can be controlling or even abusive towards their wives. A girl whose mother is mistreated may not want to be like her. She’ll reject her mother’s gender and identify with males. At puberty, she’ll be attracted to women who are (to her) the opposite gender.

Likewise, a girl who is sexually abused by a man may conclude it’s not safe to be female. To avoid further pain, she’ll begin identifying with stronger, less vulnerable males. As her sexual desires develop, she’ll see females as her opposite and be attracted to them. Sadly, celebrity lesbians like Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, and Melissa Etheridge have publicly admitted they were sexually abused as children.

A second pathway to lesbianism is broadly referred to as LUG, or Lesbian Until Graduation. Sometimes high school and college-aged girls experiment with lesbianism, yet plan to go “straight” after graduation. Some succeed. Others never give up same-sex activity.

A third pathway occurs in older females after a bitter experience like divorce. These women seek a sensitive and understanding female friend who provides safety and comfort in the midst of extreme emotional pain caused by a man. The powerful and intimate emotional bond sometimes leads to sexual bonding.

Again, these pathways are not exhaustive, nor determinative. Everyone’s journey is unique and how one interprets a life event varies from person to person.

Is Change Possible?

For many, the question of changing one’s sexual orientation has been settled. The “experts” have spoken. Change is not possible. No “ex-gays” exist. As it turns out, though, the evidence indicates just the opposite.

First, note one ancient report claiming this kind of change actually took place. In 1 Cor. 6:9–11, Paul says some Christians in Corinth had been homosexual (“Such were some of you...”), yet experienced significant change. That many reject the Bible as the Word of God is irrelevant to my point. I’m appealing to this ancient letter on historical grounds, not spiritual, to show that some people in ancient Greece left homosexuality behind.

Recent studies indicate the same thing. An article published in Psychological Reports in 2000 investigated 882 dissatisfied homosexuals. After pursuing some form of therapy, 34% of the participants reported shifting their orientation to an exclusively or almost exclusively heterosexual orientation. They experienced statistically significant reductions in “homosexual thoughts and fantasies” and improvements in their “psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual well-being.”13

One long-term study in 2007 by Jones and Yarhouse was recently published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.14 It’s been hailed as one of the most rigorous studies ever designed to investigate the possibility of change. Researchers followed 98 people with unwanted same-sex attractions for over six years. 15% of the participants reported “substantial reductions in homosexual attraction and subsequent conversion to heterosexual attractions and functioning.” The most surprising result, though, was that subjects classified as “truly gay”—those with the highest levels of homosexual attraction, fantasy, and behavior—reported the greatest amount of change.

Clinicians and other scientists have reported successes for over a century. Back in 1882, Jean-Martin Charcot, the “father of modern neurology,” described how “the homosexual became heterosexual” as a result of his treatments. In the 1920s, Freud reported sexual orientation change through psychoanalysis. Researchers continued to report similar findings throughout the 20th century: Wilhelm Stekel in the 1930s, Frank Caprio and Albert Ellis in the 1950s, Russell Monroe and Edward Glover in the 1960s, Irving Bieber in the 1970s, Karolynn Siegel in the 1980s, and Houston MacIntosh in the 1990s, to name just a few.

Given such convincing evidence, it’s not surprising a recent psychiatry textbook, Essential Psychopathology & Its Treatment, concluded that homosexual orientation can change and that therapy isn’t necessarily harmful:

Recent empirical evidence demonstrates that homosexual orientation can indeed be therapeutically changed in motivated clients, and that reorientation therapies do not produce emotional harm when attempted.15

According to clinical data, thousands have personally experienced this change. Each year, more people publicly declare they are no longer homosexual.

Nicholas Cummings, past President of the American Psychological Association (APA), was Chief of Mental Health at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco for 20 years. He personally worked with over 2,000 patients with same-sex attraction. His staff (six of whom were gay) saw an additional 16,000 homosexuals. Cummings estimates that hundreds of people under his care changed their sexual orientation. He also notes that approximately 7% of those 16,000 patients experienced some measurable change, many going on to marry and live heterosexual lives.16

Cummings’s data can’t be dismissed. He’s been a lifelong champion of gay and lesbian rights, and was the first APA leader to appoint the Task Force on Lesbian and Gay Issues.

Given this evidence, how can some still claim that sexual orientation change isn’t possible? Multiple, independent lines of evidence would all have to be faulty or fraudulent. Over the last 100 years, hundreds of professionals who’ve treated homosexuals would have to be either mistaken or lied about their findings.

Are therapists working with homosexuals today all fabricating success stories? Are religious and secular organizations providing counseling to homosexuals all misrepresenting their results? Are thousands of heterosexuals who once lived as homosexuals faking? Is every person I’ve met over the years who’s claimed to have changed been lying?

As professor of psychiatry Tiffany Barnhouse said, “The frequent claim by ‘gay’ activists that it is impossible for homosexuals to change their orientation...accuses scores of conscientious, responsible psychiatrists and psychologists of falsifying their data.”17

Skeptics point to problems. Not all those pursuing change eliminate all same-sex attraction. Other “ex-gays” become ex “ex-gays,” returning to SSA. These critics, though, don’t apply the same standards to other conditions. People being treated for depression, for example, still feel depressed at times. Others fail entirely. Yet that doesn’t mean depression can’t be treated. The same is true with many other psychological conditions.

Does this mean change is easy? No. Is everyone successful? Not at all. Does success always entail total transformation? Rarely. Should we try to change people who don’t want to change? Of course not. But is it possible for some homosexuals to experience substantial and enduring change? Absolutely. That’s good news, given how many people experience unwanted SSA. They have hope.

The Best Hope

Though change in sexual orientation is possible, our mission as ambassadors for Christ is not to help homosexuals become heterosexual. We don’t labor to change their desires, but to make them disciples—followers of Jesus committed to holiness regardless of particular sins, temptations, or inclinations.

The root problem for anyone is neither biological (nature), nor environmental (nurture). It’s spiritual. Those former homosexuals in ancient Corinth weren’t simply changed; they were transformed through a real encounter with the living Christ. New birth brought new life.

The same fresh start is available to everyone. God is there to forgive, and God is there to restore, regardless of individual struggles. And that is the best hope for anyone, homosexual or heterosexual.

*This article has been adapted from Alan Shlemon’s new book, The Ambassador’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality, available at