Final post in this series...
The third question I get asked a lot about homosexuality has to do with psychological well-being and dysfunction: Is homosexuality a sexual dysfunction?
The argument is often made that homosexuality is the result of psychological problems during childhood. For example, sexual abuse might disrupt one's sexual development. And even if trauma is totally absent there remains the Freudian suspicion that the child's relationship with his or her mother or father was dysfunctional in some way. So the claim is made that homosexuality isn't "natural" but is, rather, caused by psychological traumas or deprivations. A boy, it might be suggested, had a cold, emotionally distant father so the man moves into homosexuality to fill an emotional hole (e.g., male affection) in his psyche.
In short, the etiology of homosexuality is traced back to some mental health issue. This issue is, generally, sexual trauma or emotional dysfunction in the home. Homosexuality becomes, at root, a symptom of an underlying wound. This model of homosexuality is attractive to many Christian therapists because it suggests that if these deeper issues can be effectively "treated" the "symptom" of homosexuality will dissipate.
So there are two rival theories regarding the etiology ("causes") of homosexuality. On the one hand, the gay community is committed to the view that homosexuality is a natural and normal variant of human sexuality. On the other hand is the view that homosexuality is a form of sexual dysfunction caused by either trauma or deficient caregiving.
So which is it?
If you've read my prior two posts in this series I expect you already know what I'm going to say. In the first post I rejected the false dichotomy of choice vs. innate. In the second post I rejected the dichotomy of nature vs. nurture. And in this post I'm going to reject the dichotomy of normal vs. pathological.
To start, and this might be the most controversial thing I say if you are gay, I think it is entirely reasonable to claim that some people "become" gay because of disordered and traumatic life experiences. And I understand why this claim is difficult for the gay community. The fear is that if any homosexuality is the product of dysfunction then the claim will be made that all homosexuality is the result of trauma or psychological difficulty. To protect against this slippery slope the gay community tries to defend the notion that all homosexual behavior is natural and healthy.
Although I understand the fears of the gay community I think such claims are hard to defend. I think there are cases of homosexuality that are due to psychological dysfunction. Just as I believe there are cases of heterosexual dysfunction. The list of sexual dysfunctions is quite long and it think it clear that those dysfunctions bleed across the hetero-, bi- and homosexual categories. Healthy sex isn't bounded into neat groups, where all heterosexual activity is normal and healthy and all homosexuality activity is normal and healthy. Sexual dysfunction affects every category.
To be more specific, sexual dysfunction causes sexual arousal to drift and move around. Fetishes are examples. So it is not hard to see how arousal might drift, moving from one gender to the other (hetero- or homo-) and back again.
Finally, there is a symmetry here. The gay community is generally willing to admit that a "naturally" gay person can grow up with heterosexual arousal patterns due to familial, peer and cultural forces. That is, many gay people start off life as self-identified heterosexuals. Only in adulthood do they "discover" that culture and family pushed their sexuality in an "unnatural" direction. And this confusion has caused them psychological and relational hardship.
If this is so, I think we have to admit that this could go in the opposite direction as well. A person, for a variety of reasons (e.g., their first sexual experience has homosexual), might self-identify as homosexual and move into that lifestyle. However, the person might be confused on this point and discover, later in life, that he or she is happiest being heterosexual. In short, because sexuality is so fluid and confusing, I think people on both sides can "come out of the closet."
If this much is granted then I think there is a subgroup within the homosexual community that might fit the Christian therapeutic narrative about homosexuality as a sexual dysfunction, confusion or disordering. But the problem comes, unsurprisingly, when you begin to paint the entire gay community with this brush. Claiming that all homosexual persons are maladjusted in some way. That claim, I believe, goes too far.
I believe this because there are just too many narratives within the gay community where the person always knew she was gay, had a healthy family, has no history of trauma, and enjoyed healthy sexual relationships. It is very hard to read trauma or Oedipal dysfunctions into these biographies. Worse, if you insist on doing this, even with the best of intentions, it is insulting and demeaning. This is why the gay community pushes back so hard on the Christian therapeutic community.
So there are two options here. Read all gay narratives, from a therapeutic standpoint, suspiciously. To insist that the gay person, despite all signs that she is healthy and happy, is really diseased and dysfunctional. Or we can assume that the gay community (like the straight community) is complex and heterogeneous (no pun intended). That the gay community will have well-adjusted individuals and maladjusted individuals and we can't speak about dysfunction in any general sense. Further, to insist on this is both offensive and demeaning.
From a practical standpoint, then, we can't speak in generalities when it comes to the etiology of homo- or heterosexuality. What we need to do is address each sexual biography on its own terms. Therapeutically, this means addressing same-sex attraction on a case by case basis. If a person is expressing dissatisfaction with her same-sex attraction I think it legitimate to explore why that may be the case. Further, I think it legitimate to entertain the possibly that this dissatisfaction is the result of a confused and disordered sexual and emotional history. But the trouble with all this, the gay community would push back, is that it is also possible that the sexual dissatisfaction is the product of cultural stigma. The gay person would be okay with her sexual orientation if 1) she was accepted by family, friends and co-workers, and 2) she was able to accept and love herself. And I, personally, find this to be a reasonable concern. I think gay people can be depressive, promiscuous, self-loathing and suicidal solely from the weight of social stigma and family rejection/hostility. In sum, despite the theoretical possibility of sorting out the different etiologies of homosexuality it will be extraordinarily difficult, as a practical matter, to tease apart the psychological, biological, familial, experiential and sociological factors.
In short, all I'm saying is that the situation is horribly complex. Any simplistic approach--by either the gay or straight community--isn't dealing honestly with the facts. Worse, these simplistic approaches tend to do great harm. To individuals and to the larger Christian witness.
To conclude, here's how I'd summarize my answers to the Frequently Asked Questions about homosexuality:
Q: Is homosexuality a choice?
A: It's more complicated than that.
Q: Is homosexuality genetic?
A: It's more complicated than that.
Q: Is homosexuality a sexual dysfunction?
A: It's more complicated than that.