Op-ed: Recognize that sexual orientation is a spectrum

First Published      Last Updated Jan 22 2015 04:08 pm

A recent television program on the TLC Network featured the stories of several LDS couples representing mixed-orientation marriages, in which one spouse is gay or lesbian. The message of the participants, affiliated with the North Star organization, is that such marriages are successful. In spite of disclaimers to the contrary, the inference is, "If we have been able to make such a relationship work, so can you."

There is evidence from the published results of a large-scale study of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints which suggests that great caution should be exercised before accepting such a premise.

One's sexual orientation is apparent in early adolescence and is a stable feature of adulthood; heroic efforts to change homosexual attractions through personal or psychotherapeutic means have been shown to be both unsuccessful and significantly harmful. A large body of experimental data supports the view that the origin of sexual orientation lies in biological mechanisms that program the structure and function of the developing brain during embryonic life. Homosexual attraction is not a choice.

In the LGBTQ LDS study referred to above, 31 percent of the 1,612 participants reported entering a mixed-orientation marriage (average length 16.6 years). The rate of divorce in these marriages depended on the position of the gay spouse on the Kinsey Scale of sexual attraction. It was 85 percent for men on the exclusively homosexual end of the continuum (for those with a mission background) and 95 percent for those without a mission. The corresponding rates for bisexuals were 10 percent and 60 percent. Clearly, then, the reality of bisexuality is a very important consideration, not only in accommodating heterosexual marriage, but also in remaining affiliated with the church.

Judged against canonical milestones in a young LDS male's religious history (baptism, Aaronic priesthood leadership, missionary service), gay LDS men have exhibited a higher than average level of obedience and faithfulness. Most have, in addition, exerted extraordinary efforts by way of increased personal righteousness (prayer, temple attendance, payment of tithes, service in church callings) focused on orientation change — a change that did not take place.

The very serious consequences of this failure include reduced feelings of self-worth, estrangement from the church and loss of faith in God. Two-thirds of LGBT LDS have stopped attending church. The call for greater religious faith and devotion as the key to meeting the expectation for heterosexual marriage and family life is unlikely to succeed for the large proportion of gay and lesbian individuals whose options are ultimately constrained by the inherent, strongly same-sex nature of their orientation.

In addition, the empirical data show that to be in denial of one's same-sex attractions, whether in a mixed-orientation marriage or a life of celibacy, is often fraught with negative psychological tensions. The result is higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem.

For example, measures of quality of life for individuals in these groups is lower on average than for persons suffering from some debilitating diseases. Too often overlooked, moreover, is the heartache often experienced by some spouses in these mixed relationships — a lack of the complete degree of spiritual and physical intimacy to be hoped for in marriage, and the sadness for both spouses and children when such marriages come to an end.

In spite of the several unfortunate aspects of the TV program, it has provided an occasion for a wider, more informed discussion of homosexuality, especially within the LDS community. This might include a recognition of the spectrum of differences among gay people and greater honesty in the descriptions some give of their sexual orientation identity — with greater appreciation of the range of options likely to produce happiness, including the one portrayed in the program.

Another outcome could be acceptance of the validity of the scientific evidence relative to the origin and immutability of sexual orientation, and the relevance of sound empirical studies about the life experience of gay people. An even greater blessing would be more understanding, acceptance, and love for LGBTQ individuals.

William S. Bradshaw is a retired professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Brigham Young University. John P. Dehlin is a doctoral student and Renee V. Galliher is a professor in the department of psychology at Utah State University.