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Roots of Homosexuality

For a Christian coming out of homosexuality or lesbianism, the homosexual problem may loom as large as a giant Redwood tree: enormous, obvious, unchangeable, unshakable. But just like the root system beneath the Redwood forest, homosexuality also has roots. There are many things "below the ground" that feed the gay identity and hold it firmly in place. This article overviews some of these key issues.

We don't believe that homosexuality is primarily inborn. We base our beliefs on the Bible's teaching about homosexuality, backed up by the lack of conclusive scientific proof for such a theory.

Even if homosexual tendencies were an inherited trait, we would not interpret that as an endorsement of gay or lesbian involvement. Many studies have indicated that tendencies toward alcoholism or depression are inherited. But we do not embrace alcoholism or depression as "acceptable alternative lifestyles." Rather, we try to help people who suffer from these tendencies find healing and recovery.

While we reject the view that homosexuality is genetically determined, we do recognize that the circumstances and pressures that shape a man or woman to eventually conclude "I'm gay" or "I'm a lesbian" can be traced through every stage of an individual's growth and development. Let's look at what can happen in each of these stages: infancy and early childhood, grade school years, puberty and teenage years, and early adulthood.

Sesame Street and Sexual Identity

As soon as we can see, hear, and feel--at birth, or even in the womb--we begin taking in information that tells us who we are. Long before we can articulate our feelings or even have an organized thought, we can sense peace, warmth, comfort, love. We can also detect disturbance, tension, anger, and fear. While the events of these early years don't "cause" us to become lesbian or homosexual, they can set the stage for problems to develop later in life.

Ideally, an infant's first year or two of life is spent developing a deep, secure bond of love with the mother that leads to a healthy sense of personal identity. Psychologist Erik Eriksen calls this the development of "basic trust." With a solid sense of identity and a confidence that his or her needs for love and care will be met, a child has a good foundation for future growth and development.

When this foundation is disrupted, the child is vulnerable to all kinds of problems. Depending on the child's temperament, this can be expressed by withdrawal, apathy and passivity, or by intense aggression and uncontrolled emotion. Infants who do not come into a "sense of being" grow up sensing an inner emptiness or chasm, a "separation anxiety." This can manifest itself later in life through an overwhelming drive to connect with and find their identity in another person.

While a breakdown in the bond with the mother deeply affects both male and female babies, sexual identity seems to be more noticeably shaped by disrupted bonding with the same-sex parent: little girls lacking an intimate attachment to Mom, boys feeling detached and alienated from Dad.

Many people experience some degree of rejection in their early years. But when a little boy fails to connect with his father and a little girl doesn't form a close relationship with her mother, the groundwork is laid for future sexual identity struggles.

Inborn temperament plays an important role, too. Boys who are born with a sensitive, intuitive, artistic nature can be more vulnerable to disruptions in their relationships with their fathers. In fact, if a little boy like this experiences rejection and ridicule from his dad, it's almost a sure bet that he will have sexual identity struggles later on. However, if this "love deficit" is filled by a loving grandfather, stepfather, or significantly older brother, the negative effects can be minimized.

Inborn temperament and body build affect girls' early development, too. Often people expect a little daughter to be soft, sweet, and compliant. But some baby girls come out of the womb hollering, kicking, and looking like they're ready to train for the heptathlon. If Baby Olympia has a mom and dad who also are aggressive and athletic, or who, at least, enjoy these characteristics, she probably will grow into a strong, confident heterosexual woman.

But sometimes a mother will struggle to accept an aggressive, active daughter, and the little girl will sense her mother's ambivalence. Feeling wounded and rejected, the girl may further detach from her mother, cutting herself off from the very source of love she needs to help her grow into her own female identity. In turn, she is left with a same-sex love deficit, leaving her vulnerable to future lesbian involvement.

The Grade School Years

In the grade school years, home and family still play a strong role in shaping our identities, but this is the time when the powerful forces of peer pressure kick in. If the "mold" for our sexual identity is cast in the preschool years, grade school is the period when that mold begins to be filled with wet cement.

A little boy already estranged from his father is now probably getting the same treatment from his peers, along with some nasty labeling and name-calling: "Ralph is a ______" (fill in "sissy," "fag," "femme," etc.).

Rather than face the humiliation sure to be encountered in team sports, Ralph and others like him often develop solitary pursuits: reading, drawing, music, computers, television. They might cultivate girls as their companions, learning to jump rope, volunteering to "play house." Or they might team up with other shy and withdrawn boys like themselves and even begin some sexual experimentation.

For girls, the grade school years often hold powerful events that contribute to later lesbian involvement. In the first few grades, a "tomboy" is not so likely to experience teasing and rejection from other girls. But our sexually-oriented culture races children toward premature puberty. By second or third grade, most little girls are concerned about being pretty, popular, having the right clothes, and giggling about boyfriends. (Actually, much of this is already underway in kindergarten.) The girl who doesn't share these interests, who truly prefers sports, roughhousing, and being buddies with the boys, is probably starting to feel disconnected from other girls.

Sexual Abuse

While family dynamics, temperament, and peer pressure strongly shape a person's sexual identity, the single factor that most powerfully propels a girl toward a lesbian identity is sexual molestation, incest, or rape.

Incest (which we define as sexual contact with a family member, relative or regular caretaker) is the most common and damaging form of sexual abuse. Usually, the perpetrator is a male--a father, stepfather, uncle, or older brother--although women can be abusers, too. Incest wreaks incredible devastation because a child is betrayed and violated by the very people she should be trusting to care for and protect her. Often the molested child will think, I must be a horrible person for something like this to happen to me! The abuser may threaten to harm or even kill the child if she ever divulges "our secret."

Unable to deal with the trauma of such events, the child may minimize the abuse or even repress it completely. The tremendous volume of rage, hurt, and indignation goes underground, emerging later in a variety of choices, one of which for women might be a total rejection of men and a turning exclusively to women for love and affirmation.

Junior High and High School

Most people from a lesbian or gay background feel "different" or may even be labeled "queer" from an early age. But the full significance of these labels usually hits in the junior high years, when the first strong rushes of sexual attraction come surging up--and turn out to be surging in the wrong direction.

Even though our culture is superficially more tolerant of homosexuality than it once was, most high school kids do not want to be gay. Most teenagers who discover same-sex attractions repress them, ignore them, and hope they will go away. Even those who act out homosexually resist accepting the label "gay." Some get into opposite-sex dating in hopes of drowning out their homosexual feelings.

(Many boys and girls experiment homosexually during grade school and junior high. This in no way means they will be homosexual and usually their feelings of sexual attraction are directed heterosexually.)

College and Beyond

The last step in the development of a lesbian or homosexual identity usually comes in the decade after high school, when all kinds of options are spread before us. Away from the restraining influences of parents and the people we grew up with, many of us use the post-high school years to "try anything" in the search for our life's direction and identity.

For young adults, going to college or becoming involved in the working world opens up a variety of avenues for self-expression. If a woman has any inclination toward lesbian feelings, now is the time she's likely to "go for it." Other women stop short of physical involvement, but form inappropriately close and exclusive relationships with other women, which are referred to as "emotional dependencies."

College roommates, feminist groups, women's athletics, the drama department, campus Christian ministries, you name it--women we've talked to have found their first lover in all these places. And, in spite of military regulations, the armed services seem to provide a natural setting for "coming out" into the lesbian lifestyle.

For most men, the biggest post-high school decision is whether or not to "come out" and be openly identified as gay, or to maintain a straight image while either secretly "acting out" (getting involved in homosexual behavior) or trying to suppress homosexual feelings altogether.

There are many ways that men and women make the decision, "I am gay" or "I'm lesbian." Pressures from our culture, from individuals we meet, and from our own internal vulnerabilities converge to move us toward that declaration.

Excerpted from Coming Out of Homosexuality by Bob Davies & Lori Rentzel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993). Reprinted by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. December 27, 1995