This is the opening essay in our series on homosexuality. Here Coleman elaborates on his position that homosexual attraction is disorderly. By voicing that conclusion, he feels he can offer people who experience same sex attraction the opportunity to disconnect from that inclination with integrity and pursue a higher path. -Editor
“Growing up I thought homosexuality was kind of gross, and I just kind of accepted the church’s teaching that it was wrong, although even then I guess I had doubts about it. Then as I got older and went to high school, and then to college, I made friends with a lot of gay people. And I realized they were real people. And not only real people: real good, loving, warm, funny people. I realized that the ones who were in relationships truly loved their partner and were committed to the relationship. And so, yeah, I think the General Church’s stance on homosexuality is wrong. God cannot possibly disapprove of a loving relationship between two people. Love can’t be a sin.”
That quote isn’t from any one person, but it’s a sentiment that I’ve heard expressed again and again by my peers. If you did a poll of people raised in the General Church in my generation, I think you would find that the vast majority of them think that homosexuality is not evil, and that many homosexual relationships are positive and healthy.
The Swedenborgian Church of North America (formerly known as the General Convention of the New Church) has embraced this viewpoint, and performs homosexual weddings and ordains homosexual men and women. But the General Church – the branch of the church that I belong to – continues to teach that homosexuality is wrong, and I continue to believe the same.
There are many reasons for this, and I will touch on a few of them later. But first I want to talk about the sentiment expressed in the quote above. Because the reason people think that homosexuality is a healthy and viable lifestyle is not usually that they see the Writings endorsing it; it’s that they see it that way in the people they know.
But I don’t think the fact that gay people are kind and loving, or even the fact that they can form committed relationships, proves that the sexuality in those relationships is right. I believe that there can be good, kind, loving people, who form sexual relationships in which the sexuality is out of place and harmful. And I want to show that it really is possible to believe that acting on same-sex sexual attraction is unhealthy while still loving the person who has that attraction.
I’m about to make a comparison that will probably offend some readers. I realize that we’re talking about two very different things. But I want to look at the tendency toward pedophilia and compare that to same-sex attraction. Now, pedophilia and homosexuality are two very different things. The enormous difference lies in the fact that in the latter, there can be true consent; in the former, there never is. But there are similarities – pointed out by the leading researchers on the subject, not invented by me – that help show how it is possible to consider an attraction to be unhealthy and still love the person who feels that attraction.
The first thing to emphasize is that when I write about “pedophilia,” I am using that term in its clinical sense of a person being sexually attracted to children – not necessarily to someone who acts on that attraction and abuses children, although this is the way that term is commonly used today. My primary resource for this is Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention by Michael Seto, published in 2007 by the American Psychological Association (APA). The book is a comprehensive overview of the research that had been done up to that point in the area of pedophilia.
In the preface to that book, Seto states that in many ways, pedophilia acts just like a sexual orientation. According to the book, pedophilia in many cases seems to be something that “manifests early in life and directs a person’s sexuality.” It’s a “stable sexual preference”: a person who is primarily attracted to children rather than adults is unlikely to change that orientation, although it may be possible. According to Seto, it can be thought of as an orientation.
In writing the book, Seto lists one of his goals as a hope that people who struggle with these attractions not be thought of as monsters or inhuman, but seen for what they actually are – our neighbors, our friends, our relatives. They tend to be perfectly normal people. At the same time, he wants to make clear that he does not support acting on pedophilia in any form.
I think we have a tendency to create an image of anyone who is attracted to something taboo as somehow “other” than us. Especially when it comes to sexuality, and especially in adolescent years, there is a fear – “what if I could become that?” And so we build up images in our mind of sexual “deviants” as inhuman monsters, as something so removed from our normal experience that we could never become them.
When we actually meet them, though, we discover that they are normal people. We tend to experience cognitive dissonance: here is this normal, friendly, loving person, who I know is attracted to those things that I consider horrendous. There are two immediate knee-jerk reactions that present themselves. One option is to hold the person in even more revulsion than before – here they are wearing this mask of normalcy and underneath there’s a monster crawling! The other option is to cast aside – or bring into serious doubt – all our assumptions about their behavior. Maybe it’s not so bad after all. If this person I love is into that, maybe I’ve misjudged it. Maybe it’s only when it involves coercion that it’s bad.
It can seem like these are the only two options. But there is at least one other option, and I think it’s often a more realistic one: to embrace the person as a whole, but still disagree with this aspect of their lifestyle, even if they see it as good or even as an integral part of who they are. It’s clear to see this as an option in the case of something like pedophilia that is almost universally (at least in modern western culture) regarded as a disorder. A person can struggle with an unhealthy attraction and still be a kind, good person. They may even believe there’s nothing wrong with it. But even if we have compassion for their condition, and see that their heart seems to be in the right place, we do not have to condone their actions, if they do act on those impulses. Those actions are evil.
Again, I’m not saying homosexuality and pedophilia are equal. But I am saying that the fact that someone is a loving, kind, “normal” person does not mean they cannot have unhealthy sexual attractions. This says nothing about whether homosexuality is right or wrong – only that the fact that people we love and care about feel attracted to people of the same sex does not mean that that attraction is healthy.
Nor is this to say that the friendship and love between two people of the same sex is not real. There can be deep and abiding love between two people of the same sex, and there should be. The problem is that for whatever reason – whether it be genes or life experiences or some combination of factors – a relationship that is not supposed to be sexual is sexualized.
Most of us do acknowledge that there are loving relationships where sexuality is completely out of place, and where acting on sexual attraction would be unhealthy. In a blog post from several years ago, I compared homosexuality to brother-sister incest. There are brother-sister couples in the world who declare that they are in love, and have sexual relationships with each other. Now, I would not deny that these brothers and sisters love each other. I would not hate them for feeling sexually attracted to each other. But I would think that their sexuality was misguided and out of place, and that acting on it would be harmful for them, psychologically and spiritually.
The relationship between a brother and sister is not “supposed to be” sexual. We don’t like saying “supposed to” in terms of other people’s personal preferences, but I think in this case we get it – somehow a person has confused sibling intimacy with sexual intimacy. But to acknowledge that there is ever a “supposed to be” in terms of sexuality is to acknowledge that there is some kind of purpose to sexuality. And this is where we can get into disagreements. This is where I believe the New Church comes into it.
The Writings for the New Church teach that sexuality exists for the sake of conjugial love. They also teach that this kind of love can only exist between one man and one woman: Conjugial Love says, “For the conjugial union of one man with one wife is the precious jewel of human life and the repository of Christian religion” (Conjugial Love 457). They emphasize that a man is completely a man and a woman completely a woman (Conjugial Love 46) – and that even friendships between two men or two women are of a different nature than friendships between a man and a woman (Conjugial Love 55:6). Within marriage, the purpose of sex is creation: either the procreation of children in the world, or the creation of “spiritual children,” the birth of new love and wisdom within the couple. And any sex outside the confines of marriage is evil.
“Evil” isn’t a popular word here. Why label it like that? What’s the point? Doesn’t it just stigmatize the people who are engaged in it? It can – but that’s not the point of it. There are plenty of things that the Lord has labelled evil, and I’m grateful for it. The use is that it gives a person the strength to fight through the justifications that come with any temptation. If a person is drawn to pornography, the Lord’s words are his allies: “Whoever looks at a woman in order to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). “Fornication is an evil” (Conjugial Love 452) even though it is not the evil of adultery. A person can hold onto these words as weapons against impulses toward evil and all the justifications that come with them.
I know of people in the New Church who have felt same-sex attraction, and were able to fight against those attractions because they felt they could label homosexuality as evil. That is the use in using that word for it. You might disagree that sex outside of marriage is wrong; you might disagree that truly conjugial love cannot exist between two people of the same sex; but for those who do embrace those beliefs, labelling those attractions as harmful and even evil provides strength to hold out for a marriage between themselves and one person of the opposite sex.
But is this holding out a false hope? Many would say it is: you are stuck with the sexual orientation you were born with. There’s a widely-held belief that orientation is genetic, in the same way that skin color is. Studies have shown some connection between sharing genes and same-sex attraction – but even the twin studies cited as favoring this show at highest a 50% chance that the identical twin of a homosexual person will be homosexual as well. These are people who share identical genes – 100% of them share the same skin colour. Homosexuality cannot be entirely genetic.
There are others who say that even if it is not genetic, orientation is inborn, determined by events in the womb. The truth is, no one really knows at this point. There are studies that show that people who identify as bi-sexual or homosexual are significantly more likely to have been sexually abused as children – but correlation does not prove causation, and someone could say they were abused because they had already started exhibiting stereotypical homosexual behavior. The APA itself does not declare orientation to be inborn:
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation. (http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/sorientation.pdf)
It does seem to be true that once it has been established, orientation is difficult to change. Programs that guarantee success are misleading people, and there are reports that people have been harmed by orientation-change efforts. But there are other reports that it has been helpful. There is evidence that some people – although it is a minority – are able to move from a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual one. There are others who are able to shift away from a homosexual orientation and abstain from sex altogether. As researcher Mark Yarhouse puts it in this article, it is misleading both to offer extreme optimism or extreme pessimism.
The American Psychological Association itself encourages therapists not to enter therapy with an agenda either of having their client embrace a homosexual identity or rejecting that identity, as reported in a 2009 review of the research on orientation-change efforts. While the authors of that report are skeptical of attempts to change orientation itself – mostly because there has been inadequate peer-reviewed study in the area – they do endorse the idea that a person can change how they identify themselves – that just because they experience same-sex attraction does not mean they have to identify themselves as homosexual. To pressure someone to “embrace their homosexuality” simply because they feel attracted to people of the same sex, if they sincerely believe this is wrong, is as bad as to try to convince someone to commit adultery because they find themselves attracted to someone other than their spouse.
We could get into a wider debate here about religion. It may seem empathetic of me to encourage people who are struggling with homosexuality to get help, some might say, but all I’m really doing is continuing to repress them with my religious dogma. And it’s certainly true that there are people who will refrain from acting on homosexual tendencies because they’re afraid of rejection or condemnation by “the church,” meaning people within the church and especially church leaders. But there are other people who have embraced the teachings for themselves, who sincerely believe that their same-sex attractions are harmful, and want to live in integrity with their beliefs. Some people will argue that everyone who lives by a religious belief is really doing so out of a fear of reprisal, either temporal or eternal. And I admit, both of those factors do come into play in my decisions about my religious life – but they are far from the only thing that motivates me religiously. There’s a world of difference between being compelled by someone else and compelling myself, and my primary religious compulsion is self-compulsion.
I haven’t gone into much about what the Writings say directly about homosexuality. Other people have done that extensively (see this collection from the New Church Thought blog, which includes a number of different perspectives). The teachings about the differences between men and women – and the differences between same-sex relationships and opposite-sex relationships – are more than enough to convince me that same-sex attraction is disorderly, and that acting on it is evil. I don’t expect to convince many who aren’t already convinced. So what is the point of this article? That’s something I’ve asked myself a lot over the past few weeks as I thought about writing it. I guess it’s primarily three things: first, to demonstrate that it really is possible to love and care about people who identify as homosexual and still consider acting on it to be immoral. Second, to encourage those who would jump to either immediate conclusion – dehumanization or complete acceptance – to rethink their reactions.
The third reason I write it is to offer support to those who do struggle with same-sex attraction, and who sincerely believe it to be wrong, and to point to resources that are available. New Church ministers and friends can provide religious and emotional support, and professional counsellors can provide psychological support. The APA’s guidelines ask therapists not to push their clients to identify with one orientation or another, but to let them know the reality of the difficulties they will face, and help them come to terms with an identity that allows them to feel whole. Those who are in this position can look around for a therapist who will not try to get them to change their religious convictions. There are resources available, and there are other people in your position. For more information, I recommend this website (which is a therapy structure approved of by the APA): http://sitframework.com/, and the book Ex-Gays? by Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse1 (summarized here).
In any case, I want the discussion to change. I do not want those in favor of homosexuality to brand all those opposed to it as bigots or hateful. I do not want those opposed to homosexuality to express hatred for homosexuals, or to view them as inhuman. I want us to be able to talk to each other with respect, even though we see things very differently.
Edit: I posted a follow-up to this article on my blog addressing those who ask why I made the comparisons between homosexuality and pedophilia, even though I acknowledged that they were two different things, and even though I knew it would offend some people. That post is here.
1It should be noted that the APA report on orientation-change efforts listed a few problems with Ex-gays?, most notably that it did not study a control group to see if people would have changed without the efforts of Exodus International, and that its researchers were biased. However, neither of these negates the clear evidence that some people can change orientation, even if it’s a minority. Moreover, Yarhouse is a well-respected researcher who has conducted several other studies which have been approved and published in peer-reviewed journals.