The interim report released Monday by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family caused quite a stir over its discussion of persons with same sex attraction (SSA). In the English translation, the section was entitled “Welcoming Homosexual Persons” and was recently revised under the heading “Providing for Homosexual Persons.”
Perhaps more than anything else in the document, this section became the flashpoint for heated debate over widely misunderstood Catholic teachings, which always insist on the equal and inherent dignity of persons with SSA, but at the same time hold that homosexual activity is gravely sinful.
While some wrongly accuse the Church of lacking in compassion, there are abundant reasons – now documented in the social science and medical literature – why true compassion involves helping individuals to be healed from SSA, rather than leaving them at risk for numerous physical and psychological harms.
Confusion also exists over the cause of SSA, whether and how it can be “cured,” the reasons why homosexual activity should be discouraged and how those with SSA can be helped.
Psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons, MD summarized the best research on SSA and related issues, along with insights from his 38 years’ experience, in a comprehensive and heavily foot-noted article. With his permission, I have assembled some highlights from this article below concerning causes, the “fluidity” of SSA, gender identity disorder (GID) and approaches for helping children with GID. Please refer to the original for citations to sources.
Are some people born gay?
Today, a consensus exists that there is not a genetic or hormonal origin of homosexuality. A 2008 American Psychological Association publication stated, “no findings have 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. …”
If homosexuality were genetically determined, identical male twins would be 100% concordant for this condition. A study from the Australian twin registry found that only 11% of identical twins with SSA had a twin brother who also experienced SSA.
Once gay, always gay?
Dr. Laumann’s research at the University of Chicago has shown that “sexual orientation has found to be unstable over time in both males and females.” In another study, Kinnish demonstrated that sexual attraction/orientation is inherently flexible, evolving continuously over the life span and that women demonstrate greater fluidity than men.
The Savin-Williams and Ream 2007 study on the stability of sexual orientation demonstrated that the idea that adolescent same-sex attraction will always become adult same sex attraction is quite incorrect. Data from the large USA ADD-Health survey (Savin-Williams and Ream, 2007) confirm that adolescent homosexuality/bisexuality both in attraction and behaviour undergoes extraordinary change from year to year. Much of this could be experimentation. The changes are overwhelmingly in the direction of heterosexuality, which even at age 16-17 is at least 25 times as stable as bisexuality or homosexuality, whether for men and women. That is, 16-year-olds saying they have an SSA- or Bi- orientation are 25 times more likely to change towards heterosexuality at the age of 17 than those with a heterosexual orientation are likely to change towards bi-sexuality or homosexuality. Seventy-five percent of adolescents who had some initial same-sex attraction between the ages of 17-21 ultimately declared exclusive heterosexuality. Under the most extreme conservative assumptions heterosexuality is still 3x more stable for men and 4x for women.
Also, Lisa Diamond reported in her book “Sexual Fluidity,” that “more than two-thirds of the women in my sample had changed their identity labels at least once after the first interview. The women who kept the same identity for the whole ten years proved to be the smallest and most atypical group.”
Gender Identity Disorder and Transsexual Issues
Gender identity disorder is a childhood psychiatric disorder in which there is a strong and persistent cross-gender identification with at least four of the following: repeated stated desire to be of the opposite sex; in boys a preference for cross-dressing or simulating female attire and, in girls, wearing stereotypical masculine clothing with a rejection of feminine clothing such as skirts; strong and persistent preferences for cross-sex role in play; strong preference for playmates of the opposite sex, and intense desire to participate in games and pastimes of the opposite sex.
Boys who exhibit such symptoms before they enter school are more likely to be unhappy, lonely, and isolated in elementary school. They often suffer from separation anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems and become targets to be victimized by bullies and even pedophiles. Often they experience same- sex attraction in adolescence, and if they engage in homosexual activity, they are more likely than boys who do not to be involved in drug and alcohol abuse or prostitution. They are also at greater risk to attempt suicide, to contract a sexually transmitted disease, or to develop a serious psychological disorder as an adult. A small number of these boys will become transvestites or transsexuals.
A loving and compassionate approach to these troubled children is not to support their difficulty in accepting the goodness of their masculinity or femininity, the approach that is being advocated in the media and by many health professionals who lack expertise in GID, but to offer them and their parents the highly effective treatment that is available.
The following interventions for boys with GID are helpful:
- Increasing quality time for bonding with the father
- Increasing affirmation of the son’s masculine gifts by the father
- Participating in and support for the son’s creative efforts by the father
- Encouraging same-sex friendships and diminishing time with opposite-sex friends
- Coaching the son in the development of athletic confidence and skills if possible
- Slowly diminishing play with opposite-sex toys
- Encouraging the boy to be thankful for his special masculine gifts
- Slowly leading the boy into team play if the athletic abilities and interest improve
- Working at forgiving boys who may have hurt him
- Communicating with other parents whose children have been treated successfully for GID and who have come to appreciate and to embrace the goodness of their masculinity
- Addressing the emotional conflicts in a mother who wants her son to be a girl
- In those with faith, encouraging thankfulness for one’s special God-given masculine gifts.
The following interventions for girls with GID are helpful:
- Encouraging the daughter to appreciate the goodness and beauty of her femininity, including her body
- Encouraging same-sex friendships and activities
- Increasing the mother-child quality time
- Encouraging parental praise of their daughter
- Working with the daughter to forgive peers who have hurt her
- Encouraging pursuit of a balance in athletic activities
- Addressing conflicts in parents who may want her to be a boy
- In those with faith, encouraging thankfulness for one’s special God-given femininity
GID vs. Transgendered Child
Some medical centers are unfortunately going further and providing hormone treatments to GID children whom they label as transgender. A pediatric specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston has recently begun a clinic for boys who feel like girls and girls who want to be boys. He offers his patients, some as young as 7 years, counseling about the “naturalness” of their feelings and hormones to delay the onset of puberty. These drugs stop the natural process of sexual development that would make it more surgically difficult to have a sex alteration later in life.
This approach theoretically allows the child and adolescent patients more time to decide whether they want to make the change. This physician alleges that those whom he labels as transgender children are deeply troubled by a lack of understanding of their feelings and have a high level of suicide attempts. He told the "Boston Globe" that he has never seen any patient make a suicide attempt after they’ve started hormonal treatment.
While this physician is accurate in his interpretation of the literature that children with GID and transgender ideation are deeply troubled, his claims of a high level of suicide attempts in children with GID is not substantially supported by that same literature. What is supported is that most children who are treated for their feelings of being of the opposite sex improve remarkably and experience a resolution of their serious emotional and behavioral pain and conflicts. All children with cross-gender feelings should be evaluated for GID before any hormonal treatment is considered. This pediatrician also fails to consider the potentially serious side effects attributable to taking these hormones in childhood.
A future article will address the research compiled by Dr. Fitzgibbons showing the greatly increased risks of physical and psychological harm among adults with SSA, as well as the success of programs like Courage to help those with SSA avoid these risks.
Susan E. Willsis spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English language edition.