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Religious Tolerance logo

Basic information on sexual orientation

Introduction: The causes of sexual orientation.
Attempts to change a person's orientation

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Conflicting quotations -- two from each "side." Who is right?

  • There is no scientific data that substantiates a genetic or biologic basis for same-sex attraction. Anybody can change."  Richard Cohen, at the year 2000 PFOX, (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays) convention.

  • "Homosexuality & heterosexuality are likely to be the result of an interaction of several different factors, including genetics, hormonal & environmental factors. Psychological & social influences alone cannot cause homosexuality." PFLAG Oakland - East Bay (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

  • "To date, all information and studies involving genetics have proven homosexuality to be environmental, not genetic." PFOX web site.

  • "Research suggests that the homosexual orientation is in place very early in the life cycle, possibly even before birth. It is found in about ten percent of the population, a figure which is surprisingly constant across cultures, irrespective of the different moral values and standards of a particular culture." Statement on Homosexuality, American Psychological Association, 1994-JUL. 2 [More recent studies seem to point to a lower figure of about 5% of adults with a homosexual orientation and another 5% with a bisexual orientation.]

Beliefs about sexual orientation:

There are three fundamental belief systems about the nature and cause(s) of sexual orientation.

  • Most Christians from fundamentalist, and other evangelical denominations, and many Christians from mainline denominations believe that heterosexuality is the only normal, natural and non-disordered sexual behavior. Homosexuality is often defined as a same-sex sexual activity. They believe that homosexuality is ultimately a choice that young people make, although most believe that gays and lesbians were often heavily influenced to make this choice by bad parenting and/or being victimized by sexual molestation during childhood. Being a choice, it can be changed at any time in life with some effort through therapy and/or prayer. In the past, they generally used the term "sexual preference" instead of "sexual orientation" to indicate that a change in orientation is possible. This term is becoming less common.

  • The Roman Catholic Church teaches beliefs very similar to those of fundamentalist and evangelical denominations except that they regard a homosexual orientation as not chosen, but discovered. They often use the term "disordered state" to describe homosexual or bisexual orientations. They believe that certain types of discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons and transsexuals (LGBT) is justified and moral. Since they recognize that the success rate at changing sexual orientation is at or near zero, they promote the belief that lesbians and gays should choose celibacy for the rest of their life -- leading a life of loneliness without having a sexually active "significant other" in a loving, committed relationship. The church teaches that acting on one's sexual orientation by engaging in same-gender sexual behavior is a serious sin which often rises to the level or mortal sin. The church sponsor gay and lesbian support group chapters called "Courage" in many large North American cities.

  • Most liberal and progressive Christians, some mainline Christians, most secularists, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, the vast majority of human sexuality researchers, mental health professionals, social service professionals, etc. believe that there are three normal, natural and non-disordered sexual orientations: heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. Homosexual orientation is defined as sexual attraction only to members of the same sex. It is not chosen; it is discovered. They believe that homosexual orientation is fixed early in life, perhaps before birth and perhaps even genetically at conception. Being an orientation, it is rarely if ever changeable.

An individual's religious beliefs about homosexual or bisexual orientation and same-gender sexual behavior are often based on four considerations:

  • What the Bible or other holy book says about the topic, as interpreted by their faith group.
  • The traditional teachings of their faith group.
  • The person's personal experience with friends and family who have a homosexual or bisexual orientation.
  • The findings of science.

In practice, religious conservatives tend to greater importance to the first two criteria; religious liberals stress the last two.

Based on these beliefs, individuals have come to at least six different understandings of homosexuality, and contrasting beliefs about same-sex marriage, marriage equality, and equal rights for the LGBT community.

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Beliefs about reparative therapy and transformational ministries:

There are two general beliefs about reparative therapy and other attempts to change individuals' sexual orientation:

  • Many religious conservatives believe that these approaches have an excellent success rate in changing sexual behavior. They are considered safe therapies. Sometimes they do fail, but they feel this is caused by a lack of commitment and effort on the part of the client.

    There are signs of change in the evangelical Christian community. Exodus International, the largest association of reparative therapy ministries abandoned the therapy during mid-2012. The two or three hundred active therapists at the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) still actively support reparative therapy, but support elsewhere among conservative faith groups is clearly collapsing.

  • Most religious liberals, secularists, lesbians, gays, etc. believe that reparative therapy and transformational ministries have little if any success in changing people's sexual orientation. Some regard them as unethical.

    What little success these therapies have appear to be to:
    • convince some gays and lesbians to remain celibate without a significant other in a loving committed relationship for the rest of their life, or

    • convince bisexuals to decide to restrict their sexual relationship(s) to members of the opposite gender.

    These therapies are viewed as unsafe because they always or almost always fail. Clients often go into deep depression because of the failure. This can lead to suicidal ideation. Many completed suicides have been reported following unsuccessful therapy.

    However, the opposite can happen for some clients: after unsuccessfully struggling with a homosexual or bisexual orientation for years or decades, and attempting to "pray the gay away" ever since puberty with no success, they try reparative therapy or transformational ministry as a last result. When this also fails, they sometimes realize that their homosexual or bisexual orientation is fixed -- perhaps even God-given. They may decide to accept themselves as they are, and lead a much happier life.

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  1. "Why is my child Gay?" Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) at:
  2. "How PFOX can help," Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays, at: 
  3. Athenadorus, "Homosexuality: Its Genetic Basis & Evolutionary Benefit," at:
  4. Matt Ridley, "Nature via nurture: Genes, experience, and what makes us human," HarperCollins, (2003). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store  This book discusses the effects of genes and the environment on human behavior and traits. It touches on homosexuality in a few locations.
  5. "Sylvia," "The biological basis of homosexuality," 1997-DEC, at:

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Copyright © 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-JAN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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