by Carrol Grady and Bryan Ness | 28 May 2019 |
Carrol: It was 30-plus years ago, when my husband and I were employed at the General Conference, that I first received the shocking news that one of our dearly beloved sons is gay. At that time, I knew next to nothing about homosexuality, but I did know my son, and he certainly didn’t fit into the vague picture that word produced in my mind. Immediately, I began to study and learn everything I could about the topic. I read stories written by or about gays and lesbians. I had never realized what pain and confusion boys and girls go through as they struggle to understand what is different about themselves, and suffer teasing, condemnation, and rejection, especially if they are from a religious family. The church, which is supposed to be a place of love and acceptance, support and security for all, instead turns its back, with a disapproving look, and gathers its righteous robes about itself.
Bryan: A little over five years ago my wife and I discovered that our daughter is gay when she informed us she was leaving her husband and was in a relationship with another woman. As a biologist who had already been studying the genetics and biology of sexual development, I had some understanding of the biology of same-sex attraction. I am also married to a clinical social worker, so you would think we would easily take this development in stride. But it took us awhile to process what it meant for us to have a lesbian daughter, especially since we both grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church with its legacy of condemning gays and lesbians, and we knew that it would complicate our relationships within the church. Although both of us had already been advocates for LGBT+ individuals in the church, it propelled us on to even more direct advocacy.
The Science of Homosexuality
As parents of gay children, we were also eager to read the latest research on the subject. As more and more gays and lesbians have “come out of the closet,” the great question presents itself: Why are some people attracted to their own sex, instead of the opposite sex? Scientists, who look at the question through a lens unclouded by religious bias, have discovered that some of the factors influencing gender and sexual attraction have their roots in embryonic development, when various conditions, such as stress or illness, might prevent the mother from producing enough testosterone needed to shape the fetus’ brain as male. At a certain point around three months’ gestation, normal levels of testosterone appear to be partly responsible for influencing a male, with XY chromosomes, to later be sexually attracted to females. Alternatively, if there is a deficiency of testosterone at this critical point in development, the male may become “feminized” and later be sexually attracted to men.
Twin studies have also been used to determine the potential genetic roots of same-sex attraction by studying heritability, i.e., to what extent genetics, as opposed to environment, might play a part in the development of same-sex attraction. Heritability estimates for human traits range from 0-100%, where a value of 0% would imply no genetic influence, and a value of 100% that the trait is entirely determined by genetics. Most human traits have heritabilities ranging from lows around 0.20 (speed of information acquisition) to a high of 0.97 (fingerprint ridge count). Same-sex attraction has a heritability of 30-50%. Other traits with similar heritabilities include anxiety disorder (30%), major depression (37%), and positive emotionality (50%). The simple take-home from heritability studies is that same-sex attraction is influenced by genetics.
Another well-known phenomenon occurs in women who have more than one male child. With each subsequent male that is conceived, the mother produces more antibodies against testosterone, resulting in less testosterone reaching the fetus, making it increasingly likely for each successive male child to manifest same-sex attraction. Certain genetic defects, such as possession of extra or missing sex chromosomes, or certain single gene mutations, can result in individuals that are intersex, i.e., possessing a complex combination of male and female sexual characteristics. One unique example, called “complete androgen insensitivity syndrome” (CAIS), results in babies that are apparently female in external appearance, including having a vagina (although they have no uterus), but who are male (XY) chromosomally. Such children are rarely identified at birth and are typically raised as girls. During puberty they commonly develop what appears to be a hernia. When surgical repair is attempted, it is discovered that they have a pair of undescended testes in their abdomen. In almost all cases individuals with CAIS continue to identify as female gendered, although they often must receive hormone supplementation to adequately develop secondary female characteristics. Although the genetic and developmental causes are less well understood, children are also born who are transgender, where their body is gendered one direction, but their brain is oppositely gendered. Such individuals are identified as trans.
Given the complexity of sexual determination and development, it is no surprise to biologists that a small percentage of children are born gay, bisexual, trans, or intersex. All of these conditions represent a normal part of human sexual/gender variation. To treat such individuals as somehow damaged or defective is inappropriate and is deemed unethical in the medical community. They are normal. They just happen to vary from what is typical for the human population. As such, they are just as deserving as anyone else of full acceptance and respect for who they are. The church should be a place where this can happen.
The Bible and Homosexuality
Of course, our chief concern, as Adventists, was what we thought the Bible has to say about this. As we began to get acquainted with other LGBT+ people, we wondered how God could let people be born with this attraction and yet condemn or punish them for it. We had seen instances where a gay man married a straight woman, or a lesbian married a straight man. In nearly all cases this kind of union did not bring happiness and fulfillment. Was it really God’s plan for all gays to forego a loving partnership their entire lives? At last, we began reading the many books being published with an alternative understanding of what the Bible says, especially when historical and cultural context is taken into consideration. And it made sense! We began to see the larger picture and were mentally able to let God off the hook! Slowly, we began to realize that God especially loves his other-gendered children because he realizes what confusion and pain they have gone through.
I (Carrol) wanted to share these new understandings with my church. I began to write letters to my friends at the General Conference. At first my “interference” was kindly received, but as a rising tide of voices gradually joined mine, the reception at headquarters hardened. We realize now that there are very few people there who are even willing to consider looking at anything new, anything other than the traditional understanding.
What is especially disconcerting to us is that when all of the so-called clobber texts in the Bible are critically analyzed, none of them clearly addresses committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships. Although some of the texts do cast aspersion on such sexual acts outside of marriage, the same as for any sex act outside of marriage, none of them deal with same-sex marriage. How could they, when the cultural context of marriage was so radically different than it is today? To make an honest assessment of whether same-sex marriage is allowable we need to go beyond the Bible and its silence on the topic. We need to address same-sex marriage using robust moral reasoning, recognizing that gays are biologically, and therefore by nature, attracted to members of their own sex. Given that, how can we not honor their desire to live in a committed and loving relationship with another person, a fulfillment of one of the deepest of human drives?
The Church and the Equality Act
Our hearts are crushed by the statement just released by the General Conference and the North American Division in response to the Equality Act passed by the House of Representatives a few days ago. We had begun to have some hope, at least in the North American Division, when the division recently published the booklet, Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones. We are heartbroken to see that our church, even here in North America, opposes adding LGBT+ people to other groups that are protected from discrimination in employment and housing, as well as social services. Even if they believe LGBT+ individuals are sinful, why would they want to discriminate against them? Is that how they think Jesus looks at them? Jesus was always protecting those who were outcasts and marginalized. Our hearts break for our LGBT+ friends and for our church that refuses to even look at new ideas, new ways of interpreting the Bible, what we call “present truth,” a term that our church claims as its own, but no longer appears to honor.
Our church currently employs some non-Adventist personnel in our hospitals, but appears to want the privilege of discrimination when it comes to employing anyone who is LGBT+. Perhaps they also want to reserve the privilege of the rights of church members to discriminate in renting or selling to LGBT+ people. How our ideas of religious freedom have changed! We are just like the evangelical churches. We want to protect our freedom to discriminate, but not the freedom of others. How Jesus must weep as he looks down on our lack of sympathy, our self-protectionism. We believe it is time for our church, at least here in North America and other more enlightened parts of the world, to actually study the “new light” that God is giving to all the churches, and which many churches have accepted. For once, let us not be the last to accept a new understanding.
Carrol Grady has been retired for 30 years, stays home and prays for her husband Bob when he takes seniors on mission trips, responds to all requests for help from LGBTIs or their family members, and quilts, reads, and writes her family history in spare time. Carrol has written a book about homosexuality entitled My Son, Beloved Stranger.
Dr. Bryan D. Ness has been a professor at Pacific Union College since 1989. His research interests include plant systematics and genetics. He advises in the areas of biology, natural science, veterinary medicine, medical radiography and occupational therapy.