Tag Archives: Sexual orientation

Reply to the Scottish Consultation on proposed extension of marriage law to gay and lesbian couples

Hugh Bain

I write with 20 years’ experience of heterosexual marriage and 30 years subsequently in a gay relationship. Formerly a Church of Scotland minister, and since 1985 a Roman Catholic layman, I have wide ecumenical work experience and am well informed  concerning recent academic research into sexuality and the varieties of sexual and gender perception, and also patterns of social behaviour found among gay and lesbian couples.

I write to deplore the form of the current campaign by Catholic bishops on the meaning of marriage. The campaign lacks any consultation of the huge lay component with continuing experience and expression of committed sexual relationships and has allowed for no dialogue with the significant number of religiously practising homosexual and lesbian citizens.

While I personally favour full equality for all in terms of Civil Partnership legislation, I also support lesbian and gay encouragement for the category of marriage to be extended to all such persons as want to engage with it. There is no evidence that variation in sexual orientation diminishes in any way the possibility of commitment, love and where possible the good adult care and support of children and adolescents. It is a myth that the proposed extension of marriage constitutes a threat to heterosexuals and their children. I therefore strongly support willingness to respond to the increased tolerance of sexual variation widely shown in most of the UK and elsewhere in Europe, and urge that proposed legislation be enacted. Much good can come from society’s celebration of committed and loving sexual relationships being extended beyond the heterosexual model.

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“Diversity in One Human Journey”

 Alison Webster

I would like tobegin with a poetic contribution from Audre Lorde, the African American womanist warrior poet who died, sadly, back in 1993.

‘Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me – so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognise her. And in that growing, we came to separation, that place where work begins. Another meeting.’

I want you to hold that quote in your hearts as you listen to what follows. Not because I am going to reflect on it explicitly, or in any way analyse it, but because it undergirds everything I want to say today.

Like you, I am who I am today because of the diversity of people I have loved and been loved by. And I am who I am today because of the diversity of ways in which I have tried to be open to the love of God.

The particular aspect of diversity that I embody – and I suspect, the reason why I’ve been invited to address this particular aspect of today’s agenda – is the diversity that comes from inhabiting both sides of the perceived gay/straight divide. Not that it is particularly unusual to have this experience, but it is, I think, an experience that is under-reflected upon. Tales of journeying in one direction (usually from apparently straight to gay – ‘coming out’ narratives), abound. Occasionally there are stories of making the journey in the opposite direction. Sometimes we talk about ‘bisexuality’, as though there were only two kinds of sexuality. But my own experience is one of considering myself to be both heterosexual and lesbian at the same time. All the time. I couch it like that because of considerations of how structural power works in our society – of which more later.

I want to begin with two reflections from my personal experience. I consider them to be stories of a transition to the underside of power, and back again. Both were written as conscious and careful attempts to describe the intense and specific feelings associated with very particular events. The first was written in 1996, describing what it was like to be 14 and in love with another woman. As I was 14 in 1980, the writing was an act of remembering and recreating something from 16 years before. I wouldn’t write it like this now, but I use it as I originally wrote it because I consider it to be closer to the actual feelings of the experience at the time. The second was written for my latest book on Identity, ‘You are Mine’, and launches the section in that book on ‘telling untold stories’ – a section that explores how, in order to resist the power of the apparently ‘normal’, we have to learn to articulate the uniqueness of our own experience – and tell it.

Reflection One

I am on the school hockey field. It’s a winter afternoon. One of those unspeakably bleak ones – mist hanging, semi-defrosted mud under foot. This is the ‘cast-off’ team – made up of those who want to muck around and have fun. I like this group. There are some good players, some utterly hopeless. The main reason for being here, though, is that she is here. Any excuse to be near to her, in her sights. ‘Miss Brown will take the dunce hockey class’. OK, well I’ll be a dunce for Miss Brown.

Her. How to describe what I felt for her? It goes something like this. This woman took up most of my head-space for the best part of six years of my life. Six years. From the age of fourteen, when she came, newly qualified, to the school, to the age of twenty when we started to make the successful transition from unbalanced devotion on my part, to equal friendship between the two of us. That blessed time when to call her by her first name became easy and natural. Miss Brown transformed into first-name terms. I – we, I guess, worked hard to achieve that. Anyway, she was my RE teacher. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level. Four periods a week, plus the hockey. It wasn’t enough. Nothing would’ve been enough. Let me describe the symptoms. You might recognise them. I can spot her across the other side of the school because I know her gait. I know her body language. It’s a very definite stride – a bit ‘loping’ and certainly unusual. I love it because it’s my early warning signal. When I spot it I can change my route. Go the long way round to the science block just to see her, just to be seen. Another symptom: I never go past her flat without seeing if her car is there. And I have to look up at the windows to see if there’s any sign of her. When I’m anywhere near her, I’m never relaxed.

It was partly because of her that I studied theology. She brought religious questions to life for me. She made me think about meaning; made me think about value; made me feel joy and pain; enabled me to feel God; made me question everything I thought I knew about who I was and what I wanted out of life. Anyway, she made me, made me, made me. In so many ways. Scary the power she had. I didn’t know I was in love. I certainly didn’t know it had anything to do with my sexuality. That was unimaginable.

Back to that hockey field. The game’s over now. We’re walking back up the hill to the sports hall. This is my weekly chance to walk next to her. Just for a few wonderful minutes. I work hard for this every week and usually succeed. The trick is to make it look casual. I look around at everyone else and think, ‘they think we’re just walking back to the sports hall. They’re not  even thinking about it, about her. Not giving her a second thought. Just walking. Part of me wishes I could be free of whatever this feeling is, and be like them. Normal, unconcerned, just walking, back to the sports hall. Some weeks I pretend to be like them, pretend to be blissfully unconcerned about whether I get to talk to her or not. But the feelings remain.

This time, we’re talking about what we’ll do in RE next week – what we’ll discuss; what the class is like, what we think of ‘the others’. I make a joke. She laughs. I love it that I can do that sometimes. Make her laugh. Affect her. Then she reaches out and touches the back of my neck. A friendly sort of ‘cuff’. A light touch, in jest, that’s all it is, but for me, this is the most delicious, powerful, unforgettable tactile gesture in my life to date. I’m speechless, light-headed. It’s wrenching, pleasure and pain intensely mixed. I don’t know what to do, don’t know what to think. Don’t know what this makes me and don’t know if I care. I have no words for this and I’m not sure I want any. Certain words hover, but I don’t let them take shape because I sense danger in them. I love this woman, and I am afraid.

Reflection Two:

I think I am feeling an absence of an absence, and I’m wondering how I can tell.

I am walking with you in the hills. We are holding hands. This feels deeply unsettling to me, for you are a man, and I am a woman and this is not what I am used to. Nobody looks away when they catch sight of us. No-one averts their gaze. I expect to feel relief but I do not. This newfound sense of security has a paradoxical effect. I feel destabilised, cut adrift from my old identity, even as I am rescued from the sense of dislocation it brought with it. The social kaleidoscope has twisted; the pieces have fallen into myriad new places all around me, and I am located differently now.

I am angry that in another year, with a former lover, on a similar walk, in the same hills, if I dared to hold hands with her, even to let go when others came near, I was looked at differently. Not with hostility so much as a blank emptiness. With a weight behind the void – a sense of knowing who was in charge, and it wasn’t us. A deep awareness that how ever self-confident we were, their tolerance could be withdrawn at any moment – if it was there in the first place.

Now, it seems, I am legitimised – worthy of recognition. It is so subtle that I wonder at the enormity of its effects; so slight that I doubt myself and my perceptions. To the extent that others are ‘normal’ they will doubt them too. Am I simply imagining this? Yet these fractional changes feel like the difference between belonging and not; between being a person and less than a person. Those I am meeting on narrow pathways in these wooded and fertile hills reflect something of me in their eyes as they meet mine. In their sense of recognition I experience estrangement. ‘You are one of us’, they seem to say. I do not want to be.

From the inside, I am the same person on the same walk in the same hills – whoever I am with. Holding hands or not. And it is suddenly clear to me how the variegated and nuanced, complex and beautiful, multiple inflections of my personhood have been forced by the world into a blunt and dichotomous either/or. I will not choose.

There are three things I would like to pull out of these stories: Culture matters; power
matters; unnamed loves matter.

1) Culture Matters

Whatever our personal feelings, and whatever our intellectual opinions, we embody the value system that we have imbibed from our social context. This is powerful, it is visceral. It operates at a gut-level, and must be resisted at that level too. When it comes to personal transformation, our minds and our intellect are severely limited in their potential to make a difference. They are important, obviously, but I don’t believe they are decisive.

As I reread my first story, I am struck by the sense of hesitation; of fear; and of simply not seeing the blindingly obvious; living with a maelstrom of intense feeling, whilst being disqualified, by seemingly invisible and incomprehensible forces, from naming it. Because, culturally speaking, it was not possible for me to be ‘one of them’, a lesbian – or even to utter the ‘L’ word to myself at that stage, I was unable to feel what I was really feeling. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I was aware of my feelings, and their power, I just could not name them for what they were. I could not afford to let them be real.

Being lesbian is about an ‘absence’. Because it is an unsayable word, a stigmatised cultural category – a word of abjection and horror; a taboo, the impact of naming oneself in line with one’s feelings was something that – when it happened – had physical embodied consequences for me until I physically – at gut level – came to terms with it. I suggest that these powers of abjection cannot be as easily erased as practical forms of discrimination. They are carried in our collective psyche and live on. Or they did for me, back in 1980. But I suspect, social attitudes surveys notwithstanding, they still exert their power, for visceral value systems run deeper than individual opinions.

So my question to us all today is this: what other visceral value systems are at work in us as we pick our way through our relational lives? Racism? Orientation towards conventional forms of ‘success’? Attitudes to our bodies, and our physicality? Who do we expect to love, and what happens when love visits us outside of our expectations?

How does the reality of loving challenge these textures of the culture that lives in us – and how does it feel to embody that challenge in the deepest parts of our selves?

2) Power Matters

The things that texture our psyches work themselves out in systems and structures: power structures. However tempting it may be to glibly assert that there is ‘neither black nor white, male nor female, gay or straight’, but that we are ‘all just people’. In the real world this is not credible, for it takes no account of those systems and structures, and it does nothing to subvert them. And as people of God we are called to subvert them.

Think about the power of ‘doing the right thing’; of being the right thing. Notice those systems of social reward and punishment. Remember feeling deserving in the wake of cultural approval; relive the vulnerability of being on the receiving end of cultural opprobrium. We live in a system that punishes and rewards according to its own conventions. Conventions that, as people of God, we cannot and should not own.

When you are on the underside of power – as I feel I was when I was living as a lesbian – your very being is delegitimized; called into question. You have a right to be only insofar as the power structures allow it. And the really clever thing is how hidden this is. Society takes away your full right to be, whilst asserting, in explicit terms, that you still have it. And it hides it so subtly and successfully that those NOT on the underside of power find it almost impossible to see that this has happened, and even harder to see their part in it.

So for me, flipping back to an apparently ‘legitimate’ way of being: that is, married – to a man – I could suddenly feel and notice the rewards and comfort that flowed from that position. I could see more clearly how the punishment had worked, because now the system wanted to reward me.

Resistance is the watchword according to which I lived as a lesbian, and I live it still, for different reasons. Because the things I learned as a lesbian are things I do not want to lose. I am glad for those 14 or 15 years. I was radically reshaped by them – irreversibly so. I do not ever want to unlearn those things, and I do not think I ever will, because they are part of the fabric of my being now. My understanding of systems of power; and the alliances I found with others on their underside are gifts I cannot do without.

3) Unnamed loves matter

Every human encounter is an invitation to go deeper; to embrace the challenge of difference and be changed. One cultural value we live with is the tendency to overemphasise the importance of one, singular, partnered relationship. That applies to the gay world and the straight. It marginalises those with no spouse or partner, obviously, but it does more than that. It encourages us to devalue so many of our other deep connections – usually with the word ‘just’. ‘Oh, don’t worry about him, he’s just a friend’.

We each have, potentially if not actually, a vast hinterland of passionate connections that make up the rest of our relational lives, once the question of whether we are partnered or not is answered. The paucity of our language in this regard interests me. For naming is power, and we have very few names for those we love who are not spouses or blood relatives. Think about your life. Who are those on whom your life depends? Without whom you would be bereft? Those who have made you who you are, and those who still do. They may be those you share passionate interests with; those you have creative partnerships with; you may share a deep spiritual connection. These relationships may or may not be conventionally ‘sexual’, but they involve our sexuality because we are whole people within them. These are those with whom we are bold; take risks; make ourselves vulnerable. These relationships have no name. They are often trumped, in the conventional pecking order of priorities, by the contractual; the legitimate; the defined.  Yet they are always bursting into and through relational spaces and gaps – sometimes chaotically, reminding us of the mystery of love; its giftedness; its unpredictability. If love is of God, how could it be otherwise?

If love is of God, we must embrace this hinterland; work with the grain of it. Not allow the world to tell us that these connections that have no name have no importance. On the contrary, we must work to articulate them better, to develop a language for them.


Each of us is not a category – of sexuality or of anything else. We are human beings, flesh and blood, infinitely beloved of God, trying to learn how to love one another as God would have us love one another. With our hearts, souls, minds and bodies. Our different locations in the power structures give us a diversity of perspectives, and we need one another’s perspectives to learn to be better at it. To learn how better to open our hearts to one another; to create spaces beyond convention where God can speak and live and do God’s creative work. My question and challenge to us today is: how can we do this?

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Alan Sheard

The Church of England report ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ published in 2003 claims that ‘The jury is still out on the causes of homosexuality’. This implies that little is known about homosexuality, but there is a great deal of scientific evidence about it that the Some Issues report completely ignores. Scientific research on this goes back to the 1950s, and indicates that a person’s sexual orientation is fixed, and in the great majority of cases is unalterable. This led to the removal of homosexuality from the list of recognised medical disorders in 1973. Further advances have been made in the past 25 years which confirm the position. In the late 1980s the Government sponsored, and the Wellcome Foundation funded, a very comprehensive survey of sexual attitudes in Britain, which revealed a great deal of information for the first time, and this was published as a book by Penguin in 1994. The sample was large enough to include statistically significant numbers in subgroups within the population. Then in 1991 Simon Leroy conducted a series of autopsies on homosexual men and showed that the anatomical structure of part of the brain was different in homosexual people. Much work has also been done on other lines of enquiry, which has led to the conclusion that sexual orientation is largely fixed by the time of birth.

Prevalence studies have shown that exclusively heterosexual or homosexual people make up almost all of the population, and bisexuality is rare. This is unlike most biological variables, such as adult height or blood pressure, where most people have values near to the average. This in itself suggests that sexual orientation develops on two different paths.

Historically, Sigmund Freud’s view of sexuality was accepted in the early 20th century that good mental health, and a heterosexual orientation, were dependent on a good relationship with the parents during the early years of life. Well constructed surveys to test this were not done until the 1960s, when it was found that neither homosexual people nor mentally ill people were more likely to have had a poor relationship with their parents.

The possibility remained that association with gay or lesbian people could lead to initiation of a young person into lifelong homosexuality. Again, detailed studies, particularly the one published by Penguin, have shown that this does not happen; the study shows that young people at same sex boarding schools do as a group show a higher proportion having homosexual activity, but, in a group who had left a same sex boarding school five years or more previously, the proportion still having same sex activity was no higher than in the general population. Also, in one of the tribes in New Guinea, children are made to have same sex relationships with adults, but the homosexuality rate in their adults is no higher than elsewhere. This is further evidence that homosexuality is not addictive, and not permanently altered by external influences. However the Church of England Report ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ wrongly infers, in paragraph 4.4.64, that changes in sexual behaviour in some circumstances are evidence against an innate sexual orientation.

Enquiries into families have confirmed that homosexuality does cluster in families in a way that suggests it is inherited genetically. Identical twins have exactly the same genetic inheritance, and non- identical twins have half the same genetic inheritance. Studies have
been done of groups of twin pairs, in all of which at least one of every pair was homosexual. The second twin was also found to be homosexual in half of the identical twin pairs, and in 16% of non-identical twin pairs, and 6% of adoptive pairs. The finding that half of the second identical twins were homosexual indicates a strong hereditary influence, but also that there is another, non-hereditary factor also operating among those twins who were homosexual. Nevertheless, conservative Christian spokesmen claim that the lack of full concordance in the identical twin studies shows that homosexuality is not inherited.

Heredity therefore appears to be responsible for a predisposition to homosexuality, which must be triggered by some other influence. We have already noted the possible postnatal influences that might be responsible for this, which could be early parental effects or copied behaviour in later childhood, and found that these are not implicated in causing homosexuality to develop. But is homosexuality just a free will decision made by people, who are responsible for their own sexuality? There is a lot of evidence against this. Many homosexual people, often in response to the criticisms coming from religious organisations or individuals, have undertaken courses of ‘treatment’, often at great expense, to make them heterosexual. These almost always fail. A recent study by Professor Spitzer of New York University is frequently quoted by conservative Christians as showing that sexual orientation can change. He asked for people who had undergone therapy for homosexuality to contact him. Only 200 people responded, almost all of whom had had therapy because of religious criticism. He concluded that only 13 out of the 200 had become mainly heterosexual, and confirmed that for the great majority change of orientation is not possible. Conservative Christian commentators seem unable to understand that people differ, and cannot all be forced into the same pattern in this respect.

We therefore have to consider the one remaining possibility, that the environmental factor causing sexual orientation operates before birth, in the uterine environment. Sexual development in the foetus does not begin until the sixth month of pregnancy, when the baby is complete in almost all other respects. At that time the sexual organs develop and grow in the pelvis, and there is also a rapid change in the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus. Experiments on animals have established that the hypothalamus includes the nerve centre for sexual awareness and activity. This is one of the reflex centres in the brain that control different aspects of body functions, such as body temperature, the fight or flight response to danger, and body balance. The variability in voluntary control of a person over their reflexes is notable – there is none in the case of body temperature. When the hypothalamus is surgically altered in an experimental animal, the animal’s subsequent sexual behaviour becomes dramatically different. And biochemical tests have shown that the hypothalamus is specifically receptive to the sex hormones, oestrogen or testosterone, and their derivatives. Any prenatal influences on sexual orientation must be operating at this point, anatomically and in time.

By a process of trawling, ie designing and testing all conceivable hypotheses, which is the basis of the scientific method, it has surprisingly been found that males who have two or more older brothers have a small but significant increase in likelihood that they will be homosexual. A possible explanation is that a male foetus inside the mother’s body is essentially foreign to the mother, since she herself has no male tissues. As with other external substances entering the body, such as microbes, the mother’s immune system develops antibodies against them – in this case, against the male hormones in the developing foetus. Antibody formation is always a slow process, building up over several exposures, which in this case is over several male pregnancies. It is feasible to suggest that an antibody to the testosterone (or its derivatives) in the male foetus could alter the development of the hypothalamus at the critical sixth month stage of pregnancy, configuring the sexual reflex centre to recognise males rather than females as attractive.

This occurs in only a small proportion of male births, but similar hormonal variations in the developing brain could be occurring in other pregnant women, with female or male foetuses, and could account for other instances of homosexuality. There is a close analogy with Rhesus disease of the newborn, which is due to a reaction by a Rhesus negative mother to her Rhesus positive foetus.

The importance of the sex hormones in prenatal development is revealed by two rare medical disorders. One is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, in which a genetically male foetus is totally insensitive to the effects of the testosterone circulating in its body. These people grow up as women, and usually marry, but of course they are infertile. The other is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, in which the child is genetically female, but has a tumour of the adrenal gland which produces the male hormone testosterone. If the tumour is removed surgically very early in life they grow up as heterosexual women. If it is not removed, as was always the case until recently, they grow up either as men, or as women
with a high probability of being lesbian.

Finally, it needs to be stressed that most homosexual people have no abnormalities. Every
person in the world is unique, with their own combination of characteristics, including such things as resting blood pressure, pulse rate, height, haemoglobin concentration et cetera. In a male foetus, a normal but low testosterone level during later pregnancy when the brain is developing may lead to a homosexual orientation, and in a female foetus a normal but high testosterone level may lead to a lesbian person, in the normal course of affairs.

This is a very brief summary of the main findings of the biological research into sexuality. A useful recent book is Born Gay by Wilson and Rahman, two London University Psychologists, published in 2005 by Peter Owen Books, which gives a fuller account. Also of interest is the British Medical Journal of 21 February 2004 on the history of the treatment of homosexuality up to the 1950s, pages 427 to 432, headlined ‘Treating homosexuality as a sickness, one of medicine’s many mistakes’; copies should be obtainable through libraries.

Some conservative Christian organisations have circulated reports of population studies which they claim show that homosexual people characteristically abuse children, are prone to drug taking, and are likely to die young. Their evidence is totally unreliable, being based on selective and unrepresentative population samples, such as convicted people or deaths mentioned in gay magazines, in which deaths of older people would hardly be newsworthy.

In the medical profession the debate is long past. Doctors are forbidden by the General Medical Council to allow their views on sexuality to affect the treatment they give or arrange for their patients. Surely it is time for people to receive the same understanding and acceptance by the Church.

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