My evolving understanding of sexuality

by G. Timothy Johnson

Because I am both a physician and an ordained minister, I have often been asked about my views on human sexuality. As my views have evolved over the years, my answer to that question has also changed. Now at age 85 I think my understanding of this issue is probably finalized so I will share it with anyone currently interested.

First, a brief biographical context. I was born in 1936 into a conservative but not “fundamentalistic” religious environment, specifically the First Covenant Church of Rockford, Illinois. I do not remember any extended discussion of homosexuality in our church, whether in Sunday School or youth groups, in my first 18 years of life. As best I can remember, it was not discussed in any hateful way, though certainly not in the progressive fashion characteristic of today’s social environment. I cannot even remember any in-depth discussion during my college or seminary years, though the “biblical record” was presented, but again not in a hateful manner. Therefore it was not until medical school and beyond that I was confronted with this issue in “real life,” both in religious and social context. In other words, during my first two decades I was largely ignorant and therefore I emerged without any negative feelings but also without any real-life understanding of how that label caused so much grief for so many.

Since that time I have had the opportunity to study some of the scientific and biblical information available on this divisive subject. More importantly, I have been exposed to many individuals whose life stories have profoundly altered my understanding of what it means to be LGBT in these times. I would like to summarize my current understanding of this issue based on their stories and on some of the biblical and scientific data available.

During my now long lifetime I have had the opportunity to work closely with dozens of LGBT people and have learned to value them as friends and colleagues. More importantly, I have had the chance to hear many of their “coming out” stories in great personal detail. One fact clearly emerges from these conversations and my reading on the subject: the vast majority of them are born this way. From their earliest awareness of sexual feelings, many have understood they are feeling same-sex attraction. In the past, many of them tried to initially deny such feelings given the social and religious stigma still so often associated with this. I have several friends who actually got married in the hope that would “cure” their troubled feelings only to later in life get divorced to live with or marry a same-sex partner — often leaving much sorrow and anger in the wake of that decision. That is much less likely to happen today but was all too common in the last century.

Today when I hear people suggest that “homosexuals choose to be the way they are” I ask them when they “chose to be heterosexual” — which should remind us all that the path of our sexuality was based in our biology, rather than a psychological or emotional choice. There is an enormous amount of research into the possible biological causes of same-sex attraction (such as genetics or hormonal influence during pregnancy) and while no complete or definitive explanations have been found to date, I personally have no doubt that the next several decades will bring such clarity.

However, for LGBT people raised in a religious environment that condemns same-sex relationships as “sin” there is obviously an added burden of terrible torment; as these friends point out, it would make no sense for them to choose to be gay given the religious persecution they experience. Many of my gay friends from such backgrounds have sought various therapies, some very drastic, to attempt to change their sexual orientation.

Most religious condemnation stems from a handful of biblical passages that are often interpreted to condemn same-sex relationships. It is beyond the scope of this personal essay to dissect the scholarship available for a modern understanding of these passages so I will simply recommend what I think is one of the very best of such efforts: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality by Daniel Helminiak. Helminiak is a Roman Catholic priest who also holds doctoral degrees in systematic theology from Boston College and in educational psychology from the University of Texas, Austin. He writes in clear and understandable language that makes this complicated issue available to any thoughtful reader. His basic conclusion is that the kind of abusive same-sex activity discussed in the Bible is very different from the loving monogamous sexuality practiced today by many gay couples. In my opinion it is a must read on this subject.

In his book and many others, one fact is crystal clear — namely that according to the four gospel accounts of his life and teaching, Jesus never discusses, let alone condemns, same-sex relationships. As one who regards the life and teachings of Jesus as the key to understanding all other scripture, for me that fact is important in my acceptance of the modern scientific understanding of sexuality outlined above. (Also clear is that Jesus had strongly negative views about divorce, which the church has largely circumvented in its practice and attitude!)

I would also stress this historical perspective: whenever the church has misused the Bible as a current textbook of science or sociology it has later paid a heavy price of ultimate embarrassment and apology. Using the Bible to promote flat earth cosmology, slavery, and diatribes against women in church leadership are classic examples — and current condemnation of same-sex marriage based on misinterpreted biblical verses will, I fear, be another.

In summary I now view homosexual orientation as a part of God’s creation that like all sexuality must be guided by the Christian principles of love, respect, fidelity, and forgiveness. And since I now understand it to be part of God’s creation, I can see no reason to deny LGBT people the right to marry as a public witness and a personal commitment to the person they truly love.