Science, Scripture, & Sexuality

The United Methodist Church’s 51-year conflict surrounding human sexuality, in particular homosexuality, has escalated to the point of schism. This is the first split since 1844 when the then Methodist Episcopal Church divided over slavery. In this new split, the group within the United Methodist Church which prohibits LGBTQ+ ministers and same-gender weddings has created the Global Methodist Church. Recently, many local churches, particularly in the Southeastern and South Central United States, have joined the Global Methodist Church. Others, though, have chosen to stay within the United Methodist Church and advocate for a full inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Our research seeks to provide information for those engaging in the debate around human sexuality. In particular, we aim to bring the scientific evidence that much of human sexuality is biological, rather than a choice. It is important to consider there is no one way by which a person may be gay, but that, with continued research, we will be able to understand the many ways sexual orientation diversity arises. As this research is ongoing, we encourage scientists and church leaders to discuss all the information in order to better understand this topic and ultimately better lead society.

Some History

  At its 1972 General Conference meeting in Atlanta, the decision making body of The United Methodist Church, voted to declare homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” This took place at a time when the LGBTQ+ community was becoming more vocal about being included in American society. The General Conference vote was seen as a first response to the increasing voice of the LGBTQ+ community. It cited the primary role that the Bible holds in making theological decisions. Thus began The United Methodist Church’s struggle with the concept of human sexuality. Since then, this doctrine has been strengthened by multiple votes. The United Methodist Church’s doctrine now also prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed and practicing homosexuals.” Furthermore, religious leaders cannot officiate same sex marriages, and funds may not be used to study homosexuality. 

Meanwhile, medical and behavioral scientists have made great progress in better understanding the variables which influence the development of sexual orientation. The United Methodist Church should consider this research, not only to increase understanding within the church, but also to increase the self-worth of members of the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community. Research has shown that hearing the stories of gays and lesbians, getting to know them as individuals, as well as understanding the biologic factors influencing their orientation, promotes acceptance and support of equal rights.

  In 1948, the largest study ever reported on sexual behavior in the United States was published. This study concluded that sexual orientation is a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are those sharing all sexual experiences exclusively with members of the opposite sex, what we call “straight” or heterosexual. On the other end are those who feel attraction only to people of the same sex, what we call “gay”, “lesbian”, or homosexual. Many people fall somewhere within this spectrum.

Scientists have identified important factors so far which influence sexual orientation: hormonal, genetic, and immunological. To better understand the science behind sexual orientation we reviewed nearly 100 articles and we depended heavily on Jacques Balthazart’s excellent book The Biology of Homosexuality. In this paper, we have summarized what we learned from this review of the literature.

Hormonal Factors

Estrogen and testosterone are hormones that affect the development of the structure of the brain and the internal and external sex organs. Girls produce more estrogen and boys more testosterone. These hormones influence the development of adult sexual characteristics such as patterns of hair growth, facial features, breast development, and muscle strength.

The sexually dimorphic nucleus of the supra-optic area (SDN-POA), a very small area located at the base of the brain, plays a major role in the development of sexual orientation. The amount of testosterone, a hormone important for sexual development, in this area during early fetal development has been seen to influence sexual orientation. 

Testosterone comes from both the fetus and the mother. Male fetuses generally produce more testosterone than female fetuses. Certain studies showed that if the SDN-POA is exposed to higher levels of testosterone during pregnancy, the child likely develops an attraction to females. If the testosterone level is low the child will instead likely develop an attraction to males. With this in mind, a male fetus exposed to lower levels of testosterone, has a higher likelihood of developing an attraction to males (i.e. being gay). On the other hand, a female fetus exposed to higher levels of testosterone, has a higher likelihood of developing an attraction to females (i.e. being lesbian). 

In one example case, a female patient consulted a doctor specializing in hormonal issues (an endocrinologist) because she was concerned about her attraction to other girls. In early childhood she preferred activities more typical of boys. Her periods began late and she was treated with hormones. She noticed increased facial hair at about age 12, when she also began to be sexually attracted to girls. At age 19, she developed a romantic and physical relationship with a sorority sister. She was troubled because her church and family considered this a sin. She had tried to end the relationship but was suffering great emotional pain. She wanted to know whether she had abnormal hormones which were causing this problem. Tests revealed that she had a condition known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). In this condition, an excessive amount of testosterone is produced. 

Girls exposed to high testosterone levels before birth, due in this case to CAH, exhibit increased aggressiveness and greater interest in male-typical activities. In one study, about 40% of girls with CAH experienced some form of homosexual attraction. It is important to note that 60% of girls with CAH did not experience same-sex attraction. However, 40% of girls with CAH experiencing same-sex attraction is a number that caught scientists' eyes. This connection between CAH and same-sex attraction has been found in other studies as well.  This led scientists to believe that elevated concentrations of testosterone during female fetal development may program the brain for an attraction to women.

When trying to understand how humans came to be, it is also important to study other animals. One animal that demonstrates differences in sexual orientation is the sheep. In one study looking at male sheep, 51% were heterosexual, 31% were bisexual, 10% were asexual, and 8% were exclusively homosexual. The sheep version of the SDN-POA in the homosexual male sheep was significantly smaller and contained fewer brain cells than in the heterosexual male sheep. This made the region more similar to the female sheep and demonstrated anatomical differences in the brain related to sexual orientation.  Much more work needs to be done to better understand these brain differences but studies like these get us started. 

Genetic Factors

Along with a hormonal influence on sexual orientation, there is also a genetic influence. This means that the genes within your body, the biological stuff that makes you unique, are important to study. Your genetic makeup is passed down from your parents and so studies looking at families can be very informative. 

The closer you are genetically to someone, the more likely you share similar traits as they do. For example, does one of your parents and any of your siblings have the same eye color as you? What about the same color of hair? Scientists believe this is the same for sexual orientation. If a boy is gay, there is a higher chance his brothers will be gay. Similarly, lesbian women are more likely to have a lesbian sister. Sexual orientation also tends to be passed down through the mother of the family. A gay man has a higher probability of having gay uncles and cousins on his mother’s side of the family. 

By looking at family studies, we can see patterns that suggest genetics plays a role in sexual orientation. However, it is difficult to identify one gene which determines sexual orientation. Multiple genes have been associated with homosexual orientation, but these genes do not predict an individual’s sexual behavior. Genetic associations are complicated and involve multiple genes in the same person rather than a single gene. Much more research will need to be done to better understand the genetics behind sexual orientation.  

Interaction Between Hormones and Genetics

It is also important to consider the interaction between genes and hormones. In one example case, a 23-year-old woman who had recently become engaged to a man went to an endocrinologist because she had never had a period. At age 10, she began to develop breasts and had normal female characteristics. The doctor looked at her chromosomes, which are the special molecular structures that carry a person’s genetic material. Biological males have an XY chromosome pattern and females have an XX chromosome pattern. Testing revealed that she had an XY chromosome pattern. This meant she was genetically male. They also found high blood levels of testosterone, internal male reproductive organs, and no uterus (an organ specific to women). After removal of the internal male reproductive organs and construction of a vagina, her internal female characteristics now matched her external ones. She and her husband were happily married for over 40 years and adopted two children.

Genetically, this patient is male, but externally it did not seem so. Patients have this condition because testosterone cannot enter their cells. Male babies, with the male XY chromosome pattern, with resistance to testosterone are born with female features and are frequently raised as girls. Though their genetics say they are male, their external features say they are female. 

Testosterone continues to be shown to be a key biological factor in the development of sexual orientation. However, it is still important to consider the social environment of these individuals, since they look like and are raised as females. If a person is genetically a male but looks like a female and is attracted to men, are they considered straight/heterosexual or gay/homosexual? 

That is to say, the labeling of gay vs. straight cannot be simplified. A person can be male by a genetic definition; i.e. by having XY chromosomes, and hormonally as indicated by high testosterone but since they are resistant to the effects of testosterone, they appear to be female. People who know them will see them and treat them like a girl.

Genetic and hormonal influences on sexual orientation can be influenced by the attitudes of people in their family and social circles. A boy who is gay and has feminine mannerisms is more likely to maintain those mannerisms if his parents and friends are accepting of him. Conversely, if the boy is in a family or social circle who considers his mannerisms offensive he will modify his behavior but is very unlikely to become straight.

Immunological Factors

Scientists have also looked at immunological factors, or factors related to the immune system. They have done this again through family studies. For instance, in a family, the second-born son is 33% more likely than the first to be gay. The third son is another 33%more likely than the second to be gay. Altogether, this means that the third-born son is 66% more likely than the first-born son to be gay. Why is this?

Scientists assume that the mother develops an immune response to hormones produced by each new male fetus. In other words, the mother’s body rejects the hormones created by the male fetus, specifically testosterone. This immune response could decrease testosterone available to the fetus and result in a female-typical sexual orientation (i.e. an attraction to males).

Mental Health and the Effect of Religion

It is also important to consider the mental health of LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) folks. When compared to straight students, lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are at higher risk for negative health outcomes than these straight students. Additionally, they are about twice as likely to be bullied, use illicit drugs, and feel persistently sad or hopeless. They are also three times more likely to consider suicide, and more than four times as likely to attempt suicide.

Large-scale studies have investigated the effect of religion on the mental health of college students. Straight students who reported that religion was important to them were less likely to have attempted suicide than those who said religion was less important. In contrast, lesbian and gay students who said that religion was important to them were 38% more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts, compared to lesbian and gay students who reported religion was less important. 

We encourage churches to consider the mental health of LGBTQ+ folks when thinking about how they communicate about LGBTQ+ issues and how they treat these folks inside and outside their doors.

Where We Are Now

The United Methodist Church’s divide is an example of the larger struggle in the world to understand human sexuality. Most discussions, in society and in the church, have not considered the science behind human sexuality. Studies have shown that negative attitudes toward homosexuality can be reduced when people are given access to this scientific information. Therefore, we aim to provide this information to as many people as possible. With this research, the discussion can be reframed to recognize homosexuality as part of creation, rather than as a conscious choice of individuals. It is important to understand that for many folks sexual orientation is not a choice. It can be influenced by biological factors even before birth. Understanding this can aid in reducing negative attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people, and increase their sense of self-worth as well as that of their families. Perhaps this would decrease the high incidence of stress-induced illnesses and suicide in the LGBTQ+ community.

Written By: Dr. Barbara Lukert & Reverend Lee Johnson

Academic Editor: Neuroscientist

Non-Academic Editor: Writer  

Original Paper

• Title: Science, Scripture, & Sexuality: The United Methodist Church at a Crossroad

• Authors:  Lee Johnson and Barbara Lukert

• Journal:  Journal of Religion and Health

• Date Published: April 2023

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