As a child I was atypical. I didn’t begin speaking until months after other kids my age had said their first words – but when I did finally talk, it was in complete sentences. What no doubt appeared at first to be a developmental problem turned out to simply be a different way of doing things. It’s a pattern that has followed me into adulthood; I tend to hold back, watching and learning, and then leap in at hit the ground running once I understand how to do something.
I try to temper this characteristic when the situation dictates, since there are times when something is better learned through the trial and error of doing, but it’s an instinct that has to be consciously overridden at the cost of significant discomfort; it’s simply what comes naturally for me, and no amount of behavioral conditioning can genuinely eliminate the underlying trait.
How did I turn out this way? Some thinkers (as far back as Aristotle) have argued that personality is entirely learned, and that we are all born as blank slates. Research in modern times has demonstrated that some personality traits are in fact innate (whether genetic or otherwise established before birth), and as such the blank slate is a notion that few take seriously anymore. Of course, even the most thoroughly discredited ideas have a way of persisting long after their credibility has been undermined.
Ex-gay theories of sexuality avoid invoking the blank slate (a concept heavily at odds with most strains of Christian thought), but they nonetheless view sexuality as being only slightly less malleable than a blank slate proponent might suggest. A homosexual orientation may not be consciously chosen, but it is nonetheless viewed to be the result of choices made by an individual during childhood.
It may seem odd that something as seemingly important to God as heterosexuality would be so fragile that it could be completely undone by a simple perception on the part of a child who’s too young to have more than the most rudimentary understanding of right and wrong (much less of sexuality). God, however, gets off the hook for this glaring design flaw since it can be summarily dismissed as a byproduct of Adam’s Fall – a catchall that gets invoked to close off further discussion on any subject that makes people too uncomfortable.
Of course, if everything that Christians have ever tried to trace back to the Fall were truly its byproduct, it would require that Adam’s singular act of disobedience triggered a fundamental restructuring of the entire physical universe down to the molecular level, which in and of itself would either call God’s judgment back into question or suggest that we have gravely underestimated the amount of power that Satan and his minions wield (or both). But I digress.
An apt parallel to the “nature vs. nurture” debate over homosexuality is the strongly negative attitude that has existed throughout much of recorded history toward left-handedness. It would be easy enough for modern observers who don’t share that bias to scoff at the similarities, but such an attitude would only betray an ignorance of history.
Prejudice against left-handedness has historically been so pervasive that it was embedded into most of the world’s major languages. Negative terms like “sinister” and “gauche” derive from words for the left hand, while the right hand is associated with concepts like competence and justice. The authors of the Bible shared this mindset, as evidenced in Gen. 48:13-14, Ecc. 10:2, Matt. 25:31-46 and other passages.
Even in modern times, well-meaning parents and teachers sometimes try to force left-handed children to write with their right hands. The children in question may learn to do so competently, but there never comes a time when it doesn’t feel unnatural to them. And the process of suppressing their natural left-handedness can in some cases lead to a lifetime of cognitive problems.
The consequences of trying to change one’s sexual orientation may be harder to quantify, but a growing number of former ex-gays are coming forward to testify to the emotional and relational fallout from their attempts. Many ex-gay advocates prefer to dismiss such claims by declaring that those who experienced harm merely went about it wrong, or didn’t have enough faith, or didn’t try hard enough (or tried too hard) – but then, “you just did it wrong” was a popular refrain in fundamentalist circles long before the advent of the ex-gay movement.
The parallels to homosexuality seem evident, even without a chart*. The instinctive bias that many right-handed individuals have toward the left-handed may be more easily overcome than the bias heterosexuals often have toward homosexuals, but both stem from an assumption about the way things should be based on what feels natural to the individual. When sacred texts can be interpreted as reinforcing that assumption, bias becomes dogma.
Society does seem to be gradually becoming more accepting of those who are “different,” introverts, the left-handed and gays alike. One can only pray that future generations will value the unique gifts that such individuals have to share rather than trying to treat them like blank slates.
*The research on this chart is several years out of date, but the basic parallels still appear to be valid.