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Q. A parishioner recently contacted me for help in understanding her son who “says he is gay.” The youngest of four children and the second son, the woman claims that "since birth he has always been more like a daughter than a son." I’ve always been taught that sexual orientation was a flat-out choice and anyone could choose to be either straight or gay. Now I’m beginning to wonder.

A. First, if the current body of scientific study is moving in the right explanatory direction, a child would likely not choose to be gay any more than it would decide to select autism, or Down syndrome, or savant, or any number of other brain presentations. Life can be much more stressful when a brain does not match societal (to say nothing of familial or religious) expectations for that brain and gender. Most human beings would not consciously select a more stressful life.

Second, while a person’s primary sexual orientation appears to be innate rather than just a personal choice, the selection of behaviors a person chooses to exhibit, having reached the age of accountability, does contain a component of choice. Perhaps that’s where the Scriptural “a leopard cannot change its spots” fits in.

Human beings are a combination of nature (genes, chromosomes, and cellular memory) and nurture (the way in which the environment has acted upon “nature” beginning at least in utero). Perhaps it would be more efficacious to spend less time and energy trying to figure out what happened to an individual brain to cause it to differ from the majority and more time helping such brains to find ways to live balanced, connected, inclusive, and fulfilling lives in both the world and religious communities.

One of your ministerial colleagues made this comment not long ago: I'm always amazed when, in this day and age, a supposedly educated person still believes that one's sexual orientation is a matter of conscious choice... you can't "pray the gay away!" Maybe some who are 50/50 or some fraction of bisexuality can choose but not most with whom I have talked.

You may want to refer to Brain References on my website for additional information onCellular Memory and on Sexuality and the Brain. In addition, you may want to refer to Simon LeVay’s book Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why (NY: Oxford University Press, 2011).