Teaching Moments on Sexuality

On several occasions, Catholic parents have approached me about how to talk to their heterosexual teenagers about homosexuality. Many teenagers are very accepting of the homosexual orientation; they think it is just as natural as a heterosexual orientation.

They think that permitting homosexual “marriages” is a matter of civil rights, that sexual orientation is like skin color: It is wrong to use either to discriminate against people. And, being teenagers, they are very sure that they are right.

I believe the willingness to approve of homosexual unions derives from two sources: a faulty understanding of sexuality and compassion for those who are attracted sexually to members of their own sex.

It is very difficult for anyone in our culture, let alone teenagers, to have a correct view of sexuality. It is a rare TV show or movie that does not feature some form of sexual immorality as perfectly acceptable. Homosexual relations are now featured regularly on TV and in film — and always with approval. When young people are inundated with such impressions, it is very difficult for them to believe that sexual intercourse is moral only between heterosexuals who are married. If heterosexuals can engage in non-procreative, uncommitted sex, why can’t those with homosexual appetites? And why should we forbid marriage to them if they believe making a lifetime commitment is fitting for the love they feel for each other? (And this at a time when more and more heterosexuals are claiming that marriage is not necessary for expressing a lifetime commitment?! It is hard not to think that the clamor for same-sex unions is more about acceptance than about marriage licenses.)

With the ubiquity of media attention given to same-sex unions, parents will not lack teaching moments. Setting the stage is a good idea. Assure your teenagers that you think that being ordered in respect to sexuality is difficult for everyone; indeed, in our culture, most heterosexuals are out-of-control sexually. Tell them you would be as reluctant to allow a cohabiting couple to share a bedroom in your home as you would be to allow a homosexual couple to do so. But that, generally, both would be welcome at your dinner table. Mention that you appreciate the dignity and gifts of all human beings; they are all beloved children of God.

Inform them how the acceptance of homosexual relations is relatively new and that there has been a concerted campaign by the media to mainstream acceptance of homosexuality. Call teens’ attention to the fact that few people know many of the facts about homosexuality. Although the causes of a homosexual orientation are various, it is well established that many males who experience homosexual attractions were abused sexually by males or felt rejected by their fathers. Many lesbians were abused by males and no longer trust males. If one’s desire for sexual intimacy with a same-sex partner can be traced to abuse or the perception of rejection, how natural and healthy can it be?

Although heterosexuals have increased their propensity for having multiple sexual partners, the average homosexual male has hundreds of partners in his lifetime — and a significant number with anonymous partners; they are looking not so much for “Mr. Right” as “Mr. Right Now.” Fidelity among gays is almost nonexistent; when they say they have been faithful to their partner, they generally mean they have not brought another partner home, but will readily admit to having had other sexual partners. (See “An Open Secret: The Truth About Male Homosexuals” by Joseph Nicolosi online.) Indeed, Dan Savage, a gay advice columnist, recommends that heterosexuals should learn from what he calls the “American gay lifestyle,” which includes pornography, fetishes and “flexibility” in regard to fidelity.

Much of the activity in which gays engage, unfortunately, can only be judged to be degrading. It is even unpleasant to discuss explicitly what homosexuals do sexually with each other, but that information, again, shows how unnatural the act is; lesbians must use artificial devices and males must violate bodily parts meant for other purposes (hence the huge incidence of anal cancer). Even such indirect descriptions seem to violate discretion, but failure to deal with the facts of reality is very helpful to those who want to present the reality as something that it is not. While “gay pride” parades are not typical of homosexual behavior, a quick look at the pictures of such parades will give a flavor of what the “gay lifestyle” celebrates.

For good resources about the facts of homosexuality, direct teenagers to the websites for Courage (a support group for homosexuals trying to live a chaste life) and NARTH (National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) and/or hand them the pamphlet “Homosexuality and Hope” available from the Catholic Medical Association or the Our Sunday Visitor pamphlet “What the Church Teaches: Same-Sex Marriage.” In fact, you might donate to such organizations as NARTH or Courage to show your commitment to assisting those with same-sex attractions.

Another major reason for the approval of homosexual unions is compassion. Many, if not most, persons with homosexual appetites seem to fear that if they are not permitted to be in homosexual unions they will live lives of miserable, debilitating loneliness. And we must admit that until they learn techniques of healthy relationships, their fears are not completely unfounded. Those with homosexual appetites seem to have a huge relationship wound in their being. They have not received the affirmation of their biological gender that they needed or are wounded in other ways, which drives them to seek intimacy with a person of the same sex, intimacy that becomes sexualized.

I think many of those who experience homosexual appetites have trouble having normal relationships with heterosexual males and females. Many gays report feeling like outsiders around heterosexual males and a sense of longing to be just one of the guys. Nor do they feel normal around females. The more effeminate might tend to think they are “one of the girls,” but they know better. I believe the equivalent is true for lesbians; they, too, feel inferior around heterosexual women and are not “one of the guys,” no matter how masculine they feel and act.

I think we have to recognize that the homosexual orientation is a particularly heavy cross. It is not easy to try to give those who experience homosexual appetites the affirmation they need without appearing to approve of their choices in respect to their sexual behavior. Yet that is the approval that they seem to insist upon in order to feel affirmed. We need to affirm them as beloved children of God, while at the same time calling them to reject the homosexual lifestyle; loving them in their dignity, as Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery, while inviting them to abandon their homosexual lifestyle. (We should do the equivalent for heterosexual friends who are fornicating, using pornography, etc.)

Teenagers have big hearts and a strong sense of justice. We should invite our teens to be leaders in showing loving respect to other teens manifesting a homosexual orientation. While making their objection to homosexual actions clear, they should rebuke those who mock homosexual kids and make sure they involve them in social activities. They should try to learn to express their disapproval of homosexual relations with sensitivity and clarity (just as they need to learn to express disapproval for fornication and pornography), while at the same time maintaining respect for those who engage in such activity. We need to let those who experience same-sex attractions know we love them and are sorry for the suffering they experience. They need our friendship, our involvement and our prayers.

Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.