Are Latter-day Saints Disproportionately Gay?

Anecdotally, it has seemed to me for a while that Latter-day Saint families in particular tend to have a lot of gay family members. I don’t know of any hard data that has done any kind of comparison-of-means by religion (the sample size would have to be huge, since we’re dealing with a minority within a minority), and I generally assume this perception of mine has to do with the fact that I’m a Latter-day Saint that has done research on sexuality issues, and hammers and nails and all that. However, lately I’ve wondered if we could theoretically expect more homosexuality in Latter-day Saint families because of our larger family sizes. 

Why would family size matter? One of the more idiosyncratic findings in human sexuality in the past several decades is that the number of older brothers one has is strongly correlated with male homosexuality (as far as I know there are no established biological correlates of female homosexuality). There are a variety of speculative embryological explanations that have been proffered, but it’s still unclear why this pattern exists. According to some estimates, about 15-30% of gay men owe their homosexuality to this effect. 

Anecdotally, the gay men in my life almost all tend to have a lot of older brothers. More rigorously, large studies suggest that every additional brother increases the chance of male homosexuality by about a third. In the data used to derive the “fraternal birth order effect,” any given man without any older brothers has about a 2% chance of being gay (as a sidebar, occasionally I teach a college course, and a fun thing I do is ask for estimates about what percent of people are exclusively gay. After the class inevitability gives estimates of 25-40% I surprise them by telling them that it’s actually 1-3%).  

Given this rate, below is the approximate probability of being gay for a male with N older brothers.

0 2.00
1 2.66
2 3.54
3 4.71
4 6.26
5 8.32
6 11.07
7 14.72

This is the chance for any particular male at a certain parity being gay. If we do the same chart, but now for the chance of having at least one gay son in a family of N+1 boys, we have:

0 2.00
1 4.61
2 7.98
3 12.32
4 17.81
5 24.65
6 32.99
7 42.85

[Note, an earlier version of this chart was slightly off but was helpfully corrected by the commenters below]

In other words, a family of 8 boys has a 43% chance of having at least one gay son. (I admit to a little personal curiosity here since we recently discovered we will be blessed with a seventh son), whereas a more standard American family of one boy only has a 2% chance of having a gay son. I won’t attempt to estimate what this means for overall probabilities, since the family size differences between Latter-day Saints and normies varies between time and space, but for the stereotypical large Latter-day Saint families their chances are much higher, both because there are simply more draws, and because the chance of a gay family member with each draw are higher. So in conclusion, because Latter-day Saints have larger families, and larger families mean more older brothers, and older brothers increases the chances of a son being gay, logically men raised in Latter-day Saint homes are in fact more likely to be gay. Additionally, since the larger families tend to be the more conservative ones, ironically the more conservative families are probably more likely to have gay children.   

Finally, another interesting implication of all this is that as family sizes decrease and older brothers become more rare, exclusive male homosexuality in the population at large will decrease as well. 

36 comments for “Are Latter-day Saints Disproportionately Gay?

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking info, Stephen, and congrats on your upcoming blessed event. Please let us know what special powers your seventh son ends up with.

    I think your second set of numbers is slightly off, since the probabilities are not exactly additive. I get the following:

    0: 2.00
    1: 4.61
    2: 7.98
    3: 12.32
    4: 17.81
    5; 24.65
    6: 32.99
    7: 42.85

  2. I hope you will not mind a small math correction. Those probabilities are not additive. Using your first table, the percentages in the second column of your second table should be 2.00, 4.61, 7.98, 12.32, 17.81, 24.65, 32.99, and 42.85.

    If two independent events have probabilities p and q, then the probability that one or the other or both events happen is p+q-pq. If p and q are both much smaller than 1, then neglecting that product pq does not matter much, but if p or q is large, then the product must not be neglected. If 2% of men are homosexual, neglecting the product pq would give us the simplification that 100% of random groups of 50 men include at least one homosexual, and 102% of groups of 51 men do. The correct calculation is that 1-.98^50 = 63.6% of groups of 50 random men would include at least one homosexual.

  3. You’re absolutely right (facepalm), your second set of numbers is right. My only excuse is that I dashed this off in a few minutes. I’ll correct and make a note in the OP.

  4. Stephen, do you know if similar studies have been done vis-a-vis Asian, Middle Eastern, or other cultures? Or is this particular study limited to the West? The reason I ask is because I can’t help but believe that the displacement of the archetypal father figure (in the West) might have some bearing on the dynamics involved with boys jockeying for position in the family structure.

  5. Briefly Google Scholaring “fraternal birth order effect homosexuality Asian” yielded a few studies (e.g. this one didn’t find an effect, but admitted it might be because there were so few older brothers in Chinese society,, In terms of non-biological determinants of sexuality, the fact is that not everybody with a gay identical twin is gay, so while nature has a huge role, how exactly that interacts with nurture and early life experiences is poorly understood and speculative at this point.

  6. FYI this is not news, but a foundational argument against our leadership’s “inspired” anti-gay rhetoric over many years. Now they’re at “OK OK maybe God (biochemistry) made you that way, but that doesn’t mean you have to act on it, right?” If the Brethren are inspired at all, this is likely very limited in scope – investment funds, for instance. They’ve done a terrific job there. As regards females and homosexuality, they’re still in the dark ages. The movement towards inclusion of racial minorities is long overdue but welcome and laudable nonetheless.

  7. Just to try to debunk old outdated theories about homosexuality. Identical twins may get different hormonal environments in the womb, because of things that affect how well the placenta functions. The best guess theory behind the how many big brothers a gay man has data is that the mother develops antibodies toward androgen. So, how the placenta functions would affect how much the mothers antibodies interfere with the son’s sexual development.

    And the big brother thing is just one of the theoretical causes, as was stated in the original post, so other things may be effecting those identical twins where one is and one isn’t gay. Or, they could both be bi, and one fell in love with a guy, while the other fell in love with a girl. There are lots of variables.

    Studies show no correlation between having a father in the home or not, the personality of the father or having a dominating mother. For years psychologists looked for how homosexuality was learned, and they could not find anything consistent, that was part of why they concluded it is inborn.

    So, this would have nothing to do with several brothers “jockeying for position” no matter the “displacement of the archetypical father” crap. The father being in the home or being a strong father figure seems to make no difference to his son’s being gay.

  8. Anna, it isn’t only about whether there’s a father in the home–though the presence of a father in the life of a child can certainly make a huge difference in her well-being. It’s also about a *culture* that has displaced the father figure as one to whom children should be accountable.

    That said, I won’t pretend that I’ve got some unified theory that answers every question about human sexuality. But as it relates to the specific study presented in the OP it seems to me that because that one variable can make a difference in so many ways — physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually — that perhaps we ought not be too quick to dismiss any influence on the child’s sexual development.

  9. Well-said, Jack, though evidence militates against fatherly behavioral influence on ultimate determination of sexuality. Good straight fathers have gay sons. Good gay dads have straight sons. There seem to be deeper mechanisms at work.

  10. “Good straight fathers have gay sons. Good gay dads have straight sons.”

    I agree. But what I’m suggesting is that a fatherless culture oft times has more influence on the mind of a child than a good dad has power to mitigate.

  11. Jack, let me say it again, study after study, across time (starting in the 50 when there was supposedly none of the “cultural decay” that you are trying to blame) and across cultures, shows no correlation between the father being in the home, respected, whatever, and his child turning out gay. In fact studies show the very same about 2% of the population turning out gay. It has not increased with the loss of your nonexistent “archetypical father”. Even animals who have had no change in the kind of fathering they get have that same about 2%of gays. So, the studies hold across species. There is no evidence that what you are claiming has ANY effect of a child’s sexuality. I go by scientific studies, not outdated theories of people who refuse to accept that being gay is inborn.

    None of my information is new, in fact I was taught this same stuff back in high school probably before you were born. Yeah, I’m probably that old. The general idea that it is (a) definitely not learned and (b) most likely not genetic either, (c) but something that is hormonal from before birth was taught in 1970. This is old science, but it the best science so far.

    Yes, fathers are very important. They do a lot of the gender training, as far as teaching boys to be emotionally happy, healthy boys, or unhappy, insecure boys. Fathers are very important. Just not with this. Now if you want a discussion on how fathers are very important, we could do that, but it isn’t this discussion.

  12. Anna, I agree that there has always been a small percentage of people would identity as gay regardless of the time, place, or culture, they were brought up in. But the world we live in today — in the West in particular — allows for a broader range of identification to be explored and manifested than in earlier times. And, IMO, much of the “spectrum” of sexuality would remain unexplored in a world where our self-understanding was more squarely founded upon the responsibilities that stem from safeguarding the family rather than the ephemeral notions of the detached self.

  13. Seems like since the average man has some amount of older brothers, the base rate of homosexuality when you have no older brothers would be lower than 2%. So that you can get the overall value to hit 2%.

  14. Of course there’s a “spectrum” of sexuality, Frank. How could there not be? Furthermore you and I would likely have 5 wives each if not for the Federal Government of the United States of America, which found that behavior disgusting & immoral, much like the average Mormon finds homosexuality today.

  15. Stephen, I didn’t want to pay for full access to the article–but I did read the abstract. And what I found most interesting was the final sentence:

    “The small number of siblings may be the reason why we could not replicate the fraternal birth-order effect in this Chinese population, which highlights the importance of cultural differences in the understanding of handedness, fraternal birth order, and sexual orientation.”

    Of course, that’s not to say that culture is the final arbiter vis-a-vis determining one’s sexual orientation. But I think it leaves room for the notion that it does have some influence in shaping one’s orientation.

    This might be a weak analogy — and some may object to it — but I think of my struggle with depression. It is a known quantity that it runs in my family–so I was genetically predisposed to inherit the illness. Even so, I can imagine a scenario wherein I was brought up at a different time and place and in a more functional home. Chances are I would have had some struggle with it regardless of the difference in circumstances. But even so, I don’t think it would have been as debilitating a struggle as it has been for me in real time.

    So to, when I imagine two completely different circumstances for those seven brothers. One might be in a time and place that required them to “do or die” in order to survive–kinda like the Smith family. Another might be in the present–and not unlike so many families today–they don’t have a father at home but get by with the basic necessities required for “respectable” living in the West.

    For my own part, I simply cannot imagine that the differences in circumstances and culture would not shape those boys in potentially different ways–and in just about everyway imaginable. And so, even though those studies seem to bear out reliable pattern I would be surprised to learn that Don Carlos Smith was gay.

  16. Jack, the LDS approach to sexuality is literally one size fits all or celibacy. My understanding and experience of the diversity of humanity indicates that this does considerable of damage to lots of people. In essence we must all eat oatmeal or starve. We must all wear red shirts or go shirtless. I have a very difficult time believing that this was The Plan for all of us from the beginning.

  17. Jack, if you insist on pretending that you know more than the scientists who have studied this for years, across many cultures and even in primates, then there really is nothing any of us can say to convince you. Of course it is on a spectrum. The only cultural effect is causing gays to hide so if more are coming out now and talking about it, that is why. The Chinese study could not prove the sibling effect because China has a one child policy. Chinese men don’t have big brothers. The fact that they could not prove this effect is not proof that it is cultural. There is zero proof it is cultural and tons of proof that gays are born gay. And as far as comparing it to depression, no depression is both genetic and environmental and being gay is most likely due to hormones before birth. The cause of the two have nothing in common. Give it up.

  18. Sorry, just getting back to this. One thing I’ll add here is that twin studies suggest there is a genetic component, even if we haven’t identified The Gay Gene. So, a complex mix of genes, hormones, and maybe some environmental factors. Again, parsing out the signal from the noise is incredibly difficult. I’m fine hypothesizing different environmental factors, but they have to be systematically and scientifically tested. I’ve heard the folk etiology about father figures and homosexuality, and I’m not a priori disposed against it as a possibility for early period influence in combination with hormones and genetics, but I’d have to be shown statistically that there’s something there, or on the other hand to rule it out I’d have to be shown that it isn’t there. Maybe there are studies out there on this very subject and I’m not aware of it (a real possibility), but whatever the case it would probably interact with genetics and hormones, so whether it’s “born this way,” or “born predisposed this way with some early sensitive period environmental factors getting it across the finish line,” I guess I just don’t see much of a difference big picture.

  19. Stephen: “…so whether it’s “born this way,” or “born predisposed this way with some early sensitive period environmental factors getting it across the finish line,” I guess I just don’t see much of a difference big picture.”

    Anna (and p) I’m addressing the second idea in the above quote. We know there is a spectrum–and so it is only logical (IMO) that culture would have some influence in shaping those who are somewhere in the middle.

    Stephen, I agree with you when you say: “I guess I just don’t see much of a difference big picture.” That regardless of the mechanisms involved the net outcome is the same. Even so, I think culture can make a huge difference with those who are born somewhat less predisposed than the 2% who are likely to be gay in any time, place, or culture.

  20. Yes, jack, that is where culture does make a difference. It can force those who are in the middle of the spectrum to choose. So, can life experience.

    But let’s look at choice first. This information came from a guy who was doing some research back about 1983. So, it is old and there could be better science out there by now. He said that Gay men fall on a spectrum. It is lop sided toward straight, but he said very few of us are 100% gay or straight, like any bell curve, but fall somewhere in the middle. But the repressive culture we live in forces those in the middle to choose to either live gay. Most of those who can live straight, do so because it is just easier in our culture. But choosing to live gay, forces a life style choice. It forces them further into identifying gay and once a person has their first lover, there is a tendency to stay with that orientation. Same with being straight. A guy decides he kinda likes guys, but doesn’t want to live as an outcast. So, he dates girls, first sexual experiences are straight, which pushes him further straight. So instead of just a lop sided bell curve, we get a curve with bumps at both ends. A big bump at the straight end and a smaller bump at the gay end.

    But this choice on how to live doesn’t change their attraction, they will still be slightly attracted to both genders. It only changes how the identify. Instead of identifying as bi, they identify as straight or gay. But there are tests the psychologists can do that show the sexual response as being in the middle of the bell curve.

    But this social pressure to identify as straight when really he is more toward the gay end of the spectrum puts a guy who really isn’t that attracted to women marrying, and then the wife spends years wondering why her husband doesn’t respond as she instinctively knows he should. Then, after 4 kids, he decides he is really gay and leaves her for some guy. Not only an unnecessary divorce, but a very emotionally devastated wife and some very hurt children. I personally know a couple of women this happened to, and it really makes for a mess when her kid comes out gay and she unloads ten years worth or rejection from her husband onto the kid.

    So, this pressure may make more men identify as straight, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. It does not change the level of attraction they feel toward women. It also makes more men identify as gay, so even if you did think identifying as straight is good, it also increases those who identify as gay.

    The experience part of it is that really bad experiences with men, say rape, can make a bi woman decide she wants to identify as lesbian. She doesn’t like men or imagine that sex with men is better than her first really bad experience. This is where you get child sexual abuse victims that claim they chose. Only partly. They are really bi and can go either way.

    Those further toward the gay end of the spectrum will say there was never a choice. They know what they feel and know there is very little attraction to the opposite sex. Only those who are actually bi can make a choice, and often for them it is when they are too young to realize that fear of being gay is behind their being straight. These are the guys who talk like D H Oaks and say that if people are allowed to choose they will all choose gay. Because somewhere in the back of their mind they remember choosing straight. So, they become homophobic.

    So, it isn’t the father or societies attitude toward fathers or men, it is homophobia that makes the spectrum with two bumps instead of a lop sided bell curve.

  21. Stephen: Did you see the recent Gallup report on LGBT self-identification? — Among survey respondents, it reports gay percentages by generation as 0.4% Traditionalists, 1.0% Baby boomers, 1.1% Generation X, 2.2% Millennials, and 2.5% Generation Z. How would you explain this six-fold increase over the generations? Do you see a similar generational trend in the figures you reported?

  22. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Anna.

    I can see how it might be useful to look a orientation as a fixed quantity and then see how other factors might be added to get an overall picture of behavior. Even so, I’m of the opinion that one’s general sense of sexual identity can be rather malleable — especially during the formative years — by virtue of the fact that human intimacy involves more than sex. This is why I believe a fatherless culture — or a culture with a dumbed down dad — creates an emotional need for many young people–boys and girls alike–to find a surrogate for the missing man in their lives. And so, if we consider those who might land in the middle of the spectrum under such circumstances they’ll likely be drawn toward being gay–as the psychological need for intimacy with a man (because of the disenfranchisement of fatherhood) tips the scale in that direction.

  23. To add to the point that “p” makes above about the need for the church to recognize the complexity and diversity of sexuality (thank you), I would add that it seems likely that the forces underlying men’s orientations cannot be neatly mapped onto women, and vice versa. We are a sexually dimorphic species, with all that entails in terms of biology and social psychology. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [our church’s] philosophy. We should take a far more humble, studious, and provisional approach to things related to sexuality.

  24. Fatherlessness does not create homosexuals or lesbians, Jack. This phenomenon is an aspect of epigenetics, not social dysfunction. You may regard the orientation as less than ideal but that doesn’t really matter to the natural realm.

  25. p, I’m suggesting that culture plays a part in shaping our sexual identity–not that it is the sole determinant of our orientation.

  26. Jack, I’m amused by the resistance you’re getting. How could culture not shape our sexual identity? Don Carlos, using your example, may have been attracted to other men to a small or large degree because of his genetics or some other natural reason. But his culture lacked the concepts to translate that into a sexual identity as ours does now. I’m not even sure you could plausibly call him, or a man like him, “closeted”.

  27. allergy, it’s true that we latter-day saints are probably a bit naive regarding our understanding of the complexities involved with sexual identity. And I agree that we should be more “humble, studious, and provisional” in our approach to the subject–our primary purpose being: to increase our compassion towards those whom we don’t understand as well as we might.

    That said, what we don’t want to do is make the assumption that the counsel we’ve been given regarding human sexuality must be provisional because of our naivete. While it’s certainly possible that it could be provisional–for any number of reasons–I think it behooves us to remember that God sees all of the complexity involved in every system and process–even when we can’t. And that his counsel on any given subject will take all of those details into account as he fashions it to fit our specific needs in the moment.

    That (and that) said, I want to be clear–I know you weren’t suggesting what I’m alluding to in my second paragraph. I just wanted to answer a general query that seems to be forever “in the asking” when addressing these questions.

  28. M, it’s a sensitive subject. So, oft times we come at these discussions with a lot of momentum–and that can cause us to talk past each other even when there is common ground where we might find agreement.

    I agree with your sense of how folks from the past might have interpreted there own sexual identity–even if there were such a term. As the saying goes: history is [another planet].

  29. Do we think God might be aware of the conservatives liklihood of having larger families, and designed this little teaching moment into the larger number of sons creating the much greater liklihood of sons being gay? Does the same hold for girls?

  30. Very interesting how some seem to think that the numbers of sons has some “biological” connection to one or more of the sons identifying as gay. How about this line of thinking: The younger son(s) identify as gay because they have been influenced by environment, and not the other way around? In other words, a learned trait (which it is). Maybe they saw too many naked bodies in the showers?
    Even Hollywood is now circulating petitions to curtail the number of violent GUN movies they make, because of recent mass shootings by young people, and their epiphany about what influence they have. Even they, who said before about their immoral and boorish movie content “just turn the channel if you don’t like it” are now coming to realize that their content influences much more than they were willing to admit back then. Now it is becoming obvious how their content contributes to mental illness. And all media content platforms are disproportionately literally pushing gay LGBTQ content, as well as merchants pushing so-called “pride” products. It frankly is so strange. Like a secret combination were in charge of it.
    Can we be honest that when a baby comes in to this world, they HAVE a gender, assigned by God, and that they LEARN everything they decide to do, because we all have our free agency to identify as we will, and I identify as a son of God, have a Heavenly Father, and know that it is an eternal identity. I also know that a man and a woman are the process God has designed for families in this world, and there is no other way that God accepts. Gods ways are not mans ways, the scriptures say.

  31. Um, Grant, your speculative comments in regards to sexuality is so full of holes it’s almost like one of those Hollywood movies used it for target practice. Being gay isn’t a learned trait anymore than being blue-eyed is. How you might decide to view yourself and society (and thus act) in relation to those blue eyes most certainly is, however. There’s one difference, however, and that is that having blue eyes has nothing do with your capacity to intimately connect to someone. Can we be honest that biology is super complicated (including both sex and gender). Can we be honest that church leaders have changed their tune even on this issue? Gods ways are not man’s ways, but if you think for a moment that man’s ways aren’t influencing everyone’s decisions, even leaders, then you’re mistaken. Even your own argument posits such. Though, of course, you mistake the application.

  32. This thread may be long dead, but I would like to suggest another approach about which I have long been curious, which is cultural selection. LDS religious culture’s strongly emphasizes male sexual abstinence. Regardless of the causes of male same-sex attraction, in any given population there will be some number of males with same-sex attraction. At least in teenage years, and often long after, it is likely that these desires will be repressed or denied due to LDS religious culture’s disapproval of same sex attraction. I think we can also assume that in such a population, there will also be a majority of boys with opposite sex attraction, at least some of whom will have strong libidos.

    Now, let us consider the fate of these groups of boys. A certain number of opposite sex attracted males are not going to follow the regime of strict male sexual abstinence either/or because of libidinal urges or anti-abstinence sexual views of the larger society. As a result, a number of these boys will leave the culture (go inactive, not go on missions, get into “trouble” with girls, etc.). On the other hand, boys with repressed same sex attraction will be less likely to have these problems following the strict regime opposing opposite sex relations. Consequently they will tend to be better able to conform to the strict sexual abstinence regime and will be more likely to be “good” boys, staying active, going on missions, etc. (as long, that is, as their same sex attraction remains repressed).

    By this dynamic, the LDS religious culture may thus be more likely to retain (for a while) boys with (repressed) same sex attraction than those with strong opposite sex attraction. Even if boys with same sex attraction start as a small percentage of a population, this cultural process would tend to increase their representation in the population of active “good” boys as they tend to more readily comply with the sexual abstinence regime than their opposite sex attracted counterparts.

    Note that I am not saying this phenomenon (if it functions as described above) is good or healthy. I just offer it as another possible explanation for the anecdotal observation in the original post.

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