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Category Archives: Sexual identity and youth

National Youth Workers Convention

Later this week I will be heading out to Nashville to speak at the National Youth Workers Convention. I had the opportunity to speak earlier this fall in San Diego with the same team and organization and to what we might think of as the west coast youth workers. They are an incredible group. Not only are they full of energy and a passion to serve Christ, but they love the kids they work with and have a heart for the church in this next generation.

When I was in San Diego, though, I participated in several activities outside of the convention (meetings at churches, meetings at universities), so I was away from the convention more than I was there. In Nashville, I plan to sit in on some of the sessions with folks who are showcasing their talents. It would be great to hear Amena Brown bring spoken word to the stage, as well as Rend Collective Experiment and Propaganda.

Before we go on, let’s take a moment to check out Amena Brown:

That’s pretty good spoken word.

The other treat for me is the opportunity to present with two former students who are now developing their own careers as psychologists. Experiences like this highlight one of the real blessings of being in academics for a little while; you get the opportunity to see students excel in the field and in their own sense of purpose and calling. There is not much that I enjoy more than looking over and seeing a former student making a presentation that truly enhances how people are going to work with youth in the weeks and months and years to come.

zondervanWe will be presenting 7-hours worth of material in two pre-conference workshops on sexual identity and youth ministry. These presentations will draw in part from my book, Understanding Sexual Identity and cover what we know and do not know about sexual orientation, particularly in the areas of etiology and change, as well as research on sexual identity development and synthesis, working with parents (and some of the unique challenges they face, including evangelical subculture shame), addressing co-occurring issues for youth (for example, depression), how to foster coping skills in teens, and so on.

We will also participate in a panel discussion the one evening. In San Diego, that was a good experience with several interesting questions for each of us, and that provided a more relaxed atmosphere for us to think through some things together and with those who were hungry for more. Then we will do a breakout session for those in attendance who did not do the pre-con. That session provides a kind of general overview of research on sexual identity, milestone events, and the challenges young people in the church face as they navigate various messages from the church they are raised in as well as from the mainstream gay community. In any case, it promises to be a great couple of days in Nashville.

 
 

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“My Gay Breaking Point”

I was reading over a dissertation completed by one of my former students–I know, I know, I need to find a decent hobby–but I was struck by her work. She had conducted in-depth interviews with 12 Christian parents whose son or daughter had come out. It was a study that that captured many of the challenges and nuances families face at and following disclosure.

parents-praying11What caught my attention when she proposed her research idea was the focus on Christian parents. Much of the research and discussion to date is on the experience of the gay child (the adolescent or young adult), which is obviously important. As a field, we have learned a lot about the experiences of those who disclose their same-sex sexuality, and yet we have so much more to learn. At the same time, I see fewer studies of parental reactions, and fewer studies still of Christian parents. Since I work with a lot of Christian parents, the idea of interviewing them and hearing their stories was compelling.

Although I am unable to go into all the details here (dissertations are LONG), I will note that she offered in the discussion section of her dissertation a tentative model of post-disclosure that emerged from the interviews she conducted with these parents: (1) Initial awareness and worldview response; (2) Navigation period–help-seeking; (3) Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child; and (4) Acceptance of reality.

Initial awareness and worldview response. The first issue deals with first becoming aware and responding to the disclosure of same-sex sexuality. Responses to disclosure or discovery of a gay identity were frequently tied to conventionally religious morals, values, and beliefs that were seen as incompatible with a gay identity. Parents here reported ambiguous loss, negative emotions (e.g., shock, anger, concern, fear, shame), and strained relationships with their child.

One parent shared her initial response. I won’t offer an extended quote here, but suffice it to say she spoke of her daughter making this choice (“that kind of choice”–“why would she want to be like that?”), which suggests the view that this pattern of attraction is volitional.  This automatically sets the parent and child against one another, because the child knows he or she did not choose to experience same-sex attractions. The assumption that this is just a poor choice has them speaking past one another. I wish that were a rare report, but it isn’t in my experience.

Navigation period–help-seeking. The next response entails gaining information from multiple sources. In this study it was often from counselors, the church, pastors, ministries, and so on. In terms of meaning-making, parents reported turning to and trusting God, finding support from family/community, and spending time in prayer and in Scripture. Marital conflict was not uncommon, and many parents reported a kind of shame as they tried to relate to and share with people in their local faith community.

One parent shared how hard it was to find information, resources, and support. “We couldn’t find anyone” is a typical response, as is the decision not to take this disclosure to the local church. The common assumption and experience is that the local church is not “safe” in terms of gossip, making it all the more difficult, as parents often sort through painful and confusing emotions in isolation.

Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child. At the same time as parents are seeking help, they are also trying to maintain a relationship with their son or daughter. There were strained relationships, to be sure, but also a commitment to maintaining some contact, arranging ways to see their son or daughter, and so on. This commitment was typically a reflection of love.

One mother who eventually moved toward what she saw as a good, healthy relationship with her son, recounted her “gay breaking point” at an earlier stage: it was when her son wanted to get a pedicure with her. It sent her spinning. My initial response to that language was that it was kind of off-putting or even offensive, but as I thought about it, I got what she was saying, at least I think I got it. I actually see her gay breaking point as tied in important ways to acceptance of reality, to coming to terms with the reality of having a son or daughter who is gay. Sometimes parents move from a fantasy that this whole thing will work itself out or dissipate or resolve or whatever… perhaps the breaking point tells them there is something real here, something that they have to deal with seriously and in a meaningful way.

Acceptance of reality. This involves really coming to terms with a gay son or daughter in the sense of how the relationship with that child has changed. It could still involve negotiating boundaries, but it also often entails changing expectations. What is often reflected here is a greater respect for one another and one’s decisions.

I would have to say that this study reflects the experiences of a small number of Christian parents, it does reflect pretty closely much of what I have seen in my work with parents over the years. There is definitely a time of first awareness and associated feelings, such as confusion, anger, disappointment, and anticipatory grief. Also, since I frequently work with Christian parents, I have seen the clash of worldviews and the difficulty finding a way forward. Parents then do navigate getting help while simultaneously trying to make a way to stay in relationship with their son or daughter. Often attempts to stay in touch are in the hopes that this will go away or be easily resolved or be a phase their son or daughter is going through. That’s what makes the other stage meaningful–coming to terms with the reality of what has been shared and finding a way forward based on this new reality.

One thing about models is that they do not capture the complexities faced by each and every parent. If you are reading this and say, “That doesn’t quite fit my experience,” that’s understandable. There is no one experience everyone shares. At the same time, these observations provides a framework for understanding some of the experiences reported by some Christian parents. It also gives those in the church who wish to provide support an idea of what parents may be navigating in the months and years following disclosure.

 

Youth Ministry, Sexual Identity & Shame

zondervanHere is an excerpt from my new book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

When people experience guilt, they understand, “I should not have done that.” Shame, on the other hand, says to them “I should not be that.” Guilt is about what we do that we should not do; shame is feeling bad about who we are. It is “the emotion resulting from self-condemnation along with a fear of condemnation from others” (Johnson & Yarhouse, 2013).

When people feel shame, they tend to withdraw from and avoid others. They may experience anger or blame others. Unfortunately, the responses of hiding, deflecting, and blaming do not really help alleviate the shame they feel—they perpetuate it. According to Veronica Johnson, there is a three-step formula that describes how people develop shame:

Step 1: A person is raised in a culture in which various standards, rules, and goals are conveyed

Step 2: That person does not live up to these standards/rules/goals (perceived failure)

Step 3: The person then believes that not living up to these standards is the result of personal deficiencies or shortcomings (negative global attribution)

We can apply this formula to the young person in the church who is experiencing same-sex attraction.  He grows up in a faith community with specific standards, rules, and goals regarding sexuality. The standard communicated to him is that no one should ever experience same-sex attractions, that experiencing such attractions is sinful. If the church is not clear about how to understand these experiences, he will quickly surmise that it is wrong for him to experience these attractions, even if he did not make the choice, even if he does not want them.  He may try to follow the advice given, praying and asking God to remove his attractions or change his feelings. If he does not experience success here, this will likely confirm in his mind (and to others) that he has failed. Because he cannot live up to the standards, rules, and goals of the Christian community, he experiences shame.

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Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!

 

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Out of the Darkness

OoD5Earlier today I had the opportunity to participate in the Out of the Darkness community walk to raise awareness around depression and suicide and to promote good mental health. The local walk is sponsored by the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group. These walks take place around the country, and ours has been well-attended over the past few years.

After the opening program, the walk begins by having participants actually walk through the cranes in the picture. Here is a little background on the symbolism:

OoD3Shortly after the end of World War II, the folded origami cranes also came to symbolize a hope for peace through Sadako Sasaki and her unforgettable story of perseverance. Diagnosed with leukemia after being exposed to radiation after the bombing of Hiroshima, Sadako became determined to fold 1,000 cranes in hopes of recovering good health, happiness, and a world of eternal peace. Although she completed 644 before she died, her classmates folded the remaining 356 to honor her. A statue was raised in the Hiroshima Peace Park to commemorate her strong spirit.

Today this practice of folding 1,000 cranes represents a form of healing and hope during challenging times. After the events of September 11, as a gesture of support and healing, thousands of cranes were folded and linked together in chains and sent to fire and police stations, museums, and churches throughout New York City.

Traditionally, flocks of 1,000 cranes are offered at shrines or temples with prayer, based on the belief that the effort to fold such a large number will surely be rewarded. Chains are often given to someone suffering from illness, as a prayer for their recovery, as a wish for happiness, and as an expression of sympathy and peace.

My research team has gone for the last two years to recognize the difficulties faced by sexual minorities who are at greater risk for both depression and suicide.

We spoke afterwards about some of the challenges we face as Christians who conduct research in this area, particularly in light of the desire to help the church improve the climate for people sorting out sexual identity questions. I know there are those who would say that the church needs to change its doctrinal teaching in this area–that change in doctrine around sexual ethics is the only way climate will improve for sexual minorities. I understand that perspective.

At present, we face the challenge of providing resources to the Christian community that holds to a traditional Christian sexual ethic. How can those communities of faith improve the climate or atmosphere for those who are navigating sexual identity issues in their lives? What are the experiences of more conservative sexual minorities? What about Side B gay Christians and others who hold a similar worldview? What would they recommend to the local church? Those have been interesting and challenging questions to explore.

 

Convicted Civility

Here is an excerpt from my new book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

Several years ago I came across a phrase that has helped me in my professional role as a psychologist who studies sexual identity issues from a Christian worldview. The phrase is “convicted civility.” It comes from Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary. I recently spoke at Fuller and had the opportunity to talk with Mouw at length. He credited Martin Marty for the phrase. Its origin was tied to the observation that we have far too many Christians who are strong on convictions but do not represent Christ in a way that is respectful of others. At the same time, we have Christians who are so concerned not to offend anyone that it is hard to know what they hold convictions about. So the phrase “convicted civility” reflects a balance between holding convictions as a Christian and communicating those convictions with civility.

zondervanGiven the controversial topic of sexual identity, I’ve adopted “convicted civility” as my professional brand.  This has helped me make decisions about speaking engagements, consultation opportunities, writing projects, bridge-building, working with others to meet superordinate goals, and so on.

For example, a few years ago I was presenting data from a seven-year longitudinal study that considered whether sexual orientation could change through involvement in a Christian ministry. This is not a question that is of interest to the mainstream field of psychology; and it is a question that is offensive to ask within the mainstream of the LGBT community. But for some conventionally religious people, such as conservative Christians, it is a relevant question. So I was co-principal investigator of a study that examined the question of change and also of harm. It was published in book form in 2007 and as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011 (Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy).

When I was asked to present the findings at a colloquium at Regent several years ago, a local person who identified himself as an activist, put out a call for others in the LGBT community to join him in staring down this “son of a [gun]” in protest of the study. The stage was being set for a rather heated encounter.

What does someone who is committed to “convicted civility” as a brand do in these moments?

I called him.

We spoke by phone a couple of days before the event, and I invited him to be my guest. (He was coming anyway, so extending an invitation did not seem too risky.) We shook hands and met before the presentation, and I met several of the other protesters. The filled the first couple of rows and indeed did stare at us as my co-presenter and I went through the data and implications for those in attendance.

We spoke again immediately after the presentation and actually several times after that. I’ve also met with others who came that day. Those exchanges led to an invitation to speak in Norfolk to a gathering of LGBT individuals on the topic. In the intervening weeks, I remember having coffee with one of the other protesters. He said, “You are nothing like what I expected. From what I had heard about you, I expected to see horns growing out of your head, and I thought you might have steam coming out of your nostrils.” He smiled. No steam here.

This exchange, and many others like it, is the fruit of convicted civility. If we agreed on everything, we would have nothing to talk about. We would likely try to find another common enemy. But in disagreeing on some topics, we can still communicate about the nature of that disagreement. That is only achieved by treating one another with respect, by being civil in our exchanges.

I am not particularly invested in the question of whether sexual orientation can change through Christian ministries. In my own clinical practice, I do not provide reorientation therapy; rather, I help people explore their sexual identity so that they can live a life that is consistent with their beliefs and values. Also, most of my research is centered on how sexual identity develops and how people navigate the conflict they sometimes feel between their same-sex sexuality and their religious faith. By far, most of my research is on the experiences of sexual minorities who are navigating that terrain.

However, I am committed to identifying and researching topics of importance to the Christian community. We need psychologists who will ask the questions that are of concern to the Body of Christ. We cannot expect the broader, secular field of psychology to ask those same questions or have those same interests. Further, we need to ask those questions using the methods and procedures used by our peers in the mainstream of psychology. We have to allow good research to help us translate Christian considerations into meaningful points of dialogue with those in the mainstream of psychology and also the broader culture.

My point is this: How we discuss Christian considerations will be just as important as having those distinctively Christian questions and convictions. “Convicted civility” is one brand that might help us do just that.

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Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!

 

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Sexual Identity & Youth Ministry

zondervanHere is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

I share the following story in the opening chapter to set the tone. My argument is that compassion is an important starting point for youth ministers. The importance of compassion is underscored in later chapters as I will draw a contrast between various competing groups. For now, let me share the opening story:

Several years ago my wife and I attended a meet and greet luncheon for adoptive parents in one of the suburbs of Chicago. While I was parking the car, my wife went in to find us a spot at one of the tables. She sat down with a group of women and didn’t give that fact much thought. When I joined her and the other guests, we realized that I was the only guy at the table. Then it dawned on us that the women at our table were all same-sex couples, and we were the only heterosexual couple at the table. It was a little awkward at first; we felt we had crashed the party, or at least I had. However, as prospective adoptive parents, we sat with the women at our table and the many other couples in the room who shared a similar interest in learning more about the process.

After the luncheon was over, we went out to our car only to find that it wouldn’t start. It wouldn’t turn over. As a man I had been taught to lift up the hood and take a look, but I didn’t really have any knowledge of what to do after that. So after assessing both the situation and reflecting on my overall competence with automotive repair, I proceeded to give the universal sign for “help” by leaving the hood of the car up.

car batteryThe next several minutes were interesting. I looked under the hood occasionally—just because it was something I could do to retain the impression that I knew something about cars. I moved some things around, and I was beginning to suspect it was the car battery. Other luncheon attendees walked by us on their way to their cars. Let’s just say that there was a steady stream. For several minutes nobody stopped. Then a guy walked by with his wife, and I asked him for a hand giving the battery a jump. He actually said, “Oh, sorry, I have to get to a meeting at church.” Um, ok, what?

Then one of the lesbian couples from our table walked up to us—the one woman offered to take a look. She quickly confirmed that the problem was the battery. “I agree; I think you just need a jump,” she said. “Let me get our car, we’ll put up right here and take care of it.” And they did.

I couldn’t help but think of the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. It is recorded in Luke 10:25-37. My pastor recently put it this way: God puts in our lives people each of us has a hard time picturing God loving. We have a hard time seeing them in all of their complexity because of positions the church holds. For many in the church today, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are the “other”, the group of folks who are difficult for us to see with compassion.

Before anyone runs with the analogy between ethnicity and sexual identity, I am not saying that just as Jews of that day thought of Samaritans, Christians today think of gays. However, we have a cultural context today in which we have local communities of faith in which the climate is such that young people who are navigating this terrain cannot find any compassion. In fact, we may inadvertently push people toward the mainstream gay community precisely because we share the same tendency to reduce complexity to culture war. There are times we appear to prefer politics to pastoral care.

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Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!

 

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Back in Virginia Beach

wheatonI’m back from a week teaching up at Wheaton College. I was teaching a course for them on Sexuality & Sex Therapy. Sixteen graduate students from at least three of their clinical programs joined me in an extended discussion and examination of human sexuality and applied services.

We opened with four sessions that focus on essentially perspectives on matters of sexuality: theological, sociocultural, biological, and clinical. The last perspective serves as a transition to the rest of the week’s topics: sexual dysfunctions (e.g., painful intercourse), atypical sexual behaviors (e.g., the paraphilias), sexual addiction, gender dysphoria, and sexual identity concerns. Sexual identity issues are not pathology, of course, but they are not an uncommon presentation for counseling, and we explore good clinical practice in response to some of the more common issues that can arise.

Students also read chapters from a book I’m working on. It is a Christian integration textbook that could be used in a similar course. It is scheduled for publication in March 2014.

So it wasn’t the best week to have all of the issues surrounding Exodus International and the Supreme Court come up. Because the class went from 8am-5pm, there was not a lot of extra time to comment on these other issues as important as they were.

CCCU 2013On top of that, I had agreed in advance to do a workshop for the Chicago Area Christian Training Consortium (CACTC) on working with sexual minority youth. That went very well. It was interesting to hear of a case presented briefly by someone who had provided Sexual Identity Therapy to a young person who was navigating sexual and religious identity conflicts.

On Thursday evening I also presented (via Skype) a talk to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). They had a session for their communications officers. In the photo above, I am in the little box on the upper right-hand side of the PowerPoint slide (speaking from Wheaton) and talking to those in attendance in Seattle.

Before I left, I did a brief interview with CBN:

It was an interesting interview. I got the questions about 3 min before we started, and I was surprised we were going to talk about reparative therapy. I tried to get the Christian audience to think about this: although their theology holds that God can do anything, there is a biblical precedent for a prayer going “unanswered” and that the person (in this case, the apostle Paul) found that God provided for him. Then I tried to focus on the study I worked on. The results of that study did not please anyone on either side of the culture wars. The findings challenged those who hold that orientation is immutable, but it did not provide as much support for change as I think proponents expected. We then discussed Alan Chambers, and we are all going to have to see how this unfolds, but I sympathized with his desire to acknowledge and apologize for ways in which people have been harmed.

I don’t comment much on political issues, so I am not going to get into the Supreme Court rulings. I’ll leave that to others in the blogosphere.

UPDATE: Another story on Exodus from CBN.

 

Paradigm Shift Initiative on Sexual Identity

Earlier today I participated in what we call a Paradigm Shift Initiative on the topic of sexual identity. These are discussion-based exchanges in which we explore as a group interesting and challenging topics. Today’s topic dealt with the legal case in Florida in which the parents of a 14-year-old girl filed charges upon learning about an inappropriate relationship with an adult. In some ways it is a straightforward legal case in Florida, as the youth was a minor and the other person was an adult. freekate2

However, the case took a dramatic turn in that a national campaign has come about to garner support for the 18-year-old female charged in the case (her name is Kaitlyn Hunt). In part because the adult is a female, several groups representing the gay community also weighed in with support for Hunt. The group anonymous has also weighed in to support Hunt. Some folks have likened Hunt to Rosa Parks; many have not found that comparison to be all that accurate.

So this case was the topic today. We had representatives from law, divinity, and psychology present, as well as students from those programs. Some of the discussion early on was about the legal perspective, about what prosecutors do in cases like this, and so on. One question raised had to do with the appeal by the gay community to an equality paradigm (for marriage equality); does that mean that when the law is broken, there should be equality in terms of consequences? That was interesting and would seem to be at the heart of the accusation that the case is one based on discrimination. Interestingly, not everyone in the gay community views prosecuting this case as discriminatory. For example, the Examiner is reporting that the Vero Beach PFLAG has not gotten behind the charge of discrimination.

We have not been able to find where the charges brought against this unfortunate young lady are inspired by homophobia, or are in any way anti-LGBTQ. The cry of discrimination, unless more facts come out, does not seem to apply here. Some very simple research yields cases where heterosexual kids have been arrested and prosecuted under the same law.  – David McKinnon (Vero Beach PFLAG chapter)

The discussion then turned to psychological and emotional considerations surrounding adolescence, including the differences in maturity levels between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old. We also discussed milestone events in sexual identity development, and how experiences can shape a person’s narrative or storied identity, including attributions and meaning-making. This raises questions about what sexual orientation is — are we discussing it as a fixed reality that is discovered (based on essentialism) or is a linguistic construct fashioned by society to name/label preferences (based on social constructivism)? That has been a matter of debate for years now and is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

There is also a clinical issue that arises in terms of working with a 14-year-old in a case like this. How does one navigate sexual identity questions in light of sexual experiences and meaning-making. The media attention would seem to only increase the challenges here. But even if that were not in play (the media circus), there would still be the question of how to provide services that allow a person to reflect on sexual identity questions in light of a range of considerations. One of the purposes of developing the Sexual Identity Therapy Framework was to offer some guidance in how that kind of exploration could be supportive with the goal mind of living a congruent life. In any case, time and patience are both friends of more mature decisions around sexual identity and behavior.

Then we turned to the church. The discussion included how youth ministry currently addresses this topic (or fails to address this topi). It was pointed out that when a church teaches, “Just stop being gay!” they end up making it very difficult for a sexual minority teen to know how to respond. To them, “being gay” is essentially having same-sex attractions or a homosexual orientation. They are unable to “just stop,” which often means their experiences go underground, which contributes to greater isolation and shame.

It was an interesting discussion, especially toward the end. As you can see, the Hunt legal case was really just the discussion starter, as we ended up taking it in a variety of directions that are relevant to church and culture today. We definitely needed more time to do the topic justice. I think they are planning on a Part B to follow-up.

 

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Shame among Sexual Minorities

I co-authored an article on shame among sexual minorities that was just published in Counseling & Values. The lead author, Veronica Johnson, wrote her dissertation on the topic, and this article is a reflection of her literature review with a focus on implications for counseling. It was nice to see it published in a mainstream counseling journal. Here is the abstract:

Theorists, clinicians, and researchers have suggested that shame is a central concern in the lives of sexual minority individuals. Cognitive theorists believe that shame occurs when a person fails to achieve his or her standards, which are often based on social, cultural, and spiritual values. Although it is asserted that stigma causes shame among members of a sexual minority, the empirical evidence suggests that negative internal cognitions are partly responsible. By targeting negative beliefs, counselors can help sexual minorities reduce their sense of shame, particularly around issues related to sexual identity. The authors offer counseling strategies for reducing shame in sexual minority clients.

shame1What is shame? Shame refers to “an intensely painful affect resulting from an exposure of the self as flawed or inferior, and a concurrent deep belief that this deficiency will result in rejection, abandonment, or loss of esteem.” If your mom ever said, “You should be ashamed” or “Shame on you!” she was likely hoping you would feel something more like remorse. Shame is the emotion that comes “from self-condemnation along with a fear of condemnation from others.”

Shame is not guilt. People feel guilty for things they have done wrong–or when they have failed to do the good/right. Shame is feeling bad (self-condemnation, self-rejection) for who you are; it reflects the idea that you are fundamentally flawed, and that if others knew who you really are, they would reject you too.

Johnson offers a formula for shame that is based on a cognitive theory by Lewis. Here is the formula:

Step 1: A person is raised in a culture in which various standards, rules, and goals are conveyed;

Step 2: That person does not live up to these standards/rules/goals (perceived failure);

Step 3: The person then believes that not living up to these standards is the result of personal deficiencies or shortcomings (negative global attribution);

Step 4: The result is shame.

How does this connect to sexual minorities? For many years now it has been understood that sexual minorities experience shame. In response to this, I have heard conservative Christians respond, “Well, they should!” –perhaps wanting to see guilt or remorse (or a sense of personal conviction) but without much genuine empathy or appreciation for how debilitating shame really is.

What I want to explore is how shame affects sexual minorities and how the church could respond to reduce shame. Let’s do a thought exercise: Think about a teenager in the church who experiences same-sex attraction. She grows up in a faith community with specific standards, rules, and goals specific to sexuality and sexual identity. If the church is not clear about how to understand these standards, she can quickly surmise that she is wrong for even experiencing same-sex attractions, even if she did not make this choice (in other words, she found herself experiencing same-sex attraction as she went through puberty). She is then unable to live up to the standards of her faith community, if those standards are that no one is to even experience same-sex attractions or that the experience of such attractions is sin. If another expectation is that she experience a dramatic change in her feelings through prayer or involvement in ministry, that becomes another source of shame. If she prays and ask God to remove her attractions or otherwise enter into ministry to change her feelings and does not have as much success as she had hoped for, she may confirm in her mind (and to others) that she cannot live up to the standards, rules and goals of the Christian community. The result? Shame.

shame2So this is not a simple matter of helping people become more sensitized to things they are doing wrong so that they can make necessary changes. Shame is a different kind of emotional experience, and one that is frequently associated with depression, anger, blame, and withdrawal from others. If you know a sexual minority who has struggled with shame, you know that it is a very painful emotional state that is not easily overcome.

In the article we offer several suggestions for reducing shame, so let me go over these briefly. First, we point out that a counselor can help a sexual minority identify and name their experience of shame by helping them become aware of related feelings (e.g., inferiority, inadequacy), thoughts (e.g., “God hates me”), and behaviors (e.g., Withdrawing from others).

A second recommendation is to learn to manage or regulate emotions. A person learns more helpful ways of releasing negative feelings, like shame. Here’s how we put it in the article: “regulating shame includes (a) withholding natural maladaptive reactions, (b) using self-soothing techniques to mollify the feelings of shame, (c) willfully refocusing attention outward, then (d) deciding how to act.”

The next recommendation is to address unhelpful thoughts. For the person who contends with shame, the thoughts they hold are self-condemning: “Shame is aroused when an individual holds self-condemning beliefs and fears of condemnation from others, particularly when the individual believes that he or she is failing to attain” standards, rules, and goals held by the community. At this point I am not thinking of what the local church teaches about sexual behavior, but what I am thinking about (as I mentioned above) are standards, rules and goals that may be associated with even having same-sex feelings (which the person did not choose to experience) and not experiencing as much change in their feelings as they may be expected (by their community) to experience. I’ve frequently said we need to find realistic biblical hope, which resides somewhere in between cynical pessimism that says, “No one has or ever will experience any experience of change whatsoever!” and arrogant optimism that says, “Anyone who tries hard enough or has enough faith can expect a 180-degree change from gay to straight!” I will have to return sometime to realistic biblical hope, but I will say that in most churches I visit, arrogant optimism is more often the norm and frequently to the detriment of sexual minorities who are unable to meet its standards.

The final recommendation we offered has to do with healthy and healing relationships, and in the context of mental health services, this usually begins with the relationship a person has with his or her counselor. (BTW: there are other recommendations not mentioned in this article that are better suited for a Christian setting, and I may do a future post on those.) It is frequently through that relationship that a person who struggles with shame can explore that emotional state and associated, unhelpful thoughts, as well as learn that a relationship can be sustained over time–they are not going to be rejected as they are known by another.

What is obviously more complicated in a conservative Christian context is how to address shame when the community (including the sexual minority) adheres to a traditional sexual ethic. How do you help a person feel better about themselves when they have feelings that draw them to engage in behavior about which they themselves feel ambivalent? They want to–they experience strong impulses, and they also don’t want to–they hold values that proscribe such behaviors.

You can understand why the mainstream gay community would ask, “Why are you working so hard? Why not change what you believe? Others have!” In other words, one response is to change what is taught in the church about sexual ethics. If a person feels cognitive dissonance between what they believe and how they live, one way to resolve that dissonance is to change what the person believes. Significantly, many sexual minorities do not believe it is there prerogative to make these kinds of doctrinal changes; their beliefs and convictions are that the Church (globally and historically) has been correct around general principles that inform sexual ethics. So they are looking at another way to respond to the dissonance they may feel. (As an aside, psychology cannot adjudicate the theological questions that surround sexual ethics. Psychology can inform our understanding of emotional experiences like shame, as well as help us recognize some of the complexities in attempting to reduce shame. The theological issues have to be resolved within the church and by the church.)

It is in this context (of retaining conservative or traditional religious beliefs and values) that pastoral care and counseling around shame is especially difficult. All the more reason for those in church leadership to understand ways in which they may inadvertently contribute to shame by how they talk about the topics of homosexuality, sexual identity, and gay and lesbian issues. I will try to come back to this in another post, as I know that many pastors have asked for guidance here. But I wanted to at least let you know about this article and to make the recommendations available for those who find them helpful.

 

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Pray the Gay Away – Part 2

In Part I of our discussion of Pray the Gay Away by Bernadette Barton, I discussed her basic approach to researching the experiences of sexual minorities in the Bible belt. I shared that there is a lot of important information and experiences to appreciate here, particularly for those who identify as Christians. I did note, however, that her book was limited in important ways by her approach to data analysis that drew so heavily on Foucault and theories of power and domination. Let’s pick up our discussion.

gayawayIn reading Pray the Gay Away, I was reminded at times of Michelle Wolkomir’s ethnographic study that was published in book form as Be Not Deceived. It was a study of gay and ex-gay Christians. In that study, Wolkomir offered an analysis of how both groups of men had to make a maneuver that allowed themselves to remain Christians. She described how gay Christians who were part of the Metropolitan Community Church utilized a hermeneutic of inclusivity and love to facilitate a way to retain a Christian identity. In contrast, ex-gay Christians who were part of Exodus International affiliated ministries followed a hermeneutic of righteousness–denying themselves same-sex intimacy/behavior–in order to retain a Christian identity. According to Wolkomir, both groups utilized similar strategies, such as small groups, to create the necessary emotional atmospheres that fostered the kind of identity and community needed to make the transition.

In some regards, Wolkomir critiques both groups of men out of a comparable lens (drawing on elements of queer theory). But the steps she took to critique both ways of navigating being a sexual minority and a Christian offered important insights. Neither group was demonized, though she pointed out concerns that she had for both strategies and clearly held to a different worldview altogether.

This reader ended Pray the Gay Away wondering if Barton understands the faith and belief structure of Christians. She seems to understand, identify, and articulate ways in which abuses of sexual minorities can result from specific beliefs held by some Christians and encounters with those who identify as Christian. These stories are powerful and sobering. They need to be heard. But it is unclear the extent to which she understands the beliefs themselves and why they might matter in the life of a Christian or of a church – apart from an a priori commitment to a theory that asserts Christians sustain and protect existing power structures that allow a segment of the population to dominate and control others. I think that would be the result from a different way of conducting the research and analyzing the data, of engaging a region, of participating in the lived experiences of those who identify as Christians, even those who identify as fundamentalist Christians.

Most of you who read this blog know that I am a Christian. After all, this blog is about the integration of Christianity and psychology. I am not a fundamentalist Christian, however. I do know several fundamentalist Christians, some of whom (at least in certain beliefs and assumptions) can be seen in the folks Barton encounters in her book. Others would not recognize themselves in some of the exchanges.So there is likely more diversity and complexity in that region and among even this kind of Christian than is offered, and the reader gets the sense that Barton is aware of that.

Early on in the book, Barton recognizes there are difficulties in defining what she is targeting. There is fundamentalism. There is the Religious Right. There are evangelicals. There are conservative Christians. All of these terms are brought into the discussion from time to time. The problem with this is that by sampling certain experiences with fundamentalists but then muddying the water with all of these other designations, the reader is left with can be a bias against all forms of Christianity that are not explicitly gay affirmative in the way Barton envisions. That is, if a Christian does not view same-sex behavior as a morally good, natural expression of a person’s identity–a person whose very well-being is predicated on such expressions, one is the kind of Christian reflected in the stories of abuse documented here. Yet there are Christian who hold those beliefs and values (that is, a traditional Christian sexual ethic) who are not abusive to sexual minorities. Some may be fundamentalists; many others are not.

“…I now understand that a certain percentage of conservative Christians are unlikely to change their belief systems to accommodate homosexuality no matter what arguments or evidence is offered” (p. 226). Are we speaking, then, of fundamentalist Christians or conservative Christians? Is it the Religious Right? Evangelicals? Conservative Catholics? Well, it’s all of those at this point–but the case is made compelling because of the examples of abuse from some fundamentalists.

A more helpful engagement would have taken the time to reflect on this question: if there are those who adhere to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, why is that? Can the reasons be reduced to power/domination? Is that a true assertion? In other words, it is not an assertion that is argued for; it is assumed, and this leaves the reader with a truncated view of any form of Christianity that is, again, not committed to a gay affirmative position as held by the researcher. The encounters and experiences Barton identifies and (rightly) challenges are those that are abusive to sexual minorities. However, what is ultimately being challenged is not a narrow strip of fundamentalism but a broader expression of Christianity (historic and global) that reaches a different conclusion than Barton about sexual ethics. If we define as abuse any disagreement about complex issues that are tied to broader worldview considerations (such as sexual ethics), then we are not going to have as meaningful an exchange of ideas. That discussion does not occur in this book.

bartonBarton writes: “….some individual and institutions are unlikely to ever embrace homosexuality as part of God’s design…” (p. 227). The focus, then, is not, “What is a Christian sexual ethic and how can we better understand why that matters in the lives of Christians, including gay Christians (e.g., Wes Hill, Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet). Nor is the focus on coexistence in a society with diverse view of a complex matter in which people may reach different conclusions (matters of ethics and morality). Rather, the impression I had was that any lack of movement toward Barton’s perspective is the result of a kind of fundamentalism associated with a literal reading of the Bible, belief in Creationism, and violence toward sexual minorities. It is one conclusion that can be reached from the kind of analysis Barton relies upon–an analysis of power and domination–but it is not the only analysis available, nor is it the only conclusion that can be drawn from an intimate knowledge of both the mainstream gay community and conservative Christianity.

This may seem like an aside, but let me also comment on one of the more memorable chapters. It was the one on creationism, which seemed out of place in the book, but I think I understand why it was included. I think it was meant to illustrate the kind of mindset that fuels the very abuses documented in the book. It was fascinating to read the visceral reaction of Barton’s students to the Creation Museum. (I have to say I’ve never visited it, so maybe I would also have a strong reaction.) This was probably the most difficult chapter for me to fully appreciate, and I cannot quite put my finger on the issue. It seemed that the very exposure of the students to this way of thinking (fundamentalist Christianity) was a significant threat to their well-being. (I have witnessed this with other sexual minorities who were not from the Bible belt and were actually in significant positions of influence.) I don’t think there is any one explanation for this; I suspect there could be many contributing factors. The obvious one presented in the book is the power/domination of the form of Christianity on display. I think that is definitely part of the explanation. If a person believes they are condemned in the eyes of those around them, exposure to institutions that represent that power will draw a strong, negative response.

I also wondered if the response is in any way primed when students are taught out of a worldview that frames these exchanges in power and domination rather than other explanatory frameworks. (Yes, I recognize that from the power/domination framework, I will be viewed as simply defending and justifying the power structures under scrutiny, but then there is no possible critique–the power simply shifts to those who keep others silent.) I don’t know, but if there is any possibility of moving forward as a culture, there might be something here worth exploring further. Can we be cued to interpret data as a threat in ways that actually gives that person/institution more power to do greater emotional damage to sexual minorities? Take this as me thinking out loud here. Again, I’m struggling to understand. What I do know is that we are left an important need that has not yet been met: how to talk with one another about these differences, as well as how we create better atmospheres for substantive diversity. I recall one author sharing that substantive diversity will have elements in it that are really difficult for us, sometimes so much so that we experience it as offensive. The way forward, it seems to me, is not to excuse, minimize, or defend abusive actions toward those who are in the minority; nor is it to reduce the diversity by demanding consensus on matters reflecting formed judgments about complex issues such as morality and ethics.

I will close with this: I am frequently exposed to people  who believe that by virtue of being a Christian, I am a bigot. I have seen Christians equated with Nazis (this happens in Barton’s book). I have seen Christians equated with the KKK (also in this book). These are not ways to move society toward greater mutual understanding and respect. Christians would do well to study if there are changes that can be made so as not to contribute to that emotional experience. But critics of Christianity would do well to understand a sexual ethic out of that religion (and many other world religions) rather than reduce it to caricature. We need to find ways to foster the kinds of relationships that can sustain extended discussions of genuine differences in a diverse society. I doubt that drawing on theories of oppression to “unpack the mechanisms of domination” will aid in that process, if that is the only step taken, and if all of our recommendations are derived from that without any consideration for other perspectives. I suspect such a maneuver will do the opposite, that is, it will contribute to the culture wars in ways that have real consequences, such as when religious liberties are curtailed in the name of the tolerance that is being asserted.

That is another topic altogether. It is one worthy of its own post or two. For now, let me bring this to a close by saying I genuinely appreciated reading Barton’s book. It is thought-provoking to say the least. As in any similar endeavor, it is important to identify what can be learned from these kinds of analyses. To reject these experiences out of hand would be a mistake for the church. At the same time, there is much that needs to be done to foster mutual respect and understanding, and everyone is going to need to contribute toward that end if we hope to move forward on these complex matters.

 

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