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Category Archives: Sexual identity and youth

NYWC in Atlanta

atlantaThis week I’ll be joined by Julie Rodgers to speak at the National Youth Workers Convention (NYWC) in Atlanta. We did this earlier this fall in Sacramento. In California, we provided a 5-hour pre-conference workshop titled, “Sexual Identity and the Youth Minister: Walking with LGBT Youth.” We’ll do the same in Atlanta. We plan to go back and forth explaining research conducted through the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity of some of the key considerations for Christian youth who are navigating sexual and gender identity questions. Julie will share from her own experience and connect the dots from what others tell us in surveys and interviews and the lived reality as someone who has been navigating this terrain for many years.

The developmental context is probably the most important thing I try to help youth ministers understand. There are specific milestone events that many LGBT adults identify as important in their own journey. We discuss those, as well as opportunities to explore meaning-making during this stage of life. We will also cover social support and healthy coping. We will try to stay practical and focused on the specific needs of those who are attending.

We also plan to open with a little data from a survey we conducted of youth ministers and how they approach the topic. There is a lot I could say about that study, but it was interesting the young people want to talk about sexual identity. They want to be able to approach youth ministers. As a youth minister, you don’t have to be a certain age or have certain life experiences or hold a certain theological position or have sufficient schooling/education for a young person to come to you. None of those things were connected to having youth come forward to share their same-sex sexuality or gender identity.

The second talk is an abbreviated version of the 5-hour talk. It is titled, “Teens and Sexual Identity.” This is a much less ambitious workshop that goes about 1.5 hours. We’ll discuss the conflict between religious identity (as a Christian) and sexual identity (in light of same-sex sexuality) that a percentage of young people experience. We will again discuss the context of identity development, as well as the messages that a young person hears about identity and community from their faith community and from the LGBT community.

Much of what we share comes from content published in Understanding Sexual Identity: A Guide for Youth Ministry (Zondervan). In fact, this book was written in conjunction with talks given at this same conference last fall. So if you are looking for information on the topic of sexual identity and Christian youth, you might find that book helpful.

 

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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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