When News Reporting Adds Fuel to the Fire

When I moved to Virginia about 17 years ago, I learned that at Thanksgiving it’s not uncommon to fry your turkey. Deep fry. I thought, “Ok, that’s going to be a lot of oil.” Then I thought, “Ok, I can do this.” So I watched many videos on “how to fry your turkey” and discovered that most of them were warnings based on people setting fire to their, turkey deepfryer

I was reminded of how easy it is to add fuel to the fire when I recently spoke at a Christian university in Canada and the news coverage that led up to and followed the event.

There is so much that could be written about how news coverage is done today. I have seen very good and accurate coverage, and I have read material that makes me scratch my head. I don’t have time and interest in delving into a full-blown discussion of this topic, but I did want to share an interesting development.

One reporter wrote an article about me coming to speak at the university. It actually begins with a premise from a study I conducted that sets the article in the wrong direction at the outset. The article frames the discussion as though I am discussing or advocating conversion therapy to the undergraduates there. So on the one hand the coverage does not reflect more recent, documented concerns on my part about conversion therapy with minors. I since sent more current information to the reporter for her future reference. On the other hand, for what it’s worth, the focus of my public presentations in chapel and in the community were on gender dysphoria. I was surprised this wasn’t even mentioned in the article and I think would have been readily accessible. (As an aside, the person who is quoted expressing concerns about me being on campus is a self-proclaimed activist and perhaps one of the least likely to provide an objective perspective.)

To the reporter’s credit, she did reach out to me, and I can get behind the idea that she wanted to offer a balanced article. However, my experience has been that reporters often let me know what they are writing about, and given the number of requests from media received here, I do not always reply, especially if I do not know what they are covering. As I mentioned, I sent her more information that might help her have a clearer picture of who I am and the work I do, the various lines of research that I have going, and so on, which often does not fit neatly into the current cultural and political polarization surrounding sexual and gender identity concerns.

After I left campus, another article surfaced about my time there. I thought, “Ok, at least now this will be news coverage about what I actually said rather than coverage in anticipation of what people think I will say.” But I was wrong. The story reads like a rehashing of the first story. This is interesting only because presumably any member of the journal’s editorial board who contributed to the piece would have had a chance to hear either chapel address or attend the community talk. None of these sessions was on conversion therapy. I was invited to speak on gender dysphoria. The comment from a student (in the comment section below the article) was telling:

There is a lot of misinformation in this article. I sat in on Mark Yarhouse’s sessions at TWU and never once did portray transgender people in such a light. The BIGGEST thing I was able to take from it was to be more compassionate and loving towards transgender communities. But I guess pegging an institution as homophobic in order to boost your image of political correctness can be tempting.

I am not particularly surprised by all of this, but misinformation and poor (or no) coverage of events should at least be noted when it occurs.

Of course, in the larger landscape, these pieces can be read as adding more fuel to the fire of the cultural wars that have been so polarizing to so many, and it’s not turkeys or garages that get burned; it’s families, churches, universities, and broader communities. Reporters can and should do better.


Posted by on November 11, 2015 in Uncategorized


Establishing Boundaries

I returned recently from the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in Nashville. I was able to do a pre-conference workshop on different lenses for “seeing” sexual and gender identity concerns. I also conducted a regular workshop on counseling Christian parents whose children have come out. At the end of both sessions I received a lot of positive feedback. Many professionals and actual parents came up after the second session to say what they had gained from the workshop for counseling Christian parents.

boundariesIn addition to these positive responses, I also had a couple of people challenge the posture I took toward Christian parents around topics like whether to open their homes to a gay son or daughter, whether to attend important events (e.g., graduations, weddings), and so on. I think of this as establishing boundaries, which is a common challenge most Christian parents face as they respond to a child who has come out. Generally speaking, I work with parents to identify options for responding and setting boundaries and help them think through the potential benefits and drawbacks (to them, their child, and their relationship) of each option.

The main concern expressed to me by those critical of what I shared was the idea that in Scripture the apostle Paul writes about not even associating with someone who is engaged in immoral activity while professing to be a Christian. The admonition occurs in 1 Corinthians 5:11: “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” One person quoted this passage; another quoted the passage in which Jesus says, “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50). The person said, “Whoever does the will of my Father is the person I am to associate with; not someone who does not do the will of the Father.”

I wanted to take a few minutes to ‘think out loud’ about some of the feedback from those critical of the posture I took. My position in response to invitations to dinner, hosting meals, special occasions, and so on was to acknowledge that Christian parents have not reached consensus on what to do; they do not all do one thing. Indeed, there is great diversity in how Christian parents respond, and the posture I take is to create an environment for parents to weigh options and decide on boundaries in light of that thoughtful reflection. Among the one or two people who voiced a concern seemed to be the wish that I would tell the parents what they had to do as Christians. This is simply not the posture I take in counseling. The parent-child relationship is one of the most important relationships for the well-being of the child, and I want to help parents weight options and land on strategies after due consideration and prayerful reflection. In response to a wedding invitation, which I see as a little different than some of the other examples, I also discussed helping the parents think through what their concerns are, which usually has to do with having a Christian witness to their son/daughter, and which course of action best helps them communicate what they hope to communicate.

Part of what I was sharing was that there are essentially two tasks Christian parents have shared with us in different studies we have conducted: (1) seeking help/information/resources and (2) maintaining a relationship with their loved one. It is in the context of these two tasks that parents face questions about whether to participate in various activities and whether to host an adult child and his or her partner or spouse.

I do not know anyone who views Jesus’ comments as reflecting a posture you are to take toward family members–as though it was meant as detailed instruction for how to talk with an adult child about the decisions they face or have made. The passage from 1 Corinthians is perhaps more relevant at first glance, but I still do not see it as intending to provide instruction for how parents are to respond to a loved one. It may be that a family is part of a church that provides church discipline and that some behavior may warrant such oversight. But it seems to me that under those conditions any church discipline is carried out not by parents but by leadership in the church. Also, I hope that such church discipline occurs consistently across multiple areas of concern (and not exclusively associated with same-sex behavior) and with appropriate humility and with an eye for restoration of the person. I think it is a misreading of Paul to cut/paste verse 11 and apply it to parents who are responding to a child who has identifies as gay.

I also think it is an unhelpful posture to take toward counseling to simply tell parents how to relate to a loved one. These are very difficulty, weighty, and sometimes quite painful decisions, and such decisions warrant ample time, attention, and respectful engagement as parents consider which boundaries to draw.


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My Gay Breaking Point

Below is a post from 2013 in which I introduced a dissertation by one of my students. The study was eventually published as a journal article. I am posting it again now because it is one of the studies I’ll be discussing this week at the American Association of Christian Counselor’s World Conference in Nashville.

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.

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Posted by on September 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


A Curious Trend

opryland hotelI am getting ready for an upcoming conference. I’ll be in Nashville next week at the American Association of Christian Counselors’ World Conference. I have two main things going on: a three-hour pre-conference workshop and a regular workshop. The pre-conference workshop introduces people to the three frameworks I first discuss in the book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, as well as the Christianity Today article on the transgender phenomenon. Those three frameworks are: Integrity, Disability, and Diversity. I’ll go over these three frameworks and the begin to make application to both sexual identity and gender identity concerns. Then I will move toward case discussion, so that we can consider together the ways these frameworks can inform counseling services.

The regular workshop is on working with Christian parents when their children come out. This is based on working with families over the past 16 years and research we have been analyzing from studies conducted through the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity and through a project headed up by The Marin Foundation. I’ll be making three main points for practical application: map the terrain, recognize the developmental context, and construct a scaffolding for family care.

Ok, it’s this regular workshop I wanted to reflect on a little. There is a curious and somewhat concerning trend I see at professional conferences. Many professionals attend, of course. But I am seeing a remarkable increase in the number of non-professionals who attend in an effort to get help. Let me be clear that I am not critical of this. My heart goes out to these parents and families. What I am saying is that there does not appear to be sufficient resources for the many families who are confused and hurting and trying to find a way to navigate very difficult circumstances. My observation has been that they do not know where to turn.

I’ve wondered whether the closing of Exodus International a couple of years ago, coupled with recent political developments (e.g., SCOTUS ruling) have left Christian parents feeling ill-equipped to know how to respond or where to go for resources when their son or daughter comes out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. I do think many parents feel confused and unsure where to turn, but they do not seem to have resources local to them that they can rely upon to help them navigate this terrain. Perhaps many churches and ministries, too, feel unsure how to be a resource to families.

I tried to develop my workshop with an understanding that there would likely be people who are actually dealing with these challenges currently. I think that is a good principle to follow anyway–to assume that the persons you are discussing in a workshop are in attendance. To demonstrate respect for them and for their circumstances.

I am looking forward to the conference. I often find it to be an encouraging time. I hope it will be encouraging to both professionals and non-professionals who may be in attendance.


Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Uncategorized


Students & Alumni Navigating Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeveral members of my research institute recently published a small, qualitative study of 18 students and alumni of Christian institutions of higher education. The students and alumni all identified as Christian; they all reported same-sex attraction or otherwise identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB).

We organized the findings around two themes: (1) experiences of attraction, orientation, identity, and associated milestone events, and (2) campus climate. I wanted to share a few impressions from the study–these are just some things that stood out to me.

We asked about specific milestone events in the formation of one’s sexual identity. Milestone events are commonly studied in research on sexual identity development. They refer to sign posts LGB adults recall as important in their own formation of an LGB identity. We ask about these even though we recognize that an LGB identity may not be an outcome for all Christians who are navigating same-sex sexuality and sexual identity considerations. In any case, first awareness of same-sex sexuality is a common milestone event. As you might anticipate, all of our participants reported first awareness of same-sex attractions–with an average age of awareness at about 11. It was interesting to me that those behaviors that are more volitional–those behaviors that a person has say about–were less commonly reported. For instance, only 50% reported a first same-sex relationship.

For good or for ill, there is a lot of discussion in Christian circles about identity labels. Is it okay to identify as gay and Christian?  We did not ask our participants about whether or not it was okay; rather, we asked whether they adopted a gay identity. About 44% identified themselves as gay (“took on the label of gay” was the actual wording). We also asked about disclosure, and each participant shared with someone else that they experienced same-sex attraction (“first disclosure of same-sex attraction” was the wording). But most of that disclosure was to just a few friends while they were students.

What about campus climate? It perhaps comes as no surprise that about half indicated a hesitancy on the part of their campus to discuss sexual identity. I thought it was interesting that about half indicated that their campus was open to discussion/progress in this area. Perhaps its a matter of perspective. Maybe there is greater variability among campuses. One student talked about compassion:

Our university really tries to push the issue to make it more known. Not from a specifically acceptable standpoint, but to say it’s a legitimate struggle just the same as everybody else in the sins that they have. They try to have a biblical view on it and just to encourage people to come alongside people with the struggle. I think it’s been something that’s been getting in motion. (p. 23)

I think as a research group we were also struck by what were referred to as “pockets of safety.” These are friendships or relationships that are places a person can be more honest and forthcoming. One student shared the following:

One group of friends I hung out with I chose very carefully and very intentionally because I realized that they were just a little bit more accepting in general… two of them I can think of didn’t agree that homosexuality was okay, but they still treated me like a human being, still had fun with me, still invited me to things, and my sexuality never defined me. (p. 23)

We asked what I thought was an interesting question toward the end of the study: What advice would you give to other Christian students on your campus who experience same-sex attraction?  The most common response by far was to find trustworthy people. One person shared, “Find at least one person you can be open with.”

When asked what the campus could do differently in this area, answers went in a few different directions, but one thing that was shared is something I hear quite often as a guest speaker at Christian colleges and universities: Provide us with some clarification about what we as students can and cannot do to be supportive of one another without putting ourselves at risk for discipline.

There was a lot more, of course. These are just some of the findings that stood out to me. Perhaps other findings would stand out to you. You can read the entire study here.

We have a separate study along these same lines that is currently underway. It is a larger study with more quantitative measures as well as qualitative interviews. We hope to have data analyzed soon.


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New Beginnings

Academics measure time by a different calendar than everyone else. This week marks the start of a new academic year. We have new students arriving for orientation. We meet as a school faculty for a retreat to reflect on matters relevant to the new year, to our students well-being, and to our own experience of cohesion as a team.

People think academics take the summer off. I don’t know anyone in academics who does that, but it does sound appealing. I taught two doctoral-level course at Regent and one at Wheaton. Then I was working as part of a consensus group to provide input to a federal agency on issues related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. I did actually take 2 weeks to enjoy time with family in Michigan. Then I returned in the nick of time to go to Toronto to the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, where I presented 2 poster sessions–one on the experiences of Christian ministers with LGBT persons and the other on the experiences of celibate gay Christians. The task force I chair for Division 36 (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) on LGBT issues had a symposium that featured some of our history and some of the challenges in working across the aisle with those in Division 44 (Society for the Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues ) on the intersection of LGBT and religious/spiritual issues. We also head two less formal dialogues on the same topics in our respective hospitality suites.

With the publication of Understanding Gender Dysphoria, I also spent a lot of time doing radio interviews and providing families with consultations. There are, of course, other projects, particularly research projects, that are ongoing, but that give you an idea of what a summer “off” can look like for academics. I’m sure my colleagues can share similar stories.

But I enjoy what I get to do for a living, and I look forward to seeing a new group of students come to campus. I look forward to seeing the new cohort that is entering the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, and I look forward to convening our research institute as we anticipate our academic year together.

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Posted by on August 17, 2015 in Uncategorized


Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon

A little while ago Christianity Today approached me about writing a lead article on Gender Dysphoria. A presentation I gave on the topic caught someone’s attention, and there was interest in a reflection on the topic from a distinctly Christian perspective. The article I wrote was posted on-line recently and will be in the July/August print edition. Here is a quote on not equating management of gender dysphoria with faithfulness:

…Christians are to facilitate communities in which we are all challenged to grow as disciples of Christ. We can be sensitive, though, not to treat as synonymous management of gender dysphoria and faithfulness. Some may live a gender identity that reflects their biological sex, depending on their discomfort. Others may benefit from space to find ways to identify with aspects of the opposite sex, as a way to manage extreme discomfort. And of course, no matter the level of discomfort someone with gender dysphoria experiences (or the degree to which someone identifies with the opposite sex), the church will always encourage a personal relationship with Christ and faithfulness to grow in Christlikeness.

I hope you will consider reading the article. It is not long, which actually carries risks when writing about something as complex as gender dysphoria. But I discuss the three lenses I wrote about here. If you want more details on any of that, let me encourage you to pick up Understanding Gender Dysphoria, as I dedicate a chapter to these different lenses, and then I draw on an integrated framework throughout the rest of the book as I get into responses to the person and at more of an institutional level.


Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Uncategorized


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