Reflections on Sexual Minorities and Gender Diverse Students at Christian Colleges and Universities

Mark A. Yarhouse, Psy.D., Arthur P. Rech & Mrs. Jean May Rech Professor of Psychology, Wheaton College

Janet B. Dean, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, Asbury University

Stephen P. Stratton, Ph.D., Professor of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary

Inside Higher Ed published a provocative article titled, “Being LGBTQ+ on a Christian Campus.” The article cites a survey conducted by College Pulse on behalf of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP). The first quote about LGBTQ+ students feeling as though they do not belong and reporting risk of disciplinary action is actually not from the study but from the director of the sponsor of the project. The REAP director is also the person who brought a lawsuit against Fuller Theological Seminary around their response to a sexual minority student that is currently heading to appellate court. This raises two considerations. The first concern is that when a sponsor has a vested interest in a study, that potential conflict of interest is usually reported up front. For example, when a paid speaker for a medical company publishes a study on the effects of a medication from that company, the reader is typically informed of that relationship. In that spirit, it would have been appropriate to have said in both the study report and the Inside Higher Ed article that the sponsoring organization is directed by an attorney who has brought a lawsuit against a Christian institution over these very issues.

The second concern is the framing of the study report as being about religion as the primary focus due to faith-based policies that “restrict students from expressing their LGBTQ+ identities.” To get at the claim of religion being the concern, which is a more complicated question, one would have to conduct a study that compares students from religious institutions to students at secular institutions. But that wasn’t the design of the study. The study uses as comparative data heterosexual students apparently from the same colleges.

Interestingly, the Inside Higher Ed piece did add a reference to LGBTQ+ students at secular institutions, which was important, and it showed that such students are at greater risk for depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, and other concerns in those settings. It was particularly attention-grabbing that Inside Higher Ed included this reference while simultaneously creating a narrower focus on religiously-affiliated institutions. This kind of argument may be seen as reflecting an anti-religious bias.

In reading through the study itself, which appears to be a monograph rather than a peer-reviewed scientific article, participants are students who signed up to be panel members of College Pulse. This particular survey was then made known through web advertising, email campaigns, and partnerships with other organizations, but the students were not contacted through the CCCU-member institutions themselves.

Also, it would be helpful to be shown the solicitation (to participate in the study) information, as we have seen in our research at Christian colleges and universities that language and labels used in how we approach prospective participants have certain demand characteristics or subtle cues that can affect who decides to participate in the study. This, of course, affects the quality of the sampling being considered, which in turn affects how generalizable the results may be. The survey itself is included at the end of the report, which is informative, but there is no demographic information. Standard demographic information might have included gender, age, race, class or year, and perhaps geographical region in the country, which helps the reader determine how representative the sample is.

Other current comparative research suggests that LGBTQ+ persons may be disproportionately affected (compared to heterosexual persons) by COVID. The survey data was obtained in Jan/Feb of this year and it is important to understand how COVID-related concerns may have disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ students.

The study uses many single items as indicators (“measures”) of really important experiences, such as depression. A stronger study would use a measure of depression (or anxiety or other mental health concern). Multiple item measures show greater reliability.

In our own research[1] on sexual minorities and gender diverse students attending Christian colleges and universities, we have seen areas of concern. Although many sexual minorities are doing better than might be expected on various mental health measures, such as the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological Symptoms (CCAPS), where about half of our recent sample reported mild or no psychological distress, we did find that some students are at greater risk than others. Indeed, level of distress was negatively correlated with intrinsic religiosity and social support, and self-acceptance mediated these relationships. This means that the degree of distress is connected to the quality of students’ relationship with God and others within the Christian colleges and universities we studied.  Furthermore, a critical piece in understanding how those pivotal relationships link to distress is found in the way students perceive and relate to themselves. Interestingly, their own level of affirmation, as well as their perception of campus attitudes toward same-sex attraction and same-sex behavior, were not correlated with psychological distress in our sample.

A more helpful framing of these issues would be to ask religiously-affiliated institutions how they promote self-acceptance in their unique learning environment and how religion can foster that. There could be many angles of entry into that conversation. It may include how such institutions communicate to prospective students their religious commitment and any associated community or behavioral standards. It would also make sense for institutions to share how they provide broad support to students navigating sexual or gender identity and faith, how they create a community in which students can take their faith seriously, take their sexuality or gender seriously, and take how they related their faith and sexuality or gender seriously. It could entail sharing how such institutions foster social support among students, and how they convey messages that promote self-acceptance in the faith-based learning environments and vision for human flourishing based in community beliefs about personhood, sexuality, and gender.

Given that American higher education occurs in both secular and religious contexts, and in light of the research suggesting LGBTQ+ students may also be at greater risk than their heterosexual/cisgender peers in secular institutions of higher ed, the focus of this survey could have been on providing support across the many settings in which higher education takes place.

Additionally, rather than push the narrative of discrimination, REAP might have used their data to identify ways for these institutions to better support students who are navigating these important aspects of identity while on campus. Such an approach could have also been modified to identify ways to support students navigating sexual or gender identity at secular universities as well.

A different study would be needed to reach the conclusions made by REAP and Inside Higher Ed. The findings as published are less conclusive with respect to the assertions being made given the narrow focus on only religious institutions, with a key missing piece being action items for all institutions of higher education to better support students moving forward.


[1] Janet B. Dean, Stephen P. Stratton, & Mark A. Yarhouse, “The Mediating Role of Self-Acceptance in the Psychological Distress of Sexual Minority Students on Christian College Campuses,” Spirituality in Clinical Practice, in press. See also, Stephen P. Stratton, Janet B. Dean, Mark A. Yarhouse, & Michael Lastoria, “Sexual Minorities in Faith-Based Education: A National Survey of Attitudes, Milestones, Identity, and Religiosity,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 41, no. 1 (2013): 3-23; Jeffrey Reed, Stephen P. Stratton, Greg Koprowski, Janet B. Dean, Mark A. Yarhouse, Michael Lastoria, & Emma Bucher, “’Coming Out’ to Parents in a Christian Context: A Consensual Qualitative Analysis of LGB Student Experiences,” Counseling and Values 65 (2020): 38-56; Mark A. Yarhouse, Stephen P. Stratton, Janet B. Dean, & Heather L. Brooke, “Listening to Sexual Minorities on Christian College Campuses,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 37, no. 2 (2009): 96-113. A more comprehensive and accessible presentation of some of this data can be found in Mark A. Yarhouse, Janet B. Dean, Stephen P. Stratton, & Michael Lastoria, Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexuality on Christian College Campuses (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2018).

Reflections on The ACNA Pastoral Statement

Several years ago, when I was on sabbatical in Cambridge, I was asked to speak to a group of conservative clerics in London about research on sexual orientation and identity. I was delighted to learn that Wesley Hill was also speaking. Wes describes himself as a celibate gay Christian and I recall the graciousness with which the clerics received Wes, although they themselves had questions about such a designation.  The spirit of the time together was that they had convened brothers and sisters in Christ to discuss what is often referred to as a traditional Christian sexual ethic and how that ethic intersects with scientific research and the lives of people actually living out that ethic in meaningful ways.

Reading through the recently published Pastoral Statement from the College of Bishops in the Anglican Church in North America on Sexuality and Identity reminded me of this event, perhaps because sections of the statement stand in contrast to some of what I experienced that day.

After the Preamble and Purpose, the statement itself address same-sex relationships, identity and transformation, and identity and language. Let me offer a few thoughts on each of these three sections.

Behavior

This brief section is a re-affirmation of the historical Christian position that marriage is defined as a covenant between a man and a woman before God. This is the conviction that genital sexual intimacy is reserved for that covenantal relationship and outside of that relationship, such behaviors are morally impermissible. This is the position I hold and the position held by celibate gay Christians such as Wes Hill.

Transformation

The emphasis here on transformation—if we mean by that Christ-likeness—is admirable and very much in keeping with how Christians across the globe think about sanctification. The problem is when sanctification is conflated with movement toward heterosexuality. When discussing change, the statement address change in feelings, will, or hope. If we glance back at the Preamble, however, it reads “We know that, according to some careful research, an individual’s attractions may move over time along a spectrum from same-sex attraction to other-sex attraction, or vice versa, in a minority of cases.” The research I am most familiar with is the seven-year longitudinal study that I was co-principal investigator of that was published in Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. Let me offer a couple of thoughts on those findings.

The way I think of that study is that, yes, on average, participants did report a statistically and clinically meaningful shift along a continuum of attraction, which is similar to what the statement says. An average shift suggests more of a shift for some and less (or no shift) for others. In our discussion of the findings, we also noted that the findings may very well reflect primarily change in behavior and identity, while there may also be some underlying change in attractions. This is partly due to the fact that the most significant changes were reported between Time 1 and Time 2, early in the ministry experience (when behavior and identity labels including how a person is encouraged to think of themselves would likely change), and only maintained over the next six years rather than a gradual shift over time, which is what might be expected in underlying change of attraction or orientation.

Language

The final section on identity and language focuses on the use of the phrase “gay Christian” or “celibate gay Christian” to describe oneself.  This section will likely be troubling to and cause grief to many celibate gay Christians. There are many reasons celibate gay Christians have discussed their rationale for this language, and my co-author, Dr. Olya Zaporozhets and I discuss these in Costly Obedience: What We can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community (Zondervan).  These include (1) the simplicity and clarity related to using the common vernacular; (2) a realistic alternative to not reducing their experience to same-sex attraction when they are told to only describe themselves as “same-sex attracted” (as it overlooks personality and other experiences they see as captured better with other terms); (3) to avoid associations with an ex-gay narrative, which they and/or others they know have experienced as problematic for a variety of reasons; (4) to recognize some commonalities with members of the broader LGBTQ+ community; (5) for missional purposes in terms of relating to the broader LGBTQ+ community; and (6) to be a visible presence of someone they would have wanted to know existed in the world when they were younger.  

The authors of the statement seem to be aware of some of these reasons and recognize the potential value in the use of “gay Christian” for temporary missional purposes, for instance, but not “categorically” or as a “default description”. The statement ends by commending for gay Christians the phrase “Christians who experience same-sex attraction.”

I am not particularly invested in the language debate. However, I have researched sexual identity development for many years, and I would not go out of my way to proscribe the use of “gay Christian” or “celibate gay Christian” for those who are navigating sexual identity in light of their Christian faith. I just would not want to add what I think people will experience as an additional burden to those who are already feeling marginalized in the church as they try to live out a traditional Christian sexual ethic. This is a group of people who feels marginalized by the mainstream LGBTQ+ community for their adherence to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, while simultaneously feeling marginalized by conservative Christians who often hold out expectations of transformation to heterosexuality (as often conflated with sanctification), not to mention now wordsmithing in terms of how they should describe their own experiences.

I recognize that there are some concerns to be discussed in thinking through language and identity. It isn’t as though there are no concerns in this area. It is worthy of prayerful reflection, particularly for ministry to youth, and we should discuss these concerns and be nimble and discerning in our approach with people we are counseling. But I am also concerned about what local pastoral care and shepherding will look like in light of this statement. Will the twenty-four-year-old who sits with a rector who references this document experience pressure to become straight as a reflection of the transformative work of the Spirit in her life? Will she experience shame and discouragement if she does not develop attraction to the opposite sex? Will the rector expect her to use descriptive language and wield this statement in ways she experiences more as a weapon than as a way to graft her into the vine, into Jesus himself, who wants to draw her into a deeper relationship with him?

I don’t know. But I do know that the time I spent in London listening to Wes Hill discuss his own journey of faith in light of his same-sex sexuality was deeply moving. The graciousness of the elderly clerics who were unfamiliar with the language “celibate gay Christian” but nonetheless gracious and hospitable, as well as clearly delighting in fellowship with another believer, was such a source of encouragement to me.

I have listened to many Christian sexual minorities through the years, celibate gay Christians and Christians in mixed orientation marriages, in particular, who will be deeply grieved by some of these conclusions. Some people will experience it as a step backward rather than a step forward in creating a local faith community in which they, too, believe they can thrive.  

A Domain-Based Approach to the Integration of Psychology and Christianity

My friend, Bill Hathaway, and I just completed a book project we began some 10 years ago. We both got caught up with other responsibilities, but we recently returned in earnest to this project, wrapping it up just a few weeks ago. The book is titled The Integration of Psychology and Christianity: A Domain-Based Approach.

Here are the five domains we cover:

  • worldview integration
  • theoretical integration
  • applied integration
  • role integration
  • personal integration

The book is scheduled for publication later this year, and I have to say that after all this time, I am really looking forward to it being available. I’ll post more about it as more information is released, but just wanted to keep it on your radar.

The Beautiful Story

The Church of England Evangelical Council has produced a 30 minute video titled The Beautiful Story. I came across it when a friend sent me this post from Ian Paul about it. Ian does a nice job explaining what he likes about it, which is pretty much what I like about it. Here is the video:

In short, The Church of England Evangelical Council attempts to make the case for what is often referred to as a biblical sexual ethic or a traditional sexual ethic. That is, that genital sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage, which is defined as a covenant between a man and a woman. The video not only makes that case but it also addresses what it means to hold a high view of singleness, which includes a high view of singles who are gay and abide by this same sexual ethic.

I thought it was a well-produced video. I found it engaging and a clear articulation of a traditional sexual ethic. It has a kind of “convicted civility” (Richard Mouw) quality to it that I think many people will be drawn to. Others who disagree with the sexual ethic itself will not be won over, but that is not often the purpose of these kinds of offerings.

In any case, I thought some readers might find it of interest.

Recent Podcasts

Here are a couple of recent podcasts on topics that might be of interest to some readers.

This is the Think Biblically podcast hosted by Sean McDowell and Scott Rae. We discuss my book (with Dr. Zaporozhets), Costly Obedience: What We Can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community (Zondervan).

https://www.biola.edu/blogs/think-biblically/2020/costly-obedience

Here is another podcast, and this one is hosted by Ed Stetzer for Moody Radio. Don’t be fooled by the title; we actually discuss gender identity and transgender experiences rather than sexual identity. If you are interested in gender identity, you might want to check out Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth (Brazos).

https://www.moodyradio.org/programs/ed-stetzer-live/2020/10/10.03.20-understanding-sexual-identity/

Forthcoming Book

Brazos coverAs we are finalizing a few details in our book, Emerging Gender Identities, we’ve received a couple of initial endorsements. Thought I’d pass them along. Here is one from Jenell Paris:

Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky unpack one of today’s pressing issues: transgender and emerging gender identities. As Christian psychologists, they integrate Christian insight with accurate scientific knowledge, offering well-informed and up-to-date understandings of a rapidly changing dimension of society. Current political and cultural discourse offers little room for critical engagement, and Yarhouse and Sadusky courageously offer wisdom and advice. They challenge Christians to move beyond getting theology right, even asserting that correct theological knowledge doesn’t always translate into knowing how to minister to persons with nonnormative gender identities. With many examples, they encourage Christians to accompany others, not simply instruct or admonish them from a distance. They invite the reader to renew their encounter with a merciful God, as part of developing ministry that incarnates God’s love. This book will be a gift to pastors, youth pastors, parents, and friends of transgender and gender expansive individuals. I came away with my faith strengthened, more certain that I can entrust my loved ones to Christ and that I can continue to question, learn, and wonder about transgender and gender expansiveness. My only disappointment is that I’ve only read the book once, so far!    – Jenell Paris, professor of sociology and anthropology, Messiah College

Here is another endorsement from Stanton Jones: 

We are faced with a dizzying ongoing evolution in cultural understanding of and recommended responses to a kaleidoscope of emerging gender identities. This book offers richly informed and thoughtful Christian analysis of these phenomena, along with compassionate and challenging recommendations for ministry. Yarhouse and Sadusky have the breadth of knowledge and experience to challenge readers to move toward more theologically grounded and pragmatically effective engagement. – Stanton L. Jones, provost and professor emeritus, Wheaton College; coauthor of the God’s Design for Sex family sex-education book series

Rech Inaugural Address

Just before our Spring Break, I delivered the inaugural address for the Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech endowed chair. The video has just been made available, which you can view below. The title of the talk is “Sexual Identity, Gender Identity, and Christian Faith: Or, On Being an Evangelical Christian in LGBTQ+ Studies.”