Sexual Minorities in Faith-Based Higher Ed

jpt-coverUpdate: The study is now available at the JPT website.

A new study has just been published on the experiences of sexual minorities in faith-based colleges and universities. This is a study I conducted with Stephen Stratton, Janet Dean and Michael Lastoria. Here is the abstract:

Studies on faith-based campuses are beginning to offer a glimpse into the real experience of sexual minority students in these unique settings. This study adds to this growing body of information by surveying 247 undergraduates, who describe themselves as sexual minorities at 19 Christian schools across the United States. They responded to questions related to attitudes regarding sexuality, sexual identity, religiosity, and sexual milestone events. The results from this sample suggst those who attend higher education at faith-based institutions are a distinct group within Western culture when it comes tot he development of religious/spiritual identity and sexual identity. Although diversity with regard to same-sex and opposite-sex attraction is present among those surveyed, common themes exist for this unique sample of undergraduates. Implications for mainstream culture and Christian educational institutions are discussed.

I’ve been presenting these findings in consultations and workshops for awhile now, but here is the gist of what we found. We reported different degrees of sexual attraction to the same- and opposite-sex, which is in keeping with some of the most recent research on sexual minorities and actually harkens back to Kinsey’s observation of a continuum of attraction rather than a simple either/or dichotomy.

There was also diversity in terms of religiosity. Although likely a highly religious sample compared to the general population, we did see diversity here and it was associated with degree of same-sex attraction. Those with no or little same-sex attraction were higher on intrinsic religiosity (in which religion is an end to itself; valuing religion for its own sake)–and the more same-sex attraction reported, the more likely to score lower on intrinsic religiosity. But, again, as a whole, Christian sexual minorities were likely more religious than the general population.

When asked about milestone events in the development of one’s sexual identity, as in our previous study, we saw that fewer participants had (1) engaged in same-sex behavior, (2) initially attributed their attraction to a gay identity, or (3) adopted a gay identity label.

In terms of public/private sexual identity, it was rare for participants to have a public identity as anything other than straight. We wrote,

This may be associated with the influence of the campus culture, religious conviction, or persona. choice, but it may also reflect a distinctive of those seeking to develop an identity that engages both the religious and the sexual. (p. 19)

In terms of private identification, about 4% thought of themselves as gay/lesbian, 10% bisexual, and about 9% questioning. Labeling here was associated with strength of same-sex attraction: the less same-sex attraction, the more likely to identify as straight; those who did privately identify as gay/lesbian were high on same-sex attraction.

This finding may represent a distinct trajectory insofar as the sample tended to not gravitate toward identity labels common to the mainstream LGBT community. It could be a result of heterosexism and homophobia; or it could be evidence that there is a group of sexual minorities that “engages in identity formation in a way that contrasts with mainstream culture” (p. 19), perhaps due to the salience of their religious faith.

The last major area we asked about were attitudes/values around sexuality and same-sex behavior. When people reported less same-sex attraction, they tended to be more conservative than those who reported more same-sex attraction. Folks who were more intrinsically religious were also more often conservative in their sexual attitudes/values.

As a group, though, these sexual minority students were more alike than different in many ways. They agreed that their campuses hold a negative view of sexual minorities and that there are few resources to support sexual minorities. (This is an area I think Christian institutions would do well to respond to in earnest.) They also tended to see sexual chastity as an attainable goal.

When I look at this data as a whole, I tend to think that it speaks to not just one experience that holds true for everybody. Rather, I think there are many ways to be a sexual minority on a Christian college campus. There is no doubt in my mind that some sexual minorities experience their sexuality in much the same way that the mainstream LGBT community talks about it, and this group may hide their experiences or sense of who they are in order to “get through” college.They may very well hold to beliefs and values that are more commonly expressed by members of the mainstream LGBT community.

But I think it is a mistake to see this sample as doing that as a whole. I think other Christian sexual minorities  represent a more distinct identity development model in which their faith is given such weight that they make different choices in areas in which volition is in play, such as choosing not to engage in sexual behavior (to the same- or opposite-sex). Their religious beliefs, values and identity may also keep them from attributing their attractions to a gay identity (as is the normative experience within the LGBT community). They might be more likely to attribute their same-sex attractions to the Fall (original sin that taints creation in some way) or draw upon some other explanatory framework that makes sense to them but does not lend itself to a LGBT identity.They might view their same-sex sexuality in a more positive light than that and as much larger than their impulses; they might experience their sexuality in the temperament and personality, as well as their creativity and ways of relating to others. They might just choose not to enter into same-sex relationships by virtue of their formed judgments about sexual ethics.

Where will they be in a few years? I don’t know. That is a question for another study altogether. Some may eventually end up using the word “gay” as an adjective to name the reality of the same-sex sexuality while making similar decision about behavioral chastity; others may choose to make different choices about sexual behavior in the years to come, but those choices do not appear to be common at this age, at least not with the sample we surveyed.

Stay tuned. We are currently analyzing data from a smaller study of Christian sexual minorities who are  enrolled in a Christian college or university, as well as sexual minority alumni from those institutions. We are also planning to launch a larger longitudinal study to see if there are changes in behavior, identity, and attitudes/values among Christian sexual minorities over time.

The Semi-Believing Doubter

miraclesShortly after I became a Christian, I was baptized in our small Reformed Presbyterian church and invited to join as a member. I remember the membership form I was asked to sign. It covered basic doctrinal positions of the church, and one stood out to me: it said that I believed that signs and wonders had ceased after the time of the apostles. I spoke to my dad about this, in part because I was uncertain I could agree with this statement. He told me he had had a similar reaction when he joined the church. He said he crossed that one out! I did the same. Although I was not raised in a church tradition that exposed me to charismatic gifts, I was not certain I could say that they did not exist, and it seemed odd to support a doctrinal position on what the Holy Spirit might choose to do in a person’s life.

There are likely varying degrees of familiarity with this topic among those who read this blog. It is interesting to be a part of a church that more overtly teaches and affirms the existence of miracles. (Of course, the very fact that a person is a Christian is an affirmation of the miraculous, so it is interesting to even have this as a separate point of discussion when you think about it…) In any case, in that context people would be invited to receive prayer for healing at the altar rail during or after services, and there would be an expectation that miracles would occur. In church settings like I am describing, I would say several people would admit to witnessing in their own lives (or in the lives of others they know personally) a miracle. But these experiences have not been part of my church culture, and it has been a process for me to recognize that church “culture” can quickly shape doctrinal positions, fuel skepticism (or faith and belief), and the way this is shaped can lead to very different conclusions about what is happening in a given service.

The title of this post is from Chapter 5 of Tim Stafford’s new book, Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power. The semi-believing doubter is the skeptic who “doesn’t believe science excludes God,” and may believe in the miraculous in theory, “but in a practical sense, he or she lives as though miracles don’t exist” (p. 69). This is the state of many Christians in the U.S. today, including the author from time to time. Yet this makes Tim Stafford an ideal choice to write this book. He is a trusted journalist who has been with Christianity Today for years. He asks many of the questions most of us who are skeptical would ask, and he is honest about the scrutiny we would give to claims of the miraculous.

Stafford reviews accounts of the miraculous in Scripture, starting with the Old Testament and then through the New Testament. He reminds the reader that for the vast majority of that history, there were no or few records of miraculous events. The same appears to be true in Christian history since the time of the apostles. Yet there is also evidence that miracles did occur–in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and at times throughout Christian history. Of course, having recently celebrated Easter, Christians base their whole faith in the resurrection of Jesus, so once that is taken as true (and there is significant evidence to support that claim), then other miracles certainly seem possible, if uncommon. Stafford then brings the reader up to the contemporary Pentecostal movement that began with the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 and continues today throughout the world.

I appreciated Stafford’s comment on scientists who dismiss the miraculous out of hand because they believe if someone is rational, that person cannot possibly consider the miraculous:

Oddly enough, it’s not a scientific point of view. Science would seek to investigate. This position maintains that no investigation is necessary… This is a philosophical position–just the sort of philosophical a priori assumption that scientists say they abhor. (p. 166)

I have found a similar bias in psychology. Training in the behavioral sciences can quickly become a worldview, a lens through which all of “reality” is reduced to what we can measure as psychologists. When it becomes a worldview, people who adhere to it can find explanations for most everything, even those things beyond its reach.

skepticsStafford offers several helpful conclusions for Christians to consider–twenty, to be exact. He concludes that miracles do happen, that they are rare, and that they do not point to themselves or the person who does them but to the Kingdom of God. Healing is more common, and only rarely does healing surprise us such that we think of it as a miracle. In some circles, people will “pass along miracle stories uncritically, so many of them don’t hold up to scrutiny. But that doesn’t mean that none are true” (p. 200). That last one is a good reminder for those who are more skeptical.

This was a quick read. It is well-written and thoughtful. Again, Stafford is not pushing the miraculous as a card-carrying Pentecostal; nor is he a cessationist. There is a real balance in how he approaches the topic, and I think many Christians today will find this book to be a great source of encouragement as they consider how God may be at work in the world and in their own lives.

It was helpful to me personally to read a book from an author who has a similar cultural background as my own (and accompanying doubts and questions). I’ve read many book from authors who are already “there” as charismatics, and those books use language and constructs that I find difficult to use in my own everyday way of thinking about faith. But I want to take seriously the possibility of the miraculous, and Stafford finds a place for miracles in a culture polarized between skeptics on the one hand and charlatans on the other.

Training in Psychology and the Debates about Value-Based Referrals

imagesThe Board of Educational Affairs of the American Psychological Association (APA) has just put forth a new statement that is the result of a several month process by which a working group has been meeting to discuss the complexities associated with value-based referrals in the context of professional training.

This has been a topic that has received a great deal of attention with the Ward v. Eastern Michigan University (EMU) case that was recently settled out of court. You may recall that Julea Ward was dismissed from her counseling program for not participating in a remediation program after making a referral of a gay client who requested counseling for relationship issues. That referral was made in consultation with her supervisor, but her program had insisted she go through remediation. The settlement to Ward was for $75,0000.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of polarization occurring in response to value based referrals. Now we are seeing attempts to address these complex issues through legislation, which I see as the wrong venue for this topic. Just as I am concerned with attempts to ban reorientation therapy for minors in California (see here), I am concerned about attempts to legislate conscience clauses for students in training to become psychologists.

The APA appears to want to get ahead of the curve on this one, which I think is a good idea. The pedagogical statement is reproduced here in its entirety:

Preparing Professional Psychologists to Serve a Diverse Public: A Core Requirement in Doctoral Education and Training

Statement of Purpose

For psychologists to competently serve all members of the public now and in the future, professional psychology training programs strive to ensure that psychology trainees demonstrate acceptable levels of knowledge, skills, and awareness to work effectively with diverse individuals. Clients/patients are complex individuals who belong to diverse cultures and groups. Trainees also bring a complex set of personal characteristics and diverse cultural or group memberships to the education and training process. An important component of psychology training to explore is when and how trainees’ world views, beliefs, or religious values interact with and even impede the provision of competent professional services to members of the public. It is essential that potential conflicts be acknowledged and addressed during training so that psychologists are prepared to beneficially and non-injuriously interact with all clients/patients. This statement is intended to help training programs address conflicts between trainees’ worldviews, beliefs, or religious values and professional psychology’s commitment to offering culturally responsive psychological services to all members of the public, especially to those from traditionally marginalized groups.

Commitment to a Supportive Training Environment

Training environments foster the ability of trainees to provide competent care to the general public, and trainees’ competencies in professional practice are evaluated regularly. Some trainees possess worldviews, values, or religious beliefs that conflict with serving specific subgroups within the public.   For example, they may experience strong negative reactions toward clients/patients who are of a particular sexual orientation, religious tradition, age, or disability status. Trainers take a developmental approach to trainee skill and competency acquisition, and support individual trainees in the process of developing competencies to work with diverse populations. Trainers respect the right of trainees to maintain their personal belief systems while acquiring such professional competencies. Trainers also model the process of personal introspection; the exploration of personal beliefs, attitudes, and values; and the development of cognitive flexibility required to serve a wide diversity of clients/patients. Training to work with diverse clients/patients is integral to the curriculum, and consists of both didactic coursework and practical training.

Training programs, trainers, and trainees cannot be selective about the core competencies needed for the practice of psychology because these competencies are determined by the profession for the benefit of the public. Further, training programs are accountable for ensuring that trainees exhibit the ability to work effectively with clients/patients whose group membership, demographic characteristics, or worldviews create conflict with their own. Trainers respectfully work with trainees to beneficially navigate value- or belief- related tensions.  At times, training programs may wish to consider client/patient re-assignment so trainees have time to work to develop their competence to work with client/patients who challenge trainees’ sincerely held beliefs. Trainers utilize professional judgment in determining when client/patient re-assignment may be indicated in this situation as in all other possible situations in which client/patient re-assignment may be considered. The overriding consideration in such cases must always be the welfare of the client/patient. In such cases, trainers focus on the trainees’ development, recognizing that tensions arising from sincerely held beliefs or values require pedagogical support and time to understand and integrate with standards for professional conduct. Thus trainees entering professional psychology training programs should have no reasonable expectation of being exempted from having any particular category of potential clients/patients assigned to them for the duration of training.

Commitment to Transparency in Educational Expectations, Policies and Procedures

Psychology training programs inform prospective trainees and the public of expected competencies to be attained during training. Publicly available program descriptions and admission materials should include the program’s goals and objectives, content about training standards, and the commitment to serving a diverse public.  These expectations are reiterated throughout the course of training and in documents such as practicum contracts. Training programs are responsible for notifying prospective trainees, current students and the public that the failure to demonstrate appropriate levels of competence as set forth and assessed by the program could lead to dismissal from the doctoral training program.

Commitment to Establishing and Maintaining Standards for Professional Competence to Protect the Public

As the largest professional and scientific organization of psychologists in the United States, the American Psychological Association (APA) has sought to create, communicate, and apply psychological knowledge for the public’s benefit for more than a century. It does this, in part, by establishing a professional code of ethics and standards for professional education and training for practice.  These APA documents mandate that education and training programs take reasonable steps to ensure that doctoral-level graduates are prepared to serve a diverse public.

Those who want students to retain the right to make a referral due to their “sincerely held beliefs” may not be pleased with this document. However, it goes a long way in the right direction. Let me elaborate.

There is a shift away from the language of “referral” to “re-assignment” which I like. The language of “referral” tends to place the emphasis on the student in training, as though that student were to make these decisions. I understand that this gets complicated, but I struggle with the idea of having the student be the final arbitrator of the kinds of clients he or she is going to see. They are in training to become a psychologist. There is an important training context that is often under-appreciated in these discussions (and rarely appreciated once it moves to legislation). The language of “re-assignment” keeps the focus on the training aspect of these issues.

values_22315404_std.255115903_stdAlso, I appreciate that the focus is on those who are providing the training to use their professional judgment: “Trainers utilize professional judgment in determining when client/patient re-assignment may be indicated in this situation as in all other possible situations in which client/patient re-assignment may be considered.”

I understand that those who want a certain “conscience clause” emphasis may not care for the language of having “time to work to develop their competence” in an area in which there is a value conflict, but it does reiterate the importance of the training aspect of their professional identity, which is discussed in the context of providing students with time and support, which is significantly different than what is being discussed elsewhere. In other words, programs that adhere to this statement would be expected to show how they work with students who hold “sincerely held beliefs” — in a case like that of Ward v. EMU, it would seem to heighten expectations for how training programs would show respect to a wider range of diversity considerations, such as sexual orientation and religion. It suggests programs will be expected to create the kind of climate that is supportive of students as they embark on a developmental process that takes them to a place of professional responsibility to serve the public — that both the outcome and the process will demonstrate regard for diversity in its various expressions.

I also like that what is of utmost importance is the welfare of the client. Back to the document: “The overriding consideration in such cases must always be the welfare of the client/patient.”

The closing line in this particular paragraph has some important language:

Thus trainees entering professional psychology training programs should have no reasonable expectation of being exempted from having any particular category of potential clients/patients assigned to them for the duration of training.

Having trained students in psychology for the past 14 years, I would be concerned about having a student who went into training with a list of people they would not see professionally. I do think there is a process here that we would do well to appreciate. It is a professional training and identity process that takes time to instill. It is not fostered by simply telling students to meet specific expectations; in fact, I suspect such an approach would lead a student to only be further entrenched in his or her own position.

You might be asking, “What about the conscience clause? Can a student make a value-based referral or not? Yes or No?” I don’t think this document is intended to provide a simple answer to those kinds of questions, in part because this is a professional development topic, and it is a complicated one. It does not lend itself to black and white answers, but to nuance, which is why it should not be adjudicated through the courts.

CAPS National in Portland

imagesThe Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) National Conference is in Portland this week, April 4-6. The conference theme is Cross-Cultural Care & Counsel. A couple of grads from our program who worked with me at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity (ISSI) are presenting on their work with gender variant clients.

On Thursday I am going to participate in a panel discussion with three other psychologists as we discuss examples of how Christians translate their faith and associated concerns that arise with the broader profession. I will discuss our research on sexual identity development and synthesis. On Friday, I will also do a workshop and demonstration of  Sexual Identity Therapy.

On Referring to Oneself as a “Gay Christian”

cropped-identity.jpgLast week I gave an extended lecture to a group of students in our School of Divinity on sexual identity and the Christian. At the Q&A time, I was asked about Christians who believe in a traditional Christian sexual ethic but refer to themselves as “gay.” Essentially, the question is this: “What do you think of the decision by some Christians to refer to themselves as ‘gay Christians’?”

Obviously, many people do refer to themselves as “gay Christians,” but I get questions about an increasingly visible group of Christians who refer to themselves as “gay Christians” or “celibate gay Christians”; they believe that genital sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. In the language of the Gay Christian Network, they are “Side B” gay Christians. (Side A being gay Christians who believe that same-sex behavior and relationships are morally permissible.)

I hadn’t really thought much of this question until last year when I was speaking to a group of Christians in London. It was at that forum that I met Wes Hill, a Wheaton grad who refers to himself often as a “celibate gay Christian”. The audience there seemed a bit uneasy with this designation, and Wes graciously unpacked why he is comfortable with it. Since that time, it seems I have been asked that question quite frequently.

Joshua Gonnerman, in his essay in First Things, offers several points for consideration, among them a contrast between those who see nothing of value in their same-sex sexuality (thus referring to themselves a “struggler” or someone who “contends” against same-sex attractions) and those who do not experience their same-sex sexuality as exclusively a source of temptation. This is the language of many Christian ministries today.

Gonnerman’s observations are in keeping with a friend of mine who shared with me recently that part of the reason same-sex sexuality is not reduced to only a source of temptation is that many sexual minority people have other common experiences that are not simply about impulses or attractions. For example, many experience some degree of gender atypicality by which is meant this: they do not experiences their masculinity or femininity in some of the more common, stereotypical ways others and the culture has defined masculinity/femininity. So we are talking here about interests and games in childhood, as well as other interess that develop in adolescence and beyond. Still others I know would point to their creativity or ability to relate to others in a different way — all as a part of their same-sex sexuality, with little to do with impulses to have sex per se.

This friend has also discussed with me the importance of naming one’s experiences. For some people, describing their experiences (“I experience same-sex attractions”) will be sufficient and actually helpful in terms of safeguarding them from identity in ways that are difficult for them, at least at the present time. So this may be why so many Christian ministries adopt this language. For others, however, descriptive language is not sufficient for naming their reality. So they have preferred “gay Christian” to get at something that is there that is not being fully acknowledged in the more descriptive (or, for them, reductionistic) language of “same-sex attractions.”

Wes HIll, in his book, Washed and Waiting, takes a similar view and describes himself as either a “gay Christian” or a “celibate gay Christian.” As I said, I was with Wes speaking to a group when the question came up about referring to himself in this manner. There was a fair amount of dis-ease among many in the audience who were not comfortable hearing these two words together.

So what did I say when I was asked for my opinion? I said this: “This is not my personal experience (to experience same-sex attractions), so I want to enter into any discussion of pastoral care or pastoral accommodations with a healthy dose of humility. I want to be careful not to place standards, rules, or obligations on people that go beyond what Christians believe Scripture teaches in this area. Keep in mind that we are talking about brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying to live faithfully before God in terms of not entering into same-sex relationship. When they say that using “gay” as an adjective helps them in these specific ways, I want to listen to them, come to a better understanding of their experiences, and support them.”

In many ways, it seems like a reasonable pastoral accommodation and something we would do well to discuss together, especially across groups of individuals who are actually navigating this terrain. Let’s come to a better understanding of why some people prefer to describe their experiences of attraction, while others feel it does not sufficiently name their reality. What other language has been helpful and why? How do our religious backgrounds and denominational differences enter into the discussion and shape it? Is there a process here? A trajectory that for some means certain phrases and language will be helpful early on but not later?

I don’t know that we have a lot of precedent here, and it’s in those moments that we do well to demonstrate more humility and grace, to come alongside rather than criticize.