Mediating and Discussing LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Church

VWCI was recently invited to speak at Virginia Wesleyan College on the topic of “The Challenges of Mediating and Discussing LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Church.” This talk was part of a religious studies course on Mediating Religious Conflict in the Center For the Study of Religious Freedom.

In developing a handout, I listed a few things I suggested students avoid (“vices”), along with some “virtues” to cultivate. Some vices included demanding respect, dehumanizing others, and setting exclusive goals. In contrast, I recommended building goodwill, seeing/relating to people, and identifying superordinate goals whenever possible. I shared a few examples of what we try to do in our research institute, including past volunteer work with local HIV/AIDS organizations (that are often staffed by LGBTQ+ persons) to work to reduce rates of infection in the local area.

When I talk about dehumanizing, I am thinking about ways in which we look past the person in order to convince others of the veracity of our position. People need to be seen by you, and one way you do that is by entering into a sustained relationship with those with whom you disagree. Along these lines, no one wants to be seen as a project. Even if you feel led to engage the topic, you are also engaging real people who represent that topic in the real world. Toward that end, it’s important to see the person in the exchange.

It has been helpful to move past winning an argument or entering into debate. It has been more productive to listen (more than talk), to enter into dialogue (more than debate), and to identify the moral logic in my own reasoning and that of those who are dialoguing with me. In fact, this was part of the “frame” of the talk: How do I become a better dialogue partner?

This question came out of a recent experience. This past year I was part of an event in Cincinnati hosted by LoveBoldly in which I was on a panel with a celibate gay Christian, a liberal or progressive gay Christian, and a transgender Christian. At the close of the event, one of the other panelists leaned over and said, “If you are ever looking for a dialogue partner, keep me in mind.” It had me thinking: What makes a good dialogue partner?

The kinds of suggestions I was offering to the students and guests at Virginia Wesleyan College were suggestions based on what I’ve learned over the years in becoming a better dialogue partner and what I look for in people I agree to be in dialogue with in front of an audience.

What is Gender Dysphoria?

Here is a talk I gave at Q Denver titled, What is Gender Dysphoria?  It is being featured on Q Ideas. I try to explain the phenomenon, as well as provide a little background information on theories of etiology, prevalence, and management strategies. Also, check out the talk by Melinda Selmys, who shares about her own experiences with gender dyshporia.

After we both spoke, Gabe Lyons invited us to join him for a time to Q & A from the audience. This was a helpful opportunity to reflect further on gender dysphoria:

To give you a little background on Q Ideas, here is a description from their website:

Q was birthed out of Gabe Lyons’ vision to see Christians, especially leaders, recover a vision for their historic responsibility to renew and restore cultures. Inspired by Chuck Colson’s statement, “Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals,” Gabe set out to reintroduce Christians to what had seemed missing in recent decades from an American expression of Christian faithfulness; valuing both personal and cultural renewal, not one over the other. Re-educating Christians to this orthodox and unifying concept has become central to the vision of Q.

Together, we explore topics that fall into four broad themes: culture, future, church, and gospel. Q facilitates the investigation of deeper engagement and responsibility in each of these areas. As we continue to work through these ideas on a deeper level, so grows our commitment to equipping innovators, social entrepreneurs, entertainers, artists, church-shapers, futurists, scientists, educators, historians, environmentalists, and everyday people to do extraordinary things. At Q Ideas, you’ll see a broad spectrum of content represented in our small group curriculum, essays, videos, blog articles, and podcasts. These are all contributed and commissioned to shed light on unique areas of culture and the church.

Equipping Youth Ministers

This past week I had the opportunity to equip youth ministers in their ministry to LGBT+ youth. I was at the National Youth Worker’s Convention in Cincinnati. One session was a 5-hour intensive; the other was 1.5 hour workshop. Both were with my friend, Julie Rodgers.

The experience is unique in many ways. Youth ministers are in the trenches. They are on the front-line of ministry. In fact, it was through my experience equipping them 3 or 4 years ago that I first thought about writing a book on Gender Dysphoria. Many youth ministers at that time were asking questions about transgender and gender-diverse youth, and I began to realize that if these questions were being asked in youth ministry, the experiences of transgender persons and the topic of gender identity was going to soon become part of a larger, national discussion that evangelical Christian were not prepared for.

Another way in which the experience is unique is that we really do not delve into doctrine regarding sexuality and sexual behavior per se. The NYWC is a big tent that draws representatives from many churches, including conservative and liberal churches. So rather than make sessions about what attendees may disagree on, such as the moral status of same-sex behavior), we focus on improving youth ministry within the context of their doctrinal position.

This year we focused on a ‘map’ for ministry to LGBT+ youth. That map plays off of the metaphor that teenagers are navigating difficult terrain, a metaphor I developed in the book, Understanding Sexual Identity. We discussed the importance of parents (‘base camp’) and how the quality of that relationship is the best predictor of a teenagers well-being over time. We also discussed common ‘markers’ along the train, which, in our work are milestone events in sexual identity development. Milestones include first awareness of same-sex attraction, first sexual behaviors, first disclosure to others, first attribution (about what experiences of same-sex attractions mean to them), first labeling oneself (privately or publicly), and so on.

My sense from the audience at both the workshop and the longer intensive is that they were going away with a helpful metaphor that can be translated into a helpful posture toward LGBT+ youth. These were big-hearted, kind, and generous youth ministry staff and volunteers who absolutely love their kids. My friend Julie says that the most frequently asked question by LGBT+ youth in youth ministry is, “Am I wanted here?’ This is a group of youth ministers who wanted as a group to say, “Yes, you are wanted here. There is no where we’d want you to be than in our youth ministry.”

Ukraine Reflections – Part 1

book in RussianI just returned from a trip to Ukraine. I was part of a larger team that was there to train pastors in basic skills of counseling and more advanced skills associated with trauma care and sexual issues. The team I took taught all morning for the week we were there and then did several activities in the afternoon to get better acquainted with the city. We taught on sexual issues in counseling based on a textbook I had co-authored with Erica S. N. Tan. That book was actually sponsored by several organizations to be translated into Russian before our trip, so that students could get the most out of it. That was exciting to see.

We also participated in a conference on sexuality at one of the prestigious universities in Kiev on Saturday and Sunday. I offered a plenary address on some of the changes in approaches to sexual minorities over the years (kind of updating a 2002 publication that created a typology of sorts around this topic) and the convergence of the APA’s position on client-affirmative care and Sexual Identity Therapy. I also conducted a workshop on SIT in individual and in group therapy contexts. The co-director of the institute gave another plenary address and students led workshops on body image and female sexual addiction, as well as poster sessions on recent empirical work we have been doing. It was an extraordinary 11 days to be honest with you.

kievI thought I might offer a few reflections on my time there. My thoughts are a bit scattered today, however, so this may be of little use to anyone. I’ve never taught using a translator. That was an extraordinary experience. I’ve taught while someone signed my class to a deaf student, but I had not taught in another language and had to work out the pace of teaching and allowing for translation. You get roughly 1/2 of the time to move through the material. I learned quite a bit about my lack of patience.

It was also striking to me how hungry people are in Ukraine for training. You can forget that they are at war right now, and that any training that helps them, any training that is practical and skills-based can be immediately of help to them. We tried to keep things very practical. In fact, I turned more toward clinical demonstrations of skills toward the end of the week (whereas I had been more lecture-based and theory oriented toward the beginning of the week).

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.

APA in Washington, DC

DCThis week is the 122nd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA). We are meeting in Washington, DC. I was just up there to work with the National Institute for Corrections on the various challenges that arise for incarcerated persons who are LGBTI. On this trip I will be co-chairing a symposium titled Integrating Identities – Spirituality, Religion, and Sexuality. The other co-chair is Joshua Wolff, a graduate of the Rosemead School of Professional Psychology and an emerging voice in LGBT studies in faith-based institutions of higher education among other areas of interest.

The papers presented here should be interesting. In addition to a study I will be presenting (co-authored with three students and research team members titled, “Experiences of Sexual Minority Students and Alumni in Faith-Based Higher Education”), Stephen Stratton (Asbury Seminary) and Janet Dean (Asbury University) will present a paper titled, “Identity Formation in Context: The Intersection of Sexual Identity and Religious Spiritual Identity.” They will be reviewing relevant themes from two previously-published studies of sexual and religious identity among Christian college students who are also sexual minorities.

The other two papers come from psychologists with expertise in LGBT issues. Glenda Russell (University of Colorado-Boulder) is presenting a paper titled, “Open and Affirming Congregation: Opening What? Affirming Whom?” Finally, Caitlin Ryan (San Francisco State University) is presenting a paper titled, “Beyond Either/Or: Helping Religious Families to Support Their LGBT Children.”

The two discussants (or colleagues who read the papers/PP slides in advance and comment on them and related themes they deem relevant) are John Gonsiorek (Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity) and Tamara Anderson (Biola University).

In addition to this symposium, we have two posters from the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity on Thursday and Saturday. (A poster session involves displaying research findings and discussing them with other professionals.) The Thursday poster is titled, “What are Helpful and Unhelpful Resources to Religious Parents After a Gay Child Comes Out?” This should be interesting in light of Caitlyn Ryan’s presentation noted above and her work directing The Family Acceptance Project. The data we are presenting comes from a collaborative effort with The Marin Foundation and is based on interviews of Christian parents whose children had come out.

The Saturday poster is titled, “Youth Ministers: Attitudes Toward and Experiences with Sexual Minorities.” This poster presents data collected at two youth ministry events where attendees were invited to share their experiences with their churches and with sexual minority youth. This poster is one of several presentations we hope to have out in the next year or so on youth ministry and youth ministry education and LGBT issues facing the church.

There are many other exciting things happening at APA, but these are a few highlights of things I’ll be involved in.

 

 

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.