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).

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).

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).

Understanding Transgender Identities

If you are interested in the topic of transgender experiences, you might want to pre-order a forthcoming book. The resource is titled, Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views. Here is the description from the publisher: Cover Understanding TG Identities

This book offers a full-scale dialogue on transgender identities from across the Christian theological spectrum. It brings together contributors with expertise and platforms in the study of transgender identities to articulate and defend differing perspectives on this contested topic. After an introductory chapter surveys key historical moments and current issues, four views are presented by Owen Strachan, Mark A. Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky, Megan K. DeFranza, and Justin Sabia-Tanis. The authors respond to one another’s views in a respectful manner, modeling thoughtful dialogue around a controversial theological issue. The book helps readers understand the spectrum of views among Christians and enables Christian communities to establish a context where conversations can safely be held.

The book is scheduled for release November 5. You can pre-order today.

Grant for the Study of Gender Identity & Faith

Listening to Sexual Minorities Cover smIn 2014 Time magazine featured Laverne Cox on its cover and identified the “transgender tipping point” for society. In the past three years, the topic of gender identity has certainly moved to the center of the cultural discourse on norms regarding sex and gender.

For this reason, I am excited to announce that a research group I have been working with for ten years has recently been awarded a grant from the Louisville Institute to fund a longitudinal study of gender identity and Christian faith. The research group includes Janet Dean at Asbury University, Stephen Stratton at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Michael Lastoria at Houghton College.

The grant from the Louisville Institute will help us study the experiences of Christian college students who are navigating gender identity and faith. The design is longitudinal and will include both quantitative and qualitative data collection.

This research group just wrapped up a project on the experience of sexual identity and faith among Christian college students. Findings from the first two years of that study will be published by IVP Academic (Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses) in April 2018.

NAE Webinar on Pastoral Care for LGBT+ Persons and Their Families

A short while ago the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) asked me to record a webinar titled “Pastoral Care of LGBT+ Persons and Their Families.” That webinar is now available at their web site here for a modest fee. Here is the description:

While the national debate surrounding bathroom policies for transgender persons continues, evangelicals consider how to best engage the topic and more generally how to care for the LGBT persons and their families in their midst.

In this one-hour webinar, psychologist Mark Yarhouse, author of “Understanding Gender Dysphoria” and founder of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, shares tools for compassionate and biblically faithful ministry to LGBT persons and their families.

Gender Dysphoria

Here is a chapel address I gave at Covenant College on the topic if Gender Dysphoria. I am usually asked to speak on sexual and religious identity (the intersection of gay, lesbian, bisexual identity and Christian faith); or I am asked to speak on sexuality more broadly (how to be a good steward of one’s sexuality or sexual impulses). So this is different.

We discussed having the chapel on the topic of Gender Dysphoria, which in recent months I’ve been asked to speak on a lot. Christian audiences have been really interested in the topic, but they often have little experience with it apart from media and entertainment. In any case, I hadn’t given a chapel address on the topic, so I thought this could be helpful.

The feedback from students was encouraging. Several came up to me throughout the day, and I received a few emails from students who experience Gender Dysphoria. It is a topic that students are discussing on Christian college campuses, but they often have little opportunity to explore different approaches to it. I don’t know that a chapel address changes that dramatically, but it does provide a venue for awareness of the experience and further discussion.

On Care for Those on the Margins

marginalizedA question I’m asked from time to time is some variation on the following: “Given that this is such a relatively small population, why do we allocate so much time and attention to it?”

I’ve had this question around sexual identity concerns, where roughly 6-8% of the population has at one time experienced same-sex attraction and 2-3% report a homosexual orientation. The question comes up a little more often when discussing gender dysphoria, which is quite rare, or even transgender persons, which is a broader umbrella, but still a smaller percentage than what is represented by gay and lesbian persons.

I usually acknowledge that more people in a given setting are navigating other concerns. For example, at a Christian college, far more students will be finding ways to respond to depression or anxiety or pornography than same-sex sexuality or gender dysphoria.

But the question seems to come out of a place of either inexperience or privilege. It’s typically asked by people who have no known connection to the topic or to persons represented by the topic.

I’ve never been asked that question by a Christian parent whose daughter has just come out. I’ve not been asked the question by a gay student who doesn’t know how to talk about his same-sex sexuality with anyone at his Christian college. Or a wife whose husband has announced he is a woman trapped in the body of a man.

For my point of view, we have to look at two things (at least). One thing to consider is that debates about sexuality and gender are imbued with significance both in the church and the broader culture. They have been front-and-center in the cultural wars and there have been mistakes made by many people who represent a range of stakeholders. We can all do better.

We can also consider whether it is simply the hallmark of the Christian to care about those at the margins. By definition, those at the margins will be underrepresented and a smaller overall number. But how we respond to them, how we find ways to identify their concerns and respond in a Christ-like manner is the stuff of Christianity. Whether we talk about the stranger in a strange land or the lost coin or the lost sheep or the lost son, it is part of what makes Christians Christ-like. It is in our DNA.

If these concerns are not your concerns, I can appreciate where you might raise this question. But can I invite you to get to know people for whom this is their concern? Would you consider spending some time with these folks and see if other questions come to mind?

Perhaps rather than ask why we spend time on a topic that represents a relatively small percent of people, you may find yourself asking why we haven’t spent time on this in the past, and why, when we have spent time on it, our efforts have not been nearly as constructive as perhaps they could have been.


The Cultural Salience of Gender Dysphoria

thAs we come to the close of 2015, let me take a moment to reflect on what has been a rather remarkable year with respect to gender dyshporia. For about 16 years now, I have seen individuals, couples, and families where a person was navigating gender dysphoria. It is not my primary area of research and clinical practice; that would be sexual identity. Gender dysphoria is thought to be a rare phenomenon, but conservative estimates have frequently come from the number of people seeking out specialty clinics in Europe. More recent approaches have been through national studies and the inclusion of “transgender” as a category option. Neither of these is a particularly accurate measure of prevalence. “Transgender” is itself an umbrella term for any number of experiences of gender identity that do not match those that align with one’s biological or birth sex. Those who experience gender dysphoria would be a subset of people who identify as transgender.

Earlier this year I was asked by the editor of Christianity Today (CT) to write a featured article on gender dysphoria for their magazine. The editor had watched a talk I gave at Calvin College in February and was looking for an article that would help the CT readership come to a better understanding of the topic. I had also just completed a book that was scheduled for publication by InterVarsity Press Academic in June/July, so that timing was actually pretty good. I agreed to write the article.

The CT article on gender dysphoria was recently listed as one of the most-read CT articles of 2015. The article has not been without its critics, however. One theologian wrote a critical response to it in First Things. The editors allowed me to write a reply, which you can read here. (The most insightful review I’ve read is here.)

As I have been thinking through the nature of the critiques, one acquaintance approached me with a typology that he thought might be helpful. He said it was not original to him, but he was sharing that there may be different callings and audiences in the mix. He offered a taxonomy of purposes and corresponding audiences:

  1. to instruct morally and to strengthen ethical resolve;
  2. to instruct for the purposes of pastoral response and engagement;
  3. to engage pastorally with individuals, that person in need, and families who are affected;
  4. to respond to the gay/gender activists, sometimes within the liberal church, and often those outside the church.

The thought that was being shared is that perhaps my article and primary area of work has been in #2 and #3, whereas conservative Christians who have raised concerns have as their primary role #1 and/or #4.

Gender Dysphoria coverIt’s an interesting thought, and one I will leave to the reader to discern. Part of where I think Christians who have raised concerns and I are potentially speaking past one another is that I am focusing on gender dysphoria and the management of the distress experienced by the person navigating gender identity conflicts. Some of my critics are tackling the entire transgender umbrella with many or all of its presentations. We are at times simply not discussing the same thing.

In any case, I do provide clinical services in this area and continue to work closely with individuals, couples, and families navigating gender identity concerns. I typically recommend people go to more comprehensive clinics with larger, multidisciplinary teams, but in many cases people prefer to see a Christian, and so I am willing to meet with those individuals/families. So #3 is certainly a part of my professional work. Also, the CT article itself was geared toward helping Christians have a more compassionate response to a complex phenomenon, so in that sense #2 seems quite relevant.

About two years ago I thought that gender dysphoria would represent a wave that would crest on evangelical Christians and that the church was not prepared for it. This dawned on my through a series of talks to youth ministers who increasingly faced complex ministry challenges associated with gender identity questions. These encounters were why I approached IVP Academic about the book. However, it would have been difficult to predict just how culturally salient gender dyshporia and the transgender experience would become (with multiple reality TV shows, prominent award-recipients, and so on).

As we head into 2016 it will be interesting to track just how salient these topics will become, what they will symbolize in our culture, and how the Christian community will respond. There are no easy answers. What I recommend is a thoughtful, prayerful approach, one characterized by humility about what we know and do not know, and a response that embodies conviction, civility, and compassion in all our exchanges within the Body of Christ and beyond.