In 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.
There are not many days that are as fulfilling to a writer as the day you send your book manuscript to your editor. Today I was able to send in the “completed” manuscript for Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses. I place quotation marks around “completed” because, inevitably, there are minor edits to be made after it is gone over with a fine-toothed comb by the editor, but it is off my desk for the time-being, and that is why I celebrate today.
What can the reader expect with this book? This is both an academic book and an accessible book. Let me unpack that apparent contradiction. This is a more academic book insofar as the primary focus is explaining a longitudinal study of the experiences of sexual minorities at Christian college campuses. We go over what we found in terms of the salience of their Christian faith, their experience of the campus climate, their response to campus policies, their psychological health and emotional well-being, recommendations they would make to administrators, advice they would give to incoming sexual minorities, and so much more. To do that, we had to show the data and explain it, so in that sense, it will read as more academic.
At the same time, we have many breakout boxes to explain the material and “take away” summary points at the end of each chapter. We draw on interviews we conducted with students, and we share their experiences in their own words. In that sense, it is accessible.
This is also a co-authored book. Janet Dean (Asbury University), Stephen Stratton (Asbury Seminary), and Michael Lastoria (Houghton College) collaborated with me on the longitudinal study these past three years and were instrumental in moving the material from a research study to a book-length manuscript.
The schedule for the release of the book is March/April of 2018. I’ll keep you posted!
The CBN News program titled, Homosexuality: A Christian View, was launched over Easter weekend. You’ll recall that there was a slow roll out of several interviews over the past couple of weeks. Well, the entire program is now available.
What I appreciate about the program is that the producer brought together a Christian theologian, pastor, and psychologist, as well as a parent of a gay man and a celibate gay Christian. So there are elements that address what we know/do not know from Scripture and from research on sexual orientation. There is also the experience of a compassionate pastor who holds in a tension the traditional Christian sexual ethic with a remarkable degree of compassion. I also appreciated hearing the personal stories of a mother of a gay son and the story of a celibate gay Christian. It accomplishes a lot in just 30 minutes.
Several members of my research institute recently published a small, qualitative study of 18 students and alumni of Christian institutions of higher education. The students and alumni all identified as Christian; they all reported same-sex attraction or otherwise identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB).
We organized the findings around two themes: (1) experiences of attraction, orientation, identity, and associated milestone events, and (2) campus climate. I wanted to share a few impressions from the study–these are just some things that stood out to me.
We asked about specific milestone events in the formation of one’s sexual identity. Milestone events are commonly studied in research on sexual identity development. They refer to sign posts LGB adults recall as important in their own formation of an LGB identity. We ask about these even though we recognize that an LGB identity may not be an outcome for all Christians who are navigating same-sex sexuality and sexual identity considerations. In any case, first awareness of same-sex sexuality is a common milestone event. As you might anticipate, all of our participants reported first awareness of same-sex attractions–with an average age of awareness at about 11. It was interesting to me that those behaviors that are more volitional–those behaviors that a person has say about–were less commonly reported. For instance, only 50% reported a first same-sex relationship.
For good or for ill, there is a lot of discussion in Christian circles about identity labels. Is it okay to identify as gay and Christian? We did not ask our participants about whether or not it was okay; rather, we asked whether they adopted a gay identity. About 44% identified themselves as gay (“took on the label of gay” was the actual wording). We also asked about disclosure, and each participant shared with someone else that they experienced same-sex attraction (“first disclosure of same-sex attraction” was the wording). But most of that disclosure was to just a few friends while they were students.
What about campus climate? It perhaps comes as no surprise that about half indicated a hesitancy on the part of their campus to discuss sexual identity. I thought it was interesting that about half indicated that their campus was open to discussion/progress in this area. Perhaps its a matter of perspective. Maybe there is greater variability among campuses. One student talked about compassion:
Our university really tries to push the issue to make it more known. Not from a specifically acceptable standpoint, but to say it’s a legitimate struggle just the same as everybody else in the sins that they have. They try to have a biblical view on it and just to encourage people to come alongside people with the struggle. I think it’s been something that’s been getting in motion. (p. 23)
I think as a research group we were also struck by what were referred to as “pockets of safety.” These are friendships or relationships that are places a person can be more honest and forthcoming. One student shared the following:
One group of friends I hung out with I chose very carefully and very intentionally because I realized that they were just a little bit more accepting in general… two of them I can think of didn’t agree that homosexuality was okay, but they still treated me like a human being, still had fun with me, still invited me to things, and my sexuality never defined me. (p. 23)
We asked what I thought was an interesting question toward the end of the study: What advice would you give to other Christian students on your campus who experience same-sex attraction? The most common response by far was to find trustworthy people. One person shared, “Find at least one person you can be open with.”
When asked what the campus could do differently in this area, answers went in a few different directions, but one thing that was shared is something I hear quite often as a guest speaker at Christian colleges and universities: Provide us with some clarification about what we as students can and cannot do to be supportive of one another without putting ourselves at risk for discipline.
There was a lot more, of course. These are just some of the findings that stood out to me. Perhaps other findings would stand out to you. You can read the entire study here.
We have a separate study along these same lines that is currently underway. It is a larger study with more quantitative measures as well as qualitative interviews. We hope to have data analyzed soon.
This 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.
There is a video from the Gay Christian Network that is getting some buzz for the kinds of answers straight Christians in particular said about sexual orientation. Here is the video:
Several people have asked me what I think of the video. I think it’s pretty interesting. Many of the presentations I give at Christian colleges and universities tries to address some of the points raised in the video, although when it comes to research, the wording of questions is important. For example, on the matter of causation, the video asks, “Is being gay a choice?” and 2/3 of the traditionally believing Christians said Yes.
Another question asked is: “Are some people born gay?” You see again a pretty big difference between the two groups. I would say this: That can be a difficult question to answer even if you had an open-ended interview. I can see how you might have dramatic differences between straight and gay Christians (or, in this context, what GCN refers to as Side B and Side A Christians). The point raised at the end of the video is important here: Are we talking past one another? Is “being gay” about attractions, orientation or identity in the minds of those completing the survey? If people are thinking attractions/orientation, then this is really important that we understand that people are not choosing to experience same-sex attractions. If “being gay” is about behavior or identity (in the minds of those completing the survey), then those things are volitional. So when we talk about the complicated area of etiology, it is a really difficult area to answer in a “Yes/No” format.
On the question of change, I think this is really important. According to the video, over 3/4 of the straight Christians said that gay people can become straight. (Interestingly, I may have missed it, but I did not see GCN report what gay Christians said to this question.) This is a huge topic that can quickly become a dividing line for people, and when it does, it almost always reflects the larger culture wars than anything that really reflects the complexity of the research in this area. My own views have tempered following the publication of a seven-year longitudinal study on attempted change, and perhaps I’ll write more about that at a later date.
It was concerning to me that over half of the straight respondents thought that it was sin to have same-sex attractions even when committing oneself to celibacy. This would add tremendous pressure to a gay person to become straight (or to present that way/claim it), as that is the only path–the only outcome–that would be morally permissible according to how this survey findings are being presented. That is in part why I have appreciated the writing of folks over at Spiritual Friendship, as they are exploring this whole area of celibacy and friendships in a deep and meaningful way.
When I first saw portions of the video I thought of a study we conducted on the attitudes of sexual minority Christian undergrads. So this was a sample of just sexual minorities–which we defined as students who experienced same-sex attraction regardless of behavior or identity label (much the same way other researchers have done from within the mainstream). What we reported was that the strength of attraction to the same-sex and to the opposite-sex was related to attitudes toward sexual behavior. For example, sexual minorities who reported less same-sex attraction had more traditionally conservative attitudes towards same-sex behavior. We reported similar findings for sexual minorities who had stronger attractions to the opposite sex. That alone is kind of interesting when you think of what it means to achieve congruence, so that you are able to live and form an identity in keeping with your beliefs and values. The strength of your attractions may figure into that in some important ways.
We asked the question about causation, too, but we worded it this way: “Persons can be born with a same-sex predisposition.” Participants with little same-sex attraction were less likely to agree with that statement than those with higher levels of same-sex attraction. Those with high or moderate levels of attraction to the opposite sex were also less likely to endorse that statement than those with with little attraction to the opposite sex.
In any case, the study I mentioned on sexual minority undergrads at Christian colleges and universities can be found at here. I hope that the folks at GCN will submit their study to a journal and have it peer-reviewed and published, as I think it could be an interesting addition to the larger discussion.
In closing, it is interesting in both of these studies that the reference points appear to have to do with beliefs about causation and change, as well as the strength of attractions (in our study). It has me wondering: What are the sources for a Christian’s beliefs about morality? Is the source research (whether we are talking about causation or change)? Has it more to do with one’s own attractions and how strong they are? Is it one’s reading of Scripture? Maybe that is too simplistic. Even if it is one’s reading of Scripture, is that reading and interpretation influenced in significant ways by other variables, such as research on causation/research on change and one’s own attractions to the same- or opposite-sex? What is the relationship? What should it be?