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.”
CBN News put together a program on sexual identity titled, Homosexuality: A Christian View. I think many Christians will find this to be a helpful program. There are perspectives from theology, psychology, pastoral care, and Christian persons navigating sexual identity in their lives or the lives of a loved one.
The program itself is only 30 minutes, but each interview was closer to an hour. CBN News is now making some of those interviews available in advance of the program debut.
In the program itself, you will see excerpts from the following interview. The only clarification I would offer is that my discussion of change ministries precedes a brief mention of a therapy group that I offer. The therapy group focuses on navigating and coping with sexual and religious identity conflicts and is not a change therapy, which is not as clear as I would have liked in the way the interview is edited.
In any case, some readers of the blog may find this helpful:
I returned recently from the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in Nashville. I was able to do a pre-conference workshop on different lenses for “seeing” sexual and gender identity concerns. I also conducted a regular workshop on counseling Christian parents whose children have come out. At the end of both sessions I received a lot of positive feedback. Many professionals and actual parents came up after the second session to say what they had gained from the workshop for counseling Christian parents.
In addition to these positive responses, I also had a couple of people challenge the posture I took toward Christian parents around topics like whether to open their homes to a gay son or daughter, whether to attend important events (e.g., graduations, weddings), and so on. I think of this as establishing boundaries, which is a common challenge most Christian parents face as they respond to a child who has come out. Generally speaking, I work with parents to identify options for responding and setting boundaries and help them think through the potential benefits and drawbacks (to them, their child, and their relationship) of each option.
The main concern expressed to me by those critical of what I shared was the idea that in Scripture the apostle Paul writes about not even associating with someone who is engaged in immoral activity while professing to be a Christian. The admonition occurs in 1 Corinthians 5:11: “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” One person quoted this passage; another quoted the passage in which Jesus says, “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?‘ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50). The person said, “Whoever does the will of my Father is the person I am to associate with; not someone who does not do the will of the Father.”
I wanted to take a few minutes to ‘think out loud’ about some of the feedback from those critical of the posture I took. My position in response to invitations to dinner, hosting meals, special occasions, and so on was to acknowledge that Christian parents have not reached consensus on what to do; they do not all do one thing. Indeed, there is great diversity in how Christian parents respond, and the posture I take is to create an environment for parents to weigh options and decide on boundaries in light of that thoughtful reflection. Among the one or two people who voiced a concern seemed to be the wish that I would tell the parents what they had to do as Christians. This is simply not the posture I take in counseling. The parent-child relationship is one of the most important relationships for the well-being of the child, and I want to help parents weight options and land on strategies after due consideration and prayerful reflection. In response to a wedding invitation, which I see as a little different than some of the other examples, I also discussed helping the parents think through what their concerns are, which usually has to do with having a Christian witness to their son/daughter, and which course of action best helps them communicate what they hope to communicate.
Part of what I was sharing was that there are essentially two tasks Christian parents have shared with us in different studies we have conducted: (1) seeking help/information/resources and (2) maintaining a relationship with their loved one. It is in the context of these two tasks that parents face questions about whether to participate in various activities and whether to host an adult child and his or her partner or spouse.
I do not know anyone who views Jesus’ comments as reflecting a posture you are to take toward family members–as though it was meant as detailed instruction for how to talk with an adult child about the decisions they face or have made. The passage from 1 Corinthians is perhaps more relevant at first glance, but I still do not see it as intending to provide instruction for how parents are to respond to a loved one. It may be that a family is part of a church that provides church discipline and that some behavior may warrant such oversight. But it seems to me that under those conditions any church discipline is carried out not by parents but by leadership in the church. Also, I hope that such church discipline occurs consistently across multiple areas of concern (and not exclusively associated with same-sex behavior) and with appropriate humility and with an eye for restoration of the person. I think it is a misreading of Paul to cut/paste verse 11 and apply it to parents who are responding to a child who has identifies as gay.
I also think it is an unhelpful posture to take toward counseling to simply tell parents how to relate to a loved one. These are very difficulty, weighty, and sometimes quite painful decisions, and such decisions warrant ample time, attention, and respectful engagement as parents consider which boundaries to draw.
Calvin College has hosted a Sexuality Series for several years now, and just this past week I had the opportunity to participate in the series and to speak on the topic of our series: Gender Dysphoria. If you would like to watch that talk, you can see it here. It will provide you with a sense for where the series is headed.
In the past several years our culture has changed dramatically in terms of popular cultural and professional acceptance of transgender persons. In the popular culture, we see this in the recent Time magazine cover and popularity of shows that have transgender characters. Our culture has in many ways moved past the afternoon television shows that capitalized on “shock and awe” in their presentations, where you might see producers orchestrate a dramatic confrontation between a male-to-female transgender person who once dated a woman and is now surprising her with her true sense of self. These colorful presentations in the media were once an expression of almost gawking at the phenomenon, but they did not reflect the cultural sea change that would soon follow.
In the professional literature, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-fifth edition (DSM-5) reflected a shift away from Gender Identity Disorder toward the use of the phrase Gender Dysphoria to reduce stigma. Actually, several steps in the new nomenclature were intended to reduce stigma. The first is the shift from an emphasis on identity as the disorder to the emphasis on the dysphoria or distress associated with the gender incongruence for many people who report it. The other was the wording to allow for someone to no longer meet criteria following a transition.
In my forthcoming book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, I define numerous key terms. Let me cover three here:
Gender dysphoria: The experience distress associated with the incongruence wherein one’s psychological and emotional gender identity does not match one’s biological sex.
Transgender: An umbrella term for the many ways in which people might experience and/or present, express (or live out) their gender identities differently from people whose sense of gender identity is congruent with their biological sex.
Transsexual: A person who believes he or she was born in the “wrong” body (of the other sex) and wishes to transition (or has transitioned) through hormonal treatment and sex reassignment surgery.
There are expressions of what we often refer to as gender variance that would not necessarily report gender dysphoria. For example, most people who have an intersex condition (e.g., congenital adrenal hyperplasia), do not report gender dysphoria. They may have a higher incidence rate than those who do not have an intersex condition, but gender dysphoria is not a given for someone with an intersex condition. Nor would it be common for a person performing drag. That person may not even think of him or herself as transgender, and many in the transgender community would not think the transgender umbrella covers most drag kings and queens.
So it’s complicated. This is an area that requires time and patience to unpack and truly understand—and even then, we do so with humility given how much we do not know at this time. But Christians are going to need to spend some time on this topic–to spend time in careful reflection as we think about the best way to engage the broader culture while simultaneously considering how to come alongside people within our own Christian communities who are navigating this terrain.
As I bring this post to a close, I want to point out that there has been one study published of male-to-female transgender Christians. My research team conducted this study a couple of years ago. It was a study that addressed gender identity and religious identity in terms of personal faith, God, and the local church. Perhaps surprisingly, some transgender Christians shared that their gender dysphoria led to a strengthening of their personal faith; others reported a past struggle with their faith, and still others left the organized religion with which they grew up. For some, the challenges they faced brought them closer to God, but others reported a strained relationship with God because of their gender dysphoria. What was particularly common were past conflict with the local church community or the persons and leaders who represent these organizations. I’m sure I’ll come back to this study in a future post, but needless to say, it provides an interesting perspective on the topic.
Most people approach this topic with one question in mind: What are you for (and what are you against) in terms of resolution? I have not found this question to be exceedingly helpful over the years I’ve worked with gender dysphoric persons. As I’ve mentioned previously, it is unclear to me at this time that there is any one outcome that is ultimately satisfying to everyone who has a stake in these discussions. It is such a rare condition that we little good research from which to draw strong conclusions, and I have known people who felt gender dysphoria so strongly that they felt that nothing less than their sanity and their life was at stake. They desperately sought a resolution to a dysphoria that caused them significant distress and impairment. This is not an argument that they then should pursue the most invasive procedures, but I can understand and empathize with that decision, as painful as it often is. Rather than reject the person facing such conflicts, the Christian community would do well to recognize the conflict and try to work with the person to find a path. There is an opportunity here to learn much more than we know at present, and we would do well to enter into the discussion with patience and humility, as we balance multiple perspectives on how best to resolve what people often report to be an impossible situation.
A recent World magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.
I was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.
In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.
I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.
The author of the World magazine piece frames the study as being about “showing that changing sexual orientation is possible.” A more accurate way to think about the study is this: “Is it ever possible that sexual orientation can change?” This is important because it leaves open the question of what causes the change. The original study was launched at a time when the broader cultural consensus seemed to be that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic. That is, that sexual orientation is unchanging. Period. We asked whether it is ever possible to witness change in sexual orientation over time and whether such experiences were intrinsically harmful. We documented average changes along a continuum. Averages that suggested that for some those shifts were more significant; for others, not significant (or no change).
The study was an outcome study. That is, we were studying whether changes in orientation occurred; we were not studying the process of change. We do not even know if it was involvement in the Christian ministry that contributed to the changes that were documented. It is possible that the changes that were documented were the result of natural fluidity or some other variable that we did not account for. There was certainly (for some) changes in identity and behavior, as we discussed in the journal article about the study.
Why is this important? It is important because the evangelical Christian community has an opportunity to think carefully about pastoral care which is intimately connected to the message it sends to people who are navigating sexual identity concerns in their lives. We can affirm a God who can bring about the miraculous while also being gracious to those who do not experience the miraculous. We do this all the time when we pray for people for any number of concerns that are brought to us. But in this one area–homosexuality–there seems to be an added expectation that the person receive experience significant shifts in the direction of their sexual attraction or assume a posture of ongoing attempts to alter patterns of attraction even when such efforts have not produced the shift the person has sought.
I once wrote about a man in his forties who came to see me in therapy. He had been to a Christian ministry for the past three years to try to change his attractions. After the first year going through a popular 30-week curriculum, he shared with the ministry leader that he still experienced same-sex attraction. The leader encouraged him to go back through the curriculum for a second year. He did. At the end of that year, he approached the ministry leader with the concern that while he had grown in his relationship with Christ and sincerely appreciated the fellowship with others, he was still experiencing same-sex attractions as strong as ever; what should he do? He was advised to go back through the curriculum for a third time. It was only after the end of the third year that he came to see me to discuss other options. We discussed how he thought about his same-sex sexuality and various postures he could take in light of his personal moral convictions. We discussed an ongoing posture of attempting to change; we discussed living with an enduring condition; we discussed a “thorn in the flesh” that he has asked to be removed many more times that Paul could have imagined. These different conceptualizations were difficult for this particular man. He had been led to believe that it was a personal, spiritual failure to come to terms with his same-sex attractions as something that would not go away–as something he would not experience a shift around. Such a belief drove him to depression and shame.
Yet he is not alone. Many people do not experience a dramatic shift in their experiences of same-sex attraction despite years of ministry involvement. This man spoke to me about three years. Julie in her speaking references 10 years. The question for the church is: What kind of pastoral care will the church provide in cases in which there is an enduring experience of same-sex attraction? A related question for pastoral care is to reflect on what is the nature of sexual attraction? Is it just a desire for genital sexual intimacy or is it broader than that? How we reflect on these questions will inform our care for one another. Although space will not permit an adequate exploration of that question, we need to at least ask: Is it a moral failure of the person to come to terms with an enduring condition? Although the issues are not the same, it was not in the case with Paul; I don’t believe it was a failure in the case of the man I discussed. I also don’t believe it is a failure on the part of Julie. In fact, I believe these are more likely outcomes than the testimonies of dramatic change. I don’t want to discourage a person from attempting such change, but I also want to be careful not to convey to that person that there worth before God is wrapped up in their capacity to experience sexual attraction to the opposite sex. I know countless men and women who are no more Christlike by virtue of their attraction to the opposite sex.
Also, how ought a person describe him or herself? Same-sex attracted? Gay? Struggler? Sexual minority? Overcomer? There are about as many names as there are opinions on the matter. I find there is a point of diminishing returns for me as someone who is not navigating this terrain to act as though I have the final word on how another brother or sister in Christ ought to use language. This is an internal discussion among followers of Christ who are talking to one another about the benefits and drawbacks of various words or phrases. One observation: younger people–Christians and nonChristians alike–are using gay as simply an adjective to describe their sexual orientation.
The church may benefit from finding a way to hold onto different ministry approaches. Some will place greater emphasis on a more complete and dramatic shift in patterns of attraction. Most people will not experience this. Others will turn to changes in identity and behavior and language will be important here, as certain words may be experienced as indicative of identity. Still others will pursue celibacy as a way to live faithfully before God; different language may match up with their ways of naming their experience. We have to find a way to extend one another grace. To suggest that all people who experience same-sex attraction have to achieve dramatic shifts as a testimony to the power of God will be unnecessarily divisive, a poor model of pastoral care, and a sure way of driving people out of the church altogether.
Note: This is cross-posted with SF.
Following a recent engagement with an advocate of Queer Theory, I had the opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges that arise in establishing meaningful lines of communication. Although I was not being asked to participant in a dialogue in this specific exchange, the engagement highlighted for me several of the challenges that would present themselves had that been the format.
Queer Theory is an academic lens that is primarily focused on how we know things to be true and what counts as knowledge, both of which are part of epistemology. Queer Theory is indebted to the writings of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, among others, particularly those who identify existing structures of authority as sources of oppression that must be deconstructed.
For example, Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble, stresses the need to deconstruct not only gender, which is widely viewed as socially constructed, but also sex, which is widely viewed as fixed and stable aspect of personhood steeped in biology:
Is there a history of how the duality of sex was established, a genealogy that might expose the binary options as a variable construction? Are the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests? If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.
Whereas the biological distinction between male/female had been considered rather immutable, as we can see, there are those who wish to recast sex as just as socially constructed as gender.
That topic alone is worthy of extended analysis. However, I want to focus on the practical challenges associated with entering into dialogue with true believers of Queer Theory. In the exchange I am reflecting on, I was struck by how the appeal by proponents to concepts like microaggressions and, more recently, trigger events, function to manage community discourse on topics of genuine theological debate. (Trigger events are those circumstances that could cause symptoms to surface among those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
Before we go further, let me state that I believe microaggressions exist. In fact, my research institute has studied the experiences of same-sex attracted students at faith-based institutions of higher education and documented the occurrence of subtle verbal and nonverbal insults and offenses. Microaggressions are real and should be a topic of study.
But what happens if every rational point of disagreement is referred to as a microaggression?
In a recent exchange a Queer Theorist identified the phrase “Love the sinner; hate the sin” as a microaggression. I found this fascinating because, as I mentioned in the exchange, I take a completely different approach to foster cognitive complexity and empathy. I try to understand this phrase through the mind of those who use it. I find that while I do not encourage the use of this particular phrase, I understand how it frequently functions as a heuristic for traditionally believing Christians who wish to hold two claims simultaneously. The first claim being that same-sex behavior falls outside of God’s revealed will for genital sexual expression. The second claim being that there is intrinsic value and worth and dignity in all persons.
One of my goals in these kinds of exchanges is to understand the views of those with whom I disagree. I can appreciate how the “Love the sinner…” language, being as over-used as it has been, has been a source of great consternation to Queer Theorists and the broader LGBT community.
I have not seen this kind of mutual understanding as the goal of Queer Theorists. Rather, my experience has been that it is strategically necessary to frame any contrary assertion – regardless of rational argument – as a microaggression and summarily dismiss it and (by extension) those for whom it has functioned as a meaningful heuristic.
The same claim was made in response to the traditionally-believing Christian’s view that marriage is founded in the creation story as it depicts a male/female union. In other words, this perspective was also deemed a microaggression. I thought this was incredible at the time. Although I marveled at the Queer Theorist’s consistency, I was struck by how this maneuver functions in public discourse about sexual ethics: It shuts down meaningful discussion. There is little that can be said in response to the assertion that ones rational account of sexual ethics is nothing more than an aggressive and dehumanizing source of oppression.
I think a response that could be worth exploring would be to ask the Queer Theorist what kind of assertion could be made to express disagreement with the lens through which the Queer Theorist views the world. In other words, I know that I can argue my case and the case of those with whom I disagree. Can the Queer Theorist articulate a perspective that is not a microaggression or trigger point but which also stands in clear disagreement with the conclusions the person holds as an adherent of Queer Theory? If so, it may be an argument worthy of analysis. If not, it may be best to retire the notion that this was ever a rational dialogue.