Single Sexuality and the Sexual Minority

Here is another excerpt from my new book (co-authored with Dr. Erica S. N. Tan), Sexuality and Sex Therapy: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. In the chapter on working withsextherapytext people who present with sexual identity conflicts or concerns, we discuss the topic of singleness:

In her Christian integration book Sexuality and Holy Longing, Lisa Graham McMinn includes the topic of homosexuality in her chapter on single sexuality. Christians who are single may be single for any number of reasons. some in their older teens or twenties are heterosexual but not currently married; others are heterosexual and much older, perhaps in their fifties or sixties, and they never did marry. Still others were once married, but now they are single due to divorce or the death of their spouse. Christian sexual minorities often do not marry because they do not believe they should enter into a same-sex relationship, nor do they choose to be in a mixed sexual orientation marriage (in which they marry someone who is heterosexual).

How is the single state as experienced by a sexual minority similar to or different from other experiences of singleness? For example, in terms of one practical difference, single heterosexuals can date and explore physical contact (hugs, kisses) with someone of the opposite sex without concern that it will be viewed as immoral behavior. The same option for exploration is not available to the sexual minority in the church. This is a significant difference that may not be fully appreciated by those who discuss celibacy and singleness for sexual minorities. Another notable concern is that at times, Christian sexual minorities in the church are given the message that attempts to have their needs met emotionally or physically (e.g., touch) need to be met with caution because they may “fall” or find themselves participating in immoral behavior. One ministry leader once commented that Christian sexual minorities should not live together for fear of “falling” into a sinful sexual relationship. While this may be sound advice for some individuals, the message that could be sent to the sexual minority in the church is that he or she is hypersexual and this his or hers sexuality and attractions are to be feared.

In terms of similarities we can point to the need for the larger body of Christ to provide support for singles. Much of our local church programming is oriented toward married couples and families. Programs for singles are often geared toward getting them married, as though being single in some way makes a person “incomplete” or “less than” in ways we may not want to convey. What about the question of whether the body of Christ provides singles (straight and gay alike) with enough emotional and spiritual support to make celibacy a viable possibility? Is it a legitimate question to ask, Who shoulders the burden of this glaring failure, and what does that mean in very practical terms for the church today?

Discussions of singleness and practical ways of including and nurturing the faith of single persons extends to so many people in the church today. How the church responds to the needs and experiences of single persons speaks volumes to the Christian sexual minority in terms of their potential place and worth, as well as expectations for living and stewardship of sexuality and sexual identity.

“Creative Fidelity”

Here is an excerpt from my new book (co-authored with Dr. Erica S. N. Tan) titled Sexuality & Sex Therapy: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal.In thesextherapytext chapter on Sexual Interest and Arousal Disorders, we have a closing reflection on integration. It’s here that we introduce the concept of “creative fidelity” by Lewis Smedes. It’s a concept I have long appreciated and just wanted to highlight:

For those who marry, we appreciate the concept of “creative fidelity” introduced by Lewis Smedes (1994, p. 145). Smedes points out that a married person’s obligation to be faithful should not be reduced to avoiding sexual behavior that detracts from the marriage; rather, there is a positive expression of fidelity that warrants our attention. Smedes develops this idea of creative fidelity as faithfulness to calling (the state of marriage), service, one’s partner (and their well-being), our own personal growth, and so on. On the matter of desire,

“A man or woman can be just too busy, too tired, too timid, too prudent, or too hemmed in with fear to be seriously tempted by an adulterous affair. But this same person can be a bore home, callous to the delicate needs of his partner. He or she may be too prudish to be an adventuresome lover, but too cowardly to be in hones communication and too busy to put himself out for anything more than a routine ritual of personal commitment. He/she may be able to claim that he/she never cheated; but he/she may not be able to claim that he/she was ever really honest. He/she may never have slipped outside the marriage; but he/she may never have tried to grow along with his/her partner into a deep, personal relationship of respect and regard within marriage. His/her brand of negative fidelity may be an excuse of letting the marriage fall by neglect into dreary conformity to habit and, with that, into a dull routine of depersonalized sex…. anyone who thinks that morality in marriage is fulfilled by avoiding an affair with a third party has short-circuited the personal dynamics of fidelity.” (pp. 146-147)

So discussions of sexual desire/interest/arousal should not be limited to a negative discussion about what is absent; it should also reference a positive discussion about what is possible. It should include a proactive posture toward one’s partner (for those who are married) in terms of “creative fidelity” toward the whole person and redemptive structure of marriage itself.

The Appeal and Motivation of Types of Congruence

I was providing a training for counselors recently, and at one point we were discussing the concept of congruence, which I was describing as an end goal in a counseling process I had helped co-develop with Warren Throckmorton (referred to as Sexual Identity Therapy). The thinking is that when you counsel someone who experiences a conflict between their sexual identity and their religious identity, you want to help them resolve that conflict; that resolution can be thought of as congruence.  The experience of congruence may look different for different people.

cropped-identity2.jpgWhen I think of congruence, I am thinking of helping a person live his/her life and form an identity in keeping with his/her beliefs and values. I came across the idea of congruence among gay Christians when I conducted a series of studies of sexual minority Christians. (“Sexual minority” in the mainstream LGBT literature refers to people who experience same-sex attraction whether or not they identify as LGBT or report same-sex behavior.) In any case, I was comparing those who integrated their attractions with a gay Christian identity and those Christians who dis-identified with a gay identity. If I were to translate this to the SF crowd, I would say that the gay Christian identity was closest to what we might describe as a Side A gay Christian. The group that dis-identified with a gay identity were either closer to what readers here would think of as Side B gay Christians (in terms of not viewing same-sex relationships as morally permissible) but without the “gay” identification, if that makes sense.

Our research group concluded that both groups achieved personal congruence. The one group achieved congruence as (“Side A”) gay and Christian by adjusting their beliefs and values so that they aligned with their behavior and identity as gay persons. They were part of a fellowship that affirmed them as gay Christians and celebrated gay as an expression of God’s creativity. (I saw these findings as comparable in some ways to the results Michele Wolkomir reported in her book, Be Not Deceived, where she reported that the shift for gay Christians was toward the valuing of tolerance in supporting a gay Christian identity.)

The other group achieved congruence by dis-identifying with a gay identity and the gay community, which was in keeping with their sexual ethic; instead, they aligned their behavior and identity with their conservative Christian beliefs and values. (This result, too, was in some ways comparable to but different from Wolkomir’s findings about ex-gays, as she found that they valued personal righteousness in a way that reflected their primary motivation for moving away from a gay identity.)

Completely independent of that research, I saw the concept of congruence discussed in the 2009 American Psychological Association task force report on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. In my own work, I had not been explicitly naming different kinds of congruence. What I was doing was simply describing different maneuvers (that is, shifting beliefs/values or shifting behavior/identity; Wolkomir’s emphasis on tolerance or righteousness). But I had not thought that much about the motivation to do so or given a name to the various motivations that could be present.

460In any case, in the 2009 task force report, the task force recognized that when people who adhere to traditional faith commitments experience a tension with their sexual identity, they may prefer one type of congruence over another. Much of psychology is steeped in what they referred to as organismic congruence, which they defined as “living with a sense of wholeness in one’s experiential self” (APA, 2009, p 18).  I think of this as essentially recognizing one’s impulses as important data, in some cases as a reliable moral guide for making decisions about one’s life. Congruence is then achieved by making changes in beliefs and values that will align well with the impulses one experiences in one’s sensate self.

In contrast, the task force reported that telic congruence refers to “living consistently within one’s valuative goals” (APA, 2009, p. 18).  I think of this as essentially connecting life here to transcendent reality and purposes, and making decisions based on one’s ideals.

Many gay Christians who experience a tension between their same-sex sexuality and their Christian faith experience their sexual drives and desires as instructive for how they should best meet their needs for intimacy.  Other gay Christians who feel that same tension turn to sources of authority outside of their sensate self and choose to live in a way that corresponds with that ethic.

Where do Side B gay Christians fit into this discussion of congruence? I’ll invite them to chime in for themselves, but I would wonder if they wouldn’t find the telic congruence as more of a reflection of how they align their behavior to correspond with their beliefs and values as traditionally believing Christians. They don’t appear to me to be making a shift that is obviously a reflection of organismic congruence. Where does identity fit in? I imagine there is great variability among Side B gay Christians, but the identity piece is not found in denying a gay identity in the same way people did in the research I noted above; rather, identity seems more nuanced and multifaceted, framed in many ways in positive terms (by use of the word “gay” at least as an adjective).

Let me take this one step further. In the context of this training, we were discussing the appeal of both types of congruence. As we discussed organismic congruence, the draw that most everyone recognized is the role of impulses in decision-making. We reference our sensate self as we decide about when and how much to eat, about the importance of regular exercise, ample sleep, and so on. It’s not as though we want to distrust these impulses, although we might feel impulses that we need to curb in one way or another.

When we turn to sexual ethics, however, can we as readily turn to our impulses as reliable moral guides? As we extend the discussion to sexual impulses, how does the discussion change? Should it? You could imagine scenarios in which impulses may not provide particularly helpful guidance that should in all cases by followed.  In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis challenges the appeal to instincts: “Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war.” I think of Christians I’ve met in counseling who will talk about God releasing them from their commitment to their spouse in order to pursue another person who they have fallen in love with. I think of men who have justified affairs because their wife was not as responsive to sexual intimacy as they wanted.

Other gay Christians who experience a tension between their same-sex sexuality and their Christian faith look to ideals they wish to live by. They see these as transcendent purposes that they trust will provide a way of living and an identity.

What is the appeal of telic congruence? Telic congruence can give a person a sense of peace or security or worth if they believe they are doing something or making choices that are tied to transcendent purposes and structures of meaning. While this may be part of the appeal, there may be potential dangers as well. We discussed whether a person could connect striving toward telic congruence as a reflection of their worth or believe failure to make sufficient strides as placing them at risk of salvation or something along those lines.

As the task force report observed, telic congruence may prioritize values, but it “can be aware of sexual stigma and respectful of sexual orientation.” Likewise, organismic congruence, while it prioritizes “self-awareness and identity,” it can “be congruent with and respectful of religion” (p. 18).

It was a thought-provoking discussion that introduces not just the value of personal congruence but the motivations and appeal of different types of congruence. Perhaps there are yet more ways to conceptualize congruence that can add to our discussion as well.

On Telling People How To Navigate Sexual Identity

imagesSeveral people have asked me over the years about what I think about creative ways to live as a Christian sexual minority. I’m thinking of a conservative Christian sexual minority. Not long ago, the primary way to do it was to get into an ex-gay ministry of one kind or another. The way to live as a sexual minority was to no longer be a sexual minority by virtue of a change to heterosexuality. Even when that narrative was in full swing (and it still is in many places in the US and worldwide), I was asked about things like platonic partnerships or what people would talk about as lifelong relationships in which the two people who are either emotionally or sexually attracted to one another define the limits of their relationship in a way that reflects a traditional Christian sexual ethic.

If you are reading this and saying, “Why don’t they just get married?!?” or “Why put themselves through that kind of hell?!?” — it may help to understand that the people asking these questions are traditionally believing Christians. That is, they are Christians who adhere to a sexual ethic that states that sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman would be wrong. That’s not a discussion I’m getting into today. There is a place for that discussion, but let’s go with the premise that we are respecting a person’s stated beliefs and values surrounding sexual morality. What then?

I have conducted research on people who have tried to change their sexual orientation through involvement in religious ministries. Among other observations, I would say that most people did not have as much success in experiencing a shift along a continuum as they wanted coming into the ministry. There is more that could be said about that whole area, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I have for years supported folks who believe this is the best path for them, and I know several people who would continue to say this is the best direction for them.

I have also conducted several studies of people in mixed orientation marriages. That is, marriages in which one partner is straight and the other is a sexual minority (i.e., experiences same-sex attractions independent of sexual behavior or identity labels). These relationships are intriguing. I do not promote them–particularly one’s steeped in an ex-gay narrative of 180-degree change–but I do try to support people who are in them. I think there is a new generation of mixed orientation marriages that are coming out of a very different storyline (different than the ex-gay narrative), and I am curious to see what those marriages look like over time. I also want to support folks in these marriages.

Then there are Christians who decide that the best resolution is celibacy. To some, they have emerged as a new voice in the discussions about navigating sexual identity as a Christian. I want to support them as well, and I agree with those who say that we should conduct research to look at what this experience is like for a larger number of people over time (perhaps with a comparison group of single heterosexuals and married straight and gay persons–now that would be an interesting study).

But what about Christians who enter into a platonic partnership of some kind? (There could be many variations on this theme.) I am raising this question not only because I’ve been asked this question several times over the years, but also because of a new blog that is getting some attention. The blog is A Queer Calling, and it is written by two women who describe themselves as “a celibate LGBT Christian couple.”

cropped-prayerful-catI don’t really take a position that says such an arrangement is “right” or “wrong”. It’s kind of like the question I get about whether it’s ok for a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction to refer to him/herself as “gay.” I just don’t weigh in as though I have the deciding vote on whether its ok or not. Part of my thinking is this: I don’t face this issue in my life. For those Christians who do face this issue, I want to be supportive as they navigate this terrain. I imagine it’s hard enough to navigate without having the crowd in the stands telling them exactly how to do it. I also want to foster the kind of spiritual atmosphere and maturity that will aid them in decision-making.

You might ask what will come of hosting a public blog about that personal decision, but it is what they feel they can do, and perhaps they hope it will foster a kind of discussion about various options or life trajectories. I suspect that for them it feels like the “risks” (if you will) associated with a partnership of this kind outweigh the potential for loneliness or isolation many people report in remaining single. You might argue that they could do something more communal, which could in theory increase some of the intimacy while reducing some of the temptation. But each relationship you add creates a new set of expectations and obligations that would also need to be navigated for the kind of sustained/lifetime intimacy that is being sought.

No one resolution will fit every person’s experience. I’m not saying there is no “right” and “wrong”, but I am saying that it has been useful to show some humility as the very people involved try to sort this out. This may feel like new territory to many conservative Christian sexual minorities, and it would be good to support them, to come alongside them–even in circumstances in which you may believe they are not getting it exactly right–rather than keep them at arm’s length or judge them from a distance. If a couple is struggling to honor God with their lives together, and they are fully cognizant of the upsides and downsides of the various paths, then I would want to enter in and help them (pray for them, encourage them) in their exploration of creative alternatives.

I also want to promote discussions among Christian sexual minorities–so that they are able to talk to one another about this. Wouldn’t that be more helpful? How does trying to live as a celibate LGBT Christian couple sit with other Christian sexual minorities who share their values and are trying to figure all of this out? I imagine some would encourage a path to intimacy that reflects sharing more of a life in community rather than in an exclusive relationship, but others might disagree. In any case, I’m interested to hear their take on it.

An Exercise in the Removal of Saccharine

more-reflections-smallI love the exchange between Melinda Selmys and her husband recounted in the opening pages of Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections. They are discussing her earlier book, Sexual Authenticity, and he says of it: “It’s shit. It’s fake. It’s saccharine. It’s not honest. It’s not you. Write it again.”

That is part of the backdrop for the book Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections.

Another part of her motivation to offer further reflections was the way in which she and her book had been surreptitiously brought into a larger culture war. Reflecting on one of her first public interviews in which she shared the spotlight with a reparative therapist, she writes, “I felt like a fraud. I’d written a book about how the Culture Wars mentality was wrong, and suddenly I was in the thick of that war, an artillery piece in the battle against the Gay Agenda.”

But Selmys has another personal reaction I have not known:

Moreover, I knew that the politicization of my sexuality was an obstacle to the work that I actually wanted to be doing. I was producing the kind of ex-gay narrative that appeals to good Catholic mothers and father and sisters and brothers who dearly want their loved one’s to be able to achieve a full, vibrant, healthy, happy heterosexuality – the kind of ex-gay narrative that has failed the LGBTQ community so badly because it falls afoul of the real experience of many people with SSA [same-sex attraction]. (p. 37)

selmysI haven’t had this reaction because I do not personally experience my sexuality in this way. As an academic who conducts research on sexual identity, however, I have seen my research used toward political ends in ways that I, too, believe have not been helpful to sexual minorities who are navigating this terrain. I am thinking primarily of the Ex-Gays? study. The reality is that 90% of my research is actually on sexual identity development and the experiences of sexual minorities of faith in Christian colleges and universities, in mixed orientation marriages, and in navigating family relationships. So I appreciated her transparency in sharing this motivation to offer more reflections.

The sections that were particularly compelling to me were her personal accounts of how trying to follow the expectations of others (and their related narratives) did great damage to her and her marriage. It gets into the whole area of what to do with one’s same-sex sexuality. Celebrate it? Keep it at arm’s length? Vilify it? Selmys comes to the conclusion that her same-sex sexuality is not “accidental” to her sense of self or her marriage. That doesn’t mean that her same-sex sexuality is central either. She is committed to naming false dichotomies:

Nor is [my homosexuality] accidental to my marriage. I did a lot of damage, both to my identity and to my relationship with my husband, by trying to conform to some sort of one-size-fits all narrative of sexual complementarity. Because I could not acknowledge the part of me that is “queer” in the early years of our relationship, I withheld that part of me from our marriage and tried to replace it with a simulacrum of “authentic femininity” which was not in any way authentic to me. This was a significant omission in my gift of self. (p. 67)

Readers of her blog will recognize many section of the book. She will offer a post and then reflect on it as she has clearly interacted with readers around significant themes that have shaped her thinking in an area. That may sound like it would be somewhat disjointed, but the book does not read that way at all. It is well-written and flows from reflection to reflection in ways that readers will appreciate. The two things that stand out to me as possibly “difficult” about her book are that (1) Selmys, as a Catholic, engages with Catholic theology and philosophy in ways that may not be as familiar to evangelical Protestants, and (2) she pulls no punches. I found the connections to Catholic theology interesting and helpful. Too often evangelicals limit their connections to what John Piper or Tim Keller have said. It’s not that these pastors and theologians are the concerns–it’s that evangelicals can forget the broader theological landscape that is in front of them.

As for the punches not being pulled, let me offer this as an aside: Melinda helped me with a writing project on gender dysphoria (a workbook soon to be available through the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity), and she has no qualms about telling a writer what she thinks about his/her work. Within a matter of weeks, I was fully aware of the sections of my writing that she did not like. It was refreshing and humbling. Well, More Reflections is kind of like that. Her writing is refreshing and honest in ways that are just not that comfortable for the existing narratives for faithful sexual minorities in the church today. Those narratives, of course, are largely “ex-gay”, reflecting a clean transformation into a pure heterosexuality, which has not been her experience (she names and challenges an array of narratives on pp. 56ff). And I don’t think it is most people’s experience, and it is THAT narrative (not any one narrative but dozens and dozens of comparable narratives) that needs to be told for the church to come to a more realistic understanding of what pastoral care to sexual minorities can look like.

When I first started conducting research on sexual identity, I participated in a think tank with many folks on the topic of sexuality and marriage. (Let me say outright that I love think tanks. This one met in Lourdes, France, and…well…we were there to think. Not a bad arrangement in my view.) One of the other participants was the late Fr. John Harvey, the founder of Courage, a ministry to homosexuals in the Catholic Church. I enjoyed Fr. Harvey as a faithful man with a gentle spirit. I would have loved to have had a “beer summit” with he and Melinda to discuss pastoral care to the sexual minority. In fact, these two would not have needed me; I’d be there for the beer. But to have them engage in a thoughtful, honest discussion about the lives of Christian sexual minorities is the kind of exchange that is needed with many Christian leaders to move the church away from the culture wars and toward genuine pastoral care. I did not experience Fr. Harvey as interested in the culture wars, either, but so many Christian leaders today are–and there is an important shift that simply needs to take place.

Pastoral care based on a saccharine-based sexual identity narrative will only offer peace to those of us who do not experience sexual identity conflicts. That’s not pastoral care at all. It’s stress management for the majority while our brothers and sisters suffer in the trenches of a battle they should never have had to face on their own.

I have been encouraged lately by the voices of many Christians who are engaging this topic from the standpoint of their own lived reality. People like Melinda Selmys. People like Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau and Julie Rodgers. Others who write alongside them at Spiritual Friendship. This is a book that will stand alongside others like it and alongside the thoughtful wave of younger, devout Christians who are engaging this topic and the church in a more public and honest way.

New Study Published on MOCs

Academia is like farming. From the initial design of a study to the actual publication of it in a peer-reviewed journal takes time and patience. A study we conducted on mixed orientation couples has finally been published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. It is a really interesting quantitative study, and I think it adds something to what we know about these unique relationships.

commitment1Let me say at the outset that the findings might seem somewhat obvious, but a lot of what research does is provide empirical support for what most of us might assume would be true if we gave it some thought. If you were to reflect on what you think would go into a satisfying relationship, you might think that a commitment to the relationship was a part of that. You might also think that having a disposition toward forgiving your partner was also going to be important to relationship quality. Well, that’s really what we found among people who are in a mixed orientation relationship.

So a mixed orientation couple is a relationship in which one partner is heterosexual and the other is a sexual minority. When we refer to a “sexual minority,” we are thinking of someone who experiences same-sex attraction regardless of behavior or identity label. That may seem rather broad, but we are using a definition that has been used by others within the gay community who conduct comparable research. In terms of our sample, we had 105 sexual minorities and 160 spouses participate in this study. Most of the sexual minorities were male (53%) and most of the spouses of sexual minorities were female (74%). (Note that this was not a study of the couples but of people in a mixed orientation relationship–hence the percentages.)

As a group, folks were mildly distressed (on average and in terms of their overall relationship quality/satisfaction). They reported low/moderate levels of relationship commitment. In terms of the study hypotheses, we were looking at what predicted relationship quality. Essentially, relationship commitment, partner-focused forgiveness, and contractual-versus-covenental marital values (collectively) predicted relationship quality.

Relationship commitment contributed the most to relationship quality, followed by partner-focused forgiveness. Contractual-versus-covenental marital values did not add that much. Regarding relationship commitment, we say that “commitment is a protective factor for promoting relationship quality, satisfaction, and longevity in this population.” We note that relationship commitment is not unique to mixed orientation couples, but it does seem to be connected to relationship quality. It might be promoted by thinking about and strengthening one’s long-term goals or vision for themselves as a couple, reflecting on the commitment/investment they have already made, and fostering a sense of cohesion (or a sense of US) as a couple.

Give-ForgivenessPartner-focused forgiveness is also important for relationship quality. This is true in other relationships as well, but in mixed orientation couples there are issues the come up that are rather unique related to disclosure, any sense of betrayal, and whether extra-relational intimacy has occurred. This kind of forgiveness is essentially a propensity to forgive one’s partner, and this appears to be important in these relationships. To place this in context, we know from other research that forgiveness in general is a good thing to promote. It is associated with reduced stress, improved physical/emotional well-being, and enhanced relationships. Moreover, in relationships, promoting forgiveness can aid with reducing conflict, enhancing intimacy, and improving overall relationship satisfaction.

So there you have it. As I said, in some ways research confirms what you might already suspect if you were to give it some thought. But so little research has been done with people in mixed orientation relationships, and much of the research has been more qualitative in nature (based on interviews, for example), so a study based on quantitative measures does add something to the literature.

We have a couple of other papers coming on mixed orientation relationships, as we studied these same couples over a few years. Those are currently either under review or in the process of being written up and submitted. Again, from start to finish, research simply takes time. There’s a kind of slow plodding about it that is hard to appreciate unless you spend much time in this arena, and I’m grateful for students and colleagues who have stayed with these projects and helped bring them to fruition.

National Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is the National Transgender Day of Remembrance. It is a day set aside in November to remember people who have been killed for being transgender. “Transgender” is itself an umbrella term for the many ways people experience their gender identity in ways that do not match what most people experience. Under this umbrella are experiences of gender dysphoria, in which a person feels incongruence between their birth sex and their psychological sense of themselves as male or female.

There is much that could be said about people who are navigating their gender identity. It is not a very common condition at all and deserves some thoughtful reflection and pastoral sensitivity. It is often confused and coupled with the topic of homosexuality in ways that makes it difficult for many Christians to understand.

Out of respect for the day, I am going to post a video that was made from portions of the documentary about Gwen Araujo.

I first showed the story about Gwen Araujo to a group of students who were enrolled in a multicultural psychology course. I was guest lecturing on these issues, and I wanted  them to have some exposure to the topic from a different perspective than they might otherwise have had. What I appreciated about it was how it tried to show the main character as a child and then through adolescence and into young adulthood. We went into other issues and reviewed research findings, etc., but the personal story should not be overlooked.

I think of people I have known–some clients and some personal friends and acquaintances. It has been important to me to think about the person as a child who experiences gender dysphoria as well as the challenges they would face at puberty and into and through their teen years. They are not choosing to experience this dysphoria; they find themselves facing this often at a young age. It is a very difficult experience to have and to try to navigate on one’s own and, today, in the context of a larger cultural atmosphere that can quickly detract from the kind of compassionate response that might otherwise be offered.

Part of what makes this difficult is that many in the church feel they are defending a biblical sexual ethic in the area of homosexuality, and it has been hard to separate these issues out in a way to engage in a thoughtful manner. This post is not intended to do that; I will get back to this topic at another time. I’ve been working on a book chapter on gender dysphoria, and I would be willing to share more of my thoughts in this area.

Today I wanted to acknowledge the day itself, the people who are navigating this difficult terrain, and the need for a thoughtful, faithful response from the church.

On Beliefs and Attitudes

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?

Youth Ministry, Sexual Identity & Shame

zondervanHere is an excerpt from my new book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

When people experience guilt, they understand, “I should not have done that.” Shame, on the other hand, says to them “I should not be that.” Guilt is about what we do that we should not do; shame is feeling bad about who we are. It is “the emotion resulting from self-condemnation along with a fear of condemnation from others” (Johnson & Yarhouse, 2013).

When people feel shame, they tend to withdraw from and avoid others. They may experience anger or blame others. Unfortunately, the responses of hiding, deflecting, and blaming do not really help alleviate the shame they feel—they perpetuate it. According to Veronica Johnson, there is a three-step formula that describes how people develop shame:

Step 1: A person is raised in a culture in which various standards, rules, and goals are conveyed

Step 2: That person does not live up to these standards/rules/goals (perceived failure)

Step 3: The person then believes that not living up to these standards is the result of personal deficiencies or shortcomings (negative global attribution)

We can apply this formula to the young person in the church who is experiencing same-sex attraction.  He grows up in a faith community with specific standards, rules, and goals regarding sexuality. The standard communicated to him is that no one should ever experience same-sex attractions, that experiencing such attractions is sinful. If the church is not clear about how to understand these experiences, he will quickly surmise that it is wrong for him to experience these attractions, even if he did not make the choice, even if he does not want them.  He may try to follow the advice given, praying and asking God to remove his attractions or change his feelings. If he does not experience success here, this will likely confirm in his mind (and to others) that he has failed. Because he cannot live up to the standards, rules, and goals of the Christian community, he experiences shame.


Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!

Out of the Darkness

OoD5Earlier today I had the opportunity to participate in the Out of the Darkness community walk to raise awareness around depression and suicide and to promote good mental health. The local walk is sponsored by the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group. These walks take place around the country, and ours has been well-attended over the past few years.

After the opening program, the walk begins by having participants actually walk through the cranes in the picture. Here is a little background on the symbolism:

OoD3Shortly after the end of World War II, the folded origami cranes also came to symbolize a hope for peace through Sadako Sasaki and her unforgettable story of perseverance. Diagnosed with leukemia after being exposed to radiation after the bombing of Hiroshima, Sadako became determined to fold 1,000 cranes in hopes of recovering good health, happiness, and a world of eternal peace. Although she completed 644 before she died, her classmates folded the remaining 356 to honor her. A statue was raised in the Hiroshima Peace Park to commemorate her strong spirit.

Today this practice of folding 1,000 cranes represents a form of healing and hope during challenging times. After the events of September 11, as a gesture of support and healing, thousands of cranes were folded and linked together in chains and sent to fire and police stations, museums, and churches throughout New York City.

Traditionally, flocks of 1,000 cranes are offered at shrines or temples with prayer, based on the belief that the effort to fold such a large number will surely be rewarded. Chains are often given to someone suffering from illness, as a prayer for their recovery, as a wish for happiness, and as an expression of sympathy and peace.

My research team has gone for the last two years to recognize the difficulties faced by sexual minorities who are at greater risk for both depression and suicide.

We spoke afterwards about some of the challenges we face as Christians who conduct research in this area, particularly in light of the desire to help the church improve the climate for people sorting out sexual identity questions. I know there are those who would say that the church needs to change its doctrinal teaching in this area–that change in doctrine around sexual ethics is the only way climate will improve for sexual minorities. I understand that perspective.

At present, we face the challenge of providing resources to the Christian community that holds to a traditional Christian sexual ethic. How can those communities of faith improve the climate or atmosphere for those who are navigating sexual identity issues in their lives? What are the experiences of more conservative sexual minorities? What about Side B gay Christians and others who hold a similar worldview? What would they recommend to the local church? Those have been interesting and challenging questions to explore.