Tag Archives: Christian sexual minorities

Students & Alumni Navigating Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeveral 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.


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Sexual Minorities in Faith-Based Higher Ed

jpt-coverUpdate: The study is now available at the JPT website.

A new study has just been published on the experiences of sexual minorities in faith-based colleges and universities. This is a study I conducted with Stephen Stratton, Janet Dean and Michael Lastoria. Here is the abstract:

Studies on faith-based campuses are beginning to offer a glimpse into the real experience of sexual minority students in these unique settings. This study adds to this growing body of information by surveying 247 undergraduates, who describe themselves as sexual minorities at 19 Christian schools across the United States. They responded to questions related to attitudes regarding sexuality, sexual identity, religiosity, and sexual milestone events. The results from this sample suggst those who attend higher education at faith-based institutions are a distinct group within Western culture when it comes tot he development of religious/spiritual identity and sexual identity. Although diversity with regard to same-sex and opposite-sex attraction is present among those surveyed, common themes exist for this unique sample of undergraduates. Implications for mainstream culture and Christian educational institutions are discussed.

I’ve been presenting these findings in consultations and workshops for awhile now, but here is the gist of what we found. We reported different degrees of sexual attraction to the same- and opposite-sex, which is in keeping with some of the most recent research on sexual minorities and actually harkens back to Kinsey’s observation of a continuum of attraction rather than a simple either/or dichotomy.

There was also diversity in terms of religiosity. Although likely a highly religious sample compared to the general population, we did see diversity here and it was associated with degree of same-sex attraction. Those with no or little same-sex attraction were higher on intrinsic religiosity (in which religion is an end to itself; valuing religion for its own sake)–and the more same-sex attraction reported, the more likely to score lower on intrinsic religiosity. But, again, as a whole, Christian sexual minorities were likely more religious than the general population.

When asked about milestone events in the development of one’s sexual identity, as in our previous study, we saw that fewer participants had (1) engaged in same-sex behavior, (2) initially attributed their attraction to a gay identity, or (3) adopted a gay identity label.

In terms of public/private sexual identity, it was rare for participants to have a public identity as anything other than straight. We wrote,

This may be associated with the influence of the campus culture, religious conviction, or persona. choice, but it may also reflect a distinctive of those seeking to develop an identity that engages both the religious and the sexual. (p. 19)

In terms of private identification, about 4% thought of themselves as gay/lesbian, 10% bisexual, and about 9% questioning. Labeling here was associated with strength of same-sex attraction: the less same-sex attraction, the more likely to identify as straight; those who did privately identify as gay/lesbian were high on same-sex attraction.

This finding may represent a distinct trajectory insofar as the sample tended to not gravitate toward identity labels common to the mainstream LGBT community. It could be a result of heterosexism and homophobia; or it could be evidence that there is a group of sexual minorities that “engages in identity formation in a way that contrasts with mainstream culture” (p. 19), perhaps due to the salience of their religious faith.

The last major area we asked about were attitudes/values around sexuality and same-sex behavior. When people reported less same-sex attraction, they tended to be more conservative than those who reported more same-sex attraction. Folks who were more intrinsically religious were also more often conservative in their sexual attitudes/values.

As a group, though, these sexual minority students were more alike than different in many ways. They agreed that their campuses hold a negative view of sexual minorities and that there are few resources to support sexual minorities. (This is an area I think Christian institutions would do well to respond to in earnest.) They also tended to see sexual chastity as an attainable goal.

When I look at this data as a whole, I tend to think that it speaks to not just one experience that holds true for everybody. Rather, I think there are many ways to be a sexual minority on a Christian college campus. There is no doubt in my mind that some sexual minorities experience their sexuality in much the same way that the mainstream LGBT community talks about it, and this group may hide their experiences or sense of who they are in order to “get through” college.They may very well hold to beliefs and values that are more commonly expressed by members of the mainstream LGBT community.

But I think it is a mistake to see this sample as doing that as a whole. I think other Christian sexual minorities  represent a more distinct identity development model in which their faith is given such weight that they make different choices in areas in which volition is in play, such as choosing not to engage in sexual behavior (to the same- or opposite-sex). Their religious beliefs, values and identity may also keep them from attributing their attractions to a gay identity (as is the normative experience within the LGBT community). They might be more likely to attribute their same-sex attractions to the Fall (original sin that taints creation in some way) or draw upon some other explanatory framework that makes sense to them but does not lend itself to a LGBT identity.They might view their same-sex sexuality in a more positive light than that and as much larger than their impulses; they might experience their sexuality in the temperament and personality, as well as their creativity and ways of relating to others. They might just choose not to enter into same-sex relationships by virtue of their formed judgments about sexual ethics.

Where will they be in a few years? I don’t know. That is a question for another study altogether. Some may eventually end up using the word “gay” as an adjective to name the reality of the same-sex sexuality while making similar decision about behavioral chastity; others may choose to make different choices about sexual behavior in the years to come, but those choices do not appear to be common at this age, at least not with the sample we surveyed.

Stay tuned. We are currently analyzing data from a smaller study of Christian sexual minorities who are  enrolled in a Christian college or university, as well as sexual minority alumni from those institutions. We are also planning to launch a larger longitudinal study to see if there are changes in behavior, identity, and attitudes/values among Christian sexual minorities over time.


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Group Therapy on Reducing Shame

A couple of weeks ago we finished a ten-week therapy group focused on reducing shame. The group was for Christians who experience same-sex attraction, struggle with shame, and were looking for practical resources to help them in this area. I was co-leading it with a doctoral student who had developed a curriculum on reducing shame among Christian sexual minorities (she did this for her dissertation), and we used that curriculum and collected pre- and post-group data to see the impact of the group therapy experience on participants’ experience of shame.

What I like about co-leading groups is that the very act of coming together with people who share similar struggles has a way of reducing shame. I’ve run several other groups over the years that were not focused specifically on reducing shame, and my sense what that the group experience itself helped reduce shame.

As I learned from my student’s background research on the concept of shame, shame is very isolating. Shame wants to keep a person from others and from the truth about themselves. Group therapy, by definition, takes a person outside of themselves and places them in relationships with others, and it normalizes their experience and their struggle. On the idea of how shame keeps people from the truth about themselves, I think a Christian perspective says that people are valuable because they are made in the image of God. However, shame tells a person that if others really knew them, they would reject them. This often leads people to put on a mask and to relate to people out of an appearance that they believe others will like or approve of. Shame can also lead people to make choices that end up isolating them further (and confirming in their minds that others would not really like them or care to be in a relationship with them). This only increases the pressure on the person who struggles with shame to keep others from knowing them.  Talk about pressure – that is a difficult way to live and relate to others. It doesn’t meet basic needs for connection and relationship, in part because there is no sense of affirmation or acceptance for who a person is.

Christianity actually offers a helpful starting point that affirms that all people are made in the image of God and are to be valued for that apart from any acts or behavior as such. With this as a starting point (a more stable and accurate sense of identity as valued by God), a person can eventually reflect on how they wish to live, on habits that they might wish to cultivate, and they can benefit from a healthy sense of guilt about things that they do (or do not do), but that is a very different experience than shame, which centers again on who a person is (rather than what a person does).

In any case, the group therapy experience was a very positive way to explore the topic of shame, its impact on a group of people who shared many commonalities, and how to respond in practical ways to reduce the impact of shame on Christians who experience same-sex attraction.


Posted by on April 28, 2010 in Applied/Clinical Integration


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