Much of the research and discussion to date on coming out has focused on the experience of the gay child (the adolescent or young adult), which is obviously important. As a field, we have learned a lot about the experiences of those who disclose their same-sex sexuality, and yet we have so much more to learn.
At the same time, we see fewer studies of parental reactions, and fewer studies still of Christian parents. Since we work with a lot of Christian parents, the idea of interviewing them and hearing their stories was compelling. A few years ago, a former ISSI research team member took this on as her dissertation. That study has since been published (Maslowe & Yarhouse, 2015).
Maslowe and Yarhouse (2015) offered a tentative model of post-disclosure that emerged from the interviews conducted with Christian parents: (1) Initial awareness and worldview response; (2) Navigation period–help-seeking; (3) Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child; and (4) Acceptance of reality.
Initial awareness and worldview response. The first issue deals with first becoming aware and responding to the disclosure of same-sex sexuality. Responses to disclosure or discovery of a gay identity were frequently tied to conventionally religious morals, values, and beliefs that were seen as incompatible with a gay identity. Parents here reported ambiguous loss, negative emotions (e.g., shock, anger, concern, fear, shame), and strained relationships with their child.
One parent shared her initial response. We won’t offer an extended quote here, but suffice it to say she spoke of her daughter making this choice (“that kind of choice”–”why would she want to be like that?”), which suggests the view that this pattern of attraction is volitional. This automatically sets the parent and child against one another, because the child knows he or she did not choose to experience same-sex attractions. The assumption that this is just a poor choice has them speaking past one another. We wish that were a rare report, but it isn’t in our experience.
Navigation period–help-seeking. The next response entails gaining information from multiple sources. In this study it was often from counselors, the church, pastors, ministries, and so on. In terms of meaning-making, parents reported turning to and trusting God, finding support from family/community, and spending time in prayer and in Scripture. Marital conflict was not uncommon, and many parents reported a kind of shame as they tried to relate to and share with people in their local faith community.
One parent shared how hard it was to find information, resources, and support. “We couldn’t find anyone” is a typical response, as is the decision not to take this disclosure to the local church. The common assumption and experience is that the local church is not “safe” in terms of gossip, making it all the more difficult, as parents often sort through painful and confusing emotions in isolation.
Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child. At the same time as parents are seeking help, they are also trying to maintain a relationship with their son or daughter. There were strained relationships, to be sure, but also a commitment to maintaining some contact, arranging ways to see their son or daughter, and so on. This commitment was typically a reflection of love.
One mother who eventually moved toward what she saw as a good, healthy relationship with her son, recounted her “gay breaking point” at an earlier stage: it was when her son wanted to get a pedicure with her. It sent her spinning. Our initial response to that language was that it was kind of off-putting or even offensive, but as we thought about it, we got what she was saying, at least we think we got it. We actually see her gay breaking point as tied in important ways to acceptance of reality, to coming to terms with the reality of having a son or daughter who is gay. Sometimes parents move from a fantasy that this whole thing will work itself out or dissipate or resolve or whatever… perhaps the breaking point tells them there is something real here, something that they have to deal with seriously and in a meaningful way.
Acceptance of reality. This involves really coming to terms with a gay son or daughter in the sense of how the relationship with that child has changed. It could still involve negotiating boundaries, but it also often entails changing expectations. What is often reflected here is a greater respect for one another and one’s decisions.
Maslowe, K. E., & Yarhouse, M. A. (2015). Christian parental reactions when a LGB child comes out. American Journal of Family Therapy, 43 (4), pp. 1-12.
A few weeks ago, our ISSI research team discussed some actual questions that Dr. Yarhouse has received during presentations. One of these questions was “How can I respond to the gay person who says, “Your choice of adopting an identity ‘in Christ’ is a way of fooling yourself and not being authentic?” This question seems to assume that the only way for an individual who experiences same-sex attraction to be “authentic”is to adopt a gay identity label. To question someone’s label is to essentially tell them that you are not comfortable with the way that they are labeling themselves or presenting themselves to you and to others. When a question like this arises, it can be very important to define terms and define what phrases mean. For example, determining what “authentic”means to each individual is important or helping each person understand that identity labels can mean different things depending on who is using them. The person could reply by saying, “If you are genuinely interested, I’d be happy to discuss what authentic means to me and how my identity expresses that authenticity.”
This calls for people to develop empathy for the person that they are questioning and see things through the other person’s eyes. This requires a cognitive complexity that can often be difficult to develop. One way to encourage this empathy and cognitive complexity is to use parts language when describing identity labels. This helps people recognize that they can have many different things in their life that make up their identity. For one, this may lead to a gay identity label. For another, this may lead to an identity in Christ. Or.a gay Christian identity. Or a celibate gay Christian identity. This does not necessarily mean that anyone is “fooling”themselves; rather, it gives space for people to make meaning of the multiple parts of their life that are congruent with their values. It is important to recognize that each of these labels, or other possible labels, can seem like an honest and authentic identity to the person using them. In this sense authentic identity is not something that another person can decide for you. It is explored and may change for a person over time and as their beliefs and values develop and shape identity.
Youth who come out desperately need a safe space to process their experiences at such a vulnerable time. The experience of same sex sexuality is not new, although we still have much to learn about the unique challenges for many teenagers who find them-selves experiencing same sex attraction today. The cultural wars have made it increasingly difficult for teens to share their story without being flooded with directive messages from all sides. What are the alternatives to bombarding the youth experiencing same sex attraction with our own perspective on what will be best for them? We can listen to them as they share their own experience, and present them with the information available to support them as they navigate this difficult terrain.
What is the place for labels such as “gay/straight/bisexual” in this context? How much do these labels help the teen as they parse out their experience?
Analysis of date from the Adolescent Health study suggests that homosexual attractions are less stable than heterosexual attractions. This is to say that more teens who reported same-sex attraction and/or behavior migrated towards heterosexual attraction and behavior over time than those who reported heterosexual attraction and/or behavior migrated in the opposite direction. Relevant to consider for youth who share with you their experience of same-sex sexuality, adolescents who reported same-sex behavior and both same-sex and opposite-sex behavior at ages 16 and 17 were more likely to engage in exclusive opposite-sex behavior at age 22 (to “migrate” toward heterosexuality) than those adolescents who had reported opposite-sex behavior at 16 or 17 were to move toward same-sex or same-sex and opposite-sex behavior at 22. With this in mind, although we may feel inclined to put people in categories of “gay” or “straight” and to assign a label based on attractions alone, it may be better to remain tentative in this domain. Experiences of attraction and the strength and influence of such attraction on behavior tend to vary over the course of the adolescent years, lending to the notion that labels may not be as helpful in capturing individual experiences of sexuality. To place someone in a “box” based on current attractions ignores the migration that is a part of attraction for many youth.
Labeling someone puts us at risk of ignoring the multitude of variables that play a part in sexual identity development. Sexual behavior and experiences, sexual attractions and how to make sense of them, and sexual identity labels and their meaning are distinct and they all matter. To base identity solely on current strength of attractions, especially for the youth, may not be helpful. Each person is a person to be engaged with, supported, and listened to rather than isolated, labeled, and spoken at.
Hope, D. A. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary perspectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 54, 12-13. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-09556-1
Teenage years are often uncomfortable years for many of us to recall – reminiscent of moody music, issues with self-esteem, braces, and heart-breaking crushes. Sexual minority youth, the one way of describing young people who are navigating sexual identity questions or concerns (also LGBT youth), are subject to experience many dangers and complications during their adolescence in addition to the already noted difficulties with self-esteem, identity, and relationships the general teenage population face. Sexual minority youth weather challenges of self-disclosure, concern over parental reactions to disclosure, navigating the social impact of defining the self, and either compartmentalizing or integrating religious and sexual identities.
General milestones in development for sexual minority youth include awareness of same-sex attraction around age 12, self-labeling follows approximately five years after initial awareness (but can vary from just a few months to many more years), and first disclosure in the mid-late teens (Fish, 2014). The process of claiming a gay identity is just that – a process, which often takes females three to four years and males five to six years. Contrary to typical frameworks for sexual identity development, sexual questioning does not always end with identifying as bisexual, gay, or lesbian nor does taking on a label ensure acceptance of self and integration of same-sex attractions (Diamond, 2006).
In addition to the difficulty of walking through these developmental stages, research shows high percentages of victimization and bullying committed against sexual minority youth, with elevated rates of suicidality and increased likelihood of substance use and abuse. When considering victimization of sexual minority youth, it is reported that 81% experience verbal abuse, 38% receive threats of physical attacks, 22% have objects thrown at them, 16% are been sexually assaulted, 15% physical assaulted, and 6% have been assaulted with a weapon (Higdon, 2011). In most cases, other youth are perpetrating these acts, as is true with bullying.
Such victimization does not happen without leaving a mark – three out of five sexual minority youth report feeling unsafe due to their sexual orientation (GLSEN, 2009) and sexual minority youth are 190% more likely to use substances compared with heterosexual youth (Marshal et al., 2008). Self-identifying sexual minority teens are more likely to start substance use at younger ages than are heterosexual youth and also report higher lifetime rates of cocaine use and higher frequencies of tobacco use.
For those ages 15 to 24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death (CDC, 2010). When considering sexual minority teens, chances of attempted suicide increase up to four times of that in the general population. It’s up to eight times for those from a family with high levels of rejection. A perhaps more surprising statistic shows rates of teen pregnancy with sexual minority youth remain elevated although rates in the general population are declining.
As can be seen, sexual minority youth face unique difficulties and challenges during this developmental stage. Though much growth takes place within the individual, sexual minority youth do not have to endure the teenage years without support. How can you and I work against bullying and victimization? What is our role in decreasing drug use and suicidality? Maybe let’s start with kindness. We all walk through the awkward and hard years of teen-dom; let’s make sure nobody has to do it alone.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Webbased Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [online]. (2010). [cited 2012 Oct 19] Available from www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/index.html.
Diamond, L. (2006). What we got wrong about sexual identity development: Unexpected findings from a longitudinal study of young women. In A. Omoto & H. Kurtzman (Eds.),Sexual orientation and mental health: Examining identity and development in lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (pp. 73-94). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Diaz, E. M. and Kosciw, J. G. (2009). Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools. New York: GLSEN.
Fish, J. N. (2014). Sexual minority mental health: A multidimensional and longitudinal approach (doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations (Paper 8985).
Higdon, M. (2011). To lynch a child: Bullying and gender nonconformity in our nation’s schools. Indiana Law Journal, 86(3), 826-378. Retrieved from http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/ilj/vol86/iss3/3
Marshal, M. P., Friedman, M. S., Stall, R., King, K. M., Miles, J., Gold, M. A., Bukstein, O. G. and Morse, J. Q. (2008), Sexual orientation and adolescent substance use: a meta-analysis and methodological review. Addiction, 103: 546–556. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2008.02149.x
“Struggling,” “overcoming,” “same-sex attracted,” “gay,” “gay Christian,” “celibate gay Christian,” “LGBTI,” “sexual minority”…
One can adopt an array of descriptive words to denote an identity that many would simply label “gay.” However, the interaction between same-sex attraction and religious beliefs that condemn or condone same-sex behavior and sexually intimate relationships may result in a range of preferred labels to describe one’s sexual identity… Ways that are perceived as much more accurate and nuanced for one’s lived experience. After all, sexual attraction and sexual orientations differ simply in the strength of the attractions and how they persist.
Although there are many considerations in adopting, or not adopting, a specific sexual identity label, we focus on two particularly challenging areas: same-sex sexuality and one’s religious beliefs and values. Same-sex sexuality may include one’s same-sex attraction and/or orientation, sexual behavior and desire to pursue ongoing and intimate same-sex relationships. Religious beliefs and values are informed by one’s religious affiliation, spiritual/religious values and belief systems, participation in a spiritual/religious community, and so on. How an individual with a strong religious affiliation/identity and strong same-sex attractions arrives at sexual identity label, or no label, is worthy of much more reflection.
The label “gay” can denote both orientation and identity, but using it for the latter risks increasing stigmatization that many sexual minorities experience. Additionally, the label “gay” may represent an encouraging source of pride, but it can be perceived as inflammatory and connotation-laden by conservative religious individuals. When trying to reconcile one’s sexual identity, avoiding a label or utilizing “struggling” or “same-sex attracted” may feel as though he or she is denying or undermining an integral part of the self, or it could in fact feel extremely liberating to be free of linguistic social constraints. Hoping to harmonize one’s religious and sexual identities is noble but at times, attached to unintended outcomes. A “gay Christian” label could be perceived as false by those in the conservative church community, and “celibate gay Christian” could potentially alienate a sexual minority from the LGBTI community and the conservative Christian community. Other labels can include “LGBTI” and “sexual minority,” and as with other labels, they may suit a given individual or not depending on a variety of factors, such as religious and social values, community affiliations, social pressures, and more.
The experiences of sexual minorities are frequently punctuated by challenges and overwhelming emotions. Forming a cohesive identity can often involve labels that are difficult to create. So responding with compassion, understanding, and an awareness for social and linguistic is key to supporting the journey they navigate.
The discovery of the same-sex attraction of one’s spouse can be trying for both members of the marriage (Yarhouse, 2010). This may cause many questions and conflicts to arise for the couple, and navigating this experience within the marriage may be a difficult process. Each couple will navigate this experience in their own way, but there are four broad stages of relationship change that mixed-orientation couples will experience: awareness, emotional response, acceptance of reality, and negotiating a future. Various persons have provided insight into these stages, such as Amity Buxton, founder of the Straight Spouse Network.
The stage of awareness occurs at the time of the disclosure or discovery of one’s same-sex attraction to one’s spouse (Yarhouse, 2010). This disclosure or discovery may take a variety of forms, and the level of conflict experienced may vary based upon that form of discovery. In the emotional response stage, the spouse will experience a myriad of emotions and reactions in response to his or her awareness of their spouse’s same-sex attraction. The acceptance of reality stage will follow and consists of the process of realizing and accepting the same-sex attraction of one’s spouse. If any sexual behavior has occurred, the spouse must also come to terms with that behavior. This process will, in many ways, resemble what a spouse will encounter when someone discovers a spouse’s affair. The final stage, negotiating a future, refers to the process of one or both spouses coming to a decision about whether and, if so, how the marriage will proceed in the future. This process of deciding the future of the marriage should be done “in the context of mature, discerning pastoral care,” (pp. 152).
Progressing through these stages of relationship change can be difficult for many couples. So, following a few important guidelines may benefit the sexual-minority spouse as he or she engages these stages. Sexual-minority spouses should begin the conversation with one’s spouse by merely describing his or her attractions and not identifying with them, (Yarhouse, 2010, pp. 143). One’s same-sex attraction does not necessarily identify or define one’s true self, and thus, making a distinction between same-sex attractions, homosexual orientation, and gay identity may prove fruitful for the couple. Moreover, exploring what the attractions mean for the couple and where the attractions came from for the sexual-minority spouse is helpful. This discussion is important in helping to bring light to how one connects events and experiences in their past and how they make meaning of those events and experiences. At this point, it would also benefit the sexual-minority spouse to investigate how one will weigh his or her sexual attractions in relationship to the other pieces that one holds true about his- or herself. Some of these considerations may include one’s biological sex, gender identity, past sexual behavior, planned sexual behavior, and values about sexual behavior and identity.
On the other hand, the sexual-majority spouse in the mixed-orientation marriage may experience a “relational offense” or “interpersonal trauma” upon the discovery of his or her spouse’s same-sex attraction (Yarhouse, 2010, pp. 147; Baucom & Gordon, 2003,). According to Baucom and Gordon, adequate time and attention to this trauma is essential, and research in working through such trauma suggests three stages: 1) impact, 2) search for meaning, and 3) recovery (2003). The impact stage indicates the emotional experience that comes from the recognition of the effect the traumatic event has upon the spouse and the marriage. In the next stage, search for meaning, the spouse strives to comprehend the same-sex attraction, any resulting sexual behaviors, and why the traumatic events happened. Following this is the stage of recovery, wherein the spouse is able to successfully navigate the trauma caused by their spouse’s same-sex attraction. This stage consists of enhanced understanding and reduced negative emotional experience in recollecting the interpersonal trauma.
For the couple, four important observations are seen in couples that are able to remain together and treasure their spouses and their marriage, and they can serve as suggestions to bolster mixed-orientation marriages of others. These tools are “communication, fostering a sense of ‘us’, flexibility, and sexual intimacy” (Yarhouse, 2010, pp. 148). In communication, the couple strives to engage in frequent discussions that embrace honestly, empathy, encouragement, and support. Next, reestablishing a sense of “us” may be accomplished in a variety of ways. Some ways that have proved effective include: remembering the aspects of one another that initially drew the couple together, reviewing what positive aspects are empowering the couple to stay together at present, and reflecting upon the shared beliefs and covenants that have held the couple together. Staying flexible requires that the couple recognize the uniqueness of their own marriage and adapt accordingly. Addressing sexual intimacy is also a unique experience for the mixed-orientation couple, and the couple should abstain from using examples in the media or entertainment as a standard for their own relationship.
Yarhouse, M. A. (2010). Homosexuality and the Christian. Minneapolis: Bethany House.
Gordon, K. C. & Baucom, D. H. (2003). Forgiveness and marriage: Preliminary support for a measure based on a model of recovery from a marital betrayal. The American Journal of Family Therapy (31)3, 179-199. Doi: 10.1080/01926180301115
The PARE model is a useful tool for clinicians who work with couples in mixed orientation marriages (one in which one of the spouses experiences same-sex attraction). After the disclosure of same-sex attraction, both spouses go through a variety of emotions and a time of learning to face their new understanding of reality. In the midst of this, many couples choose to divorce. However, for those couples who decide to remain together, Yarhouse and Kays (2010) describe a four-stage framework: Provide sexual identity therapy, Address “interpersonal trauma,” foster Resilience through marriage counseling, and Enhance sexual intimacy (PARE).
Sexual identity therapy walks alongside the individual who has same-sex attraction in a client-centered, identity-focused way in order to help them navigate their sexual identity conflicts. Though this portion of the PARE model is primarily focused on the sexual minority, there are psychoeducational portions of therapy that can also be beneficial for the spouse.
In the next stage of the PARE model, the focus is more on the spouse, as the couple addresses the potential “interpersonal trauma” (Gordon, Baucom, Snyder, Atkins, & Christensen, 2006) of the discovery that one’s spouse is attracted to the same sex (and whether there has been any sexual behavior outside of the marriage). This work often parallels the therapy that is offered to the same-sex attracted spouse. This stage involves three phases, in which the spouse realizes the effect the disclosure/discovery of same-sex sexuality (and/or sexual behavior outside of marriage) has had on him/her and their relationship (impact), the spouse seeks to make meaning of the offense and regain a sense of control so he/she can move on (search for meaning), and then the spouse uses their new understanding of the situation to move past the hurt and consider how to proceed in the relationship based on their new understanding (recovery).
After there has been a time of focus on the issues that each of the individuals in the mixed orientation marriage may face, the couples who decide to continue together are taught how to foster resilience in their marriage. Therapy at this stage focuses on supporting frequent and honest communication, strengthening the couple’s emotional bond, and demonstrating role flexibility.
In the spirit of helping couples grow in their commitment to one another, it is can be helpful to enhance their sexual intimacy. The couple is developing their own unique relationship that is unlike any other couple’s relationship. They can work through some of the concerns they might have about intimacy in light of one partner being attracted to the same sex. It is important for the couple to understand this and to be willing to pour into their relationship with the intention of creating something beautiful between them as a couple.
Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., Atkins, D. C., & Christensen, A., (2006). Treating affair couples: Clinical considerations and initial findings, Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 20, 375-392.
Yarhouse, M. A., & Kays, J. L. (2010). The PARE model: A framework for working with mixed orientation couples. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 29(1), 77-81.
Something ISSI research has found is that milestone events for individuals with same sex attraction are likely to occur starting with an awareness of same sex attraction anywhere in the age range of 8-14, with behavior, labeling, disclosure, and same-sex relationship following after throughout the teenage and early adult years. We know that the adolescent years are crucial for identity development in general, as well as sexual identity. Therefore, youth who are learning about their same-sex attraction and how to live in congruence with their values, beliefs, and sexual identity have unique considerations as they navigate these issues.
Some unique considerations for youth include:
- The youth may feel societal pressure to take on the label as gay, when they are still in the identity formation stage and therefore may still be processing through what place their sexual identity has in their life. Conversely, a youth may also feel great pressure to not identify as gay for religious, family, cultural or other reasons.
- The youth may get mixed reactions from those close to him/her in their life. For instance, they may have a supportive friend, while their parents may need more time to process through what their child shared with them.
- Parents specifically may need time to process what the youth has shared with them. While the youth may have been wrestling with these emotions and thoughts for a long time, this may come as a complete surprise to the parents, so the youth may need to be patient while the parents process this.
- Because adolescence is a time of identity development, it may be helpful to talk through what sexual attraction means specifically to the youth. Using terms such as “same-sex sexuality” may be more helpful that identifying with the seemingly more permanent label of “gay.”
- Publicly coming out as gay may carry some stigma in certain circles. If a youth is identified as such in his school or other community, he may be at an increased risk for feeling alienated, depressed, or other negative emotions.
Helpful questions to ask a youth who is navigating sexual identity and same-sex sexuality:
- Are there people in your life you feel safe talking to–a mentor, a youth pastor, your parents? Who do you trust with what’s going on in your life?
- How are you making sense of your feelings and experiences?
- How has it been for you to hear the way people discuss identity and labels (gay, straight, bi) around this topic? What in all of those discussions resonates with you?
- What are your thoughts about all of this? What makes sense to you at this point?
- How are you holding up? What are you doing to take care of yourself?
Everyone seems to describe his or her family as kind of crazy. There’s the uncle no one’s seen in years. A “black sheep” cousin. Two aunts who don’t see eye to eye. An overprotective parent. A wayward sibling. Sometimes, it feels like we carry those people, or aspects of them, inside of ourselves. How we describe those aspects of ourselves is known as “parts” language (Schwartz, 1995; 1999). While we are integrated individuals, there are also aspects of ourselves that vary in terms of sentiments, motivations, and needs that often echo in small ways the variety one finds in a family. These aspects of ourselves reflect the ambivalence and complexity of our human experience; however, they may be all the more salient and troubling for those who are conflicted about experiencing same-sex attraction or identify as gay.
An individual experiencing challenges regarding a same-sex attraction may feel a range of emotions, like fear, shame, peace, longing, and uncertainty. The process of addressing these “parts” in sexual identity therapy involves identifying what activates each “part,” what each part’s drive is, and what it wants for the person. Perhaps the individual fears alienation from family or scrutiny from his or her religious community. Perhaps he or she longs to feel accepted by other communities and experiences a strong need for emotional intimacy with a significant other. Inevitably, the individual develops self-soothing habits to nurture or manage those parts along the journey for reconciling his or her multi-faceted identity. Disregarding the need to address or respond to these parts can lead to heightened psychological and emotional distress. Also, using maladaptive strategies could potentially harm the individual. Understanding one’s parts in this way enables an individual to truly appreciate his or her experience and most fundamental identity while traveling down the path of reconciliation between the various parts.
Schwartz, R. C. (1999). The self-to-self connection: Intimacy and the internal family systems model. In J. Carlson & L. Sperry (Eds.), The intimate couple (247-262). Philadelphia, PA: Brunner/Mazel.
Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.