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.
One of the oldest questions in psychology undoubtedly is the nature versus nurture debate. Plato reasoned that qualities are innate; occurring naturally regardless of the environment they are in. Other philosophers such as John Locke argued that the mind is a blank slate, impacted by experiences. Whether intelligence or human sexuality, humans are curious to understand what factors influence an individual as he or she develops. We think that by understanding the way we were made, we can understand who we are and where this leaves us in relationship to everyone else.
For those who experience same sex attraction, understanding one’s identity may be especially important. Individuals may feel pressure to identify themselves with a label, and with that, both positive and negative implications that may be associated. However, this understanding can leave the impression that sexual identity is one’s identity. It minimizes the experiences one has already had and undoubtedly will have for clarity within the greater culture. Sexual identity can be both public and private, containing a myriad of factors that continually influence one’s understanding of him- or herself. For example, I might describe myself as an athlete, an outdoorsman, a brother, and a loyal friend. All of these different aspects play a part in how I understand myself and how others understand me as well.
And that’s the thing about identity. There are many potential factors, both biological and environmental, that can contribute to how one can identify oneself. Just as with the nature versus nurture debate, the impact each of the factors has may vary depending on the weight given to them. It is only through allowing each individual to uniquely identify their identity that coherency of public and private self may be obtained. Therefore the question is not to be defined by cultural definitions, but the individual’s own life blueprint as he or she sees it.
-Shane Ferrell, M.A.
Student Life plays an essential role in creating a certain climate at their institution but also can be extremely meaningful in making a difference in the lives of Christians who experience same-sex attraction. In order to be an effective resource for your institution and individuals, it is first necessary to become aware of what exactly sexual identity is. Please see other resources on our page relating to a description of sexual identity and sexual orientation, how common these issues actually are, and descriptions and average timelines of major milestones experienced by individuals of consideration.
Once these issues are further understood, it is important to take into account several considerations for student life staff in the area of student development. Three special considerations include the campus climate, approachability of student life staff, and the reality of policy. In considering the campus climate, it is important to take into account that public opinion on same-sex attraction can facilitate or inhibit a synthesis of sexual identity. Student life can play an important role in creating a campus climate that plays either a facilitating or hindering role in developing sexual identity for sexual minorities.
ISSI recently conducted a study looking at how 104 sexual minorities at Christian colleges or universities viewed the climates of their campuses. The majority of these individuals felt a largely negative attitude toward same-sex behavior and individuals who experience same-sex attraction, indicating a need to improve campus climates. We recognize that Christian colleges will have community behavioral standards, but the idea that the person who is navigating sexual identity concerns would not be viewed favorably is concerning. Means by which Christian colleges can begin to address climate are to not confuse the behavior with the individual, avoid derogatory language relating to sexuality or sexual identity, and remain open to discussing topics relating to sex and sexuality.
The second consideration in promoting healthy student development is ensuring that campus staff engages students in a relational manner to ensure students feel comfortable in approaching them. In interacting with students who are navigating issues relating to same-sex attraction, making others feel comfortable in expressing their views and being a good listener is key. These individuals may be feeling condemned by their church or peers, or too ashamed to speak out, and must have a safe haven where they can discuss their experiences with someone safe and trustworthy. We recommend a specific goal for student life staff is to practice the gift of hospitality: listen attentively, ask open-ended questions, and generally receiving others with kindness and respect.
Finally, navigating and enforcing university policy is an important consideration of student life, especially in relation to maintaining approachability. While our studies indicate that a majority of individuals who experience same-sex attraction at Christian universities currently are not as troubled by formal policies promoting heterosexual marriage and prohibiting same-sex behavior or relationships, they do resent homosexuality being singled out or judged more harshly. These students want to be treated fairly, and see equal application of policies based on sexual expression. Student life must carefully consider how they enforce their university’s policies, to work towards serving as a vessel of God’s truth, grace, and love.
Shame has been associated with poor psychological health in Christian sexual minorities. There are many possible sources of shame and the mainstream gay community often identifies discrimination in a largely heterosexual society as one specific source of shame. In this article, I want to discuss how churches have conveyed a shame-based script (Johnson &Yarhouse, 2013). Let me begin with a formula for shame. Lewis’s cognitive formula for shame (2004) includes three steps that lead to feelings of shame. The first, which will be examined in this article, is reviewing a person’s standards, rules, and goals. These are largely influenced by an individual’s personality and cultural background, which include religious beliefs. If individuals live in congruence with their standards, rules, and goals, they do not experience shame. In Lewis’ formula, if individuals do not live in congruence with their standards, rules, and goals, it is considered a “perceived failure” on the part of the individual (Johnson &Yarhouse, 2013). Consequently, the person attributes the failure to personal deficiencies, thereby making a “negative global attribution,” which leads to shame (Johnson &Yarhouse, 2013). The self-condemnation potentially leads to unhealthy emotions and behavior that damages a person’s relationships.
Yarhouse (2013) speaks of shame as the primary script communicated by the church to sexual minorities. The church navigates a delicate balance; it conveys Biblical teachings related to homosexuality and a broader sexual ethic while also conveying a sense of support and helping people grow and mature in their identity in Christ. Churches may have a specific set of standards, rules, and goals based on their background and denomination. However, if the church teaches that even having experiences of same-sex attraction is sin and/or promotes an “expectation of easy change,” the sexual minority may resent the church and experience shame, which perpetuates isolation and anger (Yarhouse, 2013, p. 77). Further, that person may attribute their failure to personal deficiencies that keep them from meeting the church’s standards. If the church reinforces this perception, those feelings may worsen.
Instead of a script of shame for a gay identity, it is possible for the church to introduce a counter-narrative (Yarhouse, 2013), which challenges mainstream conservative or liberal beliefs, by suggesting that people do not choose to experience same-sex attractions, can be honest with themselves and others about the reality of their same-sex sexuality, while making decisions about whether their sexuality will define them as a person. Instead, a person’s identity can be viewed in a broader sense and tied to other important meaning-making structures. One example that has come up in several studies of Christian sexual minorities would be choosing an identity in Christ (Yarhouse, 2013). Two key factors that help a person navigate through this process while avoiding shame are to have a solid support system in place as well as immersing and educating themselves on same-sex attraction and Christianity. This may allow sexual minorities to live in congruence with their goals, standards, and rules.
Johnson, V. & Yarhouse, M. 2013. Shame in sexual minorities: Stigma, internal cognitions, and
counseling considerations. Counseling and values, 58. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-007X.2013.00027.x
Yarhouse, M. 2013. Understanding sexual identity. Zondervan:Grand Rapids, MI
Youth Pastors are tasked not only with providing spiritual guidance to students and young adults, but also with helping them to navigate important questions about morality and sexuality. In this vein, one of the biggest questions facing youth ministers today is how to respond to a student who has revealed that they are experiencing same sex attraction in a way that is both sensitive to the student’s experience and true to a biblical understanding of sexual ethics. While many youth ministers may have had training that has touched upon the theological aspects of sexuality, some may be unfamiliar with the psychological, environmental and social components of sexual identity.
With this in mind, ISSI aims to provide youth workers with resources to aid them in their ability to effectively minister to youth who experience same sex attraction. Recently, Dr. Mark Yarhouse (2013) wrote a book tailored for youth ministry entitled, “Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry.” This introduces developmental considerations in the formation of sexual identity as well as offers insights on how to effectively communicate with sexual minority youth in ministry settings. By creating a ministry climate that invites youth to share their experiences without shame and fear of rejection, youth ministers can create a space for sexual minority youth to explore what their same sex attraction means in light of their faith. Grace, compassion and understanding paired with education and resources can serve as a healthy approach to serving this population in the context of youth ministry.
Here are a few recommendations for youth ministers working with sexual minority youth:
1) Create an environment in which students know you are open to discussing their struggles without judgment. This may be accomplished by simply announcing this is something you would like your students to talk with you about.
2) Talk to students about stereotypes and derogatory phrases that could be harmful to sexual minorities and take a stance against bullying. Phrases like “that’s so gay” isolate and embarrass youth with same sex attractions.
3) Review and explain the three-tier distinction, which highlights the differences between sexual attraction, orientation and identity. Phrases like “You can’t be gay and Christian” unintentionally communicates to youth that same sex attractions prevent them from following Christ. Youth are then forced to leave the faith because they find they are unable to leave their same sex attractions.
4) Invite students to discuss sexuality and what God intends for sexual relationships. Think deeply on your own understanding of sexual ethics and be transparent to youth about what this means in the context of scripture.
5) Become aware of counselors or therapists in the area with whom you can consult.
As humans, we often find that we are conflicted within. We may have been taught that certain things are right or wrong, but, when confronted with them in everyday life, we find that the answers aren’t always so cut and dry. We find that our experience or our feelings differ from what we have always believed or have been taught to believe. This causes inner conflict, which often leads to distress, unhappiness, and lack of fulfillment. These feelings persist until we can find a way to resolve these conflicting thoughts and emotions so that they align, which is also known as finding congruence. When talking about sexual identity, these conflicts usually occur between the individual’s beliefs/values and their behaviors/identity (Yarhouse, 2010). Personal congruence can be difficult to reach, especially for individuals from religious backgrounds. So, how do individuals who are conflicted about their sexual identity find personal congruence?
Because congruence is essentially living in a manner consistent with your beliefs and values, it is important for individuals to determine what their beliefs and values are and where they came from. Oftentimes, beliefs and values are not our own, and this can make it frustrating to align our behaviors and identity with something that we are not sure is true. Therefore, it is important for individuals to determine what their personal beliefs and values are. For some, this will lead them into agreement with their previously held beliefs. These individuals often move their behavior and identity into congruence with their beliefs and values and find their identity in their beliefs and values (e.g. a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction). For others, this will lead them to reject their previously held beliefs and values. In this situation, beliefs and values are moved into congruence with behavior and identity (e.g. label as gay or lesbian). Others may choose to integrate their beliefs with a gay identity (e.g. label as a gay Christian) and find congruence this way. As you can see, it is important to identify your beliefs and values and make sure they are your own. Attempting to find personal congruence with someone else’s beliefs and values is frustrating and really isn’t “personal” congruence. Regardless of the direction of your congruence, it is important to continue to evaluate your beliefs and values, as well as behaviors and identity, in order to ensure and facilitate continued personal congruence.
When we refer to the “three tier distinction,” we are talking about a distinction between same-sex attraction, a homosexual orientation, and a gay identity. Same sex attraction refers to experiences of physical and emotional attraction to a person of the same sex. It does not define a person. In fact, it is one of the most descriptive ways to talk about a person’s experiences. Homosexual orientation describes the persistence of attraction to the same sex. When a person speaks of having a homosexual orientation, they are again not necessarily defining themselves as a person, but providing information about their same-sex sexuality as an enduring pattern of attraction. When we think about the word “gay” as an identity, we often refer to a person who adopts the word “gay” as who they are (rather than how they are). We recognize that there is a new generation of Christians who use gay more as an adjective to describe their sexual orientation, for example, a traditionally believing Christian who has a homosexual orientation might say, “I am a celibate gay Christian.” Others, however, use gay to designate who they are (as identity) and others often assume through that identity label that the person views same-sex relationships as morally permissible.
The three tier distinction provides an alternative route to how one thinks about their identity and it can be useful to some people at certain points in their identity development. The three-tier distinction would allow a person who experiences same sex attraction or a homosexual orientation to describe what they experience/feel without making a statement about their identity. Identity is a label that a person can choose for themselves, and different people have made different decisions about identity labels and their meaning. For example, some Christians have preferred to form their identity in Christ rather than referencing their same-sex sexuality. Others do both in referring to themselves as either a “gay Christian” or a “celibate gay Christian.”
The three tier distinction should not be used to set an expectation that another person use descriptive language over an identity label. Rather, it is intended as a pastoral or counseling resource for those who find it helpful as they navigate sexual identity questions and concerns.
“Coming out” for LGBT youths and young adults is a significant milestone event in their sexual identity development. A small but significant collection of research suggests that the families of sexual minorities go through a “coming out” process of their own (Beeler & DiProva, 1999; Saltzburg, 2004). Parents must learn to navigate new aspects of their identity within their families, communities, and culture (Beeler & Diprova, 1999). Initial feelings of grief and loss, sadness, as well as fear of “losing” one’s child, are common reactions to the discovery that a son or daughter is gay (Beeler & DiPova, 1999; Saltzburg, 2004; Freedman, 2008). Many parents experience cognitive and emotional dissonance; that is, internal conflict between negative or uncomfortable feelings about homosexuality, and unconditional love for their child (Saltzburg, 2004). This dissonance, though not unusual, makes positive adjustment and coping more difficult (Saltzburg, 2004).
What resources and coping skills have religious parents found helpful for moving past initial feelings of loss, fear, and cognitive dissonance? A study by Freedman (2008) interviewed and compared parents from religious-oriented and gay-affirming support groups. Religious parents have reported trust and reliance on God as their foundation for coping (Freedman, 2008). While parents in gay affirmative support groups emphasized pride and advocacy, parents in religious-oriented support groups emphasized acceptance of the child, but not necessarily same-sex sexual behavior. However, the majority of parents in both types of support groups, regardless of beliefs regarding homosexuality, stressed the importance of remaining involved in their child’s lives (Freedman, 2008). In fact, most parents described resolving conflict since initial reactions to disclosure, and current positive relationships with their child. Furthermore, both groups of parents found that becoming more educated about sexual identity and getting to know other sexual minorities and their parents were vital means of positive coping and adjustment. Support groups focused on “acceptance of what you cannot change,” and honest, non-condemning dialogue were positive resources for parents. Freedman’s study may speak into the experience of religious parents who seek ways to accept and grow in their relationship with their child, while navigating their understanding of homosexuality in light of their faith.
Beeler, J., & DiProva, V. (1999). Family adjustment following disclosure of homosexuality by a member: Themes discerned in narrative accounts. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 25, 443-459.
Freedman, L. (2008). Accepting the unacceptable: Relgious parents and adult gay and
lesbian children. Families in society: The journal of contemporary social services, 89(2), 237-244.
Saltzburg, S. (2004). Learning that an adolescent child is gay or lesbian: The parent
experience. Social Work, 49(1), 109-118.