“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.
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.