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.
Often times in society, when an individual experiences same-sex attraction, it is assumed that they must “be true to themselves” and identify with a label, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. Some people might feel pressured to claim a sexual identity label in order to define “who they really are.” However, this message gives the impression that sexual identity “trumps” other aspects of that person. Some individuals have found it helpful to consider other characteristics of themselves in addition to or instead of their sexual identity. For example, I might describe myself as a musician, a teacher, a country girl, a student, and an overly zealous lover of the color green. I am considering multiple facets of who “Rebecca” is. It is up to me to decide what “weight” each aspects carries. Perhaps my country roots carry more weight than other aspects, so I assign it a higher value. If writing it down on paper for visual purposes, I might make a pie chart and assign one larger chunk (e.g. 35%) to being a country girl. My overly zealous love for green might make up a small fraction of who I am, so I might give that a smaller piece of the pie, such as 2%. I would do this for each characteristic I ascribe to myself. In doing so, I am weighting aspects of my identity.
In a similar way, someone who is attracted to the same sex might choose to ascribe that aspect of themselves as a large percentage (e.g. “I am bisexual, 45%), a small percentage (e.g. “I am attracted to the same sex, 5%), or no percentage at all. Perhaps being a sister, an uncle, a mechanic, a beautician, etc. is more pervasive than their same-sex attraction or sexual identity label. Still others might find that their sexual identity is a larger part of their overall identity, carrying more weight than other characteristics. It is entirely up to the individual as to how they choose to describe themselves. Societal norms do not have to dictate a person’s overall identity. Instead, it is up to the individual to find the best fit for them and to embrace all of who they are.
Rebecca L. Thomas, M.A.
Stories are being written constantly. Each person’s life, including yours, is uniquely shaped – a narrative in formation. It can be largely beneficial to reflect on our own story – What is being written? Who plays a part in the writing and editing of your story? Is there anyone or anything that prevents you from sharing the most authentic version of your story? Storying Your Identity takes a person through an engaging and interactive process of exploring these questions in the arena of sexual identity. This workbook is intended specifically for those who experience a conflict between their religious and sexual identities, providing a space for reflection and navigation. As individuals walk through various exercises, from identifying their dominant narrative to interviewing and outlining the main “character” of concern to them, they are encouraged to consider the meaning of each chapter of their life and how they envision their future chapters being written. Through this workbook the power of story meets the often-uncharted territory of sexual identity to empower the individual to understand their identity and make decisions that can instill greater meaning in life.