I was interviewed a while ago for a research project regarding the experiences of sexual minorities who had graduated from Christian colleges and universities. It’s a very well-written, academic, well- supported, 63 page paper, but here is just a short excerpt that may help some understand what I and others have faced and do faced in those kinds of environments.
The last century has seen rapid changes in the nature of the research on the subject of LGB+ persons (Herek, 2010). Scientific and demographic studies surrounding sexual orientation have paved the way for specific research pertaining to LGB+ identity development, individual needs, and experiences (SAMHSA, 2015). A brief synthesis of the recent research provides an understanding of where this study finds its place in the larger body of knowledge. This review of the literature addresses basic definitions, demographics, current understandings of sexual orientation, risks associated with the LGB+ community, the implications and varying effects of religion, information about identity development and the integration of identities, and statistical evidence regarding risks within educational environments as well as the proposed solutions. This research is crucial to understanding relevant experiences of LGB+ college students and how those experiences affect the educational experiences of LGB+ students on Christian college campuses (Liao and Wang, 2015).
Demographic Data, Basic Definitions, and Current Understanding of Sexual Orientation
According to The Williams Institute (2011), there are more than 9 million self-identified Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) adults in the United States, which is roughly 3.5% of the adult population. As of 2011, another 16.6 million Americans acknowledged experiencing some level of same-sex sexual attraction, without identifying as LGB+. The numbers are estimated to be higher among youth and highest among college students. The Williams Institute (2011) estimated that one in ten college students experience same-sex attraction.
This study utilized the acronym LGB+ in reference to sexual minorities, which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual”. The full acronym includes a wide array of sexual and gender identities; therefore “+” leaves room for the inclusion of individuals with varying identities. This study specifically addresses the experiences of sexual minorities, however, much of the research in this review applies to gender minorities as well.
In 1992, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases (Nakajima, 2003; World Health Organization, 1992). Differences in sexual orientation that were at one point viewed as medical issues are now considered a natural part of diversity. This consideration is the result of years of empirical data. One of the most groundbreaking studies at its time was the work of Dr. Evelyn Hooker (1957). Dr. Hooker sought to test the validity of the common assumption that gay men were mentally unstable. Hers was the first study at the time that worked with gay men who were neither imprisoned nor in therapy for other non-related mental and behavioral health issues. This study provided evidence that gay men are no more or less stable then their heterosexual peers (Hooker, 1957). As a result of her research and the work of others, sexuality is now understood as a “continuum” with many variations (American Psychological Association, 2009; Diamond, 2015; Vrangalova & Savin-Williams, 2012). Recently the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2015) defined sexual orientation as a person’s “emotional, sexual, and/or relational attraction to others, including a person’s inclinations, actions, and the way that he/she identifies” (SAMHSA, 2015 p. 72). Sexual orientation is not necessarily directly connected to sexual actions, but is linked to the basic connections and attachments that people experience with one another (Laumann et. al., 1994). Many cultural, educational, and societal changes have resulted from psychological and mental health organizations clarifying their understanding of sexual orientation. This shift in cultural and psychological understanding has functioned as the impetus for new research pertaining to LGB+ identity development, mental health, and physical wellbeing (SAMHSA, 2015 p. 23).
Risks Associated with the LGB+ population
Despite a culture that is becoming increasingly accepting of gender and sexual variations, a report based on 14 years of FBI data revealed that the LGB+ community is more likely than any other minority group in the United States to fall victim to violent hate crimes (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010). The heightened mental, emotional, and physical risks associated with sexual and gender minorities were once thought to be a result of an LGB+ identity. Psychologists and health professionals now understand that these risks are rooted in discrimination, rejection, harassment, and violence toward the LGB+ population (Bockting et al., 2013; Harper & Schneider, 2003; Hendricks & Testa, 2012; Meyer, 1995). As a result of these risks, studies demonstrated a significant difference in the mental and behavioral health of LGB+ adolescents and their heterosexual peers. Stressors related to interpersonal relationships also contribute to the poor mental and behavioral health of LGB+ youth (Bockting, et. al., 2013; Meyer, 2003).
Implications and Varying Effects of Religion
Politically conservative religious groups have had a strong involvement in shaping cultural understandings of homosexuality in the recent past (Grace, 2002; Grossman 2001). Twenty-three years after the APA declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, politically conservative Christians began funding the “ex-gay movement” (Kahn, 1998, p. 1). The APA’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness ended the practice of extreme forms of reorientation therapy, including those that involved electrocution or nausea-inducing drugs; however, fringe groups continued to practice “talk therapy,” which encouraged sexual minorities to view their attractions as developmental issues, rather than as natural variations in biological and mental development (Hazel, 1999). The theories of these groups remained largely disconnected from the public eye until politically conservative religious groups began a calculated campaign to draw attention to these theories (Hazel, 1999).
In July of 1998, The New York Times printed a full page ad featuring Anne Paulk wearing a diamond ring, and the statement, “I’m proof that the truth can set you free.” Fifteen religious-right organizations sponsored this $600,000 ad campaign in which Paulk claimed to have experienced healing from same-sex attractions. Paulk associated her same-sex attractions with the molestation she had experienced, claiming that her orientation developed from this abuse. The ad also appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Organizations funding the ad campaign included “The Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and the American Family Association,” among others (Hazel, 1999).
For a decade following the Paulk ad campaign, Christian organizations promoted conversion therapy for sexual minorities (Grace, 2002). The largest of these organizations was Exodus Ministries, which had 83 chapters present in 34 states. Exodus Ministries claimed that changing one’s orientation was possible with a combination of prayer and therapy (Grace, 2002). Very recently, Exodus Ministries and several other ex-gay ministries have shut down, issued public apologies, and refuted a multitude of prior claims (Wilson, 2014). Despite the many voices condemning conversion therapy and warning of the resulting harm, remaining ex-gay efforts continue to receive funding through religious communities via organizations such as The National Christian Foundation (Alan, 2010; Wilson, 2014). As a result, LGB+ individuals within religious communities that disapprove of LGB+ identities, and/or same-sex sexual behavior, continue to pursue therapies designed to change orientation (APA Task Force, 2009).
In 2009, the APA Taskforce on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation Change Efforts conducted a comprehensive review of peer-reviewed literature published on therapies designed to change orientation (conversion therapies). The APA Taskforce determined that no methodologically-sound research on adults undergoing conversion therapy had demonstrated effectiveness in changing sexual orientation (APA, 2009). There have been no recent studies published that would alter the APA Taskforce’s conclusions (APA, 2016). Every major medical, psychiatric, psychological, and professional mental health organization has taken steps to end therapies designed to change sexual orientation (SAMHSA, 2015). The majority of these efforts recently are aimed at ending the practice of conversion-therapy with adolescents (SAMHSA, 2015). Notable members of the myriad of organizations refuting prior claims of the usefulness of conversion therapy include the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association for Social Work, the Pan American Health Organization, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. These organizations state that therapies intended to change orientation are “coercive, can be harmful, and should not be a part of behavioral health treatment” (SAMHSA, 2015; American Psychiatric Association, 2013b; American Psychological Association, 2010; National Association of Social Workers, 2008). The American Psychological Association (2004) stated that promoting conversion therapies “exacerbates the risk of harassment, harm and fear” (APA, 2008, p. 9). The American Psychiatric Association (2013b) stated the risks of therapies aimed at changing orientation reinforce self-hatred, resulting in depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior. In spite of these statements, and efforts, the practice of conversion therapy persists, primarily due to conservative Christian influence (Wilson, 2014). Those working with LGB+ young adults need to be mindful of this influence, as many young adults are subject to continued negative mental health effects from conversion-therapy experiences, and/or the negative effects of conversion therapy ideologies and messages that remain common within religious communities (APA, 2009b; Shidlo & Schroeder, 2002; Tozer & Hayes, 2004).
Tensions existing between understandings within research and religious communities’ rhetoric have not gone unnoticed or unaddressed by health professionals. Behavioral health providers are encouraged to develop competence in multicultural communication before serving religious communities. Those providing counseling to sexual minorities recognize that personal beliefs and values are “important domains of personal experience” (Pargament & Mahoney, 2005). As a result of this respect for personal beliefs, behavior health providers are taught to use clear and non-offensive language in communicating the psychology of sexual orientation with those holding religious convictions that do not affirm minority sexual orientations. In this way, health professionals recognize the dissonance between the research and the implications of certain religious conviction (Bartoli & Gillem, 2008). In recent years, religious alternatives to conversion therapy, such as the “Sexual Identity Therapy Framework,” have introduced possible solutions for this dissonance through providing a therapy framework consistent with conservative religious beliefs, while not ignoring the recent, well documented research (Throckmortan and Yarhouse, 2006).
LGB+ Religious Involvement, Familial Rejection, and the Integration of Identities
Conservative religious influences have strongly affected the wellbeing and mental health of many sexual minority adolescents (Ream & SavinWilliams, 2005; Lindahl, & Malik, 2013). While religious commitment is generally associated with healthier psychosocial adjustment among young adults and adolescents, this is not the case for LGB+ youth (Cotton, 2006). In the case of those who identify as sexual minorities, religious identities create both internal and external conflict and are linked to lower psychosocial adjustment (Cotton, 2006). Lower psychosocial adjustment is not a result of the experience of same-sex attraction, but rather the tensions that occur when experiencing same-sex attractions while involved in religious and spiritual belief systems that cast rejecting or disapproving messages of sexual minorities (Meanley, Pingel, & Bauermeister, 2015; Lindahl & Malik, 2013). Researchers have found that adolescents and young adults are sometimes able to reconcile religious and minority sexual identities, but that this process is often at the expense of attachment with their religious communities (Meanley, Pingel, & Bauermiester, 2015; Ream & Savin-Williams, 2005).
Young adults navigating an awareness of a minority sexual orientation within religious environments often face familial rejection or are ostracized within their communities (Yarhouse, 2015). This lack of support leads to increased risks, including “depressive symptoms, increased rates of substance-use and abuse, suicidal ideation and attempts, as well as the likelihood of experiencing victimization, violence, and homelessness,” as well as physical, sexual, or psychological abuse within the home and outside of the home (Friedman et al., 2011; Goldbach, et al, 2014). This tangible familial rejection, as well as perceived familial rejection are attributed to the number of messages conservative religious families are exposed to that portray minority sexual orientations as morally wrong (Schope, 2002). These portrayals create feelings of perceived rejection resulting in shame, guilt, and internalized homophobia within sexual minorities (Ream & Savin-Williams, 2005). As a result, LGB+ adolescents with religious parents are less likely to disclose their sexual orientation to those around them (Schope, 2002). The ability to disclose personal information with friends and family members is considered an important aspect of social function leading to healthy attachments (Schope, 2002). Hiding this personal piece of information can cause an individual to internalize feelings, making it difficult for adolescents who experience same-sex attractions to form healthy and trusting attachments to friends and family members (Ream & Savin-Williams, 2005).
Fortunately, religious commitments and spirituality can be integral and helpful aspects of identity, including for sexual minorities who have reconciled their experiences of same-sex attraction with their beliefs. In fact, recent research revealed that affirming religious environments have potential to “improve psychological wellbeing and reduce internalized homophobia” (Lease, et al., 2005; Yakushko, 2005). These benefits apply to LGB+ youth as well. Researchers found that LGB+ youth within affirming religious climates (those supportive of sexual minority identities), had “fewer alcohol abuse symptoms and fewer sexual risk behaviors” than those living in unsupportive religious climates (Hatzenbuehler, Pachankis, & Wolff, 2012). Affirming and supporting sexual minority identities differs from supporting same-sex unions. Not all sexual minorities will pursue same-sex unions, and not all religious communities will affirm same-sex unions. Regardless, researchers with conservative religious backgrounds found that religious communities who place a high value on unconditional love are able to stay connected in a healthy way to those who affirm same-sex unions, even in the midst of disagreements (Ryan et al, 2009; Maslowe & Yarhouse, 2015).
Risks Associated with LGB+ Students
LGB+ students at Christian Colleges have a harder time disclosing their sexual identities (Dimond & Savin-Williams, 2000). LGB+ students in safe and affirming environments often find ways to portray their sexual minority status through visible self-expression. In this way, as well as through conversation, students engage in a process of on-going self-disclosure. The process of disclosure is an important piece of development, but in religious environments disclosure often comes into conflict with the fear of rejection (Stevens, 2004). The age that sexual minorities disclose their orientations is significantly younger than in the past; however the age of disclosure within religious communities lags behind (Stevens, 2004, Abes, Jones, & McEwen, 2007, Jones, 2009, Renn, 2007). Students on Christian college campuses are more likely to hide their minority sexual identities than those attending public institutions (Diamond & Savin-Williams, 2000; Floyd & Bakeman, 2006; Grov, Bimbi, Nanín, & Parsons, 2006; Savin-Williams, 2001). This unwillingness to disclose is likely related to prior negative experiences within school or religious communities (Diamond & Savin-Williams, 2000). A survey of LGB+ youth, implemented by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, found that 99.4% of LGB+ youth frequently heard homophobic comments at school (40% reported hearing these comments from faculty and staff). Almost half reported experiencing verbal harassment and over a third reported experiencing sexual harassment, and 63.5% of LGB+ students reported feeling unsafe as a result of their sexual orientation (National School Climate Survey, 2011). These statistics demand the attention of educators and those working with LGB+ youth and young adults (National School Climate Survey, 2011).
There is need for institutions attempting to create safe learning environments for students to give attention to the beliefs about and attitudes toward sexual minorities held among faculty, staff, and students, not only for the sake of protecting LGB+ students, but also because physical and emotional safety are prerequisites for learning (National School Climate Survey, 2011). The climate of k-12 educational environments strongly influences LGB+ students’ perceptions of educational environments, their energy to participate in the classroom, their ability to perform, and their desire to continue their education (National School Climate Survey, 2011). LGB+ students who choose to pursue post-secondary education do not escape the risks found in k-12 settings. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (2002) confirmed the connection between k-12 experiences and undergraduate experiences. Results of a study of LGB+ college students found that 20% of LGB+ students “fear for their physical safety due to their gender identity or their perceived sexual orientation” (Rankin, 2002, p. 13). LGB+ college students’ fears are based on perceived threats. These perceptions hold validity. Not only do LGB+ college students face verbal and physical harassment, similar to youth in k-12 settings, but three in four LGB+ college students reported experiencing sexual harassment while attending college (Rankin, 2002).
Need for Safe and Empowering Environments
As a result of the risks associated with LGB+ identities, new research has focused on the common experience of shame among sexual minorities and on ways to empower the LGB+ community. In a quantitative study, Greene and Britton (2003) evaluated the relationship between eliminating shame and raising the self-esteem of LGB+ individuals. “Shame” is defined as “… the painful self-consciousness of, or anxiety about, negative judgement, unwanted exposure, inferiority, failure, and defeat” (Budden, 2009, p. 1033). As LGB+ individuals come to understand their own identities, they often recognize that the environments surrounding them are unaccepting or hostile. These experiences are not unlike the experiences of ethnic or racial minorities, and are rooted in the legitimate risks LGB+ individuals face. Along with the risk of harassment, perceived or anticipated rejection among LGB+ individuals can result in negative mental health effects (Pachankis, 2007). Insecurity and shame strongly affect students’ abilities to perform well academically. Liao and Wang (2015) encouraged post-secondary institutions to eliminate shaming and discriminatory messages toward the LGB+ community in order to address LGB+ students’ shame and anxiety.
Recent studies emphasized the value of creating safe places and displaying affirming symbols in establishing feelings of safety for LGB+ students (Stephans 2004, Rankin, Weber, Blumenfeld, & Frazer, 2010, Wolff & Himes, 2010). The creation of safe spaces essential to empowering students as they navigate the tensions of religious and sexual identities. This is particularly important on Christian college campuses, given the history of conservative religious responses to sexual minorities (Wolff & Himes, 2010). In a 2005 study of LGB+ college student’s spiritual experiences, researchers recommended developing LGBT-friendly religious organizations where LGB+ students could discuss their spiritual journeys and challenges as well as openly ask questions (Bock, Jannarone, Love, & Richardson, 2005). The same study found that disclosing one’s sexual orientation acts as a “stimulus for spiritual development” (p. 13).
In an analysis of Christian College’s policies regarding homosexuality, Wolff and Himes (2010) recommend fostering “climates of grace”. This is accomplished through “safe social support networks, or designated spaces” to “freely discuss thoughts, feelings, and questions outside of a therapeutic or change-oriented context.” These “climates of grace” are essential to the process of eliminating physical, mental, and emotional insecurity for students (Wolff & Himes, 2010). In a study regarding resource centers for LGB+ students, Fine (2012) wrote, “…if an institution deems such a space necessary, it appears it will take the steps to include it on campus” (p. 297). Naturally, most religious institutions have not taken the steps to begin envisioning a safe-space for the LGB+ students on their campuses (Fine, 2012).
Rochenbach and Crandall (2016) most recently addressed the complexities of the inclusion of sexual minorities within Christian higher education, stating that the presence of sexual minorities is undeniable, and that these students are “academically, socially, and psychologically at risk, particularly in environments that are unwelcoming or hostile” (p. 63). The researchers urge those within Christian Higher Education to “consider the implications of campus climate for LGBTQ students’ development” (p. 63). Campus climate includes “The current attitudes, behaviors, and standards and practices of employees and students of an institution” (Rankin & Reason, 2008, p. 264). Christian higher educational institutions continue to “endorse attitudes that present challenges for sexual minority students” (Rochenbach & Crandall, 2016, p. 67, Yarhouse et. al. 2009, p. 105). For this reason, attending to the “lived experiences” of LGB+ students who have attended Christian institutions is imperative (Rochenbach & Crandall, 2016, p. 68).