Resources / Miscellaneous
The Impact of Religion on Gays and Lesbians
by R. Drew Smith
Religion. Few other words evoke such a wide array of emotions, thoughts
and feelings. Whether an individual's response is positive, negative
or somewhere in between, it cannot be denied that in one form or another
religions have significantly shaped our world. They have united and
divided peoples and nations. Wars have been fought over them and peace
has been established by their influence. They have caused the deepest
pain or provided the sweetest comfort. Their doors have been opened
to some and closed to others. Just as religions have extensively impacted
much of the history of this world for good or ill, so have they shaped
or scarred the lives of many gays and lesbians.
Whether personally or professionally, anyone who is involved in
helping gays and lesbians negotiate the sometimes rough road through
life needs to be aware of the influence of religion. Obviously, addressing
religious issues is not a concern that is unique to sexual minorities.
However, the power of religion as it interacts with many other aspects
of an individual's life is worth considering. For many gays and lesbians,
religion has impacted the development of their identity, their relationship
with their family of origin, their coming out process, and their own
spirituality. Therefore, it should not be ignored or discounted.
Religion in Counseling
Anyone currently involved in any type of counseling is frequently
reminded of the importance of addressing her or his clients' needs
from a multicultural perspective. It appears that often the focus
of any attempts to meet these needs is related to ethnicity. A broader
understanding of culture would help counselors recognize the critical
influence of many other cultural variables in a person's life. In
fact, as Miranti (1996) points out, "the spiritual and/or religious
dimensions inherent in each individual could possibly be the most
salient cultural identity for a client" (p. 117). Religion crosses
all ethnic and demographic boundaries to fundamentally influence thinking,
feeling, behaving and even the meaning of life for many individuals.
Therefore, many are recognizing the value of addressing religious
issues in counseling (Haldeman, 1996; McDonald & Steinhorn, 1994;
Pate & Bondi, 1992; Worthington, 1989).
In an exhaustive and articulate article about religion in counseling,
Worthington (1989) identifies some key reasons why counselors should
pay attention to the implications of religious faith. One of the reasons
he promotes is that many people turn to religion when in crises but
are also reluctant to bring up their religious considerations during
therapy. This combined with the assertion that therapists are often
not as religious as their clients and less informed about religion
sets up a situation of disparity in the needs and practices of the
client versus the beliefs and practices of the therapist. In fact,
Peck (1978) goes as far as saying that "many psychiatrists and psychotherapists
perceive religion as the Enemy" (p. 207). Even if this observation
has only a small element of truth, it indicates an important issue
to address in the practice of counseling. Education in this area is
critical because "psychologists might expect involvement of religion
in the cause and maintenance of, and in strategies for coping with,
psychological problems in their clients" (Worthington, 1989, p. 557).
What is it about religion that affects people so deeply? One important
aspect is the influence religion has on identity development (Pate
& Bondi, 1992; Worthington, 1989). The embracing of religion is also
a way for families, communities and cultures to explain the unexplainable.
It establishes a set of morals or values around which they can center
themselves or even explain their existence and reason for being (McDonald
& Steinhorn, 1990; McNeill, 1988). Personal conduct is consequently
judged by how one responds to these standards. Additionally, rituals,
milestones and celebrations are often constructed around these religious
beliefs and customs. Religion not only defines spirituality for an
individual but also often influences fundamental beliefs about marriage,
death, illness, and sexuality (McGoldrick, 1995). Religion supports,
protects and becomes the lens through which the world is viewed (Sears,
Implications for Gays and Lesbians
The following observations in no way claim that others, regardless
of sexual orientation, do not have similar experiences with religion.
This focus simply highlights the added dimension of being gay or lesbian.
Additionally, it is important to note that most research and references
are limited to gays and lesbians, as is this work. However, it is
probably safe to assume that bisexuals and transgendered individuals
have similar feelings and experiences.
The effect that religion has had on any particular individual who
is gay or lesbian often depends on the doctrines or beliefs held by
their religion. These views fall on a continuum anywhere from rejection
and punishment to tolerance or even full acceptance (Griffin, Wirth,
& Wirth, 1996). Even though each individual's experience within this
realm is unique, some common themes are present.
A common but sad theme among gays and lesbians is the belief that
repression of their sexuality equates to love and acceptance from
other important people and entities in their lives. As McNeill (1988)
so aptly relates,
Because I was aware of my sexual feelings, I was tormented
by the fear that, at the very heart of my being, there was a fatal
flaw that rendered me defective and unlovable. I thought that I could
be accepted by my family and Church only if I could hide, deny, and
repress the specific form that my ability to love and sexual feelings
had taken (p.6).
Here are formed the roots of oppression with the resulting self-doubt,
unworthiness and rejection. However, in contrast to the oppression experienced
by ethnic minorities, sexual minorities face the potential loss of not
only their church but their family as well (Clark et al, 1990; Hancock,
1995). Intense loneliness can obviously be a serious side effect.
Gays and lesbians who come from an ethnic minority face a double
dose of oppression. Because the dominant religion of an ethnic minority
is often an intrinsic part of their culture, gays and lesbians in
these communities are not only subjected to the oppression and discrimination
from society because of their race and sexual orientation. Once their
sexuality is revealed, there is also the very real fear of resulting
rejection from the culture that has historically buffered and protected
them. Isolation is an incredibly unfortunate result.
For example, the solution for some Asian gay males has been reported
as "compartmentalization to fend off pressures from family and community
in order to cope with being gay" (Bhugra, 1997, p. 556). Jaschke and
Doi (1989) reported the reaction to the deeply religious family and
upbringing of an Asian American was to become an atheist in order
to escape the associated judgment and guilt. Latino traditions and
customs are closely linked to the Catholic Church. The families of
Latino gays and lesbians might view their sexuality as a betrayal
of their cultural heritage (Garcia, 1998). Almeida (1996) explains
the Islamic emphasis on procreative relationships because such are
in the best interest of the community. There is therefore a strict
condemnation of homosexual behavior, which serves to further isolate
Muslim gays and lesbians. The often powerful and intense religious
and spiritual component in African American culture serves to add
internalized heterosexism to the already present internalized racism.
Gays and lesbians in this culture might be viewed as adding yet another
stigma to an already oppressed status (Greene, 1998; Sears, 1991).
Sadly, this component might be a factor in the higher rates of suicide
reported among young Black homosexual males (Gibbs, 1997).
An important goal of therapy for gays and lesbians coming from a
religious background is to recognize, challenge and confront any beliefs
that have facilitated shame and low self-esteem. Guilt, accompanying
these other factors, might be the most common burden borne by gays
and lesbians in this setting (McNeill, 1988; Siegel & Lowe, 1994).
When sexual orientation comes into conflict with a basic belief system,
these are the mechanisms used to cope. They may be especially evident
in youth who are caught in a triangle with parents and religion. Savin-Williams
(1998) reported that relations with parents are a significant concern
for gay and lesbian youth. When they are not meeting their parents'
expectations, the fear and alienation often result in guilt and shame
as well. Religious expectations should be a serious consideration
when gay or lesbian teens are presenting with these issues (Collins
& Zimmerman, 1983).
Even more drastically, the belief that one is an abomination often
turns into self-hate (McDonald & Steinhorn, 1990; McNeill, 1988).
The results of such a reaction can be devastating. Isolation, sexual
acting out, substance abuse, and even suicide are not uncommon reactions
to this self-hate (McDonald & Steinhorn, 1990). Is it any wonder that
these are the reactions of some when they face the inextricable contradiction
that "a man born gay faces constant messages of condemnation to eternal
damnation from ancient organizations that paradoxically profess to
hold all creatures of the deity to have been created in his image
and to be objects of his affection and love" (Siegel & Lowe, 1994,
Challenging these fundamental beliefs and behaviors is really about
confronting identity. The development, maintenance or evolution of
an individual's identity over time can be significantly impacted by
religion. Hancock (1995) indicates that "for those who are religious,
coming out is an identity shift that conflicts with a deep-seated
Judeo-Christian tradition for which the punishment can include the
loss of one's family and friends" (p. 406). Supporting someone facing
such a huge developmental task is critical.
Not all gays or lesbians necessarily have a negative experience
with their church. Some have found it to be a safe place of comfort
and peace. They have participated in singing, teaching or serving
in their churches in a variety of ways. For some, it is even a place
to shine. As a reaction to their unimaginable secret, they may even
become quite pious in an attempt to hide their sexuality or perhaps
even to rid themselves of it by their good works. The thinking might
be that "surely God will remove this horrible curse from me if I do
everything right!" Many have attempted to use religion as a cure for
their homosexuality (Siegel & Lowe, 1994). Adams (1996) simply yet
poignantly relates his experience as "The Preacher's Son." The rationalization
Our Christian walk isn't supposed to be easy. We're cursed
by our sinful, human nature. We'll struggle with it our entire lives.
This is just another part of the struggle. Maybe we'll never fully
have victory, but we're supposed to keep trying. Heaven isn't for
perfect people. It's a place of reward for those of us who have accepted
God's plan of salvation (p. 81).
Adams continues by describing a typical plea to God in prayer, "I have
talked to you so many times about this. . .I wish that when you said
homosexuality was wrong, that you would have given instructions how
to get rid of it. I just can't grasp what I'm supposed to do" (p. 121).
The sadness of incompatibility and separation comes for many when
they begin to acknowledge and accept their sexuality. The description
of the dilemma is aptly portrayed by the therapist of a young Jewish
man, "He was adamant about feeling the urge but not wanting to have
gay sex, about wanting to be straight but not feeling any urges to
have straight sex, and wanting (and deeply enjoying) his practice
of traditional Judaism. The incompatibility of these conflicting wishes
and life plans left him in despair" (Fulmer, 1999, p. 225). If lesbians
and gays choose or are forced to leave their beloved church, there
can be a real sense of loss and grief. For some the choice is a question
of loyalty (McNaught, 1979; Siegel & Lowe, 1994). Others might respond
with anger and bitterness, lashing out at a church to which they had
given so much of their lives and now is rejecting them.
Revisiting fundamental ideals and beliefs can be an overwhelming
battle of internal conflict. Often closely entangled in the issues
of religion are the accompanying family of origin dynamics. Declaring
a sexuality that is at odds with the religion's idea of family, i.e.,
man, woman and child, not only potentially pits a person against their
religion and their family but with their own ideals as well. Beliefs
that have been fiercely guarded as truths have to be carefully reconstructed
to fit a new worldview.
Holding onto ideals that are consistent with their religion is a
way to maintain continuity with a family of origin (Fulmer, 1999).
For many gays and lesbians, religion is a critical component of the
culture of their family. It can be the center of communication, purpose
and even day-to-day living. When a child or sibling's sexuality is
at odds with the doctrines of the family's church, conflicting feelings
may arise. The family is torn between their allegiance to their God
and their gay family member. Family members might ask in vain for
answers as to how to completely love and accept their child or sibling
when they are taught that what he or she is doing is a sin and that
they might go to hell (Fairchild & Hayward, 1979; Griffin, Wirth,
& Wirth, 1996 ).
They even feel that they must choose one or the other (Clark et
al, 1990). Pain and anguish often result. Barriers to communication
and relating arise because the one thing that has united them in the
past is now a point of conflict. Just as a gay or lesbian individual
would hope for love and understanding from their family, so should
they exhibit patience and respect for the pain and fears their family
are experiencing (McGoldrick, 1995). The unfortunate truth, though,
is that in some instances the family chooses to endorse the actions
of their religion against their own family member (Strommen, 1990).
The reaction of family members and the gay or lesbian individual
within that system is often linked to the strictness of their religious
behavior. The more traditional or devout the family, the more likely
their response will be negative and the stronger any resulting conflicts
(Hammersmith, 1987; Hancock, 1995; Newman & Muzzonigro, 1993; Strommen,
1990). This level of devoutness seems to be a significant factor in
studying these issues. Weinberg and Williams (1979) reported some
interesting findings regarding the "religiosity" of male homosexuals.
In two separate studies, they attempted to identify the relationship
between religion and psychological problems. First of all, they found
that there did not seem to be any correlation of problems to any particular
religious group or denomination. Rather, the severity of problems
was correlated more to how religious a person was, or their religiosity.
Additionally, they reported that other than the greater guilt, shame
and anxiety displayed after an initial homosexual experience, religious
homosexuals did not exhibit greater psychological problems.
Additional issues that are faced by the individual who is seeking
to establish his or her identity as gay or lesbian include the undeniable
pressures from family and church to subdue, repress or even change
their sexual orientation (Worthington, 1989). The often subtle and
sometimes blatant messages that are transmitted inflict incredible
pain on an already conflicted person. To be told to repent and conform
with God's plan when someone does not feel that they have done anything
wrong can be very confusing. Other resulting feelings include hypocrisy,
inferiority and intense turmoil. Problems with intimacy and the loss
of an important support system, either by abandonment or excommunication,
also need to be addressed. Hammersmith (1987) also suggests that the
concept of sin needs to be addressed and that "clients who are troubled
by the religious question might be encouraged to explore religious
reconciliation with sympathetic clergy or religious support groups"
An Example - Mormons
The note Stuart Matis's parents found on the morning of February
24, 2000 read, "Mother, Dad and family. I have committed suicide.
I engaged my mind in a false dilemma: either one was gay or one was
Christian. As I believed I was Christian, I believed I could never
be gay" (Miller, 2000, p. 39). What dynamics in this devout 32-year-old
Mormon's life could possibly have driven him to such an outcome? A
brief review of the doctrinal and cultural implications for Mormons
can serve to highlight the similar experiences of many gays and lesbians.
Mormons believe that their church, The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, is the "true" church of Christ on earth. They hold
that their doctrines, principles, ordinances and practices are prescribed
by God as the appropriate way to live in this life and observance
of them is the assurance of eternal reward or salvation in the life
to come. The church is led by a prophet whom church members believe
receives explicit direction from God. Their strict adherence to his
and other church leaders' directions is based in a belief that by
following them they are following God. The strictness of behavior
is evident not only in religious worship but in every action of daily
Central to the doctrine of the church is that "marriage between
a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central
to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of His children" (Hinckley,
1995, p. 1). Although individual responsibility is emphasized, the
link to this family system, both on earth and eternally, is by far
the overriding principle of their plan of salvation. Mormons believe
that the family system is not only a sacred unit in mortality but
that if members of the group live worthily, the family will remain
intact in the eternities. Sexual relations outside marriage, as well
as any perceived threats to the institutions of marriage and family,
are treated with serious consideration and consequences.
Homosexuality currently ranks among the top of these perceived threats.
Therefore, the Mormon Church is sending clear messages that sex is
proper only between husband and wife and that homosexual and lesbian
behavior, as well as adultery and fornication, is sinful. Transgressors
are to be called to repentance (Oaks, 1995). They declare that, "homosexuality
is not innate and unchangeable" (Byrd, 1999, p. 52). Individuals are
assured that with enough faith in Christ, their immoral behavior can
be modified. Instructions to church leaders regarding homosexuality
It is important for you as a Church leader to help members
understand that regardless of the causes, these problems can be controlled
and eventually overcome. Members can be helped to gain self-mastery,
adhere to gospel standards of sexual purity, and develop meaningful,
appropriate relationships with members of both sexes. . .There is
hope for those who desire to be free of homosexual problems. Though
the process of repentance is often long and difficult, members can
overcome these problems by turning to the Lord, following the inspired
guidance of his servants, and committing themselves to a program of
change (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992, pp.
2 & 6).
Quinn (1996) has eloquently documented the Mormon Church's response
to this "problem." At different times in the Church's history, members
who presented themselves to the church with homosexual thoughts or feelings
were encouraged to marry a woman as a cure or even subjected to the
tragic practice of aversion therapy. While marriage is no longer blatantly
promoted as a cure, the subtle encouragement is still evident. However,
reparative therapy is clearly embraced and promoted as a solution for
gay Mormons wishing to change. With organizations such as the Association
of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists promoting this action (Richards,
1993) and Evergreen International claiming that they can assist individuals
to overcome homosexual behavior, gay Mormons are channeled into arenas
where they can conform to the doctrines of the Church. Books such as
Jason Park's (1997) "Resolving Homosexual Problems" and "Helping LDS
Men Resolve their Homosexual Problems", support these efforts as well.
Two critical implications are evident in this case. First of all,
it is important to consider the gay or lesbian individual. The impact
of such strong and clear messages on an already conflicted person
is unfathomable. To try and reconcile personal identity issues within
such a religiously indoctrinated culture will undoubtedly elicit many
of the responses such as guilt and shame as noted above. Coming out
is not only a personal identity shift but a cultural one as well.
In addition, the impact on family relations can be overwhelming.
The individual's responsibility to ensure the success of the family
unit puts incredible pressure on the gay or lesbian Mormon. The message
is to sacrifice their own peace and joy by suppressing or changing
their sexuality in order to save the system. The belief is that not
only are relations strained in this life but the family will be disrupted
for eternity because of the homosexual member. Therefore, when one
does not change, the results can be severe disharmony. The Church,
which once was the cause for unity, is now the point of argument or
strife within the family.
Conflicting messages continue to be sent as the Mormon Church strives
to be viewed as a compassionate and Christian religion. Members are
encouraged to love and support their gay and lesbian family members
(Oaks, 1995; Byrd, 1999). However, the Church continues to strongly
proclaim that homosexuality is a sin and are even politically exerting
their moral and financial strength to support anti-gay causes such
as the recent Knight initiative in California (Johnson, 1999). How
can someone possibly succeed when fighting on two different sides
of a battle?
Such was the conflict that apparently drove Stuart Matis to suicide.
He could no longer hold on to his homosexual feelings "in the face
of lifelong messages that told him such feelings were not only wrong
but he was evil for having them" (Rees, 1999). While this is a drastic
example, the scenario is duplicated at various levels of intensity
in the lives of gays and lesbians with a strong religious background.
The role of the counselor or even friend is not always easy when
assisting gays or lesbians who have been severely hurt because of
a clash with their religion. Supporting the individual and encouraging
her or him to explore thoughts and feelings could be beneficial. All
of this needs to be accomplished without bias on the part of the individual
providing the support (McDonald & Steinhorn, 1990). This is not an
easy task to attempt, especially if the counselor or friend has strong
feelings about religion themselves. Counselors especially might find
it difficult to bring up the subject of religion because it treads
on intense emotions for themselves as well as the client. However,
in many cases it would be dangerous not to consider it.
De la Huerta (1999) identifies a key to transcending these issues.
A starting point is realizing that religion is not the same as spirituality.
"Many of us have rejected our inherent spiritual natures along with
the religious traditions we felt forced to disavow in order to accept
our sexual nature" (p. 6). The wonderful result of this recognition
is that many gays and lesbians are facing the issues of their past
and moving forward in beautiful expressions of faith. Whether in a
traditional cathedral with thousands or a congregation of one in nature,
gays and lesbians are reclaiming their spiritual roots.
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