For self-identified lesbian and gay Christians, the church is an important source of support and identity formation. Identity integration, the bringing together of religious and sexual identities, becomes complicated at best when lesbian and gay Christians face discrimination within religious organizations. The process of reconciling a lesbian or gay identity with a Christian identity while in such hostile environments is complex. Furthermore, lesbian and gay Christians may face marginalization within the gay community, which is a reaction to historic faith-based oppression and ostracism. This is the struggle that many lesbian and gay Christians face: they must either reject religion in order to accept themselves, or reject themselves in order to conform to their religious doctrine. Developing a religious and a sexual identity at the same time often creates cognitive dissonance for these people, and many lesbian and gay Christians abandon their religious orientation in favor of their sexual orientation, which leads to experiencing a spiritual loss while developing their individual identities.
In a recent article published in Social Work, Sharon E. Bowland, Kirk Foster and Anne Nancy R. Vosler report on a study of lesbian and gay Christians to examine their religious and spiritual issues and resolutions. Participants in the study were asked to identify the necessary knowledge and skills that practitioners—such as social workers, therapists, pastoral care providers, etc.—working with clients who are coming out need in order to help such clients integrate their sexual orientation with their religion or spirituality. By analyzing the stories of the participants, the authors identified information to enhance practitioners’ cultural competence and spiritual sensitivity.
The authors identified several themes that were important for this cultural competency, including:
- having a historical perspective, self-awareness and a non-judgmental attitude
- expanding definitions (moving beyond narrow labels toward understanding the whole person
- understanding the power of words (developing and using respectful yet effective language in dealing with lesbian and gay clients
The study participants described both negative and positive experiences in integrating their faith and sexual orientation, and offered pragmatic suggestions for lesbian and gay Christians, such as reframing scripture and tradition, finding supportive pastoral relationships and affirming Christian communities, and finding peer support and educational resources.
The authors’ intent for the article is to increase practitioner understanding of how to support the integration of sexual orientation and Christianity for lesbian and gay Christian clients who are coming out. The article cites much of the study participants directly in discussing their experiences with coming out, dealing with religious issues, and dealing with pastoral and therapeutic care. It is hoped that care providers will benefit from the findings in this study.