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LGBTQ+ Identities and Religion: From Deficits to Strengths

Is religion helpful or harmful for LGBTQ+ individuals? It's complex.

Key points

  • Clinicians need to be aware of the complex relationship between religion/spirituality and LGBTQ+ lives.
  • Psychologists' understanding of LGBTQ+ and religion/spirituality can include growth and resilience.
  • Therapy paradigms should be inclusive so LGBTQ+ people can openly discuss their religious/spiritual beliefs.
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A couple holding a candle while looking at each other.
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

Throughout history, there has been a notable clash between religious organizations and individuals when it comes to legislation designed to protect the rights of sexual and gender minorities (SGMs). This has led to significant challenges reported by many SGMs, which encompass a range of experiences—from facing rejection and discrimination on a personal level to enduring attempts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The prevailing psychological narrative concerning the intersection of religiousness or spirituality with LGBTQ+ lives has often similarly centered around the recurring themes of oppression and conflict.

LGBTQ+ and Religion/Spirituality: A Complex and Nuanced Relationship

Traditionally, psychologists have drawn on conflict and stress frameworks, including cognitive dissonance theory, which was introduced by Leon Festinger in 1957, as well as minority stress theory pioneered by Brewster et al. in 2016 and Ilan H. Meyer's work from 2003.

Collectively, studies that draw from these frameworks have often pointed to a negative impact of religion and spirituality on the health of LGBTQ+ individuals. Documented LGBTQ+ health disparities related to structural stigma (religiously based and otherwise) include elevated blood pressure, cortisol levels, psychological distress, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and substance use.

Nonetheless, it's important to recognize that sexual and gender minorities may have multifaceted relationships with religion and spirituality despite encountering structural stigma and religiously based homophobia. The experiences and effects of religiousness and spirituality on sexual and gender minorities encompass a broader spectrum that goes beyond a singular, deficit-focused narrative. As psychologists, we need to broaden our scope to include the possibilities for growth.

Beyond the Deficit-Focused Narrative

Recently, a groundbreaking meta-analysis utilizing 279 effect sizes found a small but positive relationship between religiousness and spirituality and the well-being of sexual minorities (Lefevor, Davis et al., 2021). This relationship was influenced by several factors, including where study participants were recruited and how religion and spirituality were defined in the research.

Importantly, though, we now see that our research conversations have notably broadened to include the possibility of positive LGBTQ+ religious and spiritual experiences and well-being.

LGBTQ+ individuals have employed religiousness and spirituality in a variety of ways as a means to cope with minority stressors, such as delving into scriptural exegesis, seeking divine support through prayer, engaging in spiritual development, finding supportive congregations, and connecting with online support groups. Additionally, LGBTQ+ individuals have reported finding value in using religion and spirituality to navigate various life stages and challenges, including understanding evolving parent-child relationships during emerging adulthood, navigating parenthood, and fostering fulfilling romantic relationships.

In sum, religious and spiritual identities and experiences can be experienced in both helpful and harmful ways—and clinicians need to be open to compassionately hearing about a variety of nuanced experiences.

While our research scope has expanded over the last 20 years, our clinical training paradigms related to religion and spirituality must keep pace. The unique intersection of sexual and gender diversity with religious or spiritual beliefs creates a diverse and complex tapestry of experiences that should be recognized and respected.

Clinical training and therapy paradigms can reflect this diversity by fostering an inclusive environment: LGBTQ+ individuals can openly discuss their spiritual and religious beliefs without fear of judgment or discrimination.

By embracing these multifaceted aspects of identity, therapists can better support their clients in navigating the challenges, conflicts, and personal growth opportunities that may arise within the context of their sexual and gender identities and their faith or spirituality. This inclusive approach not only validates the lived experiences of LGBTQ individuals but also promotes a more holistic and culturally sensitive approach to mental health and well-being.

Creating Inclusive Holiday Rituals for LGBTQ+ Individuals

The holiday season often brings a sense of togetherness and tradition, but for LGBTQ+ individuals, it can also evoke feelings of exclusion or discomfort due to traditional family dynamics and rituals. Therapists can play a crucial role in helping LGBTQ+ individuals reimagine and create new, inclusive holiday rituals.

By providing a safe and supportive space, therapists can encourage clients to explore their values, beliefs, and unique identities, allowing them to design rituals that resonate with their authentic selves. This process can foster a sense of belonging and empowerment during the holidays, reinforcing that it's entirely possible to celebrate this time of year in a way that reflects and honors both their LGBTQ+ and religious and spiritual identities, creating a holiday season that is both meaningful and affirming.

References

Lefevor, G. T., Davis, E. B., Paiz, J. Y., & Smack, A. C. (2021). The relationship between religiousness and health among sexual minorities: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 147(7), 647.

Lefevor, G. T., Etengoff, C., Davis, E. B., Skidmore, S. J., Rodriguez, E. M., McGraw, J. S., & Rostosky, S. S. (2023). Religion/Spirituality, Stress, and Resilience Among Sexual and Gender Minorities: The Religious/Spiritual Stress and Resilience Model. Perspectives on psychological science, 17456916231179137.

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