Many of us are raised to follow a particular religion, and many of those religions have some negative messages about sexual and gender diversity. These early religious messages can have a significant impact on the way LGBTQIA individuals perceive themselves, their sexual orientation and gender identity, and their self-worth.
Some people find leaving the religious organization they were raised to follow is the choice that best enables them to live as their true selves. Still, even those who have taken this action may continue to struggle with shame and guilt about being LGBTQ+. Others find their religion and spirituality are just as important to their identities as their gender and sexual orientation and struggle to reconcile all aspects of their identity.
The ideas of religion and sexuality have been at the forefront of my mind in recent months. Whether I am looking back on my own childhood experiences with religion and how those impacted my own sexual identity or witnessing affirming messages of inclusive churches during Pride week, I have long been interested in the ways LGBTQ+ people can move beyond negative messages about their identities in the face of ever-present religious pressures.
What really kicked off my interest in this topic was a recent conversation with a past Jehovah’s Witness who was excommunicated from his church when it was discovered he was gay. This person still felt a deep, burning desire to engage in his spiritual and religious beliefs and was constantly at odds with what his beliefs said about who he was as a person and his identity as a gay man. He felt as though he had to choose either his sexuality or his spirituality, and that if he chose to love who he wanted to love, he would be doomed eternally. As a result, his journey has been painful and alienating.
What are the impacts of this struggle on mental health? LGBTQ+ people raised in religious environments that do not affirm their identities often experience depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, negative self-image, and addiction, among other concerns.
Internalized homophobia, which is the tendency to feel shame about being non-heterosexual or gender diverse, is more common in religious LGBTQ+ people (Barnes & Meyer, 2012), and is linked to experiences of depression, anxiety, and suicide. These painful experiences are often worse when someone grows up in a culture that does not accept who they are, and the experience can place a false sense of morality or choice on sexuality and gender.
Combating Stress and Shame
Those raised according to the faith of a non-affirming religion may struggle to overcome internal feelings of guilt, shame, and stress. How can these be addressed?
One of the most important and effective ways to combat stress and shame resulting from non-affirming messages is to focus on maintaining positivity and self-love around your LGBTQ+ identity while engaging in self-reflection about your religious attitudes and whether they are helping you or not.
One option is to leave the religious group that fosters messages of shame and persecution, but the outcome of this choice could be feelings of spiritual emptiness, loneliness, and isolation from family, friends, and one’s community. Another option might be to question religious attitudes that feed internalized shame while maintaining your engagement with your religious community, but this may not give you enough distance from shame-based messages.
One of the most important and effective ways to combat stress and shame resulting from non-affirming messages is to focus on maintaining positivity and self-love around your LGBTQ+ identity while engaging in self-reflection about your religious attitudes and whether they are helping you or not (Page, Lindahl, & Malik, 2013). This is often a complicated task.
How can a person question negative messages about sexuality and gender learned through religion?
- Speak to someone who understands: It can be helpful to find an affirming person who has a similar religious upbringing to discuss experiences with in order to gain some insight on where those shaming messages stem from. If you don’t know someone you feel safe talking to about this, a compassionate and empathic counselor who is trained in working with members of the LGBTQ+ community or friends and supportive family can often help you sort out your thoughts and feelings.
- Notice self-defeating thoughts: We all struggle with self-defeating thinking that leads us to view ourselves less compassionately than we could. Taking a deep look at those thoughts and where they come from is a helpful and positive step. Try keeping a journal to help you identify patterns in your thinking about your sexuality and gender in addition to your spiritual health.
- Challenge ideas that suggest your sexual orientation or gender is a moral choice: The only choice a person has, when it comes to sexual and gender identity, is to live as the person they are or to hide that identity from others. Sexuality and gender are not moral choices; they are aspects of identity. If you are surrounded by messages that being LGBTQ+ means you are sinful, morally wrong, or doomed, it is in your best interests to challenge those ideas. Challenging or resisting them might mean speaking up about it, resisting in your own mind, or leaving the people or organizations inflicting those ideas on you.
- Remind yourself that spiritual fulfillment is not the same as religiosity: Most people find comfort and strength from spiritual experiences and beliefs. Although spiritual fulfillment can be achieved through being part of a religion, religion is not necessary for finding spiritual fulfillment. It might be helpful to think about what your religion gives you that you benefit from or what you miss about the religion you grew up in. Ask yourself whether there are other ways to meet those spiritual needs and whether the religious ideas you know are benefiting you.
- Create a new community: For many, leaving a religion means leaving behind people and traditions you love, and this can feel very lonely. Start anew by creating a community of people who accept you for who you are and who think and feel in ways similar to you. It may be helpful to begin by researching ways to volunteer or get involved in your community by meeting and reaching out online to other people going through similar experiences.
- Barnes, D. M., & Meyer, I. H. (2012). Religious affiliation, internalized homophobia, and mental health in lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(4), 505-525.
- Page, M. J. L., Lindahl, K. M., & Malik, N. M. (2013). The role of religion and stress in sexual identity and mental health among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(4), 665-677.
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