Does Religion Help or Harm Sexual Minority Youth?

Religion has been shown to be a protective factor against many negative behaviors. For adolescents who are at increased risk for engaging in destructive coping mechanisms, such as drug and alcohol use, risky sexual activity, and self-harm, strong religious affiliation can serve as a shield against such pressures. But for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) teens, religion can increase the risk for hazardous behaviors. According to a new study conducted by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, teens that live in communities that practice sexual minority intolerance due to religious beliefs are more likely to experience prejudice and discrimination than heterosexual teens.

Although acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyles has gained increased acceptance throughout the United States over the past decade, nearly half of religious people still believe that homosexuality is a sin. This can lead to feelings of demoralization, low self-worth, isolation, and fear for teens that are part of sexual minority groups. Even those not directly affiliated with religiously intolerant sects can still experience the negative consequences of being part of a community or social environment that holds these religious beliefs.

To determine how religious climates affect homosexual adolescents compared to heterosexual adolescents, Hatzenbuehler and his colleagues evaluated data from over 31,000 high school students from Oregon. Of the participants, over 1,400 reported being LGBTQ. Hatzenbuehler evaluated how religiosity and the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality influenced their behaviors. He found that for the LGBTQ teens, an intolerant religious atmosphere increased the risk of alcohol misuse, tobacco use, and unsafe sexual practices. The results clearly demonstrate that religiosity, a condition that often insulates heterosexual teens from dangerous behaviors, serves as a predictor of these same behaviors in sexual minority teens. However, teens who were part of communities where the religious group accepted sexual minorities were less likely to actively participate in these negative activities. Hatzenbuehler believes the findings of this study underscore the importance of addressing social and personal attitudes when working with LGBTQ youth. He added, “Developing interventions that diminish the negative psychosocial consequences of living in social environments that stigmatize homosexuality remains an important public health priority.”

Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Pachankis, J. E., Wolff, J. (2012). Religious climate and health risk behaviors in sexual minority youths: A population-based study. American Journal of Public Health 102.4, 657-663.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lud


    April 12th, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    If we are an openminded congregation, which I view my own to be, these are kids who can benefit from religion and being a part of a church community. Please do not encourage them to stay away because of the experiences of only a few.

  • Jean W

    Jean W

    April 12th, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    Sadly, I think that the kind of congregation of church members that Lud is fortunate enough to be a part of is something that most of us have never found, especially these teens who are having a sexual identity crisis.

    They are made to feel like their lifestyles are wrong and that they are a sin just by having the thoughts about their sexuality that they probably do.

    I am not sure there are very many churches for doors this wide open to encompass all of the issues that these kids are feeling. I could be wrong, but where I live I can honestly say that I have never seen that. So for me it is very easy to see how these young people become disconnected from the whole idea of religion in their lives and how they actually feel distanced from it because of the actions of so many in those roles who are supposed to be welcoming but have pushed them away all of their lives.

  • Susan


    April 13th, 2012 at 4:20 AM

    It can’t be said enough that the parents of these children who are questioning themselves and who they really are have to remain supposrtive and make sure that their children are getting a strong church background in a way that is not threatening.

  • Adriana


    April 13th, 2012 at 4:26 PM

    I have been an out of the closet lesbian for abotu 5 year now, and in that time I have been called the most horrible names and heard the worse things that could ever be said about myself and my partner. And who was doing most of the name calling? Supposed well meaning and “good Christian” folk in my town. That has completely turned me away from joining a church, because I honestly do not see that there is going to be one who will not judge me and will make me feel confortable with seeking answers in religion but also giving me a solid foundation in Christianity. They don’t want to do that for someone who is different like me, so I have put finding a church home on the back burner because I feel like that is what organized religion has done with me.

  • Samuels


    April 14th, 2012 at 1:23 AM

    Religion is not to be blamed here.It is people’s intolerance towards others’ views and beliefs and their tendency to peek into others’ personal affairs.

  • Samantha Fox

    Samantha Fox

    April 14th, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    After serving her church for 12 years as the music director, leading mass for every holiday for all of those years, playing at weddings and funerals and building her life and community around her church, my partner was fired when she came out, and the church told her “it seems we are moving in different directions”. She was fired with no severance pay and this was devastating to her, all because she was gay. I treat several LGBTQ youth and young adults in my practice in NYC, and I am constantly shocked and truly outraged at the beliefs that these clients have come to believe about themselves and their sexuality. I absolutely believe that religion (not all but most) teaches this intolerance and is harming our youth.

  • Beth


    April 14th, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    I so agree with Samuels! There are many religious people in the world who are amazingly tolerant and open hearted toward everyone, no matter their beliefs. To say tnat it is religion as a whole that is at fault fails to see that religion is made up of humans and it thus is the humans that close their minds to being accepting and loving religios souls. I do not think that any of the prophets would like to know that we have shut out so many of our fellow brothers and sisters simply over a disagreement about whom they should or should not love in life. The purpose of life is to love and share that love with others, to be kind and to take care of one another. I think that there a lot of people who have lost sight of that.

  • KRIS


    April 15th, 2012 at 4:42 AM

    Are we really to believe that religion alone is what makes these kids feel bad? Personally I think that they might feel bad and disengaged because they know in their hearts that their behavior is wrong. That’s just how I feel. God did not create us to be in relationships like this with same sex partners. There is no benefit to society, no value to the human state when this is the life that one choose, that’s right, CHOOSES to live. When they realize the mistakes that they have made by living this way then there will be churches swinging wide open their doors to them and greeting them with open and forgiving arms. But they need to be willing to admit that their formaer lifestyle was wrong and that they are leaving it far behind.

  • morning sun

    morning sun

    April 15th, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    That’s a pretty harsh stance that you have there, Kris.
    I am a child of God and choose th=o believe that He made us all into individuals with our own unique traits.
    For some that means that they are able to find a meaningful relationship and partnership with someone the same sex as they are.
    Why is that so wrong to you? Why is that such a threat?
    It has no power over who you marry, and it does not harm you in any way.
    As a matter of fact I would think that more people would be happy when we find love and share in a committed working relationship, instead of marrying for all the woring reasons, having kids, and then driving the divorce rate up because we are denying our true selves.

  • Jo


    April 16th, 2012 at 7:19 AM

    Religion calms, it soothes, it heals. . . it should not make you feel like you don’t belong. There is a group that is out there for you. It might not be at the corner church around the corner, but there are loving spiritual people who are willing to help you through this journey of discovery. . . and if you ar willing to find them they are willing to support you.

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