Understanding Sexual Identity

Growing up gay in conservative churches, I felt torn between two worlds and bounced like a ping-pong ball back and forth. One moment I was sitting in church hearing, “Homosexuality is the most disgusting sin in the world” (internalizing it as: “Who you are as a person, Julie Rodgers, is toxic and unlovable”). And the next moment I was in a gay coach’s office hearing, “God made you gay, Julie, and you’ll feel forever tortured until you depart from the faith you grew up with and celebrate the entirety of what it means to be a lesbian in our family.” Something deep inside of me resonated with both communities, but both communities usually insisted I cut off, hide, or deny an integral part of who I was in order to fully belong. I felt like there were conditions upon their acceptance of who I was as a person, and qualifications around “I love you” statements. All I wanted during all those years was for someone to walk with me where I was. I wanted someone to see me, to listen to me, to have some compassion, to get outside the culture war long enough to realize I was a complex person in the process of figuring out what it meant to be gay-as-all-get-out and love Jesus with all my heart.

Dr. Mark Yarhouse encourages youth leaders to be precisely that kind of person in his exceptional new book Understanding Sexual Identity. He challenges Christians to get outside the culture war mentality in order to walk with young people as they navigate the rocky terrain of finding congruence between their faith and sexuality. The book offers tremendous insight into the unique challenges facing gay youth, and he encourages those who walk with them to assume a posture of compassion, a resolve to stick with them no matter what, and a willingness to allow the young person to be in the driver’s seat so they can truly own the choices they make. If you read much on this topic then you realize just how rare that is.  

ImageWritten in a winsome way that’s accessible for readers who have little knowledge on this topic, Yarhouse shares research on sexual identity development, the meaning youth attach to emerging conflicts, and the feelings of shame many experience in the process. In the polarizing debate, where we often hear simplistic explanations about the causes of homosexual attractions or arguments on whether it can change, this book presents a balanced and realistic response that will shift the conversation in a more life-giving direction. Yarhouse offers practical advice for creating the kinds of communities that will provide youth prone toward shame and despair a place to be known and loved. He offers wisdom on how to walk with parents (who are often blamed and shamed by the church) in a manner that will support them, setting them up to flourish in family relationships that can be challenging to navigate. Ultimately, he places you in the shoes of those who are questioning and confused, and urges you to walk with them toward Christ with a heart full of compassion.

While the book is written for those who are directly involved in ministry to youth, it’s something everyone needs to read. If you have a gay brother, or a gay neighbor, or you might eventually cross paths with a gay barista, you need to read this book. It will bring greater understanding that will lead to greater empathy, and we can all benefit from a read that highlights the value and dignity of human beings made in the image of God. Regardless of where you stand on all this, we can agree that relationships marked by radical acceptance are the only way forward for the church, and you’ll better understand what that looks like after spending some time in these pages. You’ll find it refreshing to read a conservative voice that gets outside the culture war in order to care for the gay youth caught in the crossfire.

Buy the book here and check out the research they’re doing at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity.

Julie Rodgers

Julie Rodgers shares life with inner city youth in West Dallas. She also writes and speaks about faith and sexuality, so check out her blog or find her on Twitter:@Julie_rodgers.

7 thoughts on “Understanding Sexual Identity

  1. Julie, you are one of my favorite people, seriously! I just want you to know that and I hope you don’t have a problem with the fact that I disagree with Yarhouse’s book being ‘middle of the road’. I believe he is being dishonest about the ‘success’ of ‘change’. Perhaps he wants to keep his job. That said, how good is “research” if the real results are not fully reported? I remember your words at the Exodus conference and I loved your honesty. “I’m still gay” is what you said. He, in my opinion, does not hold a candle to you. Wish he were as honest as you.

    • Thank you for your kinds words, Kat. You’re right that Yarhouse is just presenting the research honestly with a lot of humility. He’s a man of integrity and I hope you get to hear him speak at some point: filled with grace and compassion. I’m grateful for straight people like him who advocate for gay people in the church—we need more of them!

  2. Bless you, Julie. I’ve read your writings over the last several months, and I find that you have a beautiful soul.

    I’ve read your story of how you were introduced to the lesbian world when you were 14. You’d grown up fairly sheltered,and then that was shattered by the teacher who worked quite hard to convince you that you were indeed gay. She opened you up to a world you were not even aware of until that time, make you vulnerable to thoughts and suggestions that weren’t yours before she placed them before you. I’m sure you’ve been told this, but what she did was very, very wrong. She deeply infringed upon her role in your life. If you had been my daughter, I’d be furious on your behalf. What she did to you was a form of child abuse. She stole your innocence. How do you know who you would have become without the power of her suggestion when you were vulnerable? What if you’d walked on until the age of 21 without someone making powerful suggestions and giving you materials that awakened you? Perhaps you wouldn’t have the same struggles. I don’t know…but she still wasn’t right. I have grieved for you over what was done to you.

    And what should have been the role of the church or of Christians in your life afterwards?

    I don’t know, honestly. Do you? I mean that sincerely, I’m sure you have thoughts on this. But if you walk back in time to that place, what would have helped the most? Should the church have stood back (supposing that they knew, most kids wouldn’t share immediately) and simply let you walk it out on your own (maybe holding your hand and respecting your views?) Some intervention on your behalf? Not so much to change you specifically from the person who had been awakened, but to provide some sort of balance or identity counseling? I don’t know…that seems to be the approach in this post and in the book you reviewed. It’s really not all culture wars; I don’t think most Christians or churches truly reduce this to a culture war. It is not easy. It is not easy for a church youth group to handle this sort of thing, either, especially in the age of social media. I’ve seen it in my own children’s lives. (I’m the mother of nine kids, ages 21 to 3. At any given time I have at least 3 teens.) I’ve observed while some young person begins to explore homosexuality (in expression) on social media. My kids are linked to them, friends with them. The church worker is often the last to know, maybe one step after the parents. I don’t want my own teen to follow the other kid’s links – teens are so very vulnerable, particularly when it comes to manipulative adults online, and it is a vicious,vile world out there when there are no boundaries. How exactly is this done, without crossing perceived personal/private boundaries (which aren’t actually private because they are online, and should be carefully handled first within the family ideally or in private conversations.) It’s not so easy, and I don’t always think it is the church’s fault, and I don’t always think the failure to properly act is due to a culture war.

    I know…read the book, right? 🙂

    Wishing you all good things,

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