A primary emphasis at Spiritual Friendship is the experience of navigating sexual identity in light of one’s Christian identity. Another topic that is often a part of cultural discussions of sex and gender is Gender Dysphoria. It is not the same thing as sexual identity, but the topic of Gender Dysphoria and the increased visibility of gender variant persons has raised questions related to how Christians engage a most complex topic and be Christ in a meaningful way to those who are navigating gender identity concerns.
I was recently invited to speak on the topic of Gender Dysphoria at Calvin College in the context of the Sexuality Series held there. The talk is based on a book that is forthcoming from InterVarsity Press Academic. In this talk I define key terms, discuss prevalence and presentation, as well as some of the discussions surrounding etiology and resolutions. I also introduce three competing frameworks people rely upon in these discussions: the integrity framework, the disability framework, and the diversity framework. These are presented with reference to an integrated framework that may be useful to Christians interested in meaningful engagement and care.
In any case, here is the link to the recent talk, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture.
Mark Yarhouse is Professor of Psychology and the Hughes Endowed Chair at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He can be found on Twitter@markyarhouse.
A recent World Magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.
I was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.
In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.
I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.
The Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity has a new study available online on people in mixed orientation relationships. Recall the mixed orientation couples (MOCs) are relationships in which one partner is straight and the other partner is a sexual minority. By “sexual minority” we mean that the person experiences same-sex attraction independent of identity (that is, they may not self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual). That is a definition used by other researchers in this area and it is not unique to us.
Back to the new study. We’ve been conducting a longitudinal study (a study in which data is gathered from the same people over time) of MOCs. This most recent publication examined the experience of disclosure on the part of the sexual minority and the impact of that disclosure on the straight spouse.
Spouses often progress through stages following disclosure and obviously have a lot to navigate. Amity Buxton discusses stages spouses go through following disclosure: 1) Initial shock, denial and relief, 2) Facing, acknowledging, and accepting reality; 3) Letting go, 4) Healing, and 5) Transformation. What we have seen elsewhere is that the impact of disclosure is comparable to what Gordon and Baucom have described in the affair literature. That is, disclosure of same-sex sexuality (which can include disclosure of infidelity) is often experienced as “interpersonal trauma” as it can be experienced as a significant betrayal to the offended spouse.
I was providing a training for counselors recently, and at one point we were discussing the concept of congruence, which I was describing as an end goal in a counseling process I had helped co-develop with Warren Throckmorton (referred to as Sexual Identity Therapy). The thinking is that when you counsel someone who experiences a conflict between their sexual identity and their religious identity, you want to help them resolve that conflict; that resolution can be thought of as congruence. The experience of congruence may look different for different people.
When I think of congruence, I am thinking of helping a person live his/her life and form an identity in keeping with his/her beliefs and values. I came across the idea of congruence among gay Christians when I conducted a series of studies of sexual minority Christians. (“Sexual minority” in the mainstream LGBT literature refers to people who experience same-sex attraction whether or not they identify as LGBT or report same-sex behavior.) In any case, I was comparing those who integrated their attractions with a gay Christian identity and those Christians who dis-identified with a gay identity. If I were to translate this to the SF crowd, I would say that the gay Christian identity was closest to what we might describe as a Side A gay Christian. The group that dis-identified with a gay identity were either closer to what readers here would think of as Side B gay Christians (in terms of not viewing same-sex relationships as morally permissible) but without the “gay” identification, if that makes sense.
My work as a psychologist has been in the study of sexual identity development among people of faith. I conduct research on the experiences of Christians who are navigating their sexual identity in light of their religious identity. Most of that research ends up at professional conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. I’ve been told that an average of three people actually read any peer-reviewed journal article, so I try to blog about some of the findings here and also discuss current happenings related to an institute I direct here.
I have conducted other studies as well—some truly controversial studies that are indirectly related to sexual identity development—and I will share in the future how those projects have changed the way I approach this topic.
How do I fit into all of this? My interactions with folks at SF have grown over time. I had read Ron Belgau’s work and Wesley Hill’s book quite a while ago, and I had the opportunity to meet and interact with Wesley in England a couple of years ago. I’ve also followed Melinda Selmys’ and Julie Rodgers’ blogs for some time now. Like most readers, I have benefited from learning some facet of their lives, the challenges they have faced either living single or celibate or living in a mixed orientation marriage. They have also challenged me to grow in important ways.