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LGBTQ+ clients facing religious challenges have unique counseling needs

LGBTQ+ clients facing religious challenges have unique counseling needs

Pivotal life moments—either good or bad—can play a role in the development of sexual/affectional minorities who also identify as religious and spiritual. But little research explores the specific external experiences that influence the intersection of the sexual and religious identities that individuals hold and how these often-opposing identities relate to one other.

In a study published in the Counseling and Values journal, Warner School of Education and Human Development PhD student Maureen Sharp; Thomas Killian, of Montclair State University; and Michele Rivas, of Nova Southeastern University, sought to understand the critical aspects that shape the identity development process for sexual/affectional minorities who identify as religious and spiritual.

The research team conducted two rounds of interviews with 16 participants who self-identified as a sexual/affectional minority, religious and spiritual. And, while religion and spirituality are important in the lives of many transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, they chose to focus the study solely on sexual/affectional identities, rather than transgender and gender non-conforming identities, in order to avoid overlooking the unique experiences that transgender and gender non-conforming individuals may face. However, participants were not excluded if they identified as both a transgender/gender non-conforming and sexual/affectional minority.

Their study dove deeper into the external factors influencing the intersectional process, as sexual minorities experience religious/spiritual development. They employed a robust qualitative research method, called Enhanced Critical Incident Technique (ECIT), to give voice to the participants through self-reflection and to highlight the turning points in their identity development.

According to Sharp, who is enrolled in the doctoral program in counseling and counselor education at the Warner School, each story had such nuance and uniqueness to it.

“Our study focused broadly on the incidents that were harmful and helpful components of identity construction—to be able to identify within the LGBTQ community and to also be able to identify as religious and spiritual when those identities can sometimes be conflictual,” says Sharp. “A key takeaway from our research is knowing the complexities that can take place to hold both of those identities and how counselors can support in that identity exploration.”

Similar to previous studies, the researchers found that support from family, religious leaders and congregants, the use of educational resources, and identification as more spiritual had a positive impact on identity development. Conversely, being raised in conservative religious contexts (specifically, Catholic and Christian), being exposed to frequent non-affirming homophobic messages, and experiencing identity confusion had a negative impact on identity development.

Among the findings, participants of the study also identified six major themes that capture critical life moments impacting the successful integration of their sexual and religious identities. Those emerging themes, which can inform culturally-sensitive counseling practice and interventions, include: soliciting confirmation, unsolicited messages, spiritual respite, seeking community, building spiritual resiliency, and creating a palatable experience.

The authors identify steps that counselors can take to better provide affirming, supportive care for members of the LGBTQ+ community to minimize unnecessary psychological distress in the future:

  1. Increase focus on spiritual practice. A temporary or permanent reprieve from non-affirming religious contexts can be helpful.
  2. Connect clients with religious/spiritual leaders, congregants and peers. Consider clients’ desires for more affirming role models and community support. Exposure to like-minded and similarly identified peers is an instrumental component in identity development.
  3. Provide religious/spiritual affirming literary sources. Many sexual minorities are unaware of (and desire) the resources. Counselors should expand their awareness of the influence of educational resources to increase confidence in negotiating and integrating identities.
  4. Assist clients in challenging, non-affirming messaging. Be aware of the longstanding impact of both subtle and explicit non-affirming religious/spiritual messages on identity development. Counselors need to acquire sensitive skills to avoid repeating previous harmful messages that often limit one’s self-acknowledgment and disclosure. 

According to Sharp, having a greater awareness of the role that both affirming and harmful messages can have on how this community might experience identity negotiation can be useful for counselors. “The weight that non-affirming messages and moments have on people’s identity negotiation can greatly impact their overall mental health,” Sharp says.

LGBTQ+ individuals experience a higher risk of mental illness. Research has shown higher rates of depression and anxiety disorders among this community. In the United States, LGBTQ+ people are more than twice as likely as the general population to experience a mental health condition.

“Knowing that there are ways to mitigate the harm and navigate through it by seeing these themes emerge, it allows us to have a better understanding of what is helpful and what is harmful,” Sharp adds, “and hearing it from voices that are so often muted and just having the space to be able to talk about it through counseling, is so meaningful.”