When I tell people about the work I do with LGBT non-profits, I’m usually prepared for a few reactions. I am often asked, “Why should LGBT centers offer religion and spirituality programming?”
Because so many queer and trans people have been deeply hurt by religion, there is frequently a lot of [rightful] suspicion that accompanies discussions about faith in these spaces. When I worked as a case manager at an LGBT youth center, my supervisor, upon hearing that I was helping a young person find an affirming church, laughed and asked, “Why are you wasting your time? They can’t be dumb enough to care about that [BS.]”
There is sometimes a misconception that secular non-profit organizations cannot offer religious or spiritual resources (people mistakenly believe this is related to the separation of church and state.) Some LGBT centers rent out their space for church worship services or retreats, while others may host weekly spiritual groups or events throughout the year. The choice to offer religious and spiritual services is not a matter of law, but a matter of an organization’s mission and vision.
Here is some research to consider:
-LGBT people are impacted by religion and spirituality on an individual level through its effects on mental health and physical well-being. Exposure to anti-LGBT theological messages are correlated with increased internalized homophobia, which in turn is linked to low self-esteem, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and self-harming behaviors (Barnes and Meyer, 2012). However, LGBT people who are regularly involved in affirming spiritual spaces have higher measures of psychological health compared to those who are not part of affirming communities (Lease et. al., 2005). LGBT people are impacted by religion and spirituality on a systemic level through the ways faith-based rhetoric influences laws, politics, and media representation, contributing to structural stigma and distress (Brown et. al., 2011; Hatzenbuehler et. al., 2014).
-Research suggests that many LGBT and allied providers are not only uncomfortable, but also professionally unprepared to integrate religious and spiritual concerns into their work with clients. Very few clinical programs build religious and spiritual competency. Furthermore, many queer and trans people have experienced some kind of bias against religious involvement from their mental health provider (Buser et. al., 2011; Moe and Sparkman, 2015; Shelton and Delgado-Romero, 2011).
– LGBT community centers, non-profit organizations dedicated to LGBT people’s needs, provide a wide range of services, such as access to housing, physical and mental health services, employment training, social events, and crisis intervention. The first such center opened in Los Angeles in 1969, though LGBT-specific social services proliferated during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s as the need for intersectional care skyrocketed. These centers provide vital resources to many LGBT people, especially youth, who have been rejected by religious families and ousted from faith communities.
-Of the 180 centers in the CenterLink national LGBT community center database, only slightly over half (54%) mention spirituality or religion on their website. Less than 20% of these organizations offer any regular religion or spirituality programming for clients (meditation, discussion groups, etc.)
In my thirteen years of experience working with LGBT non-profit organizations, I have seen the many ways queer and trans people are impacted by religion and spirituality, whether they are religiously affiliated or not. I have worked with teenagers who were kicked out of religious homes and hitchhiked to the Bay Area, whose parents packed them a suitcase and put it in the front yard when they discovered their child was gay. I have had gay Mormon colleagues who were kicked out of college for their same-sex attraction, who could count on more than one hand the number of gay friends who had killed themselves. I’ve listened to the story of a lesbian who lost her children to a homophobic husband who claimed she was an unfit mother because of her sexual orientation, whose custody case was supported by church leaders. I’ve done pastoral counseling with a woman whose evangelical pastor outed her via church newsletter and encouraged a mega-church audience of over a thousand people to shun her at the beginning of a worship service. And I’ve worked with scores of colleagues and clients who have endured exorcisms, reparative therapy, ex-gay live-in programs, and many varieties of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse at the hands of trusted faith leaders in order to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
I have also seen LGBT clients be immediately supported by their religious families and faith communities after coming out, encouraged to fully integrate their gender, sexual, and spiritual identities. I’ve seen queer and trans adults reconnect with religious families, and sometimes even the faith communities they were raised in, after years of estrangement. I have witnessed the enormous healing possible when queer and trans people reclaim their faith lives through joining affirming communities, discovering new pathways to spiritual fulfillment (which may include leaving religion), and finding the courage to speak their authentic truth. I have met LGBT people who have started their own denominations, meditation groups, covens, and other fellowships. And I have seen spiritual struggle and spiritual integration motivate great artistic projects that allow LGBT people to see their bodies and their journeys as sacred.
When LGBT community centers decide to see religion and spirituality as factors in their clients’ well-being, they are truly providing holistic services that honor all of who LGBT people are.
I walk with LGBT community center staff and clients as they navigate how to engage religion and spirituality in ways that allow for authenticity and complexity. There are many ways your organization can support queer and trans clients in healing from faith-based wounds and exploring new spiritual growth. I can help your organization increase your spiritual and religious competency, partner with local faith communities, and tailor new programs to your unique needs and capacities. Please contact me for an initial consultation on my contact page.
Barnes, David M., and Ilan H. Meyer. “Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 82, no. 4 (2012): 505–15.
Buser, Juleen K, Kristopher M Goodrich, Melissa Luke, and J Buser. “A Narratology of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Clients’ Experiences Addressing Religious and Spiritual Issues in Counseling.” Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling 5, no. 3–4 (2011): 282–303.
Hatzenbuehler, Mark L., Anna Bellatorre, Yeonjin Lee, Brian Finch, Peter Muennig, and Kevin Fiscella. “Structural Stigma and All-Cause Mortality in Sexual Minority Populations.” Social Science & Medicine (1982) 103 (February 2014): 33–41.
Lease, Suzanne H., Sharon G. Horne, and Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier. “Affirming Faith Experiences and Psychological Health for Caucasian Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Individuals.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 52, no. 3 (2005): 378– 88.
Moe, Jeffry L., and Narketta M. Sparkman. “Assessing Service Providers at LGBTQ- Affirming Community Agencies on Their Perceptions of Training Needs and Barriers to Service.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 27, no. 3 (July 3, 2015): 350–70.
Shelton, Kimber, and Edward A. Delgado-Romero. “Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: The Experience of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Clients in Psychotherapy.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 58, no. 2 (April 2011): 210–21.