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Research Blog: Competing Identities: Conflict between the Spiritual and the Sexual

By Maria Owen

My Lebanese background defined my childhood in a lot of ways. It meant exciting stories from my grandmother about what it was like to travel between the United States and her family village. It meant mouthwatering recipes handed down from my great-great-grandmother. It meant a huge family of many cousins. It also meant that we were inseparable from the Orthodox Christian faith. This was all part of the detailed tradition of my family, and it usually made me feel very connected and part of something bigger. When I was little, my parents took me to church every Sunday, where I learned that it’s important to love everyone and do your best to not hurt others. However, as I grew older, I realized that there were certain people who seemed to be harder for my Christian friends to love. A lot of people in the church were pretty homophobic, and this was very clear to anyone who didn’t obviously fit into the heterosexual mold. When I asked why this was the case, I was usually met with a passive, “Well that’s what the Bible tells us,” and no real explanation.

Today, I definitely see sexuality as a spectrum, but this environment told me that it was black and white with no gray area. You were either heterosexual or homosexual, and if you identified as the latter, it was an issue. The various other possibilities were never addressed or even recognized! While this religion benefited me in many ways, it also taught me to view my own sexuality as something evil that needed to be hidden. When I look back on this experience, I’m grateful to be where I am now. I no longer look at my sexuality as something bad, but as something unique that can be used in a thoughtful and positive way. However, after being taught for many years that sex was only for my eventual husband and anything outside that was a big mistake, it took a lot for me to stop feeling guilty about my sexuality and to stop judging others for embracing their own sexual identity. There are still times when I have to remind myself not to feel guilty or dirty for expressing my sexuality.

Reflecting on this time in my life made me wonder how a religious upbringing might have affected other people, especially those who don’t fit into a conservative and heterosexual mold. I’m really lucky that in the religious environment of my childhood, I never felt seriously threatened or in danger. And, while the guilt I sometimes feel is unpleasant, it could definitely be worse. There are a lot of challenges that I never had to face.

After some searching, I found some serious research on the struggles that many LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) people face when exploring their spirituality. The study I looked at investigated the relationship between LGB people’s spiritual and sexual identities and how one identity could impact the other. Because they knew that everyone’s experience was completely unique, Alissa Sherry, Andrew Adelman, Margaret R. Whilde, and Daniel Quick[1] did multiple studies using both quantitative and qualitative data. In the quantitative portion of their research, they looked at religious and cultural backgrounds and asked the participants to rate how open-minded they found their childhood religion to be. The study also asked participants to rate how religious their childhood household was. The participants had to answer questions about how willing they were to question their spirituality and the meaning of their lives (some people were very open to considering these ideas, others had no interest in discussing them). They also took a test to calculate any conditioned homophobia and a test to see how guilty they felt about their sexuality because of their religion.

The qualitative questions went even deeper, asking the participants to describe their relationship with religion. Some of the most popular answers included reporting that their sexuality made them question their religious beliefs, identifying as spiritual, but not religious, and the rejection of religion for other reasons. Some were still searching for a spiritual identity and some found their religious upbringing to be oppressive.

That’s a lot of information! But, by asking about so many things – how guilty you feel, what your parents taught you about religion, what you were taught to think about LGB people, etc. – the researchers could determine what aspects of religion may have been the most problematic or impactful.

So how was religion connected to LGB participants’ feelings about their sexuality? The researchers found that high levels of shame, guilt, and homophobia (towards others and towards oneself) were connected to the idea that it isn’t okay to question your religion. They also connected these feelings to a conservative childhood and to religious satisfaction (for example, feeling safer in your religion than you do in your sexuality). On the other hand, those with the highest levels of shame and doubt were also the most likely to face serious questions about the meaning of life and the existence of a god, instead of sticking to what they had been taught in their religions. Basically, the people with the most conservative religious childhoods tended to feel more guilt toward their sexuality, but also were the most open to questioning their religion.

It’s incredibly difficult to see two parts of yourself – a spiritual or religious side, and a sexual side – at odds with each other. These are two super powerful, influential pieces of who we are, and the idea that only one can be prioritized is pretty scary. The idea of sacrificing an important part of who you are for another equally important part is upsetting, which is why there is so much conflict around these themes. We are always capable of exploring, whether that means considering a new religious belief or approaching sexuality in a new way. This study showed that the people most afraid to question their religious beliefs find themselves with the most guilt about their sexuality. However, it also revealed that many people have been able to work through this inner battle through exploration or by separating their two sides.

I don’t see religion the same way I did as a child, but I still recognize the value of it in many people’s lives. This study reminds us that we can have both a strong spirituality while expressing our sexuality, though it may be more difficult for some than others. The researchers structured this survey with the knowledge that everyone’s experience is totally unique. It can be hard to balance two sides of yourself that seem to be in opposition sometimes, but in the same way your sexuality is completely unique to you, so is your spirituality.

[1] Alissa Sherry, Andrew Adelman, Margaret R. Whilde, and Daniel Quick (2010). Competing Selves: Negotiating the Intersection of Spiritual and Sexual Identities. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice © 2010 American Psychological Association 2010, Vol. 41, No. 2, 112–119

 

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