By Preston Sprinkle, President of the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender.
In the previous post, I wrestled with the question: Is a traditional theology of marriage intrinsically harmful toward LGBTQ people? I raised some logical concerns about this line of reasoning, especially when the argument is used to weaponize a particular ideology. It is certainly true that some Christian people harm some LGBTQ people. And it’s also true that these Christians most probably believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. Correlation is easy to show; causation is much harder, especially when we are trying to isolate a particular belief—male/female marriage—and disentangle it from a complex web of other beliefs. And if we care about the actual harm done toward LGBTQ people, we won’t be satisfied with theories based on correlation but will vigilantly seek to identify causation.
In this post, I want to explore some relevant sociological studies that contribute to our question of harm. Is there sociological evidence that a traditional theology of marriage (one man and one woman) is the cause, or even a cause, for harm done toward LGBTQ people? While the survey below is far from exhaustive, it does represent the diverse array of sociological studies that might help construct an answer to our question.
A recent study by Megan C. Lytle, et al. was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The title explains its relevance for our question: “Association of Religiosity With Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt.” This study showed that “increased importance of religion was associated with higher odds of recent suicide ideation for both gay/lesbian and questioning students” (p. 644). “Notably, questioning individuals had the highest prevalence of recent suicide ideation (16.4%) and bisexual students had the highest prevalence of lifetime attempts (20.3%).
While this study is helpful in many respects, it doesn’t actually show that a traditional theology of marriage is the cause of high rates of suicide among LGBT people. For one, the study simply looks at religion as a whole (Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, etc.). While many religions hold to the view that marriage is between a man and a woman (or women), such religions, and the religious people who constitute their religion, promote other beliefs, practices, and assumptions about LGBTQ people and related issues that aren’t intrinsic to their theology of marriage. What role does the specific belief about marriage play in “Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt?” The study does not say. Plus, the broad umbrella category of “religion” covers fundamentalist Christians and liberal Christians, fundamentalist Mormons and Jack Mormons, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, and so on and so forth. Religious environments are as diverse as humanity itself.
More specifically, the study does suggest that “religious-based conflict over sexual identity is often associated with conversion therapy” (p. 649). And this is a helpful observation for determining what specific religious belief or practice might be contributing to the harm. The study doesn’t seem to be aware, however, that there is a large number of evangelical churches (in America, at least) that believe in a traditional view of marriage and yet don’t support conversion therapy, nor does the study distinguish between religious environments that believe in a traditional view of marriage and yet actively promote the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ people, and other religious environments who believe in a traditional view of marriage and condemn, shun, shame, and ostracize LGBT people as people.
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This study shows what it claims to show—religious environments are typically more hostile toward LGBTQ people than non-religious environments.
Another study shows the opposite. M.N. Barringer and David A. Gay published a study titled “Happily Religious: The Surprising Sources of Happiness Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adults” for the journal Sociological Inquiry. The study was conducted in 2013 (published in 2017) and surveyed 1,197 LGBT people around the country. The goal of the study was to find out if religious LGBT people were less happy than non-religious LGBT people.
A popular assumption is that religious LGBT people are less happy than non-religious. To their surprise, the researchers found the opposite to be true: LGBT people who identified as religious reported higher levels of happiness than those who didn’t identify as religious.
It would be natural to assume that these particular religious environments (where LGBT people were happy) were affirming of same-sex marriage. Actually—and to the researchers’ even greater surprise—this wasn’t the case. “Religious affiliation among sexual and gender minorities is a significant predictor of happiness” among LGBT people and “there are no significant differences in subjective well-being between LGBT individuals who identify as evangelical Protestants…despite that conservative denominations do not affirm same-sex relations…compared to those who identify as mainline Protestant.” (p. 90).
According to this study, religious LGBT people are more happy than non-religious LGBT people—even among conservative religious environments.
But again, this is just one study. And while it was a fairly large-scale study, it was a quantitative study based on self-report, which should be correlated with other qualitative studies based on more objective measures. So we need to keep researching, reading, and pushing back—even against our own assumptions and preferences. Let’s keep going.
Ron de Graaf, et al. performed a remarkable study on suicidality among gay people compared to straight people in the Netherlands. Of the 2,878 men surveyed, 82 were gay; of the 3,120 women, 43 were gay. (The study determined who was gay or straight based on whether they had a same sex sexual encounter in the previous year.) Here’s what makes the study remarkable. The Netherlands is the most gay friendly nation in the world according to a Gallup poll. We would expect to see much lower rates of suicidality and depression especially among younger people (who have been raised in a hyper progressive and accepting society) if the cause of such tragedies is religious bigotry, oppression, or the view that marriage is between a man and a women. However,
Contrary to our expectations, younger homosexual men were at higher risk than older homosexual men comparing them to their heterosexual counterparts for suicide contemplation…In spite of a more tolerant society in the last decades, younger homosexuals were still at high risk for suicidality (p. 257, 258).
Suicide rates were actually higher among younger gay people than older gay people, which was shocking. And again, this came as a surprise to the researchers who were expecting to find lower rates of suicide among LGBT people in a society that is accepting:
Given the comparatively rather tolerant social climate towards homosexuality in the Netherlands, one might expect lower odds of suicidality among homosexuals versus heterosexuals in the Netherlands compared to other countries. However, compared to studies in other Western countries, these figures were not lower. (p. 259)
The results of this study should cause us to ask the question: are there other psychological and sociological causes to the high rate of suicide among LGBT teens? Why is the high rate of suicide primarily a western problem? Why are suicide rates on the rise for GenZ (those born after 1995), especially teenage girls? What role does social media play? What other mental health issues might be causal factors in the rising rates of suicide, and what are the causes of those mental health issues? And on and on it goes. Again, if we really care about the rising rates of suicidality among teens in particular, we won’t give thin answers to thick questions.[i]
Back to the role of religious environments and suicidality. A recent study conducted by Ilan H. Meyer of UCLA and Merliee Teylan and Sharon Schwartz of Columbia University looked at: “The Role of Help-Seeking in Preventing Suicide Attempts among Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals.” That is, what kinds of help have reduced suicide ideation? In particular, when LGB people experience suicide ideation and they seek out help from religious leaders, are they more or less likely to attempt suicide? This study shows that LGB people are more likely to attempt suicide after seeking out help from religious leaders.
[I]ndividuals who received religious or spiritual treatment had higher odds of later attempting suicide than those who did not seek treatment at all (p. 7)
This is an absolute tragedy. Religious leaders, no matter their beliefs or practices, should help relieve not perpetuate suicide ideation. Jesus hung out with all kinds of people whom he thought were in sin. But none of them walked away wanting to kill themselves.
As for our question about what role a theology of marriage plays in this scenario, it’s impossible to say. Again, as with previous studies, this study only talks about LGB people who received “religious or spiritual treatment.” But this doesn’t specify the kind of religious or spiritual treatment they received. Did the LGBT person seek counsel from father James Martin or Wesley Hill? Or did they go to Fred Phelps or THIS guy? The specific kind of religious environment and counsel is not described.
The study does mention other studies, which show that certain religious environments that have “anti-gay views…increase internalized homophobia among LGB parishioners” (p. 8). And this is certainly true. Some religious environments don’t just believe that sex difference is part of marriage’s design, but are rightly characterized as “anti-gay” since they demonize, demean, and dehumanize gay people. But again, there a myriad of possible reasons why certain religious people might hate gay people. Believing that marriage is between two sexually different persons is one possible reason, but it’s impossible to separate this specific belief from a whole host of other toxic beliefs that might poison a person’s entire worldview.
According to this study, other “anti-gay views” include:
Therapists who focused inappropriately on sexual orientation or who suggested that sexual minority patients should change or hide their sexual identity (p. 8)
This goes far beyond simply holding to a traditional view of marriage to suggesting that people should change or deny their sexual attractions. Again, you can believe that sex difference is part of what marriage is without trying to force gay people to become straight people.
Andrew Marin conducted one of the largest social scientific studies on the religious background of LGBT people. Andrew surveyed 1,712 LGBT people across the U.S. (from all 50 states) and analyzed 20,000 qualitative results. He then submitted the results to an outside research firm to help ensure that he was doing everything according to the protocol of how sociological research should be done. The results of his study are fascinating, and quite relevant for our question.
According to Marin’s extensive survey: 83% of LGBT people were raised in the church, 51% left the church after they turned 18. But when they were asked about the primary reason why they left, only 3% of those who left said it was primarily because of the church’s traditional theology of marriage.[ii]
That’s as close as we get to a response to our question: Is a traditional theology of marriage intrinsically harmful toward LGBTQ people? According to Marin’s study, there’s a lot of damage that’s been done, but rarely is it caused simply by theology.
So why did 51% of LGBT people leave the church after they turned 18? According to the 1,712 LGBT people that Marin surveyed:
- 18% left because they didn’t feel safe
- 14% left because of a relational disconnect with leaders (14%)
- 13% left because of the church was hypocritical in how they allowed certain sins while condemning others (i.e. hypocrisy)
- 12% left because people were unwilling to dialogue
- 9% didn’t leave; they were simply kicked out of church for being gay
According to Marin’s study, a traditional Christian theology doesn’t appear to be the intrinsic cause of harm that LGBT people experience in the church.
The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) led by Dr. Caitlyn Ryan at San Francisco State University has done some great work in advocating for LGBT youth. They’ve dug deep into the question about high suicide rates among LGBT teens and have revealed some helpful results. According to one study put out by the FAP, attempts at conversion therapy or sexual orientation change efforts has elevated suicide risk among LGBT teens. Their results are worth quoting at length:
Rates of attempted suicide by LGBT young people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation were more than double (48%) the rate of LGBT young adults who reported no conversion experiences (22%). Suicide attempts nearly tripled for LGBT young people who reported both home-based efforts to change their sexual orientation by parents and intervention efforts by therapists and religious leaders (63%).
High levels of depression more than doubled (33%) for LGBT young people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation compared with those who reported no conversion experiences (16%) and more than tripled (52%) for LGBT young people who reported both home-based efforts to change their sexual orientation by parents and external sexual orientation change efforts by therapists and religious leaders.
I’m thankful that most Christians who believe in a traditional view of marriage don’t support sexual orientation change efforts, especially forced sexual orientation change efforts. I don’t want to deny the stories of “success” we do hear. But that number of success stories are extremely low (and some, or many, are proven to be fraudulent later on), and those who have been profoundly damaged by such efforts is very high—as this study shows.
The FAP has also shown that a high level of family rejection is another contributing factor to high levels of depression, homelessness, and suicidality among LGBT teens. Dr. Ryan and her team have combed through various studies and found that “Gay and transgender teens who were highly rejected by their parents and caregivers were at very high risk for health and mental health problems when they become young adults (ages 21-25)” (Family Education Booklet, p. 5). In particular: “Highly rejected young people” are “More than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide” (p. 5).
What is meant by “highly rejected?” Here are several parental behaviors that constitute highly rejecting their LGBT kids (p. 8):
- Their parents or caregivers tried to prevent them from being gay or transgender. Or they showed their disappointment or shame in having a gay or transgender child in other ways.
- Parents may react with anger, fear, sadness or disgust when they learn that their child is gay or transgender.
- Some parents or family members may call their children names or get into physical fights with them.
- Others may prevent their children from attending support groups for gay and transgender youth, or from learning about their gay or transgender identity.
- Or parents and foster parents may prevent them from attending family events because how the gay or transgender youth looks or behaves is shameful and embarrassing to them.
Other “highly rejecting” behaviors includes:
- Hitting, slapping or physically hurting your child because of their LGBT identity
- Verbal harassment or name-calling because of your child’s LGBT identity
- Excluding LGBT youth from family and family activities
To be clear, as one who believes that sex difference is part of what marriage is, I do not endorse hitting, slapping, harassing, or excluding our LGBT children from family activities simply for being gay or identifying as transgender. I often tell Christian parents not to react in fear, anger, sadness, or disgust when their LGBT kid comes out to them. What the Family Acceptance Project addresses is relational rejection and dehumanization. It doesn’t talk about the intrinsic nature of certain theological beliefs lived out in a humble, loving, and caring way.
What do we learn from the studies surveyed above? We can tentatively draw the following conclusions:
- As with all responsible research, conclusions should never be drawn from one study alone. The person who’s genuinely concerned about the well-being of LGBT people will read multiple studies that come from different perspectives and ideologies.
- There is strong evidence that some religious environments are hostile toward LGBT people and therefore contribute to the high suicide rates among LGBT people, especially teens.
- However, at least one study shows that LGBT people experience greater happiness while living in a religious environment and it makes no difference whether it’s a more progressive or more conservative environment.
- Marin’s study shows that while many LGBT leave the church, very few said they left primarily because of the church’s traditional views of marriage.
- Various studies show that relational hostility and dehumanizing rhetoric and behavior increases the risk of suicide among LGBT teens. In particular, high levels of family rejection and/or forced conversion therapy seems to directly contribute to higher levels of suicidality among LGBT teens.
To answer our question: Is a traditional theology of marriage intrinsically harmful toward LGBTQ people? While oppressive religious environments, highly rejecting families, and forced conversion therapy does seem to contribute to harm, there’s no clear sociological or psychological evidence which proves that if Christians believe that sex difference is part of what marriage is that this will cause them to act in harmful ways toward people who identify as LGBTQ.
[ii] I’ve adjusted some of these percentages to correlate to our specific questions. For instance, the survey actually showed that 86% of LGBT people were raised in a religious environment, but only between 2-3% of these religious environments were non-Christian, so I adjusted the percentage to 83% to describe those raised in a Christian church.