For LGBTQ+ people of faith: Fear of rejection meets joy of inclusion

  • A new study explores the challenges and victories experienced by LGBTQ+ people of faith seeking faith-based communities.
  • The study describes the experiences of 30 people who eventually found their way to affirming communities.
  • The authors of the study say that while fear of rejection can be painful, there can be an equal amount of joy and healing when one’s community is found.

As a former fundamentalist Christian, Dr. Megan Gandy was familiar with research describing the benefits of faith-based communities for their members.

Furthermore, she was aware that few of the communities studied included LGBTQ+ people and that there were studies documenting the negative impact such communities can have on LGBTQ+ individuals. To Dr. Gandy, a lesbian, some important parts of the story were missing.

“I was interested,” said Dr. Gandy, “in conducting peer-reviewed research that illuminated the gap of the healing stories about how LGBTQ+ people engaged in faith communities in ways that were beneficial to them.”

The study she authored attempts to provide broad and helpful insights — it does not attempt to document the personal experience of every LGBTQ+ individual.

Dr. Gandy’s study describes the primary challenge that people of Christian faith who are members of LGBTQ+ communities may encounter: the fear of rejection versus the joy of inclusion.

The research portrays “how much psychological stress is involved in the fear of rejection for LGBTQ+ people who choose to stay in faith communities,” said Dr. Gandy, who also noted, however, that “the joy of inclusion was a way to alter that stress, eliminate it, and even heal from it.”

Dr. Gandy and her colleagues collected the stories of 30 individuals associated with the nonprofit Q Christian Fellowship, an organization formerly known as the Gay Christian Network.

While many of the narratives ended well, the participants experienced significant difficulties along the way.

Dr. Gandy is the Bachelor of Social Work program director at the West Virginia University School of Social Work in Morgantown. The study she authored with Anthony Natale and Denise Levy appears in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice.

A sudden loss of support

Medical News Today spoke with Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.

When a person tells their family they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the loss of one’s faith community may be just one facet of a social explosion that also includes the loss of family and friends, “and that’s really hard to bounce back from mentally and emotionally.”

“That’s part of why so many economic and health indicators for the [LGBTQ+] community are so much lower,” said Kirby York, “and even lower for those of us of color.”

“It really shakes your confidence,” they added, “because once you lose the support of the people who you think are always going to have your back, it’s much harder to believe that strangers are going to have your back.”

The fear of rejection

Some people interviewed for the study recall having become concerned about the degree to which they were accepted in their faith communities. They reported frequent questioning by other members and worrying about being asked to leave or about being publicly “outed” and forced to find a new community.

Kirby York cautioned that there can be a difference between the attitudes of the clergy and parishioners, as they themself experienced in one house of worship:

“You know, after about 6 months of visiting, I learned that it only went so deep. I wasn’t going to get the painful messages from the pulpit, but I wasn’t going to be fully welcome in the life of the church.”

According to Dr. Gandy, fear of rejection “can have detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of LGBTQ+ people in the form of what’s called ‘minority stress.’”

Given the diversity of people in the LGBTQ+ communities, these stresses may even occur in organizations that accept gay and lesbian members. Such was the case for a priest who lost her position because her community had no policy regarding transgender or gender-diverse leadership.

“If she came out as gay or lesbian,” Dr. Gandy explained, “she would have kept her job, and much of the extreme difficulties associated with unemployment she has faced since would never have happened.”

Dr. Gandy noted that this individual’s story “felt like a gut-punch to me because sexual minorities don’t often see themselves as privileged in the church, but compared to transgender and gender-diverse people, apparently some do have more privileges than they realize.”

Kirby York told MNT that they make a point of “letting as many people know as possible” about communities that welcome all members of LGBTQ+ communities.

Some individuals described starting or joining social media groups where they could discuss their faith with like-minded people.

As Dr. Gandy explained to MNT, “the use of online spaces was an important aspect to many who couldn’t otherwise find a supportive community in their area.”

The joy of inclusion

Fortunately, Dr. Gandy said, the participants interviewed for the study eventually found their affirming communities.

“LGBTQ+ people who were completely included in their faith communities experienced joy that they didn’t know was possible.”

“It was a part of the research that really lifted up my spirits,” she recalled, “and was even something that many participants wanted to share with other LGBTQ+ people who weren’t involved in a faith community but who wanted to be.”

“They wanted to send the message that it is possible to find a home and a family in a faith community, even if you’ve experienced rejection and shame from other faith communities. Those words of ‘home’ and ‘family’ were prominent in the stories that participants told, and held importance for how deep the connection felt for these LGBTQ+ people.”

– Dr. Megan Gandy

While Kirby York said things have gotten easier in the last several years, they noted that for many older members of LGBTQ+ communities, the road to acceptance has already been long and has taken a toll that is not easily healed.

Finding a new community

When MNT asked Dr. Gandy how an LGBTQ+ person of faith might find their community, she responded:

“I would suggest people start by doing a web engine search for an affirming community. Secondly, I would suggest people […] look for a statement of theology/belief that clarifies their position on LGBTQ+ people, or a statement of affirmation. Thirdly, people can always call or email a faith community’s office and ask questions they want to know about, such as if the community has any LGBTQ+ congregants, if they allow LGBTQ+ to take sacrament, and if a community allows LGBTQ+ people to take on leadership roles.”

Kirby York suggested that when assessing a potential community online — they mentioned welcomingresources.org — or in person, there are some clues that reliably indicate a welcoming community.

These include the display of a rainbow symbol or flag, and the use of certain phrases: “all are welcome,” “love is love,” and “we welcome all God’s children.”

It is also a good idea, Kirby York suggested, to investigate the programs they offer. “The thing that actually clued me in on the church that I’m a member of now [was] […] they were having a weekly bible study on human sexuality in the church, particularly in a Black church.”

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