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LGBT Youth Despair in Hostile Church Environment


Four professors at Andrews University, feeling that the time was right, teamed up to study the experience of Seventh-day Adventist LGBT+ youth related to coming out to their families. Curtis VanderWaal, chair and professor in the Department of Social Work, along with colleagues in the psychology and religion departments, surveyed hundreds of LGBT+ adults who were raised Adventist. They were shocked by some of the findings.

Look for their article about the survey and its findings in the forthcoming issue of the Spectrum journal.

Question: You have been studying the subject of family acceptance and the “coming out” of LGBT millennials in Adventist homes.  You surveyed more than 300 adults ages 18-35 who identified as LGBT+ and were raised in the Adventist church.  What did you find?  What was the most surprising or compelling finding?

Curt VanderWaal: We are just beginning to analyze the data, but our preliminary findings, which are found in our Spectrum article, have focused mostly on the LGBT+ individuals who experienced varying levels of family acceptance or support, as well as current levels of social support, self-esteem, depression, substance use, risky sexual activity, recent suicidal thoughts, and lifetime suicide attempts.

It is a bit difficult to summarize all that we found since it was a pretty long survey, but our main findings showed generally low levels of family acceptance and support, as well as elevated levels of depression and at-risk thoughts and behaviors, with higher levels among those who experienced high levels of rejection.  That said, a high proportion of respondents have retained strong spiritual commitment and moderate church involvement.

The most compelling findings were the rates of suicidal thinking in the past six months (32%) and rates of lifetime suicide attempts (29%). Although we knew from the research literature that suicidal thinking and suicide attempts were much higher among LGBT+ individuals than the general population, we were shocked to find this level of despair among those who had grown up as Adventists. Clearly, we need to do more to educate Seventh-day Adventist families and church members about the pain and alienation that a large number of LGBT+ youth face as they grow up and begin to experience their identity.  Conversely, we were quite surprised by how many respondents have remained deeply spiritual and have continued their involvement in religious activities.  For example, about a third of respondents said they pray daily and participate in religious services on a weekly basis even though the level of support they feel from their congregations is often quite low.

Was it difficult to find survey respondents?

Curt VanderWaal: Since we (the authors) are all LGBT+ allies rather than members of the LGBT+ community, we knew from the beginning that the only way we would get a significant number of respondents was to work with LGBT+ Adventists and influential allies to spread the word.  

The internet makes it easy to send a SurveyMonkey link out in a Facebook post, an e-mail, or a tweet, making potential distribution of the link relatively easy.  The hard part is convincing busy people to take 20-30 minutes of their day to answer really difficult questions about painful memories, risky behaviors, and current life situations.  

As we created the survey, we invited people from conservative, moderate, and progressive LGBT+ perspectives to review and provide suggestions on question content and wording.  Once we had incorporated their ideas, we asked them to send the link through their social media contacts and also ask those people to forward the link to their friends.  In the end, we relied on the trust and good will of an amazing group of people who took the risk to answer hard questions without really knowing how their sensitive information and stories would be used.  

When did you first conceive of this research and survey?  And why?  When did you start the project? 

Curt VanderWaal: A few well-documented events at Andrews University prompted our university administrators to establish two taskforces in the autumn of 2015. The first taskforce reviewed and updated campus policies relating to LGBT+ issues, with a special focus on developing a recognized LGBT+ support group on campus. The second group, the Teen Homelessness Taskforce, focused on campus education and outreach around vulnerable teens, 30-40% of whom are LGBT.  Three of our research group are part of this second taskforce.  

Although we had heard many stories from LGBT+ individuals about the difficulties they encountered as they attempted to understand and talk about their orientation or identity with their families, we quickly realized that there was no systematic research on LGBT+ issues within the Seventh-day Adventist church.  

Research shows that around 9% of teens in the U.S. are kicked out of their homes when they tell parents about their orientation or identity. We wondered how that statistic compared to the Adventist church (we found the same rate in our study) and decided to develop our own survey to better understand how Adventist families responded when their children disclosed that they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. (We patterned some of our research on the Family Acceptance Project, a group that has worked with the Mormon church to create better relationships between LGBT+ children and their families. Their focus is to downplay theological issues and focus on loving and accepting children  even if they do not understand or approve of their child’s orientation or identity.)

We began developing our survey early in 2016 and began circulating drafts around to selected LGBT students, their parents, and various LGBT allies, and leaders.  We were careful to include a representative from one conservative Adventist LGBT+ organization and kept our very supportive senior-level university administrators in the loop every step of the way.  After about three months of survey development, we collected data between July and October 2016.

Did most of the individuals who completed the survey feel rejected when they came out to their families? Or accepted? Did it vary by culture/ethnicity? Age? Are parents becoming more accepting?

Shannon Trecartin: Coming out is a really hard and complex process for most LGBT+ individuals.  Many come out to some people but not to others, or they come out at different times to different people. 

For those Adventist LGBT+ individuals who had already come out, about 85% said they did not feel comfortable coming out to their parents, while 11% said that they were comfortable. Those who were uncomfortable often had their fears confirmed. More than two-thirds (69%) said that their parents were disappointed in them when they came out.  About 16% were not sure whether their parents were disappointed or not. Not surprisingly, 20% of the people we surveyed had not even told their parents, and others had told one parent but not the other one. This finding was similar across ethnicities and age categories with no significant differences between groups. 

We cannot say whether parents are becoming more accepting or rejecting in the moment their child comes out. However, when the respondents elaborated in a short-answer format, they were able to describe their ongoing relationships with parents. For some, relationships with parents improved over time. Other individuals described being able to reach a point of tolerance, while others described achieving parental acceptance. A few described their relationships with parents as being actively supportive from the time they came out. 

We saw the greatest difference when we compared respondents by the degree of religious/spiritual family upbringing on accepting and rejecting variables. For our sample, a significantly higher percentage of respondents who reportedly grew up in families that were very religious/spiritual reported that their parents struggled to accept their sexual orientation/ gender identity (84%) compared to those who grew up in families that were not religious or were somewhat religious/ spiritual (75%). Practically speaking, though, the majority of families struggled regardless of degree of reported religiosity/spirituality. 

How does family acceptance/rejection for LGBT+ individuals differ in the Adventist population from the general LGBT+ population?

David Sedlacek: The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University studied family acceptance and rejection among 13 to 18 year old LGBT+ children. Over 50 variables were used to examine family acceptance or rejection. Only a small sample of these variables were released to the public, so we are not entirely sure how Adventists compare to the general population. 

Without the benefit of knowing all of the variables measured in the Family Acceptance Project, we developed over 30 acceptance and rejection variables in consultation with a wide range of members of the LGBT+ community.  Many of these variables were unique to individuals with a Christian belief system, so it is not possible to accurately compare the rates of family acceptance/rejection between studies.  

That said, we do have one comparable statistic from the general population: our research shows that Seventh-day Adventist LGBT+ youth were kicked out of their homes at a comparable rate to LGBT+ individuals in the general population (9% in both groups).  Again, we cannot make comparisons in other areas because the data is not available. 

Are rates of depression and suicide higher among LGBT+ individuals from Adventist homes than in the general population?

David Sedlacek: Yes they are.  About 6.7% of the general population meets the criteria for clinical depression in a given year.  We know that depression is multi-dimensional, and our study used a survey that measures nine dimensions of depression.  Thirty percent of our sample experienced low energy and sleep difficulties and around 20% reported appetite problems, feeling bad or like a failure, and trouble concentrating.  Between 10-16% experienced some of the more severe symptoms of depression such as anhedonia (lack of pleasure), feeling down or hopeless, or reporting moving and speaking slowly.  While a total depression score has not yet been aggregated and analyzed for our study, the responses to these questions are well above the 6.7 percent of the general U.S. population. This is consistent with previous research that suggests that LGBT+ persons are 5.9 times more likely to be depressed than persons in the general population.

The Center for Disease Control reports that an estimated 9.3 million adults (3.9% of the adult U.S. population) reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year. Lifetime suicide attempts for the general population average 4.6%.  LGBT+ young persons are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than non-LGBT+ individuals. 

Our study asked three questions relating to suicidality.  Almost one-third (31.7%) of respondents said they had thoughts of suicide or thoughts of ending their life during the past six months. This is over eight times the rate of suicide thoughts in the general population. Almost one-third (29.0%) had made a suicide attempt at some point in their life. This is over six times the national average. Of this group, almost a third (29.5%) said that their suicidal thoughts or attempt(s) were related to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

These statistics should be a wake-up call to the church that an extremely high proportion our LGBT+ youth are in serious distress, some of which is related to rejecting behaviors from Adventist families and the churches they attend.

What lessons can the Adventist church learn from your research?

Nancy Carbonell: First, we learned that there are a cluster of attitudes and behaviors that appear to contribute to an unreceptive and hostile environment for LGBT+ youth when they come out to their parents and community.  Some of these factors, reported by a high number of participants, include these areas: fear of coming out (85%); feeling like their parents struggled to accept their identity (82%); believing that their parents’ religious beliefs made it difficult to accept their sexual identity (82.4%); fear of being seen as “disgusting” and “sinful” to their parents (75.8%); religious beliefs that triggered feelings of guilt and shame (75.2%); feeling like they disappointed their parents because they came out (70%);  not assured of parents’ love after coming out (67%); seeing that one or more of their parents responded as if their sexual orientation and/or gender identity was a poor reflection on them (65.8%); finding that parents were not open to finding ways to support their coming out (64%); fearing they would be disowned by their parents (57.2%); noticing that parents did not listen attentively when they came out (51.2%); and having parents forbid them to tell others of their sexual orientation or gender identity (42.8%).  There is no doubt that LGBT+ adults often see their parents, homes, and churches as very rejecting places, making coming out or understanding their sexual orientation or gender identity extremely difficult for the majority of these young people.

Second, we learned that this non-affirming, sometimes hostile, environment has often led to serious consequences: it was too unsafe to come out and thus continue to live hidden in the closet (20%); they were not taken for counseling to get help in understanding and accepting their sexual orientation and/or gender identity (85.4%); and, as noted above, almost a third had thoughts of suicide during the past six months or had made an unsuccessful suicide attempt at some point in their life.   Because of the high number of participants who attempted suicide at some point in their life, it gives us pause to think how many were successful and thus are no longer with us to respond to this survey!

Third, while many of our LGBT+ youth reported having a friend that they could share their joys and sorrows with (70%), less found this support from their parents (34.2%), few found support from their pastor (11.9%), and even fewer found their congregation as an important source of support (9.3%).  Our homes, schools, and churches are not generally seen as safe spaces.

What can the church do to support families and LGBT+ individuals?

Nancy Carbonell: Recently, Dr. Richard Hart, President of Loma Linda University Health, stated in a presidential communication that our knowledge about sexual identity is changing so rapidly that it requires a paradigm shift on how we should understand and respond to our LGBT+ youth.  We agree.

The best place to start would be for all of us—youth, parents, church members, teachers, pastors and church leaders—to become better informed about recent findings and studies of human sexuality and gender identity.   The confusion, rejection, and the level of hostility suggest that a lack of information and/or misinformation about human sexuality lies at the center of this problem. 

After gaining this clearer understanding, our church leadership could use this information to develop new resources that would help and support family members, friends, church members, and pastors to provide a more loving and friendly environment to our LGBT+ young people and their families. 

Informed pastors and teachers could lead in the development of two different compassionate spaces: first, one where we listen and dialogue with our LGBT+ youth as they seek to learn and understand more about their sexuality; and second, one where we provide a listening ear and support to the parents and families of LGBT+ youth as they sort through the fears and concerns about the present and future well-being of their LGBT+ young person.  Teaching parents how to listen carefully and non-judgmentally while their LGBT+ child shares the pain and confusion will help the child feel safe and supported while they explore their identity.  

Do you still have work to do on the project or putting the findings together? Are you presenting the data to any official church entities? 

David Sedlacek: We are still in the very preliminary stages of data analysis. What we have been reporting to date are basic frequencies and percentages.  Our ultimate goal is to analyze more specifically whether real or perceived of rejection of LGBT+ youth results in higher rates of depression, suicidality, substance abuse, unprotected sexual activity, as well as, lower levels of self-esteem, and social support. 

We plan to complete the data analysis and to write articles for church publications as well as professional journals in order to disseminate this information. We will recommend to church leadership that it use this research as a springboard for the development of resources that could be helpful to members of the church in various capacities. We have already made our preliminary findings available to several North American Division and General Conference officials and some have expressed cautious interest in exploring next steps for support and further dissemination of materials.

What research in this area still needs to be undertaken? Are there upcoming projects you are planning?

Shannon Trecartin: Currently, we are focusing on the short, qualitative responses we collected in our survey as these stories will help add depth and richness to our understanding of the experiences of Adventist LGBT+ persons. Their stories are important for teaching us about what it is like to be in their position and how we can better support them through their journey. 

In addition, we are in the process of analyzing the variables that measured acceptance and rejection through the use of factor analysis. Once this is complete, we will look at relationships between family acceptance/rejection and outcomes like depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, as well as religious and spiritual practices in later life. 

Finally, we hope to conduct a similar study with parents of LGBT+ children to better understand their experiences and perceptions and to identify promising avenues of support. 

How is the landscape changing for people who identify as LGBT+ in the Adventist church?  What changes do you see happening in the next 20 years?

Curt VanderWaal: In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey with almost 1,200 LGBT+ adults. Four in 10 (39%) said they had, at some point in their lives been rejected by a family member or close friend because of their orientation or identity, and 29% said they had been made to feel unwelcome in a place of worship.  However, almost all (92%) of these same respondents also said that society has become more accepting of them in the past decade, and the same number expect society to become even more accepting in the decade ahead.  

This optimism seems to be borne out in more recent 2014 Pew Research Center study which finds that over half (54%) of U.S. Christians say that homosexuality should be accepted, rather than discouraged, by society.  While the highest rates of acceptance are coming from Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, Evangelical church members have increased acceptance levels from 26% to 36% between 2007 and 2014.  This trend is partly driven by younger church members who are generally more accepting of LGBT+  individuals than older church members. We know from surveys of Millennials, including those in our own church, that a major reason for leaving the church is frustration with the church’s lack of tolerance toward LGBT+ individuals.  That said, levels of acceptance have increased across all age groups, driven in part by more people knowing and interacting with someone who is LGBT+, a better understanding of what it means to be LGBT+, and advocacy by public figures across the social, political, and religious landscape.  

The Adventist church is grappling with these issues along with the rest of society. We have LGBT members in our churches and homes, too.  In fact, in another recent study (soon to be released) researchers from Washington Adventist University and Andrews University surveyed over 1,600 US.. Adventists and found that 84% had a friend, colleague, or family member who is LGBT+. The more church members interact with LGBT+ individuals, the better they will understand them and the more they will recognize that there’s nothing to fear.  

Listening to their stories, we speculate that more and more church members will appreciate that loving unconditionally does not necessarily mean feeling pressured to give up their own values, perceptions, and theological understandings, but that it is rather a love that chooses to actively strive for the well-being of another.  

It will take some time to work through the differences in theology, and those differences may never be fully reconciled.  But more and more people are choosing to focus on trying to hear each other and figure out how to create safe spaces where everyone feels respected and loved.  In the end, that is what Christ calls us to do—to love generously and freely, knowing that we all are sinners who are saved by God’s grace.  

Top picture (left to right): Nancy Carbonell is associate professor in the Department of Graduate Psychology and Counseling, Curtis VanderWaal is chair of the Department of Social Work, Shannon Trecartin is assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, David Sedlacek is professor of family ministry and discipleship in the Department of Discipleship and Religious Education.

An article about the survey and its findings will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Spectrum journal.

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