Coming Out as an LGBT Adventist: Causes and Consequences of Family Rejection
By Dr. Curtis VanderWaal, Dr. David Sedlacek, Dr. Nancy Carbonell and Dr. Shannon Trecartin, March 27, 2017: Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT+) youth are at high risk for negative outcomes such as substance abuse, depression, and suicide (Ryan, Huebner, Diaz, & Sanchez, 2009). They often experience anger, disapproval, and rejection from family and friends when they disclose same-sex attraction and are often the victim of hate crimes (McWhirter et al., 2007). Such reactions can be especially strong within Christian families, where family rejection is often rooted in a Biblical tradition that views being LGBT+ as sinful and immoral. Christian parents, in particular, face a dilemma about what to do when a child self-identifies and ‘comes out’ as LGBT+. As they read Scripture that condemns the practice of homosexuality, they are torn between their loyalty to God and their love for their children.
As American culture creates a more tolerant climate for LGBT+ youth to proclaim their sexual identity, many Christian churches are just beginning to actively wrestle with how to treat their LGBT+ children. The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University recently studied the impact on LGBT+ youth in the general population whose families rejected them. Data show that “parents who send rejecting messages, who try to change their child’s identity, who prevent their gay and lesbian children from having LGBT+ friends, or who allow negative comments about LGBT+ people to be spoken in their home are more likely to have children who withdraw from the family circle and are at higher risk for serious mental health problems” (Ryan & Rees, 2012, p. 5). Within a faith-based context, these children are also more likely to lose their faith or leave the church.
Until now, no research has been published replicating this study in a Christian denominational context, although the Church of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) has taken the data from the Family Acceptance Project and used it to publish guidelines for church members whose children come out as LGBT+ (Ryan & Reese, 2012).
We developed a survey instrument to investigate family acceptance and rejection of LGBT+ youth in Christian (specifically Seventh-day Adventist (SDA)) families. In addition, we used standardized instruments to measure self-esteem, social support, depression, substance abuse, high-risk sexual behavior and suicidal thoughts/behaviors.
We began developing our survey early in 2016 and started 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 SDA LGBT+ organization. After about three months of survey development, we worked with LGBT+ Adventists and influential allies to collect anonymous data between July – October, 2016. We distributed a SurveyMonkey link to two SDA LGBT+ collegiate and adult networks, the Adventist Today listserve, as well as through several LGBT+ friendly blogs.
A total of 310 Millenials (ages 18-35) completed the full survey. The respondents identified as Male (45.8%), Female (44.1%), Transgender (2.9%), Intersex (1.0%) and Other (9.8%), Over one-third (37.9%) identified as Gay, over one-fourth (28.8%) selected Bisexual, one-fifth (20.3%) identified as Lesbian, and the remaining 13.1% selecting Other. Almost one-fifth (18.7%) of respondents were college-aged (18-22 years), almost half were early young adult (23-29 years), and one-third (33.8%) were 30-35 years old. While over half (55.7%) the respondents identified their ethnic background as White/Euro-American, the remainder were a diverse mixture of backgrounds.
Virtually all respondents (97.4%) grew up as Seventh-day Adventists. Respondents said that religion was an important feature their homes, with more than three-fourths (76.8%) describing their family as Very Religious or Spiritual and less than one-fourth (22.8%) saying their home was Somewhat Religious or Spiritual. Currently, only 41.6% identify as SDA, with almost a third (32.8%) claiming no religious affiliation and another fourth (23.4%) selecting Other (including common responses such as Christian, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, “badventist”, and an eclectic variety of religious denominations. Despite having grown up in strongly religious families, only a third (32.1%) of respondents Agreed or Strongly Agreed that they considered themselves to be religious. However, three-fourths (73.4%) Agreed or Strongly Agreed that they considered themselves to be spiritual. As evidence for this claim, almost a third (30.8%) said they pray daily, with another one-fourth (23.4%) praying at least weekly. In addition, one-fourth study the Bible or other sacred text (24.0%) or read religious books or journals (23.4%) at least weekly. Finally, almost a third (29.6%) participate in religious services on a weekly basis.
Summary of Findings
Coming out is a challenging 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.
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, included: 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%); fear of being seen as “disgusting” and “sinful” to their parents (76%); religious beliefs that triggered feelings of guilt and shame (75%); 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%); noticing that parents did not listen attentively when they came out (51%); and having parents forbid them to tell others of their sexual orientation or gender identity (43%). There is no doubt that Adventist LGBT+ adults often see their parents, home 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.
We also 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%); and they were sometimes kicked out of their house when they came out to their parents (9%).
The consequences were most severe in the area of suicidal thinking and behaviors. 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. In our study, we asked three questions relating to suicidality. Almost one-third (32%) 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%) 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 (30%) said that their suicidal thoughts or attempt(s) were related to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Finally, rejection from family and church remain a reality for most LGBT+ adults. While many LGBT+ respondents reported having a friend that they could share their joys and sorrows with (70%), significantly fewer found this support from their parents (34%), even fewer found support from their pastor (12%) or church congregation (9%). In short, LGBT+ respondents generally do not see their homes and churches as safe spaces.
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 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 know we will learn much more about how the pain of family and social rejection affects SDA LGBT+ individuals throughout their lifetimes.
It will be particularly important to better understand the consequences of rejection for spiritual life. 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. Clearly we need to do more to educate SDA 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. In spite of this rejection, many respondents have deeply spiritual roots and have continued their involvement in religious activities. We need to find more ways to support their continued involvement in church life.
Along with the rest of society, the Adventist church will continue to grapple with their feelings about, and stance toward LGBT+ individuals. We have LGBT+ members in our churches and homes. In fact, in another recent study (soon to be released) researchers from Washington Adventist University and Andrews University surveyed over 1,600 U.S. Adventists and found that 84% had a friend, colleague, or family member who is LGBT+. The more church members interact with LGBT+ individuals, the more likely 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’s what Christ calls us to do – to love generously and freely, knowing that we all are sinners who are saved by God’s grace.
D’Augelli, A., Grossman, A., Starks, M. (2005). Parents’ Awareness of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youths’ Sexual Orientation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67: 2.
Ryan, C., Huebner, D., Diaz, R., & Sanchez, J. (2009). Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in White and Latino lesbian, gay and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics, 123:1.
Ryan, C. and Reese, R. A. (2012). Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Latter-Day Saint Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Children. San Francisco State University: Family Acceptance Project.
McWhirter, J.J., McWhirter, B.T., McWhirter, E.H., and McWhirter, R.J. (2007). At Risk Youth: A Comprehensive Guide for Counselors, Teachers, Psychologists, and Human Services Professionals, Belmont, CA: Brooks Cole Cengage Learning.
This summary article is based on research that was originally published in Social Work and Christianity, Vol. 44, Nos. 1 & 2, 2017 and will be reported in full in Spectrum, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2017. We have also included information from an interview about the research by Alita Byrd of Spectrum. That interview appeared on the Spectrum web site March 15, 2017, in the Interview section.
Dr. Curtis VanderWaal is a professor in the Department of Social Work at Andrews University. Dr. David Sedlacek is a professor in the Department of Discipleship and Religious Education at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Dr. Nancy Carbonell is a consulting psychologist in the Center for Reading, Learning and Assessment in the School of Education at Andrews University. Dr. Shannon Trecartin is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at Andrews University.