At the Intersection of Church and Gay: A Review of the Psychological Research on Gay and Lesbian Christians

Eric M Rodriguez. Journal of Homosexuality. Volume 57, Issue 1. 2009.

On October 23, 1999, 200 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) people of faith (as well as their straight friends and supporters) met with 200 members of the Moral Majority in a joint worship service conducted by the Rev Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Mel White at Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia. The meeting between the supporters of Falwell (the Fundamentalist founder and leader of the Moral Majority who uses virulent anti-gay slogans in his newsletters to raise funds for his organization) and White (the gay minister and former ghostwriter for Falwell who currently leads Soulforce, a pacifist social change organization dedicated to equality in religion for gays and lesbians) was hailed as a major breakthrough in relations between the gay community and the religious right. As a result of this historic meeting, Falwell promised to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric, and afterward members of each group were even seen having lunch together. Before, during, and after the meeting, dozens of anti-gay and religious right protesters demonstrated outside of the church calling Falwell a hypocrite for meeting with White and his supporters, and declaring that all fags will burn in hell (“National News Briefs,” 1999; Rosellini, 1999; Schwartz, 1999).

On March 19, 2002, White (2002) wrote a letter to Ron Godwin, an aide to Falwell, stating that Soulforce was coming back to Lynchburg, three years after that first breakthrough meeting between gays and lesbians and the religious right. It seems that Falwell “not only reneged on his promise to tone down his antigay rhetoric,” but inaccurately claimed that many of the Soulforce delegation came forward after the meeting to renounce their homosexuality and gave up their “unnatural lifestyle.” In his letter, White wrote that since the meeting Falwell has stated publicly to his Moral Majority followers that he never intended to listen to Soulfource’s side of the story, that he would never change his mind on the issue of homosexuality, that Falwell had only invited White’s group to Lynchburg in order to convert them, and that Falwell would continue to “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Falwell even came out on national television blaming gay rights proponents, abortion providers, and the American Civil Liberties Union for weakening spirituality in the United States to the point where the country left itself susceptible to the events of September 11 (Niebuhr, 2001; White, 2002).

On April 28, 2002, parishioners of the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in San Francisco, a predominantly gay and lesbian Roman Catholic Church with a gay pastor, were tense and upset. A note in the day’s worship program mentioned that there was a table in the back of the room where information on the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests was available. Parishioners were also troubled because to shift attention from pedophile priests, the upper ranks of the Catholic hierarchy decided to blame homosexuals and homosexuality within the priesthood—“If you want to know the cause of these troubles, either it’s that we let in too many gay men or that the gay liberation movement is corrupting priests” (“Gay Priests,” 2002). The vice president of the church council, an out gay man, stated “it’s hard to be Catholic now … The church needs to stop confusing pedophilia with homosexuality.” Another member of the church agreed, adding that her faith was still intact and that “the foundation of my religion is not in the institution, it’s with my parish” (Nieves, 2002).

These three compelling stories, lifted directly from the current popular press, illustrate the enormous complexity surrounding the issue of religion in the lives of gays and lesbians. The themes of intolerance, homophobia, faith, and perseverance found in these stories lead directly to the central question driving this article: Why do gays and lesbians put themselves through such ordeals and try so hard to stay connected with a religion that rejects them? A strong Christian religious faith, and a strong desire to be “out” as a gay man or lesbian, leads many individuals to try to find some way of dealing with both identities. How do they do it? How do some gays and lesbians not only live with two identities that are perceived by so many (both gay and straight, religious and religiously indifferent) as being completely incompatible, but thrive while fully embracing and combining them both?

Working Within a New Paradigm

Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch (1996) stated that while psychological writing about religion and homosexuality has increased rapidly since the mid-1980s, this literature has focused largely on “conceptual, political, social, pastoral, and clinical issues” (p. 140). They go on to state that empirical research in this area is lacking—a situation that is slowly being remedied in the social sciences (especially in the fields of psychology and sociology). In writing of the changes in the study of homosexuality and religion, Yip (1997a) acknowledged that there have traditionally been two “themes” of research. The first theme is the contrast between religious and nonreligious gays and lesbians, while the second is the relationship between gays and lesbians and the church itself (Yip, 1997a). For example, over the years work has been conducted that assessed the attitudes of religious people and religious organizations toward homosexuality (Brooke, 1993; Fischer, Derison, Polley, Cadman, & Johnston, 1994; Gay, Elison, & Powers 1996; Mader, 1993; Nugent & Gramick, 1989; Wagenaar & Bartos, 1977; Westerfelhaus, 1998), intrinsic versus extrinsic uses of religion as they informed such attitudes (Allport, 1950, 1960; Allport & Ross, 1967), the attitudes of gays and lesbians toward religion (O’Brien, 1991, Yip, 1997a), and the impact of religious authoritarianism and prejudice on homosexuality (Herek, 1987; Hunsberger, 1996).

In the abovementioned research, gays and lesbians have been studied as they contrast to other religious individuals and groups or to other religious ideals. Only recently have psychologists begun to recognize that many gay men and lesbians continue to have active religious lives as well (Barret & Barzan, 1996, 1998; Ritter & O’Neill, 1989). This article was written in the middle of a paradigm shift as social scientists begin to consider homosexuals as spiritual and religious beings in their own right, rather than merely sexual beings needing to be compared and contrasted with religious others. This important paradigm shift, while not explicitly addressed in the literature to date, is beginning to be reflected in the recent work of social scientists conducting research in this area (i.e., Lukenbill, 1998; Mahaffy, 1996; Thumma, 1991; Yip 1996).

While the research literature on gay and lesbian Christians is rich and continually expanding, it is also quite fragmented, consisting mainly of studies with small sample sizes that focus narrowly on a specific subgroup within the phenomena (i.e., Latino gay Christians, gay and lesbian Catholics, White Jewish lesbians, etc.). Furthermore, the recent research and theories assessing and underlying the integration of these two identities have never been presented in one cohesive review. Therefore, working within this new paradigm that views gays and lesbians as spiritual beings in and of themselves, this article’s purpose is threefold: 1) to integrate a fractured body of literature on gay and lesbian Christians; 2) to review and critique relevant psychological theories currently in use in this area; and 3) to introduce relevant theoretical concepts that better outline comprehensive pathways for future research.

The article begins with a review of the current state of the psychology literature as it pertains to gay and lesbian Christians. Here, I conduct detailed discussions illustrating the psychological theories currently in use in the field; the focus being on Goffman’s (1963) work on stigma, Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory, and Baumeister, Shapiro, and Tice’s (1985) theory of identity conflict. I then introduce two concepts that are underrepresented (or not represented at all) in the current literature: Shallenberger’s (1996, 1998) notion of integration as a process and Rappaport’s (1991, 1984, 1995, 2000) theory of empowerment. In between the works of Shallenberger and Rappaport, I present research on gay-friendly and gay-positive Christian denominations in the United States not only to better illustrate the process of identity integration, but to better lead into the discussion of empowerment theory as well. I close with a discussion of the limitations found in this article and with a series of research questions detailing possible pathways for future social scientific exploration of gay and lesbian people of faith.

The majority of the psychological and sociological research in this area has been carried out using Christianity in the United States and Great Britain as the religious and cultural frame of reference. While there is a small (yet growing) literature on the gay and lesbian experience within American Judaism (i.e., Cooper, 1989; Shokeid, 1995), very little theoretical and research literature on gay and lesbian Christians in non-Western cultures has been undertaken. This lack of available social-scientific data also extends to gays and lesbians across the globe involved in non-Western religions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. While I believe it is important for researchers studying the religious and spiritual lives of gays and lesbians to become more inclusive regarding their assessment of non-Western religions, and non-Western experiences of the Christian faith (see the comments addressing this issue in more detail in the limitations section), I will not attempt to tackle this issue here. As the psychological research literature to date focused primarily on Western expressions of Christianity, so to must any article reviewing the research conducted in this area.

Current State of the Psychology Literature

Psychological Theories of Conflict

A fundamental concept in any discussion of gay and lesbian Christians is the issue of conflict. In previous work, I defined the term “conflict” as the tension that can arise between a gay or lesbian Christians’ sexual orientation and their religious beliefs (Rodriguez, 1997, 2006; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000a). In hindsight, however, the issue of conflict is not just about the clash that can occur between gay and religious identities, but also about the anxiety that arises in a gay or lesbian person experiencing such conflict. Where does such conflict and its resulting anxiety originate? Six passages from the Bible (Genesis, 19:1-28; Leviticus, 18:22, 20:13; Romans, 1:26,27; I Corinthians, 6:9; I Timothy, 1:10) have generally been used to support the contention that homosexuality is a sin. Based on these passages, Christian doctrine has decreed homosexuality to be “unnatural,” a “perversion,” and an “abomination in the eyes of God” (Clark, Brown, & Hochstein, 1990; Greenberg & Bystryn, 1982; Keysor, 1979; Scanzoni & Mollenkott, 1978). While a few Christian denominations (i.e., the United Church of Christ and the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]) view homosexuality in a more positive light, the preponderance of mainstream Christian denominations does not (Ellison, 1993; Mahaffy, 1996). In one study, 72% of Christian religious organizations surveyed condemned homosexuals and homosexuality as being an abomination (Melton, 1991).

Additionally, Christian doctrine states that gay males and lesbians are “unnatural” and “perverse,” yet also states that “God loves you unconditionally,” and “all of the children of God will achieve a place in Heaven” (Perry, 1990; Piazza, 1994). Such a dualistic message may create a sense of confusion, self-loathing, and despair in a gay or lesbian person (Englund, 1991; Spencer, 1994). However, despite such messages from Christianity regarding the sin of homosexuality verses God’s all encompassing love, many people who identify themselves as gay or lesbian still maintain strong religious beliefs. This maintenance of a strong Christian religious belief and a strong sense of being out regarding one’s gay or lesbian sexual orientation has served to create feelings of conflict between these two identities that are each important to one’s sense of self, as well as feelings of anxiety within the individual.

Cohen (1997) addressed this destructive form of duality in her work on the AIDS epidemic in the African-American community. While Cohen wrote specifically about the Black Church in America, the themes she highlighted address the broader issues of inconsistency, intolerance, homophobia, and fundamentalism found throughout many of the various denominations within the Christian religion. In addressing the Black Church’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African-American community, Cohen wrote:

AIDS triggers two traditions in the [B]lack church, one centered around the provision of services and care to those in need, the other based in teaching the Christian scripture … Thus, within a societally conservative ideology, in which “moral” behavior is the primary standard by which Christianity is judged, the church cannot and will not ignore the presumed “sinful” behavior of many with AIDS in black communities. (p. 279).

Despite what Cohen (1997) described as the Black Church’s traditional Christian role of caring for the poor, the needy, and the sick, she also illustrated how this Christian religious institution has turned its back on many Black gays and IV drug users suffering from AIDS. Cohen goes on to state that as long as the Black Church continues to assert that “homosexual behavior is immoral and in direct contrast to the word of God” (p. 284), as long as it continues to adhere to a fundamentalist or conservative view of the Christian Bible, and as long as the Black Church refuses to discuss issues such as sex, drug and alcohol abuse, and homosexuality in “an inclusive and transformed discourse” (p. 285), outsiders and church critics will view the church’s ability and desire to serve the entire African-American community as nothing but the highest form of hypocrisy.

Based on Cohen’s (1997) comments, it should come as no surprise that researchers studying the Christian religious lives of gays and lesbians have identified several causes of conflict and anxiety between gay and religious identities. These causes are both extrinsic, coming from outside of the individual and more dependent on acceptance by others, and intrinsic, coming from within the individual and generally held as internalized moral ideals.

Some of the extrinsic causes are strict adherence to established Christian tenets, usually those promoted by the conservative Christian religious right (Birken, 1997; Grant & Epp, 1998; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000a), acceptance of anti-gay Christian doctrine (Yip, 1997b), acceptance of other gay’s and lesbian’s negative outlooks and experiences (Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000a; Shallenberger, 1996, 1998), and contradiction with the religious beliefs of family members and friends (Mahaffy, 1996; Rodriguez, 1997).

Intrinsic causes that have been identified in previous research include a fear of divine retribution (Ritter & O’Neill, 1989; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000a) and strong beliefs that these two identities were incompatible (Mahaffy, 1996; Rodriguez, 1997). It is important to note that, when looking across studies, fundamentalism within the Christian religion appears to be one of the chief causes (if not the chief cause) of both intrinsic and extrinsic causes of conflict and anxiety within gays and lesbians who self-identify as Christian.

Also of note, these themes transcend the boundaries of the larger society. Not only do many religious and nonreligious individuals, groups, and organizations, share the belief that gayness is “unnatural,” “perverted,” and “a sin,” but a significant proportion of the gay and lesbian community also harbor strong anti-religion sentiments that exhibit themselves in a healthy disdain for anything and anyone having to do with an organized Christian religion viewed as being homophobic, heterosexist, and patriarchical.

In the psychological (and sociological) literature, scholars have utilized the psychological theories of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), stigma (Goffman, 1963), and identity conflict (Baumeister et al., 1985) to try to explain the origins of the conflict that gays and lesbians experience between their homosexual and religious identities. I now address each of these theories in turn, beginning with Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory.

Cognitive Dissonance

Currently one of the most popular of the psychological theories utilized by researchers to explain the feelings of conflict gay men and lesbian Christians experience between their sexual orientation and their religious beliefs is Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory. Despite criticisms that cognitive dissonance theory is methodologically vague and difficult to operationalize (Cooper & Fazio, 1984; Jones, 1985), despite a cachet of competing theories purporting themselves to more accurately assessing the phenomenon in question (see, e.g., Aronson’s, 1968, self-concept analysis; Bem’s, 1967, theory of self perception; Steele’s, 1988, self-affirmation theory), and despite a well-publicized decline in use (Bagby, Parker, & Bury, 1990), Festinger’s theory has recently seen resurgence in interest (Petty, Wegener, & Fabrigar, 1997). Some have even gone so far as to propose a “radical view” of cognitive dissonance by urging a return to Festinger’s original 1957 theory (Joule & Beauvois, 1998). Cialdini, Trost, and Newsome (1995) have even recently developed a scale to assess individual differences in preference for cognitive consistency.

According to Festinger’s (1957) original theory, cognitive dissonance arises when a person experiences tension between two psychologically inconsistent thoughts or beliefs. Holding two conflicting cognitions is mentally and emotionally uncomfortable and, therefore, individuals seek to adjust their cognitions to reduce the experience of conflict and anxiety. Dissonant thoughts or beliefs produce a negative mental state with which an individual tries to cope by eliminating or changing one of the two conflicting thoughts. Eliminating one of the conflicting cognitions enables a person to achieve constancy of thought, or cognitive consonance, which is a more desired state than cognitive dissonance (Cooper & Fazio, 1984; Festinger, 1957), and serves to lower anxiety levels.

As there can be dissonance between thoughts or beliefs, there can also be dissonance between thoughts and behavior. According to Jones (1985), inconsistency between behavior and cognitions is not sufficient for dissonance to occur unless the cognitions are anchored in a person’s self-concept. If the two cognitions are relevant to the self concept, then either dissonance or consonance must take place. If they are not relevant, then Festinger’s (1957) theory simply does not apply because there is no dissonance to speak of. For example, religious people can believe that homosexuality is wrong, but engage in homosexual behavior nonetheless because their homosexual behavior is not a facet of their self-concept. However, were the homosexual behavior and religious belief to exert some impact on the self-concept then, in theory, dissonance might occur.

Two studies that assessed religious beliefs and homosexuality through the lens of cognitive dissonance theory were Thumma’s (1991) study of gay men and Mahaffy’s (1996) study of lesbians. While both researchers utilized Festinger’s (1957) theory as the framework for understanding the conflict that can potentially occur between homosexual and religious identities, neither addressed any of the criticisms directed at cognitive dissonance. In his participant observation study, Thumma demonstrated how a small group (average group attendance was eight people) of gay men integrated their feelings of being religious and being homosexual through their membership with an Evangelical Christian group called Good News. A key aspect of Good News was that its members considered both their religious beliefs and their homosexuality to be important components of their self-concept. Thumma stated that “through a process of socialization, [the members of Good News] renegotiate the boundaries and definitions of their religious identity to include a positive valuation of their homosexuality” (p. 333). Thumma’s study illustrated the importance of identity negotiation between a person’s religious beliefs and their homosexuality to alleviate cognitive dissonance.

Mahaffy (1996) on the other hand, in her exploratory survey of lesbian Christians (N  =  163), attempted to understand more specifically the issues underlying dissonance between sexual orientation and religious belief in women. She was particularly interested in further understanding how lesbians resolved this dissonance. Through assessing her participant’s religious history, age of Christian identification, and age when they first began to discover their own lesbianism, she reported that a fundamental or evangelical Christian identity predicted higher internal and external dissonance. Additionally, Mahaffy identified three resolution strategies for alleviating dissonance between one’s homosexuality and Christian beliefs: altering one’s religious beliefs, leaving the church, or living with the dissonance.

While Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory does indeed appear to be enjoying a renaissance in the psychological literature, and while I believe that it does provide a structural framework to understand issues of conflict between homosexuality and Christianity, the theory does not appear to be powerful enough for use in studying the levels of complexity found within gay and lesbian Christians. Cognitive dissonance theory is very linear, and thus is not dynamic enough to incorporate all of the social and personality issues that arise when an individual experiences both conflict and anxiety between their religious and homosexual identities. That the theory remains methodologically vague and difficult to operationalize (Cooper & Fazio, 1984; Jones, 1985) also makes cognitive dissonance theory undesirable for use in research studies conducted in this area.


In her review of the psychological concept of stigma, Crocker (1995) stated that “stigmatizing conditions lead to the rejection of individuals because they have an attribute that compromises their humanity in the eyes of others” (p. 633). However, because what is considered “stigmatized” changes as public attitudes, knowledge, and tastes change over time, stigma originates not just from the circumstances causing the stigma, but from how others react to that stigma as well (Crocker, 1995). The salience or centrality of the stigma to one’s identity is also an essential part of this theory; the more importance that is placed on the stigma by oneself or by others, the more it impacts on one’s identity (Goffman, 1963).

In his definitive work on stigma, Goffman (1963) outlined three distinct types of stigma that a person can experience—body, tribal, and individual character. In what he dubbed “abominations of the body” (p. 4), Goffman referred to physical abnormalities easily identified by other individuals such as physical handicaps, visible marks on the skin, and severe physical disfigurement. In tribal stigmas, Goffman described stigmatization that occurred due to an individual’s race or ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Finally, in stigmas of individual character, Goffman referred to convicts, drug and alcohol abusers, the unemployed, mentally ill, and homosexuals among others. It is important to note that these “blemishes of individual character,” as he collectively referred to these types of stigma, dealt with stigmatization that was not necessarily visible to others. Individuals must either voluntarily disclose this stigma,or have it discovered. It is these blemishes of individual character that are the type of stigma most pertinent to my article as they deal directly with the issue of homosexuals stigmatized by both Christian religious doctrine and its adherents.

The concept of stigma management therefore becomes important here. How do stigmatized individuals deal with this type of discrimination? Crocker and Major (1989) have outlined three major strategies utilized by individuals to protect themselves from being stigmatized: 1) attributing negative outcomes they experience to prejudice or discrimination; 2) devaluing those domains in which their stigma makes it unlikely they will excel; and 3) selectively comparing themselves and their outcomes with others who share their stigma rather than with nonstigmatized individuals.

Yip’s (1997b) semistructured interview study of 60 gay male Christians in England focused on the issue of stigma management. According to Yip, the Church stigmatizes homosexuals and homosexuality; therefore, gay Christians need to come up with mechanisms to address this stigma. According to Yip, there are four main stigma management strategies used by gay male Christians involved with either the Church of England or Roman Catholicism: 1) attacking the stigma; 2) attacking the stigmatizer; 3) use of positive personal experience; and 4) use of the ontogeneric argument. According to Yip, these strategies are “interchangeably and collectively used to dismiss the credibility of the institutionalized Church and the validity of its unfavorable official position of the issue of homosexuality” (p. 113).

Attacking the stigma refers to how individuals challenge the correctness and accuracy of the six Biblical passages commonly used to condemn homosexuality. Yip (1997b) mentions that this can be achieved by either invalidating the conventional interpretation of these six passages, shifting of focus from these passages to broader Christian principles of love and respect for all, or challenging the relevance of these passages to today’s society. Attacking the stigmatizer refers to a strategy whereby gay male Christians “dismiss the credibility of the Church as the moral guardian for gay Christians” by either undermining or ignoring official Church doctrine negative to homosexuals and homosexuality (p. 120). Use of positive personal experience entails adhering to basic Christian moral values through living in a monogamous relationship with only one partner, and avoiding the sexual promiscuity common in gay culture. The ontogeneric argument refers to the belief by the gay Christian men in Yip’s study that all sexual orientations, including homosexuality, were created by God and, thus, supported and blessed by God.

Identity Conflict

In my own work, rather than cognitive dissonance or stigma, I relied on the theoretical construct of identity conflict. According to Baumeister et al. (1985), identity conflict, or legitimation crisis, refers to “the problem of the multiply defined self whose definitions have become incompatible” (p. 408). They suggest that identity conflicts are brought about by “extraordinary developments” in situations and personal commitments that create in people the sense that one is in an impossible situation. Baumeister et al. state:

The identity conflict seems to be commonly provoked by the necessity of making choices when one’s existing commitments entail conflicting prescriptions for behavior. The essential precondition for the identity conflict is the status of having a strong personal (and emotional) commitment to two distinct identity components that become incompatible. (pp. 411-412)

There are two key components to Baumeister et al.’s (1985) view of identity conflict: having a strong personal commitment to two distinct identity components and having a multiplicity of identity. Having a strong personal commitment to two distinct identity components is essential because without such commitment no conflict would exist. An identity component that a person was strongly committed to would override another identity component that the same person was not committed to. This is similar to the issue of relevance in Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory, as well as the issue of centrality in Goffman’s (1963) work on stigma. Having a multiplicity of identity is also important to Baumeister et al.’s view of identity conflict, which is where identity conflict begins to diverge from cognitive dissonance. Having a multiplicity of identity means that every individual’s total identity is comprised of a series of sub-identities that are dynamic in nature (Markus & Wurf, 1987; Rosenberg & Gara, 1985), and it is this dynamic interaction of multiple identities that potentially leads to identity conflict. Thus, gay and lesbian Christians would appear to be a perfect example of Baumeister et al’s definition of identity conflict.

Relying on Baumeister et al.’s (1985) theory of identity conflict (as well as other identity theories including identity change [Deaux, 1991], alleviating role conflict [Stryker & Statham, 1985], and identity negotiation [Deaux & Ethier, 1998; Ethier & Deaux, 1990, 1994]—see Rodriguez 1997, 2006, and Rodriguez & Ouellette 2000a for in-depth discussions of these identity theories), Rodriguez and Ouellette (2000a) proposed four different pathways that a self-identified gay or lesbian person with a strong religious faith can take to attempt to alleviate conflict between their homosexual and Christian identities: 1) rejecting the homosexual identity; 2) rejecting the heterosexual identity; 3) compartmentalization; and 4) identity integration (see Rodriguez, 1997, and Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000a, for more in-depth discussions of these four pathways).

Using Baumeister et al’s (1985) theory of identity conflict and the four path theoretical model to identity integration, Rodriguez and Ouellette (2000a) explored individual’s experiences of identity conflict and identity integration between their sexual orientation and religious beliefs. Using both qualitative and quantitative research methods, they examined identity integration in the members and participants (N = 40) of a church in New York City that ministered specifically to the gay and lesbian community. In their work, they defined individuals as having achieved identity integration when they hold a positive religious identity, a positive gay identity, and do not currently feel conflict between the two. Their survey and interview data supported this definition of identity integration, and also showed that: a) a majority of their research participants reported that they had successfully integrated their homosexual and religious identities; b) being integrated was related to higher church involvement, church membership, attending more worship services and activities/ministries, and attending the church for more years; c3) lesbians were less likely than gay men to report past conflict between their identities and more likely to report being fully integrated; and d) the church played an important role in helping the study participants achieve integration between their homosexual and religious identities.

Challenging Assumptions and Recognizing Process

The Conflict Assumption

The current psychological literature on the Christian religious lives of gays and lesbians relies on the underlying assumption that, at some point in their lives, all gay and lesbian Christians have experienced conflict between their sexual orientation and religious beliefs. We are all taught as good social scientists to question the assumptions underlying our work. Results from Rodriguez and Ouellette’s (2000a) identity conflict and integration study suggest that the assumption of conflict may not be entirely accurate.

The work by Rodriguez and Ouellette (2000a) suggested that not all gay and lesbian Christians report experiencing conflict between their sexual orientation and their religious beliefs, and that the desire to merge one’s homosexual and religious identities does not always follow a period of conflict between the two. In their study, 12 out of 40 (30%) research participants reported never having experienced conflict between their sexual orientation and their religious beliefs, and yet 9 of these 12 individuals reported having fully integrated these two identities anyway. Reasons in that study for mentioning a lack of conflict between homosexual and religious identities included: a) never encountering/internalizing anti-gay religious rhetoric; b) devaluing church teachings; c) coming out at a late age; d) attending seminary; and e) God’s all encompassing love. While these five themes are intriguing, further research is needed in this area because the responses of only seven individuals are not enough to draw any serious conclusions. Mahaffy’s (1996) work also supported this notion when she discovered that not all of her lesbian research participants’ reported experiencing conflict either.

Construct Verses Process

During the course of their work, Rodriguez and Ouellette (2000a) came to understand integration as more of a process rather than simply a two-dimensional or bipolar construct. They measured the concept of integration using a cross-sectional design, however many of their research participants talked extensively about identity integration as a process with which they were still involved or had just recently completed. Results showing that integrated individuals were significantly older and attended a specific gay-positive church for significantly longer periods of time tended to support this notion (Rodriguez, 1997; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000a). Therefore, it might not be the construct of integration that should be of theoretical interest in studying gay and lesbian Christians, but the process of integration instead. This notion of identity integration as a process also does a better job than the psychological theories of conflict currently in use to explain the interaction between a gay male or lesbian’s homosexual and religious identities. Assessing integration as a process has the potential to more adequately address the complexity of the phenomena at hand, and the resilience of individuals to be able to live with conflict in their lives.

Moving Ahead in the Field

In the previous section, I presented the current state of the psychological literature on the Christian religious lives of gays and lesbians. I now turn my focus to theoretical constructs not as well known in the literature that can push the psychological study of gay and lesbian Christians into the future. Specifically, I am referring to Shallenberger’s (1996, 1998) notion of identity integration as a process, and Rappaport’s theory of empowerment. Shallenberger’s research focused specifically on gay and lesbian people of faith, but has not yet been picked up by any other researchers doing work in this area as social scientists studying gay and lesbian Christians appear to be conducting their work in isolation from one another. Many of the works mentioned earlier in this article do not always site the works of other contemporaries doing research in the same field. Yip, for example, has been publishing work on gay male Christians in England since mid 1996, and has rarely been sited in the more recent studies in this area to date. Empowerment theory, on the other hand, has not yet been visited in the psychological study of the religious lives of gays and lesbians despite its obvious applicability to the field.

Integration as a Process

In Shallenberger’s (1996, 1998) work, he referred to the process of identity integration as a spiritual journey. Other researchers (e.g., Barret & Barzan, 1996; Spencer, 1994; Struzzo, 1989) have utilized the term “faith journey.” For the purposes of this article, no distinction is made between these two synonymous phrases as both deal with the religious and homosexual life stories of gay men and lesbians. In his narrative study of the spiritual journeys of 26 gay and lesbian people of various faiths, Shallenberger (1996) explored the intersection of community and identity and its impact on their sexual and religious lives. During the course of his exploratory study, he attempted to address such issues as how gay men and lesbians discover and define their spirituality, what processes lead to the construction of their spiritual identities, and how they evolve and change as gay and lesbian people of faith during the course of their spiritual journeys.

Discussed in detail by both Shallenberger and several other researchers (e.g., Coleman, 1981/1982; Fischer, 1989; Gonsiorek & Rudolph, 1991; Grant & Epp, 1998) one of the most important events in any individual’s spiritual journey is the process of “coming out,” both to themselves and to others. The impact of coming out on an individual’s spiritual journey is predicated by their religious history; that is, how involved they and their family were in established Christian churches and religious organizations during their formative years. Shallenberger (1996) made the point that coming out is one of the most widely studied developmental constructs in the gay research literature. While recognizing that coming out is a complex theoretical construct, Shallenberger mentioned that there are several well-recognized themes that cut across this particular area of the literature. These themes are “deep and often difficult self-questioning” (p. 197), growing self-recognition and self-identification with one’s homosexuality in the face of prolific anti-gay biases from a homophobic and heterosexist culture, sudden and/or measured disclosure to loved ones, and passage into, and deeper involvement with, the gay and lesbian community. While the coming out process has traditionally been framed using a variety of different developmental stage models, it is important to keep in mind that coming out is a very individualized process that can be either positive or negative, but not necessarily both.

Why, therefore, is coming out such a relevant construct for a discussion of the spiritual journeys of gays and lesbians? Based on Shallenberger’s (1996, 1998) ideas, it appears that coming out is not only when conflict between religious and homosexual identities begins, but it is also the time when an individual consciously acknowledges the inherent discrepancies between living a gay lifestyle and remaining actively involved in organized Christian religion. This point in time potentially marks the beginning of the integration process that is central to Shallenberger’s concept of a spiritual journey as it pertains to gay men and lesbians.

Once the coming out process has been completed, and the individual has come out to him- or herself (and others) as gay or lesbian, often the next step in their spiritual journey is distinguishing between the terms religion and spirituality (Mahaffy, 1996; Rodriguez, 1997; Shallenberger, 1998). The word “religion” becomes equated with the concrete trappings of traditional, established Christian churches as well as with official Church doctrine, while spirituality becomes synonymous with one’s personal religious and ethical beliefs; including non-church related behaviors such as faith, prayer, personal morality, and Bible reading (Rodriguez, 1997; Shallenberger, 1998). By making this distinction between religion and spirituality, many of these gay men and lesbians are attempting to distance and buffer themselves from the negative, anti-gay messages received from many mainline Catholic and Protestant denominations.

After coming out, Shallenberger (1996) highlighted three key issues that gay and lesbian Christians grapple with on their continuing spiritual journeys: questioning, reintegration, and reclaiming. In questioning, individuals engage in an extensive (mostly internal) conversation with themselves where they question their own religious beliefs as they related to their experiences as gay men or lesbians. In reintegration, they attempt to reincorporate their religious identity with their homosexual identity. This is accomplished through reading relevant literature, talking with loved one’s, and identifying and approaching other gays and lesbians grappling with the same issues to mention just a few mechanisms. During the reclaiming process, they also begin to seek out safe spaces where they can reconnect with both their gay identity and their religious identity in a community of supportive, like-minded individuals.

Sites of Identity Integration

There are many causes of integration between sexual and religious identities; reading relevant literature to educate oneself regarding these issues, self-acceptance, talking with others, becoming older and more mature, reestablishing a personal relationship with God, even coping with a life-threatening illness such as HIV/AIDS (Rodriguez, 1997; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000a). Perhaps one of the main mechanisms (if not the main mechanism) is becoming involved with organizations that promote a positive outlook for both homosexuality and religion. Thumma (1991) depicts such an assembly in his research on gay men attending the Evangelical group Good News, as do Wagner, Serafini, Rabkin, Remien, and Williams (1994) in their study of gay men involved with the gay-Catholic organization Dignity.

The goal of these religious support groups to deliver both gay-positive and Christian-positive messages has been made easier by the emergence of a “gay theology” that specifically values gay men and lesbians of the Christian faith, and recognizes their spiritual needs. These groups have reinterpreted the Bible in such a way that homosexuality is viewed in a positive, rather than negative, religious light (Englund, 1991; Thumma, 1991). As a result, many of the gay and lesbian people of the Christian faith involved in such organizations have begun to hear the message that God loves all people, including homosexuals. Gay and religious-positive support groups such as Good News, Dignity, Integrity (for the Episcopal Church), and Lutheran’s Concerned are, however, typically affiliated with Christian churches that view homosexual behavior as a sin (Ellison, 1993).

Rodriguez and Ouellette (1999) defined a gay-positive church as a formal Christian religious institution that preaches a positive message about homosexuality and ministers specifically to the gay and lesbian community. In their work, Rodriguez and Ouellette made a distinction between gay-positive churches verses gay-friendly churches. They wrote that gay-friendly churches may welcome, either implicitly or explicitly, the participation of gays and lesbians, but such churches do not typically address the specific religious and spiritual needs inherent in the gay and lesbian community. Becoming increasingly involved in a gay-positive church, according to leaders of such churches, enables gays and lesbians to alleviate the conflict between their religious beliefs and their homosexuality while increasingly enjoying identity integration (Lukenbill, 1998; Perry, 1990; Piazza, 1994; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 1999, 2000a; White, 1994).

A descriptive survey study, conducted by Wagner et al. (1994), dealt specifically with the integration of religious beliefs and sexual orientation in gay men belonging to a gay-positive Catholic organization called Dignity. Wagner et al. hypothesized that because membership in Dignity involved integrating a person’s Catholic faith and their homosexuality, that the Dignity group (N =101) would exhibit lower levels of internalized homophobia (i.e., reducing participants’ own internalization of society’s negative attitudes towards homosexuality) than a community sample (N = 144) of gay males with Catholic backgrounds who were not involved with a gay-positive religious organization. Wagner et al. did not support their main hypothesis, as they found no significant differences in level of internalized homophobia between the Dignity and community samples. However, they did find that their Dignity sample showed significantly higher religious beliefs and religious behavior, and were significantly older than the community sample on age that one entered into their first gay relationship, first accepted being gay, and first felt good about being gay.

In their participant-observer study of The Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCCNY), a gay-positive Christian church that ministers primarily to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community in New York City, Rodriguez and Ouellette (1999) uncovered three specific strategies used by the church to facilitate the creation of a combined gay or lesbian Christian identity. In addition to documenting MCCNY’s use of inclusive and gender neutral language, as well as the use of the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible in a more pro-gay manner, they: (1) described how the structure of the liturgy at MCCNY enabled its members and participants to recognize the church as a legitimate religious institution that is simultaneously gay/lesbian and Christian; (2) characterized how it was that MCCNY, through the preaching of its lesbian pastor, provided gays and lesbians with a positive way of thinking about themselves as gay and lesbian Christians; and (3) documented a struggle that this church shares with every other moral community; namely the challenge to provide one group of people with a strong sense of who they are as a valued group without creating boundaries that exclude others.

Other researchers have also explored Metropolitan Community Church congregations in areas of the country other than New York City. Enroth (1974; see also Enroth & Jamision, 1974), a sociologist by training, took a much more negative view of the Metropolitan Community Churches in his work. In his exploratory content analysis of literature from MCC San Francisco (MCCSF), as well as other gay religious organizations, Enroth found MCCSF to simply be an extension of the gay lifestyle and the secular gay subculture. He stated:

While the gay church seeks to promote the image of a typical Christian church, its publications would appear to reinforce the commonly held notion that homosexuals are preoccupied with sex … while [MCC] church leaders and laymen vigorously assert that sex is only a part of their life-style, sexual themes are clearly evident in their published materials. (p. 357)

Enroth (1974) viewed MCCSF as a site where gays and lesbians attempted to cope with their social and cultural alienation from the rest of society. At places such as MCCSF, gays and lesbians could go and receive positive reinforcement for their “deviant lifestyle” (p. 356). According to Enroth, this is accomplished through a strong identification with liberation rhetoric, the assertion that “God is on our side” (p. 359), legitimacy by association, making moral demands on religious accusers, and to glorify homosexuality and define it as superior and more noble than heterosexuality.

I should note here that the language in Enroth’s (1974) work would be considered homophobic and heterosexist not just by today’s standards, but even by the standards of the early 1970s as the Stonewall riots in 1969 had begun to give gays and lesbians more visibility and acceptance in mainstream society, and, in 1973, the American Psychological Association had already declassified homosexuality as a mental illness (Shmerler, 2001). Enroth’s criticism of MCC churches still carries some weight today, however. While MCCNY maintains a sex and body-affirming stance toward Christian doctrine, several members and participants mentioned that some individuals took this stance too far. While they believed it okay for people to attend the church to find a significant other or life partner (as commonly occurs in “straight” Christian churches), they expressed their strong distaste for the overt “cruising” for casual sex partners that occasionally took place during worship services and church events by gay male members and participants (Rodriguez, 1997; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000a).

Warner (1995), on the other hand, wrote what he referred to as a “homophile treatise” on MCC churches (p. 82). Warner’s study did not focus on one particular MCC congregation, but instead on the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC)—the umbrella organization founded by the Rev. Troy Perry in 1968 that encompassed all of the Metropolitan Community Churches in the United States and across the world (Perry, 1990; Warner, 1995). Embedded in Warner’s historical and analytical account of the founding and development of UFMCC from “a congregation to a denomination” (p. 81) is a detailed discussion documenting the struggle of gay men and lesbians within the church over essentialist (you are born with it) verses constructionist (you learn it) interpretations of homosexuals and homosexuality in Christian religious doctrine.

Lukenbill (1998), in his study of the Metropolitan Community Church of Austin (MCCA), relied on Warner’s (1995) essentialist/constructionist theoretical framework to guide his archival analysis of MCCA. Lukenbill argued that MCCA utilized an essentialist approach to forming a strong sense of one as being both gay or lesbian and Christian. He found many of the same forces at work in Texas as were found in the New York study, including positive gay Christian identity formation, self-esteem enhancement, a historical contextual view of the Bible, recognizing UFMCC as a legitimate Christian church, the importance of MCCA’s liturgy and support groups, and developing a sense of historical importance. While the themes uncovered by Lukenbill may appear at first to be more constructionist than essentialist, it is important to keep in mind that Lukenbill was relying on a specific definition of essentialism that appears to go beyond the standard argument that homosexuality is an innate (not learned) behavior that can be neither changed nor altered. Essentialism, according to Lukenbill (who was relying on Warner), expressed “solidarity with basic gay culture, and asked for justice for gays and lesbians within American society. It demands that gay and lesbian people be allowed to be who they are and be permitted to become a part of the fabric of American culture and life” (p. 441). Here, he incorporated the standard belief at MCC that gays and lesbians are made in the image of God.


The theory of empowerment is an excellent theoretical tool to further our understanding of gay-positive Christian churches and organizations. While relevant to our current discussion, empowerment theory has yet to find its way into psychological and sociological discussions of gay and lesbian Christians. According to various empowerment researchers (see, e.g., Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995; Rappaport, 1981, 1984; Zimmerman, 1995, 1996), the concept of empowerment, one of the cornerstone theories of community psychology, has been historically difficult to define (Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995; Rappaport, 1995). In a special journal issue devoted to the theory of empowerment, Perkins and Zimmerman (1995) attempted to define this construct. In aggregating the work of many empowerment researchers, they defined empowerment as:

An intentional ongoing process centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources; or simply a process by which people gain control over their lives, democratic participation in the life of their community, and a critical understanding of their environment. (p. 570).

Stated more simply, empowerment can be viewed as a mechanism where people take back control over certain aspects of their lives.

Empowerment operates on three distinct levels: individual (commonly referred to as psychological empowerment), organizational, and community (Perkins & Zimmerman, 1985; Zimmerman, 1995, 1996). Due to the dynamic interactions that potentially occur between these three levels, empowerment “takes on different forms for different people in different contexts” (Zimmerman, 1996, p. 45). Researchers in this area make a distinction between empowerment values, empowering processes, and empowered outcomes. Therefore, use of this framework cuts across all three levels of analysis (Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995). According to Zimmerman (1996), the phrase empowerment values refers to a value orientation where professionals work with and for communities seeking empowerment rather than simply advocating for them. “[Empowerment values] focus on enhancing wellness instead of fixing problems, identifying strengths instead of cataloging risk factors, and searching for environmental influences instead of blaming victims” (pp. 44-45). Empowering processes refer to the development of skills, the accumulation of resources, and the establishment of social connections that occur along the way to empowerment, while empowered outcomes are assessments of interventions designed to empower participants (Zimmerman, 1996).

Community psychologists have begun to assess empowerment in Christian religious communities. Maton and Salem (1995) noted: “Churches [among other organizations] represent potentially important local communities in which individuals, through active participation with others, can gain power and resources and, achieve primary personal goals” (p. 632). In their work, Maton and Salem (1995) conducted a multiple case study analysis comparing and contrasting three distinct communities located in the Midwest. One of these communities was the New Covenant Fellowship (NCF—this author’s abbreviation), a nondenominational Christian religious group whose main purpose was for members to love and serve God while reshaping their own lives to better model the life of Jesus. With a focus on psychological or individual level empowerment (which they define as “the active participatory process of gaining resources or competencies needed to increase control over one’s life and accomplish important life goals”; Maton & Salem, 1995, p. 632), Maton and Salem uncovered four key characteristics of empowered organizations, all of which are relevant to the NCF. According to Maton and Salem, the NCF was an empowered organization due to: 1) a strength-based belief system that inspired growth and was not just focused on the needs of the individual, but to the needs of the group as well; 2) dynamic and meaningful role opportunities that were accessible, and benefited from the varying strengths of its members; 3) an overarching peer-based support system that provided a strong sense of community while relying on an array of economic and social supports; and 4) talented and inspiring leadership that were accessible, not based in only one individual, and committed to both the organization and its members.

So how does the theory of empowerment intersect with the current discussion of gay and lesbian Christians? Rappaport (2000) stated: “Individual study, textual interpretations, and tolerance do not alone replace actual communities [and] settings in which people live their lives … [Such settings] are the mediating structures for empowerment” (p. 14). In his writings on the gay-friendly McKinley Presbyterian Church, Rappaport discussed the empowering role the church played in the lives of its gay and lesbian members and participants. He mentioned that while McKinley is a typical Presbyterian church in many respects, there is a significant outreach to its gay and lesbian members and participants; a small but visible minority within the church. Refusing to condone the exclusion of gays and lesbians from ordained leadership positions by the national Presbyterian organization (Presbyterian Church USA), the church has aligned itself with the More Light Network, an association of Presbyterians and Presbyterian churches “whose mission is to enable the full participation of gays and lesbian people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church” (p. 16). Utilizing many of the same mechanisms outlined in Rodriguez and Ouellette (1999) and Lukenbill (1998), the church has elected gays and lesbians to leadership roles, used inclusive language during worship services, incorporated the historical-contextual method of interpreting the Bible, and has even commissioned a set of stained glass windows to reflect the racial, gender, and sexual diversity of the congregation. Rappaport wrote, “gay and lesbian people … who had previously experienced rejection and alienation in a tale of terror have themselves given sermons and have expressed their powerful feelings of belonging and joy” (p. 16).

Empowerment speaks directly to how gays and lesbians have reclaimed their spirituality in the face of anti-gay bias from many in the Christian religious community (and anti-Christian bias from the gay and lesbian community), and reclaimed a role for themselves in the Christian faith. By becoming involved in a gay-positive religious organization, gay and lesbian Christians became empowered to integrate their homosexual and religious identities into a new positive whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Based on Maton and Salem’s four characteristics of empowered organizations mentioned earlier, Dignity, Integrity, MCCA, MCCNY, the More Light Church, even Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a gay-positive Jewish synagogue located in New York City (see Shokeid, 1995) can be viewed as empowered organizations that attempt to reconnect gays and lesbians to the word of God. In this way, not only are gay and lesbian Christians empowered as individuals, but gay-positive religious organizations and any applicable communities, thus, become empowered as well.

However, in the face of these warm and uplifting stories, keep in mind that empowerment leading to gay-Christian identity integration is not always the positive identity process that researchers suggest. Indeed, in his work on the establishment of a gay ecclesiology (i.e., a Christian religious space for gays and lesbians), Spencer (1994) alluded to the possibility that individuals, as well as the organizations they are a part of, have the potential to become too integrated and thus alienated from the rest of their relevant communities. Spencer stated: “The danger … is that it can lead to isolation and sectarianism. It can also in time lead to conservative tendencies as separated communities eventually build up and acquire their own set of institutional privileges” (p. 399).

In ethnographic work at MCCNY (Rodriguez & Ouellette, 1999), several church participants expressed concern that so much emphasis was placed on making MCCNY a safe space for gays and lesbians that others who are not gay or lesbian felt unwelcome there. Members voiced the hope that at some point in time, MCCNY could become a community where the heterosexual parents and children of current members would feel at home. Another and related kind of tension was observed with regard to MCCNY’s policing of its inclusiveness policy. The push for inclusiveness can be so strong that anyone who does not adhere to the policy is actively coerced into changing his/her behavior, and thereby, made to feel excluded by the community unless they conformed to its norms (Rodriguez & Ouellette, 1999). As one creates a safe place for some people, one sets up a boundary against others.


In my previous work (Rodriguez, 1997, 2006; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 1999; 2000a; 2000b), I began exploring the Christian religious experiences of gay men and lesbians. Using identity conflict and identity integration as the key constructs, I wanted to better understand how gay and lesbian people of the Christian faith managed to integrate two identities that seemed so at odds with one another. Indeed, during the course of the research, I uncovered many instances where heterosexual Christians, as well as nonreligious gays and lesbians, believed that being homosexual and Christian at the same time was antithetical. Working in this area has shown me, however, that while these identities can be perceived as being inherently in conflict, the experiences of many gays and lesbians proved otherwise. These “gay Christians” have carved out safe spaces where they can practice a version of Christianity that neither condemns nor simply tolerates homosexuality, but instead embraces homosexuals as having been created in God’s image.

The current state of research on gay and lesbian Christians has reached a point that a detailed literature review such as the one presented here is essential for the continued growth of the field. The major goals of this paper were not just to build on my own previous body of work, but to integrate a fractured body of literature, to review and critique relevant psychological theories, and to introduce to the literature the germane theoretical work of Shallenberger, Rappaport, and other empowerment theorists.