An Empirical Study of the Link Between Suicidal LGBT Youth and Religious Upbringing

On Wednesday, I published a piece placing some of the blame for the horrifying rates of LGBT youth homelessness and suicidal tendencies on the conservative Christian churches that are raising their children in a toxically homophobic environment that not only demonizes their homosexuality as sinful but in no small part defines the Christian identity in a major way through opposition to homosexuality. I tried to empathetically reconstruct what it would be like to be an LGBT pre-teen or teen coming to consciousness that he or she is actually one of those dreaded homosexuals their parents are so disgusted and angered by:

The Christian kid who is raised saturated with evangelical or conservative Christian messaging about the nature of his faith, the nature of morality itself, what God Himself wants, and who is identifying with the fundamental markers of identity that his religious parents are giving him is in danger. That kid has been raised not to internalize the messages of Will and Grace or Glee but to define himself in opposition. That kid knows that all the homosexuality he sees praised around him is to be feared as the fundamental threat to his faith, to his God, to his country, to the salvation of millions of people. That kid knows in a hundred subtle and explicit ways that his parents define their morality, their faith, their politics, and their sense of disgust using an anti-gay standard. That kid is raised to fear the world as the persecuter of himself and his family and his church. I grew up as this kid. I know this embattled, persecution complex intimately. It was constitutive of  my  identity. I see it blown up huge on the screen in God’s Not Dead. The movie screams out this persecution complex.

And this evil threatening world out to destroy all that is good and holy has four faces: Atheist. Liberal. Feminist. Homosexual. That’s what the enemy looks like. And so when a boy raised in this context starts feeling sexual and romantic attraction towards other boys, can you imagine–can you bring yourself to empathize for just one second and understand–the terror and panic he must feel? He is now the enemy. He is the enemy within. His own sexuality, his desire for love, for sex, for romance–is all the enemy of his God, his family, his church, his country, and his very self.

He will never be able to be happily married. He does not know whether his family will disown him for this abomination. He is prone towards the most wretched of all sins. The one that his entire faith is currently defined by opposing.

This is the psychological hell that untold numbers of scared gay kids are dealing with right now in untold numbers of Christian homes. This is the context in which gay kids deal with bullying at school. So many of them do not see their parents as a haven. They are terrified they’re failing their parents. They’re terrified of being disowned. And they appallingly often are. They’re trying to kill themselves. They’re submitting themselves to churches’ desperate, futile, destructive, reckless efforts to change them.

The full post is here. I also made mentions of the ways that atheist youth (and adults) are themselves routinely mistreated by their families and churches as well.

The connection between religious homophobia and LGBT suffering, especially of teens, is absolutely logically right in front of anyone’s faces, given even a minimal understanding of psychology, contemporary conservative religion, and contemporary politics. And anyone who has bothered to listen to LGBT people couldn’t possibly deny that religion is one of the community’s primary sources of anguish. As (liberal) Christian pastor Dwight Welch wrote in response to my piece, family rejection is so common among LGBT people that they often talk about having a “family of choice”–one chosen by themselves, comprised of friends (and even fellow parishioners in LGBT friendly churches) who accept them for who they are where their biological family didn’t.

Now there’s a new study that was pointed out to me this morning that quantifies some of the effects and also includes the role of leaving the parents’ religion itself in their suffering. The study, conducted by Jeremy Gibbs and Jeremy Goldbach, is called Growing Up Queer and Religious: A Quantitative Study Analyzing the Relationship Between Religious Identity Conflict and Suicide in Sexual Minority Youth. Here’s the absract:

Purpose: Sexual minority youth (SMY) mature in contexts that espouse anti-homosexual values. For many youth these contexts are defined by religious belief. A Minority Stress framework explains that religious environments exact stress on SMY, which can lead to religious and sexual identity conflict. To date no known study has quantitatively established a link between religious identity conflict and suicide within this population. This study seeks to understand how religious identity conflict impacts suicide in SMY, and to determine if internalized homophobia mediates this relationship.

Methods: A secondary data analysis was conducted using data collected by OutProud in 2000 via an internet-survey sample recruited though in-print media and websites, which cater to SMY. Of 5,281 U.S. respondents, 18-24 years old, 2,949 were included in this analysis. Three indicators of identity conflict (religious identity conflict self report, parental anti-homosexual religious beliefs, and leaving one’s religion of origin due to conflict), an internalized homophobia (IH) scale, and two suicide variables (suicidal thoughts in the last month, and suicide attempt in the last year) were measured. Analysis included logistic regressions to establish relationships between conflict measures and suicide outcomes, and to determine the extent to which IH mediates these relationships.

Results: All three indicators are associated with higher odds of suicidal thoughts. Internalized homophobia fully mediated one indicator’s (religious identity conflict self report) relationship to suicidal thoughts and partially mediated the other two (parental anti-homosexual religious beliefs, and leaving one’s religion of origin due to conflict). Leaving one’s religion due to conflict had a dual relationship with suicidal thoughts (directly increasing the odds, and indirectly via IH decreasing the odds). Further, this direct relationship was found to be stronger than the indirect relationship. Both leaving one’s religion of origin due to conflict and parental anti-homosexual religious beliefs were associated with twice the odds of a suicide attempt in the last year. IH was not associated with suicide attempt in the last year.

Implications: SMY who mature in religious contexts, which facilitate identity conflict, are at higher odds for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempt compared to other SMY. Internalized homophobia accounts for portions of this conflict, but does not explain the whole of this phenomenon. Although leaving one’s religion due to conflict may appear to suggest an adaptive response to intolerance for SMY, it is also associated with higher odds of suicide. Not only do clinicians have the extra responsibility to assess for suicide in this population, but they also need to consider the implications of a client leaving his or her religion. Because of the increased risk for suicide, these finding suggest that clinical best practices do not involve encouraging SMY to leave their intolerant religion of origin. Further research is needed to investigate this complex relationship.

Many many thanks to Jennifer for bringing this study to my attention.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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