I have recently experienced my 15 minutes of fame with a New York Times Magazine article. The issue that this exposure has concerned is my recognition that someone may experience his or her religious identity as strongly as his or her sexual orientation identity and that it might be necessary to help a client embrace his or her religious identity, and bracket (set aside) his or her sexual orientation identity. As you can imagine, this is a controversial idea.
Many GLB people undergo an extremely difficult struggle to accept their sexual orientation. Often this struggle involves dismissing a set of religious beliefs, and frequently accepting an alternative set of religious beliefs (and occasionally an outright rejection of religious beliefs). The people that make a successful acceptance of their sexuality and modify their religious beliefs experience their sexuality as unchangeable and their religious beliefs as changeable. They are able to establish dual identities for their sexuality and their religion. For most of us this seems logical.
I identify as a gay white man. This is at the core of who I understand myself to be. It feels unchangeable. It is at the essence of who I am. It is upon which much of the rest of my identity (e.g., socialist, activist, and atheist) is hung. I experience the parts of my identity that hang upon the core as changeable —I don’t expect them to change, but I can at least imagine them doing so. I suspect that many GLB people that have accepted their sexuality (and particularly those that have adopted a new religious belief system) relate to this understanding of myself.
However, what if the core of my identity was as a Christian white man? What if I felt that my particular version of my Christianity felt like my core? What if I felt that this was unchangeable, that it was at the essence of who I am, and upon which all the rest of my identity was hung? Most GLB people have had to teach others that their sexuality was at their core and unchangeable—this is an experience that I bring in dealing with clients for whom their religious belief feels as unchangeable and essential to one’s personhood as my sexuality does for me.
Though I identify as an atheist, I sincerely respect people’s right to their religious beliefs. I am aware of the empirical research that shows that having certain religious aspects in one’s life improves both quality of life and longevity. It seems that for me to encourage someone to reject, rather than embrace, one’s religion would be inappropriate and perhaps even irresponsible as a mental health professional.
When I work with a client who experiences religious-sexuality conflict, I first try to identify the importance of the client’s specific religious beliefs or how flexible he or she might be about his or her religious beliefs. If I can help a client find balance in his or her religion and sexuality—and there are many religious traditions today that are compatible with a GLB identification—that is the direction in which I will try to point the client. But when a client has an inflexible belief in the fundamental nature of his or her religious convictions my pushing an alternative understanding of scripture is only going to further alienate the client or add to the internal conflict. Neither of these are healthy pursuits in counseling.
I do not believe that in assisting a client bracket his or her sexuality I am helping a client on a path toward genuine happiness, satisfaction, or fulfillment. But I do hope to help the client reduce the active tension and conflict in his or her life. I hope to help the client achieve more (if not absolute) peace. I value personal authenticity as a mental health goal, but I would rather have a client in inauthentic resolution and alive and functioning, than forced between a choice of suicide or what feels like an impossible authenticity, stuck in a state of dueling identities.