What Happens When Gay People Are Told That Homosexuality Is A Sin?


In the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Christian conservatives known to be anti-LGBT expressed sympathy for the victims and their families, suggesting that radical Islam was wholesale to blame for the attack. Many avoided mentioning that LGBT people were the victims — at least until a few days later, when they began reminding everybody what they truly think about gay people.

“Yes, we can oppose gay marriage and still oppose the slaughter of gays,” Steve Pauwels insisted at BarbWire.

“Yes, Christians do believe homosexual actions are sinful. But we also believe that mass shootings are sinful, and lying is sinful, and gossip is sinful, and so are laziness, torture, theft, rape, dishonesty, abuse,” Mary Tillotson argued at The Federalist. “As a Catholic, I go to confession about once a month to repent, seek mercy, and renew my own commitment to rid myself of sinful behavior. We all sin.”

“It is true that many Christians hold to the Bible’s teaching on the sinfulness of homosexuality and that upsets some gays,” wrote Rick McDaniel at the ChristianPost. “But here is an opportunity to simply receive love and support and it is rebuffed.”

There’s a reason it is rebuffed.

Conservative Christians have long argued that their condemnations of homosexuality are couched in love, complete with the catchy slogan, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” But that message — that homosexuality is a sin — is harmful in and of itself.

Lessons From Ex-Gay Therapy

Countless studies have assessed the impact of various forms of stigma and discrimination against LGBT people. The negative consequences of discrimination, bullying, and family rejection are well documented, but fewer studies have actually looked at the direct effect of religious condemnations of homosexuality.

Studies on ex-gay therapy, also known as sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), shed some light on what happens when gay people directly interact with religious beliefs that reject their identities. Often times, the people seeking SOCE are trying to reconcile who they are with their own beliefs.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a comprehensive report rejecting the effectiveness of SOCE based on all available research. That report laid out numerous kinds of conflict that can arise when people are trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality:

Some report fearing considerable shifts or losses in their core identity, role, purpose, and sense of order if they were to pursue an outward LGB identity. Some report difficulty coping with intense guilt over the failure to live a virtuous life and inability to stop committing unforgivable sins, as defined by their religion. Some struggled with their belief in God, perceiving that God was punishing or abandoning them — or would if they acted on their attractions; some expressed feelings of anger at the situation in which their God had placed them.

Some individuals’ distress took the form of a crisis of faith in which their religious beliefs that a same-sex sexual orientation and religious goodness are diametrically opposed led them to question their faith and themselves. Spiritual struggles also occurred for religious sexual minorities due to struggling with conservatively religious family, friends, and communities who thought differently than they did. The distress experienced by religious individuals appeared intense, for not only did they face sexual stigma from society at large but also messages from their faith that they were deficient, sinful, deviant, and possibly unworthy of salvation unless they changed sexual orientation.

The report then explained how the research had found that all of these struggles came with mental health consequences. Individuals felt culpable, unacceptable, unforgiven, disillusioned, and great emotional distress — feelings that were associated with anxiety, panic disorders, depression, and suicidality. And notably, these consequences occurred “regardless of the level of religiosity or the perception of religion as a source of comfort and coping.”

Survivors of ex-gay therapy have confirmed these consequences with their own stories. In an informal survey conducted by the organization Beyond Ex-Gay in 2013, 92 percent of people who had undergone SOCE reported experiencing harm as a result. Besides the fact that the treatments didn’t actually work to change their orientation, the respondents said that trying to “pray away the gay” caused them to experience shame, depression, fear, anger, lowered self-esteem, feelings of failure, and even suicidal thinking.

Ex-gay therapy may have contributed to some of those consequences, but there was a particular kind of thinking that motivated those individuals to subject themselves to SOCE in the first place. “To be a better Christian” was the most prominent response, followed by “I believed it was what God wanted me to do” and “I feared I would be condemned by God.” In other words, these gay and lesbian people already felt rejected by and excluded from their faith communities, and then they pursued therapy that made them feel worse.

CREDIT: Beyond Ex-Gay
CREDIT: Beyond Ex-Gay

Dr. Doug Haldeman, who now chairs the clinical psychology doctoral program at John F. Kennedy University, saw similar complications in the hundreds of ex-gay survivors he treated during his 30 years of private practice. He told ThinkProgress that patients who underwent more invasive SOCE treatments (such as electroshock therapy) were unsurprisingly more traumatized than those who pursued more conventional forms of talk or behavioral therapy, but that didn’t mean that those in the latter group were okay.

According to Haldeman’s observations, “The messages — ‘You are of less value,’ ‘You are disordered,’ ‘You are somehow an inferior person’ — either directly or implied by these anti-gay statements — have a negative effect on everybody who experiences them. You don’t even have to go through conversion therapy to have some of the sequelae of having internalized these effects.”

A Message Of Authority

Like Tillotson wrote, many religious conservatives try to justify condemning homosexuality as a sin with equivocating statements about how “we’re all sinners,” but this does little to soften the blow.

First, the comparison to other actions treats a person’s sexual orientation like it’s a choice, a hypothesis that science has roundly rejected. The attempt to compare homosexuality to more common sins like lying, laziness, and gossip may be an attempt to downplay the severity of homosexuality, but it actually disproves its own point. LGB people are singled out for condemnation and ostracization from society, while liars, sloths, and gossips — i.e. just about everybody — are not. Likewise, comparing homosexuality to sins that actually hurt people, like theft and murder, communicates that LGB people deserve as much scorn as criminals — and in many countries, they are treated as such.

In reality, U.S. religious conservatives do single out homosexuality for condemnation. Stephen Kim, an evangelical pastor in New York, took this approach in his response to the Orlando shooting. “As Christians, we grieve today,” he wrote, “not so much because people died (for we will all one day die) — but because fifty souls went straight to Hell without any further opportunity for repentance.” They died in the midst of committing a sin, and thus “they did not die as heroes. Instead, they died as depraved sinners. Maranatha!”

Michael Brown regularly rejects LGBT identities in the name of Christianity in his columns and on his radio show. In his response to the Orlando shooting — “A Christian Message to LGBT Americans” — he acknowledged that many people hear his words as hateful, but he insisted, “In reality, if people truly listened to my message (or that of my colleagues), it would never dawn on them for a split second to attack you or try to harm you, and as I’ve said many times publicly, if someone tried to do you harm and I was present, they would have to get by me.” Dismissing the idea that his beliefs themselves cause harm, he dedicated the second half of his message to praising Jesus and promising, “It is true that he calls for the complete surrender of our lives to him, but when we take the plunge, holding nothing back, we discover the very meaning of life itself.”

No, We Cannot Weep TogetherLGBT by CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke Russell Moore is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC…thinkprogress.orgDr. Ilan Meyer, who has long studied the impact of minority stress on the LGBT community at the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law, told ThinkProgress that “the message that homosexuality is a sin is not really simple. It is at the core of homophobia.” Because it’s an explicit tenet instead of just a prejudice, it creates the sense that nobody is really to blame for the harm that belief causes.

“Religious condemnation is internalized by religious LGB people and their families, leading to a sense that the LGB person cannot be accepted and respected — not simply because of personal rejection of a family member — but because it is the Word of God,” Meyer said. “That is a high authority that is difficult to argue against.” The church community sees the LGB person as a sinner, and thus feels it has permission to disdain the person and ostracize them, including excommunicating them in some traditions.

Haldeman saw the culmination of this rejection in his clients. Because the church is seen as an authority that consistently repeats the same message, “the internalization of those messages creates a thought loop inside that plays over and over again. It affects, really, every waking hour in one way or the other.” Every single time a gay person caught in that thought loop sees a person who they might find attractive — or even just thinks about such a person — they are reminded of that condemnation and the notion that there is something wrong with them. As the therapist whose job it was to try to help end that thought loop, Haldeman confirmed that the internal effects are “devastating.”

According to Haldeman, this repetition, particularly over time, internalizes the beliefs as a way of being instead of just a conceptual idea. “As the brain develops, they become an intrinsic part of not just our thought process, but our feelings — obviously — and ultimately our self-perceptions.” Thus, individuals can’t just restructure their thoughts; it’s a much more complex process for gay people to untangle themselves from messages of condemnation.

Ingrained At An Early Age

Another reason recovering from these experiences can be so challenging is because of the way religious beliefs are often ingrained at an early age. “If you grow up in a religious environment, you are likely to hear the message that homosexuality is a sin well before you even begin to identify yourself as LGB,” Meyer explained. “You are likely to hear it from your religious leader and hear it reverberated in every aspect of your world (family, friends, teachers at school). It is in the water you drink and the air you breathe.”

Because exposure to anti-gay beliefs often comes first, those beliefs establish the context for how a person undergoes the process of making sense of their sexual identity. “As a religious person begins to question his or her sexuality, maybe realizing that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, all these teachings become personally relevant in ways that lead the person to devalue him- or herself. That message, especially for a young person coming out, is very scary. It can be depressing, can lead to substance use and to suicide ideation and attempts.”

This Is How Americans Learn LGBT Hate Starting At A Young AgeEducation CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress Parents who object to seeing expressions of affection between two…thinkprogress.orgDr. Caitlin Ryan knows all too well how important it is to interrupt this internalization. As director of the Family Acceptance Project, she has been on the forefront of research about the impact of how families respond to young people coming out as LGBT. What her research has unequivocally found is that family rejection — even if it doesn’t lead to kids being kicked out or sent to ex-gay therapy — has incredibly negative consequences for the kids’ mental health nevertheless. Conversely, family acceptance not only ameliorates those consequences, but helps create a buffer that protects them from being rejected by others, “like a vaccine that protects their LGBT children with love.”

But Ryan has observed that the belief that homosexuality is a sin has manifested some rather insidious tactics for rejecting it as an identity, such as the term “same-sex attracted,” which was first devised by Mormon religious leaders in the 1970s to reject the notion that people could objectively be gay. “It taught generations of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people that they didn’t exist and that there was no such thing as being lesbian, gay, and bisexual,” she explained to ThinkProgress.

Thus, the idea that homosexuality is a sin isn’t an isolated idea, and what Ryan’s seen in her research confirms this. “These are messages that are condemning. They’re social rejection. Young people who heard these messages — which are also that ‘God doesn’t love you’ and ‘God will punish you’ — it affected their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. It contributed to depression and an underlying perception that there was something wrong with them — that perhaps, if there wasn’t a such thing as a gay person, then they were crazy. And this led to homelessness and suicidality, especially in a conservative social world.”

Ryan has found that families often expose young people to home-grown conversion therapy efforts to change, alter, minimize, or deny their LGB identity, such as:

  • Making them pray or attend religious services to change their heart and their sense of who they are.
  • Making them read books or listen to recordings that tell them that homosexuality is wrong.
  • Using Scripture and doctrine to deny, denigrate, and change their sexual orientation but also to tell them that this is the wrong path and God will punish them.
  • Using religious language to teach them that this is incorrect, that this is a prescription in their lives for being alone and not being with their families.

These kids, who are generally discovering their sexuality by the time they’re 10 years old, are being threatened with the loss of both their faith (including a happy afterlife) and their families at the same time that a core aspect of their identity is being rejected. But rejecting families often perceive what they’re doing as “trying to help their children, help them fit in, have a good life, be accepted by others, live a morally correct life. So they didn’t perceive what they were doing as being harmful, they saw it as being helpful. And they engaged in those behaviors out of love, care, and concern.”

Perhaps the most important — if unsurprising — finding from Ryan’s research is that the least accepting families tend to be the most religious. “Religiosity was really at the core of the kinds of behaviors that families engaged in to respond to having an LGBT child.”

It is in the water you drink and the air you breathe.

As the child then tries to cope with the mental health challenges that result from that rejection, they may be more likely to turn to their faith community for support, which only compounds the problem. Meyer pointed out that research has confirmed this downward spiral effect. “I think more commonly the person who is in a religious environment will tend to seek support within that environment,” he explained. “That can be damaging in its own — we have found in recently published research that people who sought help from a religious (pastoral) counselor were more likely to later attempt suicide than people who sought no help at all.”

Ryan’s groundbreaking work through the Family Acceptance Project has helped families learn to recognize the difference between rejecting and accepting behaviors. It capitalizes on the reality that parents will prioritize the health and well-being of their children. “Every parent wants their kid to be happy and healthy,” Ryan said. “They don’t want them to wind up on the street. They don’t want their family to be fractured.”

The Project has found ways to help these families engage in affirming behavior — even if they don’t ultimately change their beliefs or fully accept their child’s homosexuality. Once they learn accurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity and how the rejecting behaviors can harm their children, they can learn to practice simple forms of accepting behavior, like ensuring that members of the family respect the child.

Often, their knowledge about LGBT issues has been, as Ryan described it, “transmitted over the generations, and it’s very idiosyncratic and it’s very incorrect.” It doesn’t take into account the decades of research on LGBT identities, which they are often not exposed to. Indeed, once these families learn how to accept their kids and protect them from the harms of rejection, they often learn the importance of standing up for other LGBT children too.

Enduring The Daily Onslaught

Even for LGB people who were not raised to hold anti-gay religious beliefs, they still live in a society where they are exposed to those ideas on a daily basis.

Every year, the American Psychological Association (APA) conducts an annual study known as the Stress in America survey, which assesses how different groups are experiencing and coping with stress in their lives. The 2015 Stress report, published just this past March, found that LGBT adults are far more likely to report extreme levels of stress and to believe that they are not doing enough to manage their stress.

CREDIT: APA/Stress in America
CREDIT: APA/Stress in America

Dr. Lynn Bufka, a psychologist with an expertise in stress and anxiety who has helped work on the Stress report, pointed out to ThinkProgress that one of the simple reasons that the LGBT community has a unique experience even compared to other marginalized groups is entirely due to the sin messaging. “They’re often being told that who they are, or that acting on their particular sexual orientation, is sinful.” Women, Muslims, or other groups for whom there are negative attitudes are less likely to be told that who they are is objectively wrong.

“When there are negative messages about an aspect of who you are,” Bufka explained, “you really have to work to overcome that.” How an LGBT individual copes with that could depend on how far along they are in accepting their own identity. Various models for the coming out process, such as the Cass Identity Model first proposed in 1979, have outlined how individuals have to reconcile various internal and external challenges to accept that they have an identity that is different and less accepted by society. But even those who have achieved a confident sense of synthesis with their identity can still struggle in the face of a daily barrage of negative messages.

Bufka described it as a process that never really ends for LGB people. “Fundamentally, being told that a fundamental aspect of who you are is sinful? That’s pretty hard! You really have to work at saying, ‘That’s not me, that’s not my belief, that’s not who I am, I know that not to be the case.’ But that requires effort. If you’re not getting that message as a straight person, you don’t even have to expend the time of day to be thinking about, ‘Oh I’m straight and it’s sinful.’ That’s just not even a part of your reality.”

Even for people who don’t believe it’s a sin, it’s still difficult to respond to. There are many personal decisions a person has to make about how to process those messages and how to interact with people who hold those beliefs. “You may think you’ve integrated your sexual orientation, you feel comfortable with who you are, you know it’s not sinful for loving the people that you love even though you’re repeatedly hearing this message, but then it could come up in a surprising way — somebody you really trust and rely on gives you this message — and suddenly you have to deal with it all over again.”

Fundamentally, being told that a fundamental aspect of who you are is sinful? That’s pretty hard!

Stress is part of the human condition for everybody, but Bufka worries that the negative messages in media, religion, and politics — combined with active daily forms of discrimination — can create a kind of chronic stress for LGB people. “Not only do you have this big-picture onslaught of negative stuff…you also have daily possible mistreatment.” This creates a heightened level of self-protective arousal and anticipation, as LGB people constantly worry about how to conduct themselves to avoid that mistreatment. “Your stress hormones are active more regularly, and we know that long-term, that can lead to higher blood pressure, gastrointestinal distress, chronic headaches, and other health conditions that are more likely to occur if you’re experiencing chronic stress.”

Indeed, a 2014 study found that LGB people who lived in anti-gay communities had a life expectancy that was 12 years shorter than those who lived in more welcoming communities. Incidentally, those with anti-gay attitudes also had shorter life expectancy. The same researchers had found a few years prior that LGB teens experienced a significantly higher risk of suicide simply for living in a more conservative community.

Studies have also shown that when LGBT issues are up for debate, such as when various states considered constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage throughout the early 2000s, LGBT people experience higher rates of stress. Even if individuals do not interact with the campaigns fighting over those issues, they are still impacted by the public conversations around them. The Stress report’s finding that LGBT people experienced higher rates of stress in 2015 than in the year before could have been influenced by the Supreme Court marriage equality fight and resulting “religious liberty” backlash.

A Thorn By Any Other Name

As LGBT equality has advanced, the messages used to condemn homosexuality have evolved. There was a time, after all, when no distinction was even made between the sinner and the sin.

One of the biggest shifts in recent years has been the abandonment of ex-gay therapy. Exodus International, which was once a massive umbrella organization for ex-gay ministries, closed in 2013 and apologized for the harm it promoted. Several states have now made it illegal to subject minors to the treatment. Even leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) said in 2014 that they no longer support efforts to change sexual orientation, though they still lift up the voices of self-avowed “former homosexuals.”

But despite these shifts, the messaging hasn’t changed all that much. Conservative denominations like the SBC still preach that faith can save a person from their homosexuality just as before, but now they’ve just moved up the goalposts a bit. Rather than actually being straight and having a family, now gays and lesbians are called to be celibate. They must reject their sexuality just like before, but now instead of a pretend life of happiness with a “straight” family, they get one with no romantic love at all.

The call to celibacy is the latest interpretation of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Meyer described that slogan as one that “seems to allow the person conveying it to deny that their message is a message of hate and derision while, in fact, giving exactly such a message. This message, if taken as a prescription for gaining the love of the messenger, requires the LGB person to forever struggle to keep him or herself celibate, and deny their need for affection and intimacy. This seems like an incredibly high price to pay and, regardless, as we’ve learned from research on so-called ‘conversion therapies,’ an impossible goal to accomplish.”

Bufka similarly noted a stark contradiction in messaging. In her own Catholic faith, “straight members of the community are being told that sexuality is a gift, something God has given you,” while gay members are told that they’re loved, but they can’t act on their sexuality. “It seems like a more loving message to a straight person, but it certainly doesn’t seem like something that’s easy to live with for somebody who’s LGBT,” she said, noting that it’s actually denying “a very real part of being human.”

What’s underlying this belief in many faith traditions is an ultimatum; many conservatives openly espouse, for example, that there is no such thing as a gay Christian. With his clients, Haldeman has had to help them unpack the reality that they can’t change their sexuality, but they can change their understanding of their faith.

In order to recover, you cannot maintain an anti-gay version of the self.

“I have never persuaded anyone to abandon their religious beliefs,” he explained. “However, I have persuaded that cleaving to certain religious beliefs is toxic to the self. You may maintain however you conceptualize a faith in God, or Jesus, or Buddha, or Muhammad, or whoever it is, but in order to recover, you cannot maintain an anti-gay version of the self.” What he largely saw in his clients was not an abandonment of their faith, but “revising, remodeling, refashioning” so that their religious beliefs “are just more compatible with who they are.”

The intersection of faith and counseling has become increasingly contentious. Proponents of keeping ex-gay therapy legal insist that people of faith should be allowed to pursue therapy that matches their beliefs, and likewise, counselors of faith argue that they should not have to give up their anti-LGBT beliefs to be licensed therapists.

But Haldeman prioritizes wellness. He shrugged off concerns about upholding the religious beliefs across various faiths designed to oppress various groups, including the LGBT community, women, and people of color. “If that’s your vision of what God expects — to be able to oppress other people — then I would freely admit: Yeah, I would encourage people to abandon that. That’s just toxic thinking however you couch it and whatever scriptures you use to support it.”

The Future Of The Abomination

The massacre in Orlando is forcing many religious conservatives to revisit their beliefs about homosexuality. Some are doubling down, such as Pastor Shane Kastler, who worried that “there is a clear danger of being so sympathetic toward the homosexual community that one runs the risk of embracing a sexually immoral ‘movement.’” Matt Moore, who has made a career out of writing about how his faith saved him from his sexuality (when he’s not being caught on Grindr), actually felt that he needed to write an article in the wake of the shooting entitled, “Christians, Don’t Say The Gays In Orlando ‘Got What They Deserved.’”

Others are trying to qualify their beliefs as respectably moderate by demonizing Islam, such as the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary theologians who laid out this week their argument as to why Christian homophobia isn’t as severe as Muslim homophobia. At the National Review, Jonah Goldberg was a bit more adamant on the point: “The notion that American Christians, even the most ardent Christian conservatives, are indistinguishable from Islamists — or even the typical “moderate Muslims” of Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. — in their attitudes and practices with regard to homosexuality is not just stupid and ignorant; it is almost literally insane.”

Still others are actually questioning their beliefs and shifting how they talk about them. For example, John Sentamu, Archbishop of York in the Church of England, has been a staunch opponent of marriage equality. This week, however, when asked whether homosexuality is a sin, he responded, “I would never say that. I would never say that, because sin is doing something consciously against God.”

The belief that homosexuality is a sin is not unique to any one religion, nor is it a defining feature of all faiths. Indeed, as public understanding of sexuality has increased, so too has the religious embrace of gay people. Many denominations are now 100 percent affirming, as an infographic meme humorously pointed out a few years ago.

Unfortunately, as the science on gender identity catches up with the science on sexual orientation, religious beliefs are increasingly being relied upon to reject transgender people in the same fashion. When the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stopped identifying homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, it triggered the launch of the ex-gay movement and many of the theological teachings that still define opposition to gay rights. The APA took the same step in changing the classification of transgender identities in 2012, and just 18 months later, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution biblically rejecting the existence of transgender people. Indeed, religious beliefs are at the core of many of the ongoing political struggles about which bathroom transgender individuals should be allowed to use.

This similar trajectory for transphobia reveals what’s so insidious about how religious conservatives justify their rejection of all LGBT people. It illuminates the reality that the prejudice against LGBT people probably came first, but so long as there was no science challenging that prejudice, faith was not an important tool for reinforcing it. As research and visibility have undermined those prejudices, however, religious beliefs have become the popular — if only — foundation for maintaining that rejection.

As Ryan’s work with families has helped to illuminate, so long as people espouse the idea that LGBT identities are sinful, LGBT people will be harmed. Unlike other marginalized groups, LGBT people can be born anywhere to any family. That means that so long as anybody is promoting beliefs that reject LGBT people, there will be children who are vulnerable to the mental health consequences of that rejection, including the risky behaviors and suicidal thinking that can result. No matter how much love any religious individual espouses for the lesbian, gay, or bi “sinner,” they are still propagating that harm.