CT Daily, Knowledge Share

Overcoming the schism between spiritual identity and sexual orientation

Robert A. Dobmeier, Summer M. Reiner, Elaine J. Casquarelli & Kathleen M. Fallon January 1, 2013

SpiritualTyler is coming to see you fearing his secret could be revealed. He is an 18-year-old European-American male from a small Midwestern town of fewer than 1,000 people. His father is the minister of a local evangelical Christian church. His mother divides her time between church commitments and family life at home. He has a 20-year-old sister who is married to the church’s youth minister and is a stay-at-home mother to their one child. Tyler grew up in the church, is active in the youth ministry and has cultivated a deep sense of personal faith. Since childhood, Tyler has felt different than other men who spoke of marrying women and raising a family. The feelings boys had toward girls — courting them and proposing marriage — Tyler felt toward other boys. He dreamed of growing up, falling in love and raising a family — but with another man. He feels torn between his personal faith and his belief that he was born feeling attracted to other men, especially when hearing the position of his church through his father’s sermons and the regular broadcasts from Christian media sources. His father preached many times about the need to live a pure life in accordance with the teachings of Scripture. Both of his parents have taught Tyler and his sister how important it is for a minister’s family to be the model of purity and holiness and that a sinful life could lead others down a path to damnation.

Tyler began a secret relationship with a young man he met at a summer youth retreat. The two have been corresponding via email and writing letters as their relationship deepened. Although Tyler feels in love with this young man, he hates himself because he believes he is impure and sinful for wanting a relationship that his religion teaches is outside the covenant between God and His people. Tyler hides his feelings, terrified his family will reject him if they learn his truth. Tyler heard about another young woman in his church whose parents found out she was gay. The parents received counsel from Tyler’s father, and the young woman was sent to a residential treatment facility to cure her homosexual desires. On the basis of these concerns, how will you work with Tyler?

Like many lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) clients, Tyler experiences a sense of schism between his sexual orientation and his faith. Indeed, a parallel experience may exist for counselors who feel a disconnection between their own faith systems and the ethical draw to counsel LGB individuals seeking help. The spirituality of some counselors may support embracing the client’s sexual orientation. They may struggle with anger toward Tyler’s faith tradition, instead wishing he would move to accept his sexual orientation. Other counselors may see an LGB sexual orientation as sinful. They may feel a close alignment with and support Tyler’s sense of shame and encourage him to consider exploring reorientation therapy.

In both cases, a counselor may feel torn about how to reconcile his or her own values systems with the client’s presenting issues. In this article, we invite you to reflect on the degree to which you might struggle working with Tyler. We explore the ways in which counselors can experience and work through values conflicts, consider relevant supervision and consultation issues, and ultimately contemplate how counselors can embrace — for themselves and for their clients — both the tension and possibilities of integrating faith and sexuality.

Counselor values

Counselors could experience a range of values conflicts when working with Tyler. Some would feel comfortable addressing religious and spiritual values in counseling but would struggle with Tyler’s sexual orientation. Others would be comfortable addressing his sexual orientation but not his religious beliefs. Some counselors would be uncomfortable with both.

When counselors value religious beliefs that view homosexuality as sinful, they often struggle with addressing sexual orientation in counseling. In their eyes, homosexuality may go against God’s wishes and expectations for humanity, and for these counselors, the greatest value is living according to God’s will. The struggle with sexual orientation may also exist among counselors who do not ascribe to any faith tradition but strongly value only heterosexual intimate relationships. In an effort to work in ways that are consistent with their values, some counselors have employed reorientation therapy techniques, which aim to help clients live a heterosexual lifestyle irrespective of their sexual orientation. But such counseling approaches have no empirical or scientific foundation and may amplify the anxiety, pain and self-hatred that Tyler already experiences. (Note: In 1999, the American Counseling Association’s Governing Council adopted a statement opposing the promotion of reparative therapy as a “cure” for individuals who are homosexual.) Alternatively, some counselors may refuse to work with Tyler altogether, sending the message that there is something inherently wrong or sinful about him.

A values conflict can arise on the opposite end of the spectrum as well. The religious, spiritual or humanistic values of some counselors might conflict with the religious beliefs of Tyler and his family. In other words, some counselors want to work with Tyler in a way that helps him integrate his sexual orientation into his developing identity, but they have difficulty incorporating his faith into counseling conversations and activities. Counselors have reported feeling anger and rage at a faith system that, in their eyes, has wounded Tyler and other clients like him deeply and unnecessarily. Addressing sexual orientation to the exclusion of Tyler’s faith negates a critical element of his identity, however. Once again he receives the message that he is flawed in some way or that a part of his identity is unwelcome in the counseling relationship.

Finally, some counselors may not have a values conflict with either Tyler’s sexual orientation or his religious beliefs. Instead, they might evaluate themselves as lacking the skills to competently address sexual orientation and religion in counseling. If this is the case, they may decide to refer Tyler to another counselor who has more experience working with these important elements of identity. Arguably, a more ethical alternative would be to seek professional development and supervision to learn how to integrate these important concerns into counseling.

Fortunately, the ACA Code of Ethics provides counselors with guidelines for working with Tyler. Counselors are asked to develop awareness of “their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors and avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals. Counselors respect the diversity of clients …” (Standard A.4.b., Personal Values). However, given the deeply held religious, spiritual and/or humanistic values of some counselors, it can be a struggle to abide by these guidelines, even when there is a wish to uphold them. Therefore, assistance is often helpful when developing 1) self-awareness of one’s own values, 2) knowledge about sexual orientation and religion and 3) clinical skills in integrating sexual orientation and religion/spirituality into counseling. Counselors challenged to address spiritual issues, sexual orientation issues or an integration of the two are wise to seek supervision to manage any countertransference.

Exploring counselor and supervisor values

Supervisors also need to explore their values and knowledge of integrating sexual orientation and spirituality into counseling. The supervisory relationship can be viewed much like the Russian nesting dolls. Tyler may be attempting to resolve the schism between his faith and sexual orientation, while the counselor is addressing his schism between the teachings of his spiritual tradition and a sense of responsibility to respect the client’s sexual orientation beliefs. Meanwhile, the supervisor may experience her own schism between her spiritual beliefs and professional responsibilities. Supervisors may fall short of providing good supervision if they are unaware of their own biases regarding spiritual LGB individuals. Furthermore, supervisors may also experience personal conflict when exploring the counselor’s beliefs about spirituality, sexual orientation or both. Thus, supervisors may lose their objectivity when working with supervisees through the supervision process.

Efforts to resolve the “nesting” rifts between spirituality/religion and sexual orientation for Tyler, the counselor and the supervisor can be approached through a variety of self-awareness exercises. Each party, through spiritual genograms and sexual orientation genograms (visual linear depictions of generational relationships), can explore how their families of origin influenced their spiritual and/or sexual orientation values and beliefs.

A spiritual timeline and a sexual orientation timeline can be constructed to reveal one’s personal developmental process. The spiritual timeline can identify how one’s spirituality developed over time and how one draws upon his or her spiritual beliefs when addressing life issues. The sexual orientation timeline may include ages when an individual was first attracted to people of the opposite gender, same gender or both genders; realized that he or she was heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual; had his or her first sexual contact; had same-sex sexual contact and/or opposite-sex sexual contact; had an intimate relationship with persons of the opposite gender and/or same gender; and first told a family member about a romantic interest or relationship. Other related events can also be added to the timeline, such as “experienced hate crimes and harassment,” which may have affected one’s sexual orientation identity development. Reflecting on one’s sexual orientation development is helpful for recognizing the sexual orientations of others as normal (for more, read “Counselor Preparation: On Becoming Allies: A Qualitative Study of Lesbian-, Gay- and Bisexual-Affirmative Counselor Training” by Frank R. Dillon, Roger L. Worthington, Holly Bielstein Savoy, S. Craig Rooney, Ann Becker-Schutte and Rachael M. Guerra in the March 2004 issue of Counselor Education and Supervision).

Journaling is another helpful tool for clients, counselors and supervisors as they process their self-awareness journeys. As each person explores his or her beliefs, values and biases as they relate to sexual orientation and spirituality, strong emotions may arise. Furthermore, counselors and supervisors may experience countertransference. Journaling, in addition to supervision, can be helpful in recognizing the signs of countertransference. Even those who intend to be nonjudgmental and open in counseling and/or supervision may engage in microaggressions (for example, attributing all issues to the schism between sexual orientation and spiritual/religious beliefs or, alternately, minimizing and even avoiding the impact of sexual and spiritual/religious orientations).

Thus, self-awareness and evaluation of one’s values, beliefs and ability to integrate sexual orientation and religion/spirituality into counseling is an ongoing process both for the counselor and the supervisor. Through counseling and the parallel process of supervision, the supervisor, counselor and client each grow and, it is hoped, achieve compassion for self and others. Ideally, the counselor and supervisor are able to provide support in a nonjudgmental environment, which allows Tyler to achieve his goal of reducing the schism between his faith and his sexual orientation.

Steps toward resolution

For counselors committed to understanding the integration of spirituality and sexual orientation, and to counseling clients striving to achieve this integration, professional guidance is available. A 2005 white paper by the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling, a division of ACA, proposes that human beings have a spiritual nature, which has ramifications for human development and personal identity. Counselors are urged to respect the need for the client to accept and integrate each of his or her essential identities, including those related to spirituality and sexual orientation. Competency 6 of the ASERVIC Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling (aservic.org/resources/spiritual-competencies/) states that “the professional counselor can describe and apply models of spiritual and/or religious development and their relationship to human development.” Discovery of sexual orientation is an essential component of human development. Competency 12 recommends that “the professional counselor sets goals with clients that are consistent with the individual client’s religious and/or spiritual perspectives.” Empowering clients to determine their counseling goals is a core value of the counseling profession that supports the individual’s need to reconcile his or her sexual orientation with his or her faith.

The Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling Competencies for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Clients propose that competent counselors “understand that biological, familial, cultural, socio-economic and psychosocial factors influence the course of development of affectional orientations and gender identity/expressions.” Furthermore, ALGBTIC, a division of ACA, offers that identity formation and stigma management are lifelong developmental tasks for LGBT persons, who are often in search of well-informed counselors. The ASERVIC and ALGBTIC competencies complement the ACA Code of Ethics in providing guidance for professional counselors facing a schism between faith and professional responsibility.

Counselors, clients and supervisors conflicted by the teachings of their spiritual traditions about homosexuality while being supportive of LGBT identities might look to their spiritual traditions for deeper messages about those identities. The same traditions that view homosexuality as sinful also offer other views about the treatment of marginalized persons (keep in mind the higher rates of depression, suicide and stigmatization that LGBT persons suffer). Christian Scripture teaches its followers to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31); to “not judge, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1); and “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Matthew 25:35). Followers of Judaism see themselves called to bring peace and salvation to the nations. Muslims practice almsgiving to those in need. Hindus practice the path of love, while Buddhists strive to establish right relationships with others. Native Americans teach care of others in the belief that all life is sacred. Thus, profound values consistent with the ACA Code of Ethics’ emphasis on respect for diversity are available to professionals and clients in the same spiritual traditions that reject homosexual behavior and, in some instances, homosexual persons.

Whereas the ACA Code of Ethics promotes justice by ensuring that client needs are kept foremost in the counseling relationship (Standard A.1.a., Primary Responsibility), Christian faith traditions emphasize moral teachings from the Bible based in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. … Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:5 and 5:7). Where is the gentleness and mercy advocated by Jesus when the LGBT person is unable to be open in his church or even with family members about his most basic inclinations of sexual orientation? Jewish people follow the Torah, the Book of the Law, which commands to “protect the alien among you” (Ex 22:21). Hindus and Buddhists recognize in karma that one’s acts of kindness and unkindness return to the actor. Rejection of Tyler in his need yields to my being rejected in my need.

Not every professional counselor has the interior freedom to question values assigned by religious systems. The schism between faith and ethical responsibility runs deep. It is incumbent on the professional counselor to recognize that aligning with values that render one closed to Tyler, a client who seeks openness and wisdom to assist him in his search to integrate his spirituality and sexual orientation, ends in rejecting him. The openness and wisdom that allow professional counselors to bring healing to Tyler are accessible to counselors in their professional codes and in those deeper levels of their spiritual traditions that share the noblest aspects of human life with those codes. How will you work with Tyler when he enters your professional world?

“Knowledge Share” articles are based on sessions presented at American Counseling Association Annual Conferences.

Robert A. Dobmeier, Summer M. Reiner and Kathleen M. Fallon teach in the Department of Counselor Education at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. Elaine J. Casquarelli is a doctoral student in the Department of Counseling and Human Development at the University of Rochester. Send comments to the authors at rdobmeie@brockport.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Facebook Twitter Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>