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Exploring the Experiences of Spirituality Within the LGBTQ+ Community

drawing of an LGBTQ+ woman approaching a church

Verywell / Madeline Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • Nearly half of LGBTQ+ individuals identify as religious, despite a popular narrative of contentious relationships with churches.
  • After discontentment with studies focusing on one side of this experience, a group of researchers set out to draw a more accurate and inclusive picture of the wide range of LGBTQ+ experiences in faith communities.

Spiritual practice and faith communities are known to positively impact mental health. But for LGBTQ+ folks, the relationship with church can be a contentious one, as research has shown that negative or rejecting experiences in religious contexts are associated with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation in LGBTQ+ individuals.

Still, regardless of specific denomination or group, a 2020 survey revealed nearly half of LGBTQ+ adults in the United States consider themselves religious. While some mainline religions have taken an anti-LGBTQ+ stance, other faith communities operate in strong support of queer affirmation and inclusivity. LGBTQ+ people exist within each of these categories.

A recent study set out to further explore the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals within faith communities and found a much broader range of both positive and negative narratives.

The Research

After feeling dissatisfied with current research on LGBTQ+ experiences within faith communities, Megan Gandy, PhD, the study's lead researcher who identifies as a lesbian and formerly as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, wanted to paint a more accurate and inclusive picture of both the positives and negatives of these relationships.

Researchers recruited a group of 30 racially, economically and gender-diverse participants from a national group of LGBTQ+ Christians to answer survey questions. Participants were asked about their faith communities, participation habits and personal or family struggles in relation to those communities. They were also asked to provide details on their communities' level of acceptance and support of their LGBTQ+ identities, and what they get out of the community that they can't get elsewhere.

The findings, published in Spirituality in Clinical Practice, revealed that participants lost relationships with members of former faith communities, but also experienced healing when they found affirming faith communities.

The fear of rejection and joy of inclusion were both commonly experienced by these individuals. They often used "normal" to describe their desire to be part of a faith community, as they were not allowed to be a normal part of past communities. However, some participants were willing to occupy the gray area between acceptance and rejection in order to attend a particular church. This sometimes meant staying closeted.

Many participants felt a sense of gratitude and bliss in finding a place of belonging to socialize and experience their faith in community, especially when individuals could find communities that fit their needs across intersectional identities.

Baileigh, 26

I don’t necessarily rely on another leader or institution to give me that framework. I feel it’s much more organic when my spiritual community is basically a chosen family, and that’s what has fit for me as a queer person.

— Baileigh, 26

But not all stories were positive, although most negative experiences came from prior faith communities. Gandy points to the example of a priest who, after coming out as transgender, lost her role as priest within a denomination that has ordained gay and lesbian individuals for decades.

“That was her way of life, that was her living for 20, 30 years,” Gandy says. “Now she was unemployed. That really hit me hard because as much as I’m an activist and researcher for LGBTQ+ people and faith communities and lives, there’s a lot of work to do.”

Defining “Faith Community”

It’s important to keep in mind that spiritual practice is not restricted to traditional denominational congregations. Gandy points out that the study was conceptualized around the phrase “faith community” because she knew people get their spiritual needs met in many different ways.

She feels the study’s findings apply to people regardless of what type of faith community they're involved in.

“Some folks eschewed the whole religious institution and found their faith in nature or volunteering or things like that,” she says. “I think it has to do with doing things that are beyond just practicing your faith alone.”

Countless groups and communities offer positive spiritual experiences for LGBTQ+ individuals. For Baileigh, a 26-year-old in New York who identifies as a lesbian, spiritual community exists within holistic healing and found family.

However, it took some searching to get there. Raised as a Jehovah's Witness, Baileigh never felt a connection with the denomination.

"I always, as a kid, very much questioned the logic of things," she says. "Then I came out at 15 and didn't even realize that Jehovah's Witnesses were anti-gay. It's kind of like the, 'You can feel that way, but don't practice it.'"

Baileigh now identifies as agnostic and is naturally influenced by the spiritual communities of varying cultures. She has found greater spiritual fulfillment in art, music and places like queer-affirming holistic healing communities.

“I don’t necessarily rely on another leader or institution to give me that framework,” Baileigh says. “I feel it’s much more organic when my spiritual community is basically a chosen family, and that's what has fit for me as a queer person and also as somebody who has seen a lot of egoism in spiritual groups.”

Your Spiritual Journey

Developing your own personal practice and belief system takes time, and finding the right community of spiritually likeminded individuals can take even longer. The search can seem daunting at first, as everyone comes with their own lived experiences, assumptions and biases.

But building a strong foundation and focusing on your personal journey can ultimately lead you in a positive direction.

Megan Gandy, PhD

My hope is that [this study gives] voice to people experiencing things similar to these participants and helps them feel affirmed and seen and validated and to know that they can have a place in the faith community.

— Megan Gandy, PhD

"The spiritual community I create, I am the center of it," Baileigh says. "Does it work for me? Do I feel a spiritual connection to the people that I will talk about my spiritual realizations? My healing processes, my process of finding higher purpose in my life, who can I share that with? That’s my spiritual community."

Research like Gandy's is important not only to provide a more accurate depiction of the wide range of spiritual experiences within the LGBTQ+ community, but also to reassure these individuals that despite the adversity faced as a result of prejudice within certain faith communities, there are countless alternatives available for spiritual fulfillment.

"My hope is that [this study gives] voice to people experiencing things similar to these participants and helps them feel affirmed and seen and validated and to know that they can have a place in the faith community," Gandy says. "It's kind of that call to keep the hope."

What This Means For You

Cultivating spiritual beliefs and forming faith communities is a personal journey, and LGBTQ+ folks have both positive and negative experiences within faith communities. It's important to place yourself in an affirming community that allows you to be your authentic self.

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Article Sources
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