Listening to Sexual Minorities
A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses
- ISBN: 9780830828623
- Published By: InterVarsity Press
- Published: April 2018
Over the last several years there have been conversations in the American social sphere regarding where and how LGBQT+ students fit into campus life and community. This conversation has been even more polarizing on Christian college campuses. To examine and engage with these conversations, Mark Yarhouse along with colleagues Janet B. Dean, Stephen P. Stratton, and Michael Lastoria offer the results of their original longitudinal study on the experiences of 160 LGBQT+ identified students (whom they term “sexual minorities”) from 15 unnamed Christian universities in Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses.
Regionally and ethnically, the majority of the students included in this study were white/caucasian, with 81% coming from the midwest, central, and southern regions of the US. Although 51% self-identified as male, 45% as female, and 4% as other, all the students involved identified as Christians (18). The authors offer their study results as well as previous research in conjunction with personal observations from their work as campus counselors. The project includes statements and quotes from the participants in addition to LGBQT+ blogs by self-identified Christians.
The specific interest of this research project was to better understand the various responses and experiences of students regarding their faith and sexuality during and after their time at college. The goal of this research: to understand the perceived tension between faith and sexuality. In eight chapters, the authors explore milestones of identity for the students, the development of a dual identity construct, and their relationship to each other; how the students sexuality fit into their college context; changes to their identities as they transition from college to post college; and concludes with a summary of the research, recommendations, and their conclusions.
The intended audience for this text is broad and includes counselors, psychologists, higher education faculty, staff, and administrators, church leaders as well as the wider Christian community for use as a resource to “create an intentional environment to hear from and contribute to the spiritual flourishing of all” (book back cover statement). However there is dissonance between the authors’s view of who their audience is, the construction of the book as a resource, and the failure of the authors to understand their lenses and positionality on the subject at hand.
Generally, the most successful aspects of this text are in information found as asides from the main text: grey boxes which highlight the students and other LGBQT+ Christian narratives, diagrams of the research results, as well as sections which list the phrases and terminologies to use—or not use—regarding sexual identities. For example, the authors highly discourage the use of the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” which is noted in the “terms and phrases” grey box within chapter 2 (33-34), a chapter which illustrates the complicated subject matter of identity construction (37). The authors consistent utilization of the student’s own words is also commendable, as in an aside which discusses the milestone of “coming out” to family and friends (72). It should also be noted that preceding the citations at the conclusion of each chapter is a list of key takeaways.
The sections offer a more nuanced reading and a respect-based care of the research population than can be extrapolated from the general data given the sections tend to offer clarification of or deeper engagement with the content, especially when relating to the observed population. The relationality and validating factors of the personal quotes and narrative also makes the text compelling. Without the acknowledgement and addressing of the personal and embodied aspects, especially within certain communities, these conversations can quickly turn into a debate that overlooks real people and their experiences. Even with these outstanding aspects of the text, there are complications and problematic elements in the set up of the narrative and research. While the authors’s intention in the early chapters is to offer a sweeping resource for all the aforementioned communities and contexts of Christendom, the authors assume that their context and understanding of the subject is a monolithic and historical fact instead of their contextualized lens into this research, which is a historical understanding of Christianity, and Christianity writ large. For those readers who are coming from and located within a similar religious context and position as the authors, (communities birthed from the late 19th century to early 20th century Christian fundamentalist and mid-20th century evangelical movements) this book does offer a new and more nuanced perspective than previously offered in relationship to Christians who are part of the LGBQT+ community, or who understand themselves to be struggling with feelings of “same sex attraction.” Yet for many others within Christian communities, as well as scholars of Religion, US Religious History, and Religious Studies, this book offers very little use in the way of research on the subject or as a resource.
The specificity of the actual audience for the text, opposed to the author-stated audience, becomes evident from the title, and even more so from content and contouring of the conversation presented in the opening chapters. This happens through the use of the subculture term “sexual minorities,” as opposed to the scientific, culturally, and academically used terms LGBQT+ or Queer, as well as the conversation on page 14 regarding how the terms “ affirming” or “non-affirming” are exceedingly more polarizing than the term “religious” in descriptions of schools, churches, denominational, and personal responses to the LGBQT+ community and its members in relationship to faith and these settings. Pointedly, with regard to this latter termanology, the website Church Clarity was constructed to address the problematic nature of the phrasing of “religious” when trying to clearly understand a church or an institutional stance on LGBQT+ peoples’s place in the community context. Additionally, this lens shows up when the authors lay out a list of the participating schools’s beliefs in conjunction with their membership in the Association of Christians in Student Development (ACSD), referring to them as tenants that “fall in line with the core doctrinal beliefs in most Christian denominations and organizations,” as well as “statements of orthodox Christian faith” (49). Several of the six listed beliefs in this section are, in fact, not consistent beliefs that are held by “most Christian denominations and organization” or “statements of orthodox Christian faith” but were only constructed as such with the rise of Christian fundamentalism at the end of the 1800’s, or are views that have been disputed in their meanings and practices throughout Christian history. Other examples of these kinds of conflicting contours can be found in the presentation of the research, and the authors’s reading of their data.
In conclusion, the research text Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses does have something challenging and furthering to offer to a specific audience who is rooted in the Christian fundamentalist and evangelical traditions of it’s authors. Yet it also fails to be of usefulness or challenge to the authors’s broadly intended audience, specifically given that the perspectives presented by the authors as monolithically held views of Christianity are, in fact, actually views held by a narrow pocket of Christendom.
Jessica Knippel is a doctoral student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.Jessica KnippelDate Of Review:March 13, 2019