Many of us in the LGBTQ+ community have conflicted relationships with religion and spirituality. Sadly, religion is still far to often used against us. Scriptures are interpreted as saying our “lifestyle choices” are sinful. Around the world people are still being killed and tortured because of their sexual or gender identity. Yet many of us have fond connections to spirituality or religion and we don’t want to, nor should we have to, give that up.
What is spiritual abuse?
On its most basic level, abuse is maltreatment. When we are spiritually maltreated by those in positions of authority that we love and trust there can be lasting and devastating consequences for our mental health.
Think about this. A young person takes a risk and opens up about being gay to a leader at their church. That leader tells them to suppress those “unnatural” feelings and perhaps even recommends conversion therapy (a harmful practice of going to a mental health practitioner to become “straight”). Even if that young person grows up, comes out and distances themselves from the church, there can be lifelong consequences of that abuse.
Lasting effects of spiritual abuse
The lasting effects of spiritual abuse are numerous. There can be damage to a person’s self-worth, spirituality and sexuality that run deep. The lasting effects can show up in the form of sexual problems, substance misuse, depression, anxiety or stress. Any of the symptoms of emotional or physical abuse, like PTSD can also be present.
Did I experience it?
It may be hard to identify if you’ve been the victim of spiritual abuse. Try asking yourself this question…were you made to feel that you were wrong because of your sexuality or identity by those in your religious or spiritual life? If the answer is yes, then you probably experienced some level of spiritual abuse. There are various degrees of spiritual abuse and it may be hard to talk or think about it.
Having to choose between religion and sexuality
No one should have to choose between their religious or spiritual beliefs and their sexual or gender identity. Period. End of sentence.
All too often, however, this is not the case. In certain religions you’re told it’s ok to be gay as long as you don’t act on it. That is like saying its ok to buy food as long as you don’t eat it. That kind of confusing rhetoric can have lasting effects on mental health. It forces you to go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to try and belong and find love.
Shame around sex
As a culture, we’re not great at talking about sex to begin with. Add in the moralistic perspective that sex should only be for procreation and you have a recipe for intense internal conflict. When shame and guilt are used to control or influence sexuality, all sorts of sexual issues can present themselves. It’s hard to relax and allow yourself to feel pleasure if unconsciously you’re questioning if a certain sexual act will send you to hell.
People who experience abuse may be vulnerable to turning to substances to mask the pain. In the long run, using substances to manage feelings can be a slippery slope. Using substances to deaden feelings works really well in the moment, but can bring about lasting consequences. There are also religions that have abstinence only policies toward certain substances. This can add a layer of guilt, shame and remorse when a person turns to substance misuse to manage feelings.
Dealing with the pain
In order to have a healthy relationship with your sexual or gender identity and your spirituality, you have to work through the pain. That will involve coming in contact with uncomfortable feelings like shame, anger, grief and sadness. By finding healthy ways to have your feelings you can begin to process, understand and deal with them in more productive ways.
Losing family and community
It is still the case that when people come out as LGBTQ+ they fear losing their family and community if they’re not accepting. This can be amplified even more in certain religious communities that are homophobic. By coming out, a person may risk losing their support system and in some cases may choose to live a double life rather than risk that loss.
Feeling alone in the LGBTQ+ community
Many people in the LGBTQ+ community have been hurt by religion in one way or another. Because of that it can be difficult to find others with whom you can talk about your spirituality in an open way. The last thing you may want to do is open up about your spirituality to another queer person only to be shamed for still having faith in your religion.
Accepting faith communities
There are a number of accepting and open faith communities that welcome LGBTQ+ people. You don’t have to give up your faith or spirituality because you’re queer. Do some research and find a place that feels safe and welcoming.
The good news is that by doing the internal hard work you can find peace with your spirituality and your identity. It may be a long road to sorting it all out, but there is hope. Below you’ll find suggestions for resources to research in your community. Don’t give up and find the support you deserve. Try to find:
- An LGBTQ+ inclusive faith community
- A support group for LGBTQ+ survivors of spiritual abuse
- A therapist who is supportive of your identity and spirituality
- A mentor who has been through a similar process of self-discovery