Using Group Therapy to Navigate and Resolve Sexual Orientation and Religious Conflicts

Article excerpt

This article considers the use of group therapy to explore sexual identity questions in light of religious beliefs and values. The authors describe the basis of their group therapy approaches for sexual, religious, and social conflicts that differ from approaches that provide group members only the option of sexual reorientation to an ex-gay identity or adoption of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity. The authors come from different backgrounds and discuss how their perspectives and biases can potentially affect group process and outcome. They present guidelines, structure, content, and strategies for their group therapy approaches,


Sexual orientation conflicts are serious issues for individuals who are caught in the midst of trying to find some resolution to their distress. Research, clinical, and personal accounts (e.g., Haldeman, 2004; Jones & Yarhouse, 2007; Mark, 2008; Smith, Bartlett, & King, 2004) have described the depression, anxiety, confusion, and isolation that can be experienced by those who struggle with being attracted to someone of the same sex. Counselors may also feel conflicted about how to help these individuals, specifically when clients are torn between their sexual identity and other aspects of themselves, such as their religion, ethnicity, careers, and families.

The focus of this article is on the use of group therapy to navigate sexual identity conflicts associated with religious identity. In the discussions, religion is often thought of as a more formal community of like-minded persons who assent to codified doctrinal positions that address much of human experience, including human sexuality. Spirituality is often thought of as a personal search for meaning, purpose, and wholeness (Love, Bock, Jannarone, & Richardson, 2005). Equally, sexuality can provide meaning and wholeness as it orients individuals toward deeply felt needs for intimacy, love, and companionship (Firestone, Firestone, & Catlett, 2005). Religion is recognized as a diversity variable in the ethics code of the American Psychological Association (APA; 2002) and the American Counseling Association (2005), as are other expressions of diversity, including sexual orientation.

Many branches within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam prescribe and celebrate heterosexuality as normative while condemning same-sex sexual behavior and, in some cases, identification. When religious individuals come from these conservative or traditional backgrounds, they face unique challenges in sorting out their sexual and religious identities. Their experiences and the challenges they face have been documented in several studies (e.g., Coyle & Rafalin, 2000; Kama, 2005; Wolkomir, 2001; Yarhouse & Tan, 2004; Yip, 2005).

As we turn our attention to the use of group therapy to navigate sexual and religious identity concerns, we recognize that we are asking the following questions: What does it mean to take both religion and sexuality seriously as diversity variables, specifically when a client experiences confusion or distress about her or his same-sex attractions in light of religious beliefs and values? What constitutes an ethical approach to sexual orientation conflicts in the context of providing group therapy? This article was written to describe how we have addressed these questions by developing our unique group therapy approaches for this population.

We come from different backgrounds (Yarhouse identifies as heterosexual and is conventionally religious, and Beckstead identifies as gay and is formerly religious). We practice in a metropolitan area, Yarhouse on the East Coast and Beckstead in the West; each metropolitan area often experiences its own unique political and religious conflicts. Our group therapy approaches emerged as an alternative to the two often-polarized positions offered in the clinical literature of sexual reorientation therapy or lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB)-affirmative or LGB-integrative therapy. …