6th place — Grad student essay contest: Amanda DeSantis
FFRF awarded Amanda $1,000.
By Amanda DeSantis
Religion has a long history of utilizing its teachings to justify bigotry and prejudice. Those who identify as LGBTQ+ know this all too well.
Religious messages about homosexuality and gender identity vary. For example, some suggest that all gay people will end up in hell, while others preach that while being gay is not a sin, engaging in homosexual acts is. Imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to be a youth struggling with your identity, sitting in a congregation, hearing one of these messages. Knowing that if you were to identify as LGBTQ+, at best, you can never have a fulfilling romantic relationship, and, at worst, you will burn in the fiery pits of hell for all of eternity. It is quite the image.
According to the Trevor Project in 2020, LGBTQ+ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide as their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Rates of depression and drug use are also elevated in this population. These issues become more pronounced in those who are transgender, of color or disabled. Research conducted by the Family Acceptance Project found that among LGBTQ+ youth, one-third experience parental rejection. Highly religious families were the least likely to be accepting. Those whose families reject them are at a higher risk for mental health issues and major health concerns including HIV. Rejection in these cases often included alienation, preventing access to support, using religious beliefs to remind their children of damnation and hell, and sending children to clergy or other providers to “change” their LGBTQ+ identity.
There are 22 states in which there are no laws or policies banning conversion therapy. Moreover, three states (Florida, Alabama and Georgia) are in federal judicial circuits with preliminary injunction currently preventing enforcement of conversion therapy bans. Startlingly, the Trevor Project reported in 2020 that youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple attempts. That 2022 survey found that of nearly 34,000 LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-24 in the US, 17 percent reported being threatened with or subjected to conversion therapy. Meanwhile, available data from the mental health field suggests that conversion therapy leads to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness and suicide, as well as negative self-esteem, intense shame, and trauma responses, such as PTSD.
The main solution to the mental health crisis faced by LGBTQ+ youth is support and acceptance. This can include family therapy in which members learn that behaviors that parents believe will help, such as conversion therapies, are contributing to higher risk for mental health problems and that acceptance, compassion and understanding are what will buffer against mental health issues. Education is also vital. One preventative solution is to educate all families about how to support LGBTQ+ youth before they know how their children will identify. This is particularly relevant because we know that LGBTQ+ youth will be born into even the most religious of families because these are normal variants in sexuality and gender identity and expression. This, in combination with other supports such as group therapy, anti-bullying efforts, and increased legal protections may be the key to protecting our youth.
Perhaps extreme, society leaving religion behind in totality could be another solution. Research has shown that leaving religion can be experienced as a major traumatic event. So, even when LGBTQ+ youth leave their religious communities to pursue a life free from persecution, they continue to suffer. Religious communities often serve multiple functions, including social and emotional support, a coherent worldview, and a sense of meaning and purpose. Leaving these resources behind can be felt as a significant loss wherein individuals are left to reconstruct their reality while dealing with being alienated by what is perhaps the only social system they have. Furthermore, we must consider that toxic religious dogma regarding the immorality of sexual orientation and gender nonconformity seep into the minds of non-LGBTQ+ youth, potentially contributing to bullying, which has been identified as yet another common experience of those who identify as LGBTQ+. Without religion perpetuating these beliefs, where might we be?
Those who identify as LGBTQ+ will continue to be born. Currently, we are allowing religious institutions to worsen the mental health of its most vulnerable members through anti-scientific messages of rejection and damnation and encouragement of torture techniques. The question we must ask ourselves is, what do we care about more — the future of our youth or the bigotry and comfort of religion?
Amanda, 27, attends the University of Detroit Mercy and is working toward a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
“I am passionate about my work at a forensic psychiatric hospital, where I treat and evaluate individuals who are incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity,” Amanda writes. “I was raised Catholic and became an atheist in college after taking a course on evolution. In college, I experienced many hurdles when trying to write and publish research that suggested religion may have negative effects on mental health. As a result, I am passionate about continuing to give those who have been negatively affected by religion a safe space to process in therapy.”