Jana Riess: Religion can help LGBTQ Latter-day Saints’ mental health, especially if they’re out of the closet

So far in USU prof’s longitudinal psychology study, religion has been a net positive for the mental health of some LGBTQ members. As a queer former Latter-day Saint, he’s surprised by this, too.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pride flag flies in front of the Brigham Young Monument in downtown Salt Lake City in 2020. New research out of Utah State University shows religiosity can improve the happiness of some LGBTQ Latter-day Saints — at least for a while.

Most sociology research shows religion as a positive force for people’s mental and even physical health. But that’s not necessarily the case for LGBTQ people, who are more likely to be harmed by toxic messages emanating from some religions, particularly conservative ones. For them, the research is mixed.

So Tyler Lefevor, an assistant professor of psychology at Utah State University, set out to learn more. Focusing his lens on LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, he wanted to know whether they were happier and healthier if they were “active” (the term for those who attend church regularly) or if they’d found more happiness after putting some distance between themselves and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The study, conducted by Lefevor and three co-authors, has continued following 132 of 370 original respondents from 2020, charting their experiences for two more years. Some of the results were just published in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion and are not quite what Lefevor expected to see.

What was your main finding?

We were interested in looking at how religiousness changes over time and what impact that has on health. And in the sample of sexual minority Mormons, we found religiousness went down over time across all indicators of religiousness, including attending services, religious commitment and orthodoxy. That feels like a substantial finding on its own. And then when we also looked at how changes in religiousness impacted health, we found that as people became less religious, they reported less meaning in life and more depression.

There are some really natural forces that push sexual minority Mormons away from religiousness. So the forces in the church plus national things push them away, but the leaving is also painful. There’s a cognitive cost as they are trying to find other ways to make meaning in life and build community.

Were you surprised by your findings?

Yeah. I always think that as people become less religious, they’re going to be happier. That’s just what I expect to see every single time. And I shouldn’t expect that anymore because it’s been several years that I’ve been not finding that. This data goes well with other data that I’ve gathered in the last few years that really highlight religiousness as both a good and bad thing for sexual minorities.

Tell me more about both of those. How does religion help LGBTQ people, and how might it be harmful?

(Courtesy photo) Tyler Lefevor, assistant professor of psychology at Utah State University, co-conducted this study.

Really consistently, you find that religiousness promotes meaning-making, even for people who experience a lot of pain from their faith. They still seem to benefit from the worldview it provides and the sense of structure. We also sometimes find that religiousness promotes community even for people who are marginalized and ostracized. That’s a benefit that still comes through, that they’re connected with others. They have more people in their life, more social support and connection.

And then, on the flip side, for sexual and gender minorities specifically, we find that religiousness leads to less family support and more religious struggles or strain. Some very observable stressors, like exclusion and rejection based on sexuality or gender, are more likely to happen in religious spaces than in other spaces.

All of these different variables I’ve talked about, like the strain and the meaning-making, are related in the ways you would expect to depression: Variables like connectedness to religious communities and meaning-making buffer depression, and variables like interpersonal religious struggles increase it. It’s interesting to see it more as risks and resources, as trade-offs — you get these things, and you incur these stresses. But overall, religion seems to help a little bit.

It does feel surprising that Mormonism seems to help with LGBTQ members’ mental health, when some of the church’s messages about them are so damaging.

First, I think a lot about a survivorship bias in the data — religion helps the people who have been able to stay engaged with religion. What we see in national data about sexual and gender minorities is that they’re a lot less religious than cisgender and heterosexual folks. And so I always add that grain of salt that when sexual and gender minorities continue to remain religious, it seems to benefit them. But a good chunk already left because it didn’t work for them.

Another thing is that although religion seems positive for the mental health of sexual and gender minorities, it’s not as positive as it is for cisgender, heterosexual Mormons. And a third thing to remember is that this may change. I’m really interested to follow up with these same people in two, four and six more years and see if they’re still hurting from stepping away from faith. My expectation is they won’t be — that they’re like this right now because it hurts to step away. And that once you’re away, it starts to feel better because you reconfigure your life. We’re shooting to follow these people for at least 10 years.

What are some warning signs for people who are sexual minorities and are involved with Mormonism?

The best way to answer the question is actually to think about what it looks like for a sexual and gender minority to flourish in a religious context. Because some do. They don’t hide it, and they don’t have a high degree of internalized stigma.

So the flip side, the warning side, would be when people feel pressure to conceal or not acknowledge their internal experience of their sexuality or gender because of family pressure and religious doctrine or rhetoric. In that case religion can be a more harmful place for someone who’s trying to understand themselves.

Could you speak about your personal experiences as someone who grew up LDS and queer? Where do you fit into this research?

I was a really active Latter-day Saint until I was 25. I loved the church, and it worked for me because it provided meaning and belonging and a framework. I was 13 when I knew I was different and I didn’t have good language for it, so I told my dad I liked men’s bodies, and it was really kind of embarrassing and shameful.

And then I took that back for the next decade, really. I didn’t identify as gay. I saw it as a thing that happened to me sometimes, but not as a consistent internal experience. I think that let me do a mission and engage in the church in a nonharmful way.

And then, in my early to mid-20s, I hit a place where I needed to do these relational milestones expected in the faith and it didn’t work so well. At that point the church became a source of stress. And it remained a source of stress until I resigned after maybe six years. I resigned because I determined that marrying a man was going to be the most happiness-promoting path for me.

Now I experience the church as harmful. If I sit through a church service at an LDS church, I feel defensive, like I am harmed or attacked by it in a way that I didn’t when I was in the church. My thinking has shifted so much.

(The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)