I am based in the Counselling and Wellbeing Service at Birmingham City University (BCU), where we are proud of having a diverse student population from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds. In my wellbeing and counselling work at BCU, I have repeatedly encountered people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer (LGBTQ), but who also have a faith identity which is important to them.
Although I am not from a particularly strict religious background, I grew up in the socially conservative and not particularly diverse Welsh valleys, where any form of difference relating to gender and sexuality (among other things!) had the potential to cause conflict. I feel I can therefore relate to the conflict and confusion that can occur between one’s sexuality and one’s culture. Finding our place when making sense of our intersecting identities is a challenge, and is certainly something that our students more often than not come face to face with at university.
Historically, religion and LGBTQ identities have not worked particularly well together, and even with some of the positive social progress of LGBTQ people that we have been able to celebrate in the UK over the last few years, there are still members of every major religion who claim that it is simply impossible to be queer and (insert your favourite religion here). As I write, we are in the midst of the ongoing ‘LGBT lessons in schools’ controversy, where protestors are largely citing religion as a reason that children should not be taught about relationships that are not heteronormative.1 This is just one example of how religious and LGBT communities can clash.
When students are in conflict
University can be a time when students suddenly have more freedom and independence. This means that gender, sexual and relationship diversity (GSRD) identities can become more visible in a university environment. As in many universities, at BCU we have an LGBTQ+ society, staff network and we hold awareness-raising campaigns as well as celebrating LGBT history month across all of our campuses.
This shift in environment and freedom can result in students actively exploring their gender and sexuality in ways which have felt impossible in the past. For students from a faith background or a culture that has very specific traditions and ideas around sexuality and gender, this can create an intense period of internal conflict. The feeling of being pulled in at least two different directions can cause a crisis in identity, sometimes resulting in a rapid deterioration in mental health, an increased risk of low mood, self-harm and suicidality.
A recent report from Student Minds, exploring LGBTQ+ student mental health in an HE setting, made repeated reference to the mental health of GSRD students, with 79 per cent of participants agreeing that there was a need for additional mental health support specifically for LGBTQ+ students.2 The report also featured research carried out by Queer Futures in 2016, which outlined five key areas that explained elevated risk of mental health difficulties among LGBTQ youth: homophobia, managing sexual orientation and gender identity across multiple areas of life, being able to talk, and other life crises.2 Students from a strong faith background, and who believe that their faith and sexuality/ gender identity cannot co-exist, are likely to experience further difficulties – although it is also important to note that many people are keen to challenge this narrative of struggle as the only possibility.
Next in this issue
Naming the conflict: the first South Asian LGBTI Conference, Birmingham
In 2018, I attended the first South Asian LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex) conference, held in Birmingham. The conference covered themes of sexuality, visibility, religion, faith and human rights, exploring where things currently stand within various faith communities.
A frequent concern of the speakers was a desire to challenge the narrative from the problematic, ‘Oh, you’re from a religious background and queer? That must be so difficult for you!’ Speakers emphasised the importance of creating an environment of hope that intersecting identities can work together. I realised that sometimes clients may internalise this ‘conflict’ narrative (‘It’s not possible to be LGBTQ and Muslim/Christian/Jewish’) and that we as counsellors run the risk of colluding with this. I would suggest that we have a responsibility to resist this narrative; to be culturally competent and aware of alternative possibilities. We can play a role in holding the hope that clients can consolidate their identities, which can be particularly important during times of intense despair and confusion.
One of the speakers told of starting ‘Gaysians’ in 2014 and marching in London Pride for the first time; he spoke of how the movement has evolved over the last four years and of his hopes that things will continue to improve. We saw photos of another speaker’s same-sex Hindu wedding and her pride at having her mum in the audience.
Speakers referred to the queer histories in many of the major religions, including depictions of homosexual acts in medieval Indian Hindu temples. They told of places of worship that offer affirmative faith spaces, including London Queer Muslims, who have established an inclusive mosque (though without a permanent space) and Inclusive Church, who state that they ‘celebrate and affirm every person and do not discriminate’.4 There were tales of tragedy as well as hope. Reports of violence, suicide and attempted murder punctuated speakers’ coming out stories. It is important that we remain aware of the high risk that some students could potentially face if families were to discover their queer identities. When students are struggling with inner conflict or have decided to disclose their identity to families, we must be aware of the potential risks involved and assess these accordingly.
Making the course last: delay tactics
Marriage (heteronormative) is an expected rite of passage in many communities; Professor Rusi Jaspal, another speaker at the conference, has written that in the South Asian community, marriage often follows the completion of education.5
I am aware from my work with students that many families with a tradition of arranged marriage start considering potential matches during their university course. A common response in students who want to avoid marriage is to take as long as they can to complete their education. Repeating a year or two, interrupting studies and pursuing postgraduate courses are all ways that many of these students use to avoid marrying someone against their will, and to give themselves time to explore their identity and how they would like to move forward with this.
‘Inviting in’ instead of ‘coming out’
Sekneh Beckett challenges the notion in the Identity Formation Model and the general belief in the Western GSRD community that in order to live a ‘…truly gay or queer life it is necessary to come out in certain ways’.5,6 Beckett argues that the Western worldview dismisses subtler networks of communication about sexuality, sexual practices and identity, and that there could be alternative ways in which some queer young people define their identities. This may not involve ‘coming out’ to everyone significant in their lives. She discusses the idea of ‘inviting in’ as opposed to ‘coming out’, describing the conscious invitation into this aspect of a person’s life.
In Beckett’s experience, this concept of inviting selective people into the person’s precious ‘closet’ has opened up a space for queer Muslims to form their identity in a way that could work better for them. This concept could work equally for people of faith from other religions, or even those in a non-faith environment where it might feel unsafe to ‘come out’.8
Following the conference, I contacted the organiser, Khakan Qureshi, as someone working within our local GSRD community for his ideas on how counselling and wellbeing teams can support students of faith who might be struggling with their gender and sexual identities. Khakan explained that, in his experience, some people cope by never coming out to their families, and that it is easy to locate websites where you can find a queer person of the opposite sex to be a potential marriage match. Khakan commented that although this works well for some people, he would not personally recommend it, adding that the best way is to be honest. He went on to say that one of the most important messages that he has taken from his faith is the importance of living an authentic life.
I considered that if everyone chose to go down the route of hiding their sexuality from their faith communities and families, much of the progress that has been made so far would not have happened. Making the invisible visible was something that several of the conference speakers said was important for progress.
However, Khakan stressed the importance of being financially secure before coming out to family members, in case the reaction is not positive. Financial security and independence are perhaps not something that the majority of students in full-time education can enjoy, but Khakan recommends that people take a step back from their current situation and dilemmas, and consider life goals in general. From there, they can work towards these goals, step by step. It is also important to consider that being an activist for the cause is not for everyone, and people must find their own way to a fulfilled life.
I recently spoke to one of my students, who I have worked with intermittently over the last four years, and who identifies as LGBTQ and Muslim, and who gave me permission to share his story. He reflected that when he first accessed the wellbeing and counselling service, he felt incredibly conflicted about his identity; he believed that no other queer Muslims existed as he had not encountered anyone else with his faith and sexuality.
I offered him a person-centred approach but, due to my initial lack of knowledge about Islam and sexuality, I simply took his word for it when he said: ‘My religion is against homosexuality.’ However, I did provide details of various services and support groups. He reflected:
‘Before coming to speak to you about it, I didn’t think that there were many other people like me, but once you shared with me that I was not the only one, I started to notice more things out there. I was initially not comfortable in myself at all, but it was helpful to know that I was not the only one and I started to accept my identities. Those conversations helped to process it all.’
We have also discussed faith during the times that he has hit crisis point, and he reflected that his faith had been a source of strength:
‘My faith is really important to me. I feel like it has saved me in some ways. I felt really low at times, but suicide is not permitted; if I didn’t have my faith, it may have been a different outcome. This did confuse me at the time because the thing that was saving me was also telling me that I couldn’t be gay. Knowing that there are support groups out there for people like me makes me feel better. I haven’t felt able to go yet, but just knowing that they are there and that other people use them, helps me to know that I am not alone.’
At the time, I didn’t realise the impact that just knowing that there were other people like him, had had on this student; knowing of the existence of others in his position seems to have been instrumental in helping him to consolidate his identities. He is still not out to his family, but he no longer seems to be fighting an inner battle. He is taking the time to consider what he may do in the future, but feels that a positive step would be to meet more queer Muslims and find out more about how they have managed.
Naz and Matt ‘proud parents’ campaign
Many of the young people using the counselling and wellbeing service at BCU say that parental acceptance is the thing that they struggle with most. It is with this is mind that the Naz and Matt Foundation has launched its ‘proud parents’ campaign.
The Naz and Matt Foundation’s mission statement is: ‘To never let religion, any religion, come in the way of the unconditional love between parents and their children.’8
The Foundation was set up in 2014, following the loss of Matt’s fiancé, Naz, who took his own life two days after his deeply religious family confronted him about his sexuality. The foundation now exists to empower and support GSRD individuals, their friends and family, to work towards resolving challenges linked to sexuality or gender identity, particularly where religion is influencing the situation.
The charity recently launched its first ‘Out and Proud Parents Day’ and shared stories from proud parents who are from a faith background and have children who identify as LGBTQI. This bolsters their existing information and support, and recognises how important it is for parents to form connections with other parents of faith, especially if they have received negative messages from their religion and community.
Consolidating faith and gender/sexuality
Research indicates that the example of my student, whose faith helped him in the midst of a mental health crisis, is not unique; having a strong faith identity can be good for our mental health and wellbeing.9 However, due to past stories when queer people of faith come out, they may feel like they have to choose between their sexuality and their faith. It is at this point that many GSRD people choose to walk away from their religion. This in turn can have a detrimental impact on their mental health.10
In the counselling room, students may require a space to explore the religious issues that they are experiencing and to potentially redefine their understanding of religious texts. Although I’m sure many of us may not feel competent as religious theologians, I do believe that it’s important that we provide a space for this, and try to find out what we can from the existing literature and from queer people of faith communities. Bernard Lynch covers this in more detail and conveys the importance of directing clients to readings that can offer scholarly ways of interpreting religious passages.11
Suggestions for working with students when their faith is in conflict with their sexuality or gender identity
Consider applying intersectionality to your practice.12 It might feel uncomfortable to hold discussions about religion, culture, gender and sexuality if one or more of these do not match that of your own. One way to work with this conflict is to name it. I suggest that we start to develop an awareness of the intersections of our own identity and how these could play out in the therapy room. Consider with the client the similarities and differences in your identities: race, gender (and whether we identify as cis/trans/other), class, sexual orientation, disability, religious/spiritual beliefs and how they may potentially influence the therapy process. Suggest that if the differences in your identities mean that you hit a difficulty within the therapy, you are both free to speak up about this. Acknowledge the spaces in which the client feels they do not belong, and identify ways in which they could potentially have their needs met.
I have found the GRACE model useful in working with someone who is experiencing externalised and internalised oppression around their gender identity or sexual orientation.12 It is outlined below:
Goals: invite the student to discuss their history and experiences of the things that are causing conflict, and support them to consider the most significant events in their life associated with this. Invite them to consider what they hope to achieve from the counselling, particularly around the source of conflict with their gender/ sexuality. Consider whether they feel ready to progress and make some changes. If they are keen to change their sexuality, acknowledge that this can be a normal want or desire within their current situation. Assess all of the internal and external conflicts, and together try to recognise and clearly define the problem. Discuss with the student what kind of life they might like to lead with their identity, and at what pace they would like to move towards a reconciliation of identities. Consider whether any past events or emotions associated with them need to be processed before moving forward with the rest of the GRACE framework.
Renewal of hope: explore the possibility of a GSD identity clashing with their other identity/identities, causing conflict. Provide psychoeducation – accurate information which will increase the student’s knowledge and help them move towards self-acceptance. Help them to understand their options and the possibilities of how their identities could be reconciled. Assist the client to use logic, research, science and personal experiences to integrate their conflicting identities.
Action: this involves movement towards reintegrating gender/sexuality with their other identities, making some plans, finding resources and affirmative communities, such as an LGBTQ-affirming church or a support group. Does the student want to move in a completely new direction or reconnect with previous activities? How ‘out’ do they want to be? What do they want to accomplish through engagement with this identity or role? This is about learning exactly how to consolidate their identity.
ConnEction: this includes making a connection with others and/or a community which will honour and affirm their identity/identities. It could involve connecting with others who may have a similar identity. It is helpful for the counsellor to find out what is available locally and nationally. Support the student to prepare to cope with any negative attitudes that they may encounter.
Student Minds report recommendations
I have also considered some of the recommendations from the Student Minds report.1 One of the recurring themes in the report was that support services, including counselling services, should receive better training around issues relating to LGBT students. It is recommended that universities should be hiring staff from the LGBTQ and BME community or with specialist knowledge and understanding of the community. The report indicates that students also want us to be open about our own identities, and our knowledge areas. I have told all of my GSRD students about the course that I have recently completed, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, not every scenario can be covered in my learning, so I am still mindful to research anything unfamiliar that is brought up by a student. Although we can, of course, learn from students, it is not fair for them to spend a great deal of their time within sessions increasing the cultural competence of their counsellor. This is of particular importance now that most university counselling services are offering short-term counselling.13
The report indicated that students would like more visible LGBTQ role models. These are perhaps not too difficult to find if a student is out, proud and engaged in the LGBTQ societies, where they may also engage with the staff network on cross-campus awareness campaigns or attend talks and conferences relating particularly to the LGBTQ community. However, if someone does not feel ready, safe or comfortable to be ‘out’, would they have access to these role models? Is there a way that we can reach students even before they feel ready to take that plunge, as some may never feel confident enough to do this on their own?
Here at BCU, I have met with the LGBTQ society and staff network to discuss a potential campaign that could reach students who are not yet ready to approach us. In the past, we have arranged for banners, which have included LGBTQ figures throughout history, to be visible around campus for LGBT history month. We could potentially do something similar with diversity role models and allies in our community – for example, a minister from an inclusive church, a leader or attendee from the South Asian support group, or an attendee of the LGBTQ mosque in London. This would show the true diversity of our community and also could work as a signpost for support.
I believe that we all have a responsibility to increase our cultural competence regarding GSRD identities and faith and we can do this in a number of ways: make links with affirmative faith communities and support groups, both locally and nationally; follow these organisations on social media; attend relevant training and conferences; and reach out, both within the university and outside, as an ally. We can also consider whether our practice is acknowledging those intersectional identities and whether we are allowing our clients space to work through some of the things that are really difficult for them (and us) to face. I would also suggest that we take risks with disclosing our own intersectional identities when it feels like it could be useful for the student. Queer students of faith are here and we as counsellors must be ready
1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-englandbirmingham-50557227 (accessed 7 January 2020).
2. Student Mind. LGBTQ+ student mental health: the challenges and needs of gender, sexual and romantic minorities in higher education, 2018. https://www.studentminds. org.uk › lgbtqresearch (accessed 7 January 2020).
3. Bozard R, Sanders C. Helping Christian lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients recover religion as a source of strength: developing a model for assessment and integration of religious identity in counseling. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling 2011; 5(1): 47–74.
4. Inclusive Church. https://www.inclusivechurch.org/ (accessed 7 October 2019).
5. Jaspal R. ‘I never faced up to being gay’: sexual, religious and ethnic identities among British Indian and British Pakistani gay men. Culture, Health & Sexuality 2012; 14(7): 767–780.
6. En.wikipedia.org. Cass identity model. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cass_identity_ model (accessed 29 August 2018).
7. Beckett S. Azima ila Hayati – an invitation in to my Life. https://www.academia.edu/3283029 2/Azima_ila_Hayati_An_invitation_in_to_my_ life_Narrative_conversations_about_sexual_ identity_Sekneh_enjoys_working_with_ people_from_diverse_backgrounds_and_ holds_a_position_of_curiosity_from (accessed 7 January 2020).
8. Naz and Matt Foundation. Naz and Matt Foundation – be the person you were born to be. https://www.nazandmattfoundation.org/ (accessed 29 August 2018).
9. Bowers R, Minichiello V, Plummer D. Religious attitudes, homophobia, and professional counseling. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling 2010; 4: 70–91.
10. Wood A, Conley A. Loss of religious or spiritual identities among the LGBT population. Counseling and Values 2014; 59(1): 95–111.
11. Lynch B. Religious and spirituality conflicts. In Davies D, Neal C (eds). Pink Therapy: a guide for counsellors working with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients. Oxon: Routledge;1998 (pp199–208).
12. Riggs D, das Nair R. Intersecting identities. In das Nair R, Butler C (eds). Intersectionality, sexualities and psychological therapies. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons; 2018 (pp9–30).
13. Mair D. Short-term counselling in higher education: context, theory and practice. Oxon: Routledge; 2016.