Religion has been, and continues to be, a source of external hostility and internal struggle for many sexual minorities. This has potential implications for the observed religious origins and current religious affiliations of individuals identifying as a sexual minority. Regarding origins, self-identified sexual minorities might be less likely than heterosexuals to have come from religious traditions that have tended to be hostile to minority sexualities, as individuals raised within those traditions might be hesitant to identify as a sexual minority even if they have same-sex attractions. Regarding destinations, self-identified sexual minorities might be more likely than heterosexuals to switch away from religious traditions that have tended to be hostile to minority sexualities. We examine these expectations using nationally representative survey data from the 2008 to 2014 General Social Surveys. The analysis shows that sexual minorities do not significantly differ from heterosexuals by the religious traditions in which they were raised. Sexual minorities are, however, more likely than heterosexuals to move away from Christian traditions and towards disaffiliation or reaffiliation with “other” traditions that include Judaism, Buddhism, and liberal nontraditional religions such as Unitarian Universalism. For gay and lesbian individuals, these patterns of disaffiliation and reaffiliation can be attributed to higher on average education and lower likelihood of being married and having children; however, these sociodemographic factors do not explain the disaffiliation and reaffiliation of bisexual individuals. Further research should explore the different religious experiences of sexual minority sub-groups.
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Rodriguez and Ouellette (2000) note four potential outcomes: (1) rejecting the religious identity; (2) rejecting the homosexual identity; (3) compartmentalization; (4) identity integration. We have combined the first two possibilities (rejection of an identity) and the second two (accommodation of both identities) into our descriptions.
The 2010 General Social Survey, for example, found that 18.3% of US adults were religiously unaffiliated.
Prior to 2008 the GSS had asked about the sex of participants’ past and current sexual partners. Before the inclusion of the sexual identity question, some research (e.g., Sherkat 2002) used these sex partner questions to identify sexual minorities. However, comparing the identity question with the sex partner question shows that they do not perfectly overlap. For instance, 31% of individuals who report a same-sex sex partner in the last five years identify as heterosexual in the 2008–2014 GSS data.
Respondents could also offer the response of “don’t know” or refuse to answer. These cases (don’t know n = 25, refused n = 113) are excluded from the analysis.
The terms evangelical and mainline generally correspond to terms like “conservative” and “moderate-liberal,” respectively.
The divorced and separated categories are distinct in the original survey question, but there were not enough cases in the separated category in the multivariate analyses to keep it as a distinct category.
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The authors did not receive funding to conduct this research.
Conflict of interest
Author Scheitle declares that he has no conflict of interest. Author Wolf declares that she has no conflict of interest.
The data used in this research come from the General Social Survey (GSS), which is publicly available at gss.norc.org. Informed consent is obtained from all GSS participants. This research is in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
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Scheitle, C.P., Wolf, J.K. The Religious Origins and Destinations of Individuals Identifying as a Sexual Minority. Sexuality & Culture 21, 719–740 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-017-9417-y
- Identity conflict
- Religious affiliation
- Sexual minorities