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Study shows religiously conservative people can have positive perception of gays, lesbians

How do religiously conservative people deal with the issues of diverse sexual orientation among clients, family members or friends? The answer to this question is one that New Mexico State University Professor Eve Adams and her team of researchers are exploring in a study on the perceptions of therapists, psychologists and others who self-identified as religiously conservative.

Professor Eve Adams, center, along with doctoral students Tracie Hitter, left, and Richard Martinez, study transcripts as part of their research on religiously conservative people's views of sexual orientation. (NMSU photo by Harrison Brooks)

Adams, a professor of counseling and educational psychology, worked with professors Betsy Cahill and Todd Savage and doctoral students Virginia Longoria, Tracie Hitter, Sharna Horn and Richard Martinez. They developed a study to find how religiously conservative individuals may change their views on lesbians, gays and bisexuals (LGB) through relationships with friends, family members, co-workers or clients.

"We often make the assumption that people involved in religiously conservative faith groups are not affirming of same-sex couples, but this is not necessarily the case," Adams said. "There are people who are members of religiously conservative faith groups, who view being supportive of LGB individuals as very consistent with their religious values."

Adams and her team began research in January 2007, with a sample of 24 people who expressed their views on sexual orientation and how it is incorporated with their religious views. The study examined how their values and perceptions changed after encountering LGB individuals at work, school and within their home or circle of friends.

Before beginning the study, the research team made sure that their subjects met the following criteria: They were heterosexual, they did not identify themselves as currently having negative views toward LGB individuals and they were religiously conservative.

The qualitative study began with three different surveys: one covering demographics; another over their attitudes toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals; and the third on how religious they are and how active or involved they are within that religion. These studies found that most participants could sympathize with issues experienced by LGB individuals.

"Many participants questioned their religion on other issues, such as the role of women in their faith group," Adams said. "They also often indicated that they did not have a literal interpretation of the written texts of their religion, rather they viewed them as writings that needed to be interpreted in a cultural and historical context."

In addition to the informational surveys, one- to two-hour interviews were conducted by phone and in-person in which participants related their experiences with LGB individuals and how interacting with them changed their perceptions.

"For this study, we learned that most participants experienced a shift in their views partly due to having an ongoing, personal connection with someone who identified as LGB," Adams said. "It was through this relationship that these individuals were able to work through their views, and as a result, became sensitized to the oppression experienced by LGB individuals."

The results of this research expanded into a second study in which nine of the 24 participants who are therapists and psychologists were further questioned. The research team hopes that by using the results of those nine individuals' experiences, they can better prepare future therapists and psychologists.

"So often people fall back on their religion as a way to explain why they can't agree, believe or deal with the topic," Hitter said. "We hope this study will benefit training programs so that psychologists in training will be prepared to deal with these sensitive issues."

The study is ongoing and Adams and her team of researchers hope to find ways to best support graduate students in reconciling their views between religion and sexual orientation so they can provide training for psychologists and therapists who may struggle with these issues.