Front Porch Essay #7

Working with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Clients
Kathy Knobloch, MSW

"Trying to be what others want us to be is a form of slow torture and certain spiritual death" (Anne Wilson Schaef)

Most of us question who we are, why we are here, and what is our purpose in life. These are spiritual questions. These are timeless questions, with ever-changing answers. The spiritual is not static; it is a process. The questions are not answered by others, but through a very personal journey of discovery.

My personal journey included the dominant and popular societal belief that heterosexism is superior and acceptable. Rather than facing exorcism, I shifted into automatic pilot, dating boys, marrying a man, and having children. The road on the journey came to a crossroads when I found my marriage was shambles and my alcohol consumption a problem. For the first time in many years, I came face to face with myself and all the questions I had chosen to ignore to follow the easier, softer way.

Seven years later, here I am, a recovering alcoholic and a lesbian in a committed relationship with another woman. I asked the questions and wrestled with the answers. It was a pain-filled process, questioning religious beliefs, family beliefs, and societal beliefs; moving from the embracing arms of society to the fringes, from the acceptable to the questionable.

My journey is not unique in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. Many have been married, their stories more painful than mine. The friend whose two children were taken away in a custody battle, the friend whose children have disowned her, or my partner whose mother is convinced she will burn in hell. Many stories which portray pain, loss, and grief.

My personal journey is intertwined with my professional one, starting an agency working specifically with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) clients. Especially for those first coming out, many of the questions are about religious beliefs. Father Leo Booth (1991) defines religion as a belief system organized around a prophet, teacher, or set of human precepts. A group shared system of thought and action that offers the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion. If the religious denomination you were raised in condemns homosexuality, the "frame of orientation" becomes an obstacle, the "object of devotion" your judge and juror. The "group shared system" now rejects you, and may even persecute you. Where you were once accepted, you are now an exile.

The Handbook of Nursing Diagnosis defines spiritual distress as "the state in which an individual or group experiences or is at risk of experiencing a disturbance in the belief or value system that provides strength, hope and meaning" (Carpenito, 1993, p. 301). For many GLBT people, their religious faith and the community of the church did provide strength, hope, and meaning. When abandoned by their faith community, the process of finding new avenues and new communities to provide these needs may be long and arduous. The very values underlying these precepts also come into question.

A young gay client is trying to re-define his values since coming out. His parents and his church reject and condemn his homosexuality. Not only does he question the beliefs of his faith, but also asks, "what are family values?" He no longer experiences the parental love, acceptance, and support he grew up with. Another issue he faces is that of his own bigotry and prejudice, for he describes himself as having been "just like his parents." So, another task is also to forgive himself for the way he treated homosexuals in the past. He is on a quest, looking into other religious denominations and faith communities, discovering what his personal belief system consists of, and what a relationship with God really means to him as a young gay man.

When losing one’s religious faith and support, the questions get very personal and the spiritual questions arise. There are varying definitions of spirituality, but all seem to include a relationship to ourselves, others, and the Divine. Shafranske & Gorsuch (1984), describe spirituality as the courage to look within and to trust. What is seen and trusted appears to a deeper sense of belonging, of wholeness, of connectedness, and of openness to the infinite. For GLBT people, the nature of the abuse by religious institutions leads them directly to the path of spirituality. Re-defining God or a Higher Power is a high priority. Finding a supportive community, usually consisting of other gay people, provides the sense of belonging and connectedness, which may have been severed by families, churches, and society. Families of origin may have rejected the GLBT person, so some may have families of choice, rather than "blood."

Society defines homosexuality as "abnormal" because of the attraction to members of the same gender. This may cause a serious rift between one’s sexuality and spirituality. Sex is a curse, rather than a blessing. This becomes a process of integrating one’s sexuality with spirituality, as sexuality is something within, which is expressed as part of the self. Not accepting our sexual energy causes a rift between the physical and the spiritual, and a lack of intimate connectedness with a special other. When society’s view of morality does not accept same-gender sexual attraction as a viable expression of love, GLBT people are not validated at one of the deepest levels of intimacy possible.

Spiritual well-being is defined as a secure set of meta-empirical and natural beliefs and values giving rise to an inner hopefulness about the ultimate meaning and purpose in life, providing a deep peace that is a source of joy in living as well as courage to confront suffering, and an active connection with others and the universe (Kelly, 1995). The active oppression, discrimination, and even hatred of GLBT people constricts and represses their physical and spiritual well-being. As social workers working with GLBT people, walking the spiritual journey with our clients is inevitable.


Booth, L. (1991). When God becomes a drug: Breaking the chains of religious addiction and abuse. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Carpenito, L.J. (1993). Handbook for nursing diagnosis. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.

Elkins, D.N., Hedstron, L.J., Hughes, L.L., Leaf, J.A., & Saunders, C. (1988) Toward a

humanistic-phenomenological spirituality. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 28, 5-18.

Kelly, E.W. (1995). Spirituality and religion in counseling and psychotherapy: Diversity in theory and practice. Alexandria, VA: America Counseling Association.

Kathy Knobloch is the director of a community-based program serving gay and lesbian persons in South Dakota.