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The impact of intrinsic spirituality on sexual minorities

This study evaluates how intrinsic spirituality might influence psychological health outcomes among sexual minority individuals.

By Suzanne Stern and A. Jordan Wright, PhD

Spirituality, broadly defined as an individual relationship with a higher power or belief that motivates behaviors and provides meaning and purpose (Hodge, 2003), has been widely connected to positive outcomes within the general population. It has been associated with health protective personality traits (Labbé & Fobes, 2010) and linked to lower rates of depression, anxiety (Hourani et al., 2012; Hsiao et al., 2012), and suicidal ideation (e.g., Kyle, 2013). It further predicts ability to cope with stressful situations such as psychological aggression (Austin & Falconier, 2013) and physical violence (Schneider & Feltey, 2009).

Whether spirituality may function in the same way for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals is not presently clear. Some studies (e.g. Tan, 2005) suggest that spiritual well-being is associated with increased psychological health among sexual minority individuals. This population could greatly benefit from the protective factors associated with spirituality, as it is at risk for adverse physical and mental health outcomes as a result of stigma-related and minority stress (e.g., Hatzenbuehler, 2009). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals experience greater rates of mood and substance use disorders, suicidal attempts or ideation (Fergusson, Horwood, & Beautrais, 1999; Meyer, 2003) and poorer general health (Diamant, Wold, Spritzer, & Gelberg, 2000) than heterosexuals.

This study sought to evaluate how intrinsic spirituality, or one's inner intrapersonal relationship with an inspirational, motivational, or purpose-giving higher power, might influence psychological health outcomes among sexual minority individuals. Intrinsic spirituality can exist apart from religiosity; as such, more highly spiritual LGB individuals may be protected from religious stigma, which has been associated with greater internalized homonegativity (e.g., Ross & Rosser, 1996; J. Walker, 2012) and negative identity (e.g., Lapinski & McKirnan, 2013). Thus, this study assessed how intrinsic spirituality influences heteronormativity, or normative attitudes about gender behaviors and expectations, and whether this had an effect on LGB identity development. It was hypothesized that a negative association would exist between intrinsic spirituality and heteronormativity, and that heteronormativity would be positively related to negative identity. It was further hypothesized that lower levels of heteronormativity would mediate the relationship between intrinsic spirituality and negative identity.

Intrinsic spirituality was assessed using Hodge's (2003) Intrinsic Spirituality Scale, designed to evaluate the motivational influence of nonreligious spirituality. Heteronormativity was assessed using Habarth's (2008) Heteronormative Attitudes and Beliefs Scale. Negative identity was assessed using the Negative Identity subscale of Mohr and Fassinger's (2000) Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Identity Scale.

The sample for this study was comprised of adult individuals ( N =109) who self-identified as lesbian (22.0%), gay (40.4%), or bisexual (22.2%). Participants were nearly evenly split by gender (male, 45.9%), with the majority self-identified as White (68.8%). Recruitment was carried out via online outlets targeted to this population. Participants were informed about and agreed to informed consent before completing an online survey.

Data were tested for mediation in a linear regression framework using demographics such as age, sex, sexual orientation, relationship status, and minority status as controls. Contrary to the hypothesis, greater intrinsic spirituality and greater heteronormativity independently predicted greater negative identity, and intrinsic spirituality predicted heteronormativity. When intrinsic spirituality and heteronormativity were included together as predictors of negative identity, only heteronormativity remained a significant predictor, and the effect of intrinsic spirituality was no longer significant. The association between intrinsic spirituality and negative identity was fully mediated by heteronormativity.

These findings challenge the perception of spirituality as a protective factor for sexual minorities and implicate spirituality as a possible contributor to negative psychological health outcomes. However, this study included numerous limitations, including a small sample size, correlational/cross-sectional design, and lack of racial and ethnic diversity. Further, as no religious demographics were collected, and the study did not employ any measures of religiosity, there is no way to rule out the influence of past or present religious involvement or exposure. A follow-up study is currently underway that includes multiple measures of spirituality and religiosity, and various measures of psychological well-being; it is hoped that this study will more precisely elucidate the impact of spirituality on the LGB population.


Austin, J.L. & Falconier, M.K. (2013). Spirituality and common dyadic coping: Protective factors from psychological aggression in Latino immigrant couples. Journal of Family Issues , 34: 323-346.

Fergusson, D.M., Horwood, L.J., & Beautrais, A.L. (1999). Is sexual orientation related to mental health problems and suicidality in young people? Archives of General Psychiatry , 56(10), 876-80.

Habarth, J. M. (2008). Thinking "straight": Heteronormativity and associated outcomes across sexual orientation. (Order No. 3328835, University of Michigan). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 186-n/a.

Hodge, D. R. (2003). The Intrinsic Spirituality Scale: A new six-item instrument for assessing the salience of spirituality as a motivational construct. Journal of Social Service Research , 30(1), 41-61.

Hourani, L. L., Williams, J., Forman-Hoffman, V., Lane, M. E., Weimer, B., & Bray, R. M. (2012). Influence of spirituality on depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicidality in active duty military personnel. Depression Research & Treatment , 1-9.

Hsiao, Y., Wu, H., Chien, L., Chiang, C., Hung, Y., & Peng, P. (2012). The differences in spiritual health between non-depressed and depressed nurses. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 21(11/12), 1736-1745.

Labbé, E.,E., & Fobes, A. (2010). Evaluating the interplay between spirituality, personality and stress. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback , 35(2), 141-6.

Meyer, I. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin , 129(5), 674-697.

Mohr, J. J., & Fassinger, R. E. (2000). Measuring dimensions of lesbian and gay male experience. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development , 33, 66–90.

Kyle, J. (2013). Spirituality: Its role as a mediating protective factor in youth at risk for suicide. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health , 15(1), 47.

Ross, M., & Rosser, B. (1996). Measurement and correlates of internalized homophobia: A factor analytic study. Journal of Clinical Psychology , 52(1), 15-21.

Schneider, R.Z. & Feltey, K.M. (2009). “No matter what has been done wrong can always be redone right”: Spirituality in the lives of imprisoned battered women. Violence Against Women, 15(4), 443-459.

Tan, P. (2005). The importance of spirituality among gay and lesbian individuals. Journal of Homosexuality , 49(2), 135-144.

Suzanne SternSuzanne Stern received her B.A. in psychology from SUNY Empire State College in 2014.  Her research interests include spirituality and well-being among sexual minority individuals, the role of attachment representations in depression and anxiety disorders, and stress and coping among chronically ill individuals.