Table of Contents
Google listing of all pages on this website
Toby Johnson's Facebook page
Toby Johnson's YouTube channel
Toby Johnson on Wikipedia
Toby Johnson Amazon Author Page
Secure site at
Also on this website:
As an Amazon Associate
I earn from qualifying purchases.
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
SPIRITUAL QUESTIONS IN GAY COUNSELING(1988)
TOBY JOHNSON, PHD
Edited by Michael Shernoff & William Scott, 1988,
published by the National Lesbian/Gay Health Foundation
Available from Amazon.com
The Sourcebook on Lesbian-Gay Health Care
The problems that more than half the c1ients over the age of 35 bring to therapy, according to Carl Jung, are basically religious in nature (Jung, 1938). That is a bold assertion that perhaps made more sense in the first half of the century than now. After all, despite the politicization and popularity of Christian Fundamentalism in the late 198Os, in the latter half of the twentieth century basic assumptions about life and the techniques for seeking truth have become more and more secularized. One might think Jung's observation about problems in therapy outdated. On the other hand, one might look at the rise of Fundamentalism as serious religious concerns strugg1ing willy-nilly to manifest in an inhospitable environment. In the same way that in Jung's clients in the second half of their lives religious issues appeared as psychological problems, so perhaps in the second half of this century religious issues appear as social problems. What Jung meant by his assertion is that the issues of the second half of life often revolve around the question of meaning. Gail Sheehy recently popularized the notion of transitional life-crises (Sheehy, 1976; Levinson, 1978). The important questions of the first half of life involve such practical matters as achievement of personal competence, development of sexual identity and prowess, choice of career and (possibly) mate and establishment of a social niche. To the extent that those choices have been made successfully, they are almost necessarily followed by the discovery that they are not enough -- "Is that all there is?" in the words of the song. Thus the crisis of mid-life involves the questions: "What is life for?" "What does it all mean?"
The questions about the meaning of life derive from seeing one's life in a larger context. This enlarged perception tends to come to individuals as they accumulate enough life experience to begin to see their own present experience in the context of their whole lives. By the time a person reaches forty years of age, he or she has seen major changes in styles and social fads, economic cycles, political regimes. The present has come to make sense in the larger context. The individual then might begin to ask in what context that larger context makes sense. That question is a primary source of the religious concerns (Frankl, 1963; Peck, 1978). In the same way that reaching middle age naturally results in a re-evaluation of the meaning of one's life, so experiencing tragedy demands a similar re-evaluation. The practical issues of competence, sexuality and career pale in the face of death. Is that all there is? (A good argument, indeed, can be made that the origin of religious thinking was primitive anthropoids' recognition of -- and resistance to -- mortality and transience and their development of myths of afterlife and eternity to soothe death anxieties.)
The two themes of mid-life evaluation and rethinking in the face of tragedy are coming together in the lives of lesbians and, especially, gay men in the late 1980s. What might be called "the first generation of liberated lesbians and gay men," i.e., those who were reaching adulthood during the sexual revolution and the rise of gay liberation at the end of the 196Os -- and who were also part of the youth culture that couldn't trust anyone over thirty - is now reaching middle age. Simultaneously, they are facing the tragedy of AIDS. (Ironically, AIDS satisfies one of the impetuous commitments of the youth culture: the intention to live fast and burn out quickly before age could sour life and force one into over-thirty adulthood -- Die young, stay pretty. Of course, AIDS seldom allows the second half of that imperative [Johnson, 1984].)
The experience of individual and community tragedy raises serious questions -- "Why did this happen to me?" "Why did this happen to my friend(s)?" "What does it mean for me?" These are not answered by the usual solutions of counseling and psychotherapy. Changing behavior, developing adequate coping styles, releasing emotions, reducing stress, achieving insight to psychodynamics -- none of these adequately address the transcendental nature of the questions. (Psychologists influenced by linguistic analysis, for instance, are likely to tell clients that "Why?" questions cannot have meaningful answers.) These are spiritual/religious/ metaphysical questions that demand answers outside the individual and outside the culture.
Lesbians and gay men may have an especially difficult time with such questions because social intolerance toward homosexuality (at least after the fourteenth century, according to Boswell ) has been linked to Western religion. Many gay people, having recognized that the church lied about homosexuality, understandably feel religion can't be trusted on other issues. Today, of course, the anti-gay preachers have insensitively jumped on their own AIDS bandwagon and used the disease to justify hateful teachings that should, figuratively speaking, have Jesus Christ "turning in his grave." Unfortunately, these biased -- and truly unchristian -- preachments not only alienate gay people asking metaphysical/spiritual questions, but also dump a series of painful, misguided questions onto people already overburdened. "Is AIDS evidence of God's hatred of homosexuality?" "Am I damned for being gay?" "Could Jerry Falwell and the Pope be right?"
In psychopathic terms, these "problems of meaning" appear often as depression and anxiety. They look like "transitional crises" and "adjustment reactions" and, like most such non-pathological problems, they may simply go away with a little venting, a sympathetic listener and some supportive counseling. After all, people tend to grow out of transitional crises simply by getting older. But AIDS isn't going away; the sense of loss of loved ones who have fallen victim to it isn't going away; the societal turmoil and anti-gay scapegoating isn't going away; and the basic questions about the meaning of life in the context of tragedy aren't going away.
One manifestation of the spiritual crisis is an urge to commit suicide. Because the questions are "ultimate," they tend to call for an "ultimate answer." Suicide not only eliminates the questioning, it provides a kind of answer by moving the individual into the life-and-death context that frames the questions. In this latter sense, thinking about suicide (as Albert Camus and the 1950s Existentialists observed) is an important way of asking spiritual questions. For mental health professionals, on the other hand, c1ients' suicidal ideation tends to move the diagnosis to a new category in the D.S.M. and to mobilize a whole series of legal concerns about reportability and professional liability. (As this author has suggested in his Plague: A Novel About Healing, , for some individuals facing the debilitation of AIDS, choosing a quick end to the disease might be appropriate. As more and more PWAs consider such a choice in the absence of effective treatments that stop the debilitating effects of the disease, counselors may be called upon to facilitate decisions that their training has rejected and that raise yet another series of spiritual/metaphysical questions.)
For all that most modern psychotherapists would not like it so, therapy frequently tends to be surprisingly conservative: its aim is to alleviate the client's distress; this is usually accomplished successfully by normalizing the client. Psychiatrists may prescribe medication to make disturbing questions go away. Whi1e gay therapists are often conscientious about interpreting individual problems as consequences of societal problems, e.g., homophobia (Hetrick, 1984), and to encourage "gay rage," at least as a phase of coming out, psychotherapy, in general, tends to "internalize the problem" and, inadvertently, "blame the client" in the name of assisting the individual to accept responsibility for his or her own life (Lerner, 1987). Therapists -- perhaps especially gay therapists -- are apt to avoid religious issues, but some of the questions posed truly call for religious answers.
One solution for the therapist faced with such questions is to refer the client to gay churchpeople at M.C.C., Dignity, Integrity, etc. That may be a good referral once the client has arrived at answers and decided to pursue religion. It may not be a very good one before, however, since it tends to assume an answer, which may not be the one on which the client will decide. For all the very good people in M.C.C. and the other gay churches, the reality is also that, especially with the minor off-shoots of gay religion that do not have credentialing committees, these priests and ministers may be in their jobs not because they are great spiritual counselors but because their sexuality was discovered and they were defrocked. Besides, with few exceptions, the gay religions are just more Christianity and that's the problem.
In fact, isn't psychology really a "new religion?" The Fundamentalists, like John Ankerberg (notable for having accused Jim Bakker of homosexual acts), certainly think so and condemn therapy for that reason. One of the reasons clients come to therapy with transcendental questions is not because they think the therapist will make the questions go away, but because they believe therapy has better answers. After all, for many, psychology has become the new explainer of mysteries and definer of "meaning" (e.g.,"unconscious significance," "childhood wish-fulfillment," “conditioning") and the new arbiter of ethics (e.g., "normality," "therapist's permission," "personal growth"). (Burrows, 1986; Capra, 1982).
Practical questions raised by the spiritual problems in gay counseling then are these: "Are there really spiritual answers?" "Do we, as gay therapists, have religious/spiritual answers?" "Is there a gay spirituality?"
Perhaps the most effective way of responding to clients' spiritual questions is to assist them in researching the answers to these questions. The reason is two-fold: psychotherapy is almost necessarily nondogmatic, if only because therapy works primarily by empowering the client (and indoctrinating a client into a dogmatic system, even when that system is, like psychoanalysis, disempowering); and the appropriate religious technique for arriving at answers to the transcendent questions is exposure to the variety of spiritual thought. This technique seems especially appropriate for gay people because it naturally forces one into a "critical stance" on religion, and, if there is such a thing as a "gay sensibility," it probably derives from individuals being forced by their aberrant sexuality into a "critical stance" on life in general.
As children, lesbians and gay men sense that "we don't belong," "we aren't wanted (as gay), "we are different," "we are outsiders" (Clark, 1987). Ecclesiastical gay spiritual writer and Episcopalian priest John Fortunato (1982) calls this an experience of being "exiles." Secular gay spiritual writer and book editor Paul Reed calls it "longing." In Serenity (1987), he writes eloquently of an experience that is "integral to those of us who have been spiritually deprived by a society that denies us the food for our souls and hearts:"
Gay people are groomed for longing by the very fact of the lack of a place for gay people within society... The larger, prevailing society does not reflect the reality of gay experience. We know that we are here, that we are productive, that we love, that our lives can be as viable as anyone else's. But what we know is not common knowledge.
...We are kind and gentle people. We are a loving community from which violence does not readily erupt. But it is this difference of spirit -- this kindness of spirit -- that also feeds longing, for the schism between this loving mode of our community and the rough mode of a world we want to remake can be profound. We wish that things were different, we long for them to be otherwise, on a spiritual as well as physical plane, just as we longed for different surroundings and attitudes as gay children and teenagers coping helplessly in a foreign land.
We learn to be observers rather than participants. That sense of being excluded, alienated and seeking admission to a circle that we feel does not really want us may be the source both of most of our sufferings (low self-esteem, dissatisfaction, sexual restlessness, compulsivity, etc.) and of our specialness (sensitivity, compassion, artistic ability, etc.). Indeed, it may be that, irrespective of the hostility of the Scribes and Pharisees of the modern-day Church, it is this sense of being outside and wanting more that leaves us dissatisfied with conventional religion.
The stance of being "outside" and "above" the content of individual religions is probably the most salient approach to religious truth today anyway. This is, of course, the attitude of Buddhism in its purest form, and Buddhism -- nontheistic, tolerant, peaceful -- is by far the most spiritual of the religions: no one has ever been murdered in the name of Buddha. This is also the attitude of cultural relativism imposed on modern consciousness by worldwide communication, easy travel, cultural exchange and scientific objectivity. In a world in which every country has myths of its own precious Savior, no one god or savior can be accorded primacy (Campbell, 1956). Thus, comparative religion forces students of religious anthropology into a kind of "meta-religion" in which it is not the content of religion, but the fact of religious questing that provides inspiration and enlightenment.
Such meta-religion does not provide answers, but validates the questions as themselves spiritual acts. Heterodox spiritual genius Blaise Pascal put into the mouth of God the words: "You would not be searching for Me if you had not already found Me" (cited in Evely, 1965).
This so-called "meta-religion" affects a kind of detachment from the details of day to day life, perhaps because it suggests that there are not facile, obvious answers to the significant transcendent questions; that is to say, it inculcates a "critical stance" on the questions themselves. (Certainly one of the reasons people have religious problems in middle adulthood is because the religion of their youth was likely to have taught them incredibly unrealistic expectations; e.g., the TV evangelists suggest that disorders, even as severe as AIDS, can be healed just by putting your hands on the TV and sending in a fat check.)
Purer forms of spirituality urge virtues of detachment, patience and compassion, reminding the individual that he or she is more than just the body, more than just the daily routine, more than just the physical and emotional suffering. At its very essence, spirituality is about life in a larger, more expanded context, beyond the immediacy of time and space, beyond the demands of ego. (It probably doesn't matter if such an expanded, ego-transcending viewpoint is "really true" -- i.e., if human beings have "souls" or whether we reincarnate or are part of "God.” What matters is that achieving a critical stance on ego and on the problems of day to day living frees one from the problems and questions and allows a kind of joy, even in the face of suffering. This joy comes from experiencing "meaning," and meaning comes from experiencing things in a larger context.)
Gay people are naturals for "meta-religion.” In actual practice, clients can be helped to such an enlightened stance by being confronted with openly religious questions like: "What do you think about God?" "What do you feel about God?" "What kind of personal faith experience is meaningful for you?" or "What is your own awareness of spirituality?" After these or similar questions are explored, as well as all the feelings that exploring these questions brings up for the individual, he or she can then be encouraged to investigate what religion is really about and what a specific gay religiousness might be.
Regarding the psychological nature and effects of religion -- and dealing very sensibly with the problems of the Church -- Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled is an excellent and readable starting point. There are several excellent books regarding the variety of forms gay religion can take. These include: Mark Thompson's Gay Spirit (1987), Arthur Evans' classic Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture (1978), Judy Grahn's Another Mother Tongue (1984), John Fortunato's Embracing the Exile (1982), and M.C.C. ministers Troy Perry and Larry Uhrig's autobiographies, and this author's own In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld (Johnson, 1983).
The approach of meta-religion does not violate the objective, non-interference stance of therapy and psychotherapists need not fear encouraging clients toward it. Indeed, good therapy might demand dealing with these issues, if only because gay counseling today necessarily deals with death. And achieving "critical stance" is one of the prime effects of psychotherapy in any event.
Will the answers the c1ients come up with be ultimately satisfying? (Johnson, 1982). The task of maturing spiritually -- especially in the face of tragedy -- is to give up the illusions of childhood. So no, this kind of meta-religious sensibility won't provide the kind of satisfying assurance that came with naive belief. Life is never the same once one has discovered there is no Santa Claus. But an adult learns the message "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" and that becomes satisfying at an adult level. That is the satisfaction of meta-religion (and it avoids the pitfall of being anti-religious, which is just another way of being dominated by the Church of one's upbringing). It offers curiosity and wonder in place of certitude. And those, the great spiritual teachers tell us, are the best source of Enlightenment anyway.
Edwin Clark (Toby) Johnson, PhD is a psychotherapist in private practice. This article was written in 1987. Lots of changes have taken place in gay life--and in Toby Johnson's life. By 2004, he had retired from private practice, run the gay and lesbian bookstore in Austin with his partner since 1984, Kip Dollar, operated two country B&Bs with Kip, editred White Crane Journal for seven years and published six more books.
Link to main page: tobyjohnson.com
Boswell, J. (1980). Christianity. Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Burrows, R. J.L. (1986). "A Christian Critiques the New Age," Christianity Today. May 16, reprinted in Utne Reader. op. cit. pp. 86-96.
Campbell, .J. (1956). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Cleveland: Meridian Press. Capra, F. (1982). The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture, New York: Simon and Schuster.
Clark, D. (1987). Loving Someone Gay (Revised Edition). Berkeley: Celestial Arts. Evans, A. (1978). Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture. Boston: Fag Rag Books. Evely, L. (1965). That Man is You. Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press.
Fortunato, J. E. (1982). Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians. New York: Seabury Press.
Frankl, V. (1963). Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press. Grahn, J. (1984). Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words. Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hetrick, E. S. & Stein, T. (eds.) (1984). Innovations in Psychotherapy with Homosexuals. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.
Johnson, E. C. (1983). In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld: A Mystical Journey. New York: Morrow.
Johnson, E. C. (1982). The Myth of the Great Secret: A Search for Spiritual Meaning in the Face of Emptiness. New York: Morrow.
Johnson, T. (1984). "Is It Time to Grow Up? Confronting the Aging Process," The Advocate, March 6.
Johnson, T. (1987). Plague: A Novel About Healing. Boston: Alyson.
Jung, C.G. (1938). Psychology and Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press. Lemer, M. (1987). "Public-Interest Psychotherapy: A Cure for the Pain of Powerlessness," Surplus Powerlessness, excerpted in Utne Reader, No. 20, March/April, pp. 39-47.
Levinson, D. J. et al (1978). The Seasons of A Man's Life. New York: Knopf.
Peck, M. S. (1978). The Road Less Traveled. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Reed, P. (1987). Serenity: Challenging the Fear of AIDS -- From Despair to Hope. Berkeley: Celestial Arts.
Sheehy, G. (1976). Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York: Bantam. Thompson, M. (1987). Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning. New York: St. Martin's.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
back to top