The Intersection of Religion, Sexuality, and Mental Health

This month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month all around the world. Mental Health is an important discussion that must be had all year round. A study done by BMJ Global Health in Uganda last year revealed that approximately 14 million people out of a population of 43.7 million, or about 32.0%, were affected by mental illness in 2022 and this number has gone up over time[1].  Individuals who identify as LGBTQI+ and belong to a religious community suffer even more. Mental health is an important aspect of overall well-being, and for many LGBTQI+ individuals, it intersects with their experiences of faith in profound ways.

With 98% of Uganda’s population subscribing to a religion[2], religious affiliation is beyond a practice, it’s almost an identity deeply interwoven in who they are. Individuals who identify as LGBTQI+ struggle with existing in their true sexual identity and their religion simultaneously. Feelings of conflict, rejection, or alienation, both internally and within their religious or spiritual communities rise as a result of the homophobic teachings or expectations of their faith traditions, these create significant emotional distress and strain on their mental well-being. For example;

The past 2 years have been extreme for the LGBTQI+ community in Uganda. Religious leaders have relentlessly peddled the narrative that LGBTQI+ individuals do not deserve the freedom to worship or belong to a faith, to the extent of fueling and supporting the criminalization of LGBTQI+ through the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 (AHA). The constant messages of shame and sinfulness have taken a toll on the mental health of LGBTQI+ individuals, leaving them feeling isolated and unworthy of love. As a result, many of them find themselves at odds with the teachings and attitudes of their faith community.

Additionally, many LGBTQ+ individuals face the prospect of being ostracized, shunned, or even subjected to harmful conversion therapy practices due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This fear of rejection has led to profound feelings of isolation and alienation, which leads to an increase in existing mental health issues. The internalized shame or guilt stemming from religious teachings about sexuality or gender has deeply affected LGBTQ+ individuals further leading to feelings of unworthiness, self-hatred, and psychological distress.

Furthermore, LGBTQ+ individuals often experience conflicting identities and pressure to conform to heteronormative or cisnormative expectations within religious communities. This pressure leads to a sense of inauthenticity, identity suppression, and a lack of acceptance of one’s true self, further worsening mental health challenges.

To all LGBTQI+ individuals navigating the complexities of faith and identity, know that you are not alone. Your experiences are valid, and your journey is worthy of love and respect. Embrace your authentic self with pride and compassion, knowing that you are deserving of belonging and affirmation.

To our faith communities and leaders, we issue a call to action; drawing upon religious principles of love and equality it is important to create spaces of inclusion, compassion, and affirmation for LGBTQI+ individuals. Challenge harmful teachings and attitudes that perpetuate stigma and discrimination. Stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized and advocate for justice and equality for all.

Together, let us work towards a future where LGBTQI+ individuals can fully embrace their identities without fear or shame, where faith and inclusion go hand in hand, and where mental health is prioritized and supported. Let us build a world where everyone is celebrated for who they are, regardless of who they love or how they express their gender.