Support groups can help you by providing understanding and acceptance from others, and the encouragement to continue through the lengthy process.
Most people who choose to change their same-sex attraction find support groups to be very helpful. A support group should be a safe and confidential place where you can come to know that you are not the only one with same-sex attraction. No one will say, "You’re dealing with what?" It is a place to find encouragement from others who are working to resolve the same problems you are, and that helps reduce your feelings of being alone, different, and isolated. This section discusses the purpose of support groups and tells you what to look for in choosing one. It then discusses how to support each other in a group and the need for spirituality and safety. Finally, it explains how specialized support groups, such as sports programs, can be helpful.
Joe Dallas writes that the function of a support group is to "provide a safe, godly environment where people can openly discuss their same-sex attraction struggles; learn from the experiences of others who’ve gone through similar struggles; be accountable to a group of Christians who are genuinely concerned; and know they have friends who are regularly praying for them, available to them, and rooting for them." (Dallas, 1991, pp. 262–63)
A support group is about helping others. In the beginning, you attend to help yourself, but you soon discover that you find the help you need when you extend help to others. When you begin to care more about their needs than your own, you find yourself healed in the process.
Support groups emphasize dialogue as a way of learning to openly and clearly deal with issues that are at the root of feelings of same-sex attraction. As you listen to each other, perhaps for the first time you will listen to yourself. The typical newcomer sits and listens, and about half way through the discussion realizes he has finally found people who think and feel like he does. When he recognizes that he is safe and can trust the group, he begins to open up and the healing process of sharing begins. He discovers that even when others know all about him, they still accept him. Once the fear of rejection is gone, he finds that he has the courage to relate to others in the group and eventually to men outside the group. Support groups can help you by providing:
- a safe environment where you can face your problems.
- feedback, insight, and practical ideas from others who have experienced the same things you experience.
- a place to begin to build healthy relationships with others of your gender.
- interpersonal experiences in validation, love, and friendship.
- direction, vision, goals, and encouragement to continue when it is difficult.
- accountability for your actions.
- positive experiences to offset the effects of negative peer pressure.
- reduction of your sense of isolation.
- understanding, empathy, and acceptance from others.
- encouragement to continue through the lengthy process.
A support group alone is not enough
A support group will not solve all your problems; it has no magical "cure" for same-sex attraction. Participating in a support group is one of the many things you may need to do. Some men get a false sense of security by participating in a support group and when it doesn’t solve all their problems they may feel frustrated and lose hope that change is possible.
A support group in moderation can be valuable for support and understanding, but in excess, it can prolong and heighten your old identity. The support group should never take the place of the church, your circle of friends, or a normal social life; it is only a short-term supplement.
While your relationships with others in the group will be very fulfilling, they will not be all you need. The support group can be unhealthy if its members only interact with the other members of the group. In a sense, it can become a nonsexual gay community. If you live from meeting to meeting because it is your only social interaction, you need to actively pursue relationships with individuals outside the group at work, in your neighborhood, and in other groups. It is when you experience the love and acceptance of others of your gender who do not have same-sex attraction that you really start to recognize your true worth. Those friendships will be the most rewarding and healing.
In addition to a support group, many men need individual and group therapy. Sometimes support groups can actually do more harm than good if the person is not also seeing a therapist individually to help him correctly process the things he experiences and feels so they can contribute to his growth. If you have addictions, you may also need the help of a twelve-step program like Homosexuals Anonymous or Sexaholics Anonymous (see the Organizations page).
Choosing a support group
There are helpful groups of many kinds that seek to fortify those struggling to withdraw from drug addiction or to overcome other issues. However, there are also groups that do the opposite by justifying immoral conduct and binding the chains of addiction ever tighter. Some organizations exist to give support and love, but do not seek to help the person find ways to overcome homosexual behavior. These organizations do more harm than good because they help the person justify his behavior. Research carefully any group before you join it to be sure it will fortify you in the right way.
Before you choose a support group, get a copy of their written literature and read the group’s mission statement. (If they don’t have one, they likely have not defined their purpose well enough for it to be a healthy environment.) Does the group function according to the written statements? Do the values and beliefs of the group match yours? Does the group inspire respect for the individual and promote personal growth? Does the group have written policies to protect participants in their vulnerabilities and provide a safe environment? Does the program support abstinence of sexual behavior outside of marriage? This kind of sobriety can be attained through sharing experience, strength, and hope at group meetings. The group is on dangerous ground if it seeks to justify any homosexual behavior.
To find a support group whose values and beliefs match yours, see the Organizations page.
Joining a support group
The first step in joining a support group is to make the phone call to the group leader. He will generally want to talk with you before you attend a group meeting to determine your sincerity and readiness to participate with the group. He will explain to you the format and rules of safety and confidentiality that are critical to the success of the group. When you first attend a support group, you will likely go through the following stages:
Fear and anticipation. You may have a number of fears and concerns as you attend your first meeting. Will the other men accept me? Will I be able to open up to them? Will I be attracted to someone there? These are legitimate fears that are common to nearly everyone.
Sense of relief. Although your first meeting can be frightening, you will soon find that it is easy to make friends because people are there to lend support. Most people report an enormous sense of relief to have found a group who also struggle with attractions and whose values and beliefs match theirs.
Curiosity and sharing. The next phase is one of learning all the new information that is available. You will become aware of many books with good ideas about the causes of your problems and their potential solutions. You will also have the chance to exchange ideas with others in the group and hear what has helped them to be successful.
Boundary testing. As you mature emotionally through your experience in the group, you will find yourself testing the boundaries to determine what is appropriate.
Disillusionment. After the initial excitement wears off, you may become disillusioned as you realize that the support group in itself will not solve all your problems and there is a lot of hard work ahead of you. This is the phase where some drop out of the group in search of an easier answer.
Hard work. This is the phase where you settle in and do all the work.
Termination. Some people make the mistake of leaving a support group before they are ready and others remain much longer than is healthy. You may need the help of your therapist to determine when the time is right for you. If you are able to see your issues objectively, you will know when it is time to move out of the group. Be aware that sometimes group members panic when someone else is "graduating" and they may try to hold the person back for their needs and not for his. If you know it is time for you to move on, do it.
Open and closed group formats
An open group is one where you can attend the group meetings whenever you like, as long as you agree to abide by the group’s rules. A closed group is one where the participants are identified and each makes a commitment to attend all meetings. Closed groups are more stable because people are not always entering and leaving. Because of this continuity, the participants are more dedicated and accountable to each other and they can make more progress.
How to support each other in a group
The Bible exhorts us to bear one another’s burdens (see Galatians 6:1–2). We also read, "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up" (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10).
The men in my support group were able to give me a lot of support and help. They understood my feelings and helped me find solutions to my problems. When I felt vulnerable, I called them and they talked me out of desires to act sexually. They were genuinely concerned about me and I was genuinely concerned about them. I relied on them many times. I never would have made it without the love and support I got from my friends who were always there when I needed them.
The following suggestions can help you have effective relationships in your group.
Be a consistent support to others in the group. Make attendance at the group meetings a matter of high priority. Consistency is very important both for your own progress and that of other participants.
Be honest with yourself. The controversial nature of same-sex attraction encourages people to keep it hidden and festering. Many of us have felt that we were the only ones to have these feelings. Admitting a problem to yourself is the first step to recovery. The next step is to decide what you intend to do about it. What is your purpose in joining a support group? Do you really want to overcome these thoughts and behaviors or are you just looking for justification?
Be honest with others in your group. Admitting your problems to others in the group can help relieve feelings of isolation. As you openly explore your feelings in regular meetings, you can get much needed support from those who have experienced or who still experience struggles, and you can acquire a sense of accountability to each other. The group will teach you how to disclose and be honest with others in the group. It is not easy to disclose things that are deeply disturbing and personal, but it is the first step in healing. You will discover that there is no need to lie to others in the group or cover up the way you feel about things. They will understand your troubles and be willing to share with you the solutions they have found. By asking a lot of questions, or even just by listening quietly to what others say, you will begin to understand how this process works.
Confront and challenge other group members. Sexual activity thrives in secret and the group can be a place to bring it into the light. Group members can confront each other kindly and respectfully when they see rationalization or denial. In the beginning, this kind of total honesty can be difficult, but if you are sincere in your desire to make changes in your life, you will welcome it.
Respect the rights of others. Respect the right of others to have opinions different from yours. No one should ridicule or belittle another participant, even jokingly, nor should they be judgmental or critical of others or their situation. Like you, they are struggling through difficult circumstances.
Recognize that group members are on different levels. One night in the group meeting, Bill talked about the group and the way we did and did not support each other. He had felt at times that the group brought him down. For example, when he slipped up once he almost felt a cheer from us. He felt us say "Hurray! Bill is human." Although we didn’t want him to fail, that was the message he felt. At times, I felt like I wanted to be on the same level as the other guys. As strange as this sounds, there were times I felt I wanted to be as messed up as Alan so I could feel I fit in completely. It is important to recognize that each member of the group is on a different level and that is okay as long as each works and progresses from where he is.
Give equal time. Don’t dominate the discussion time, but allow others the chance to express themselves as well. Allow equal time even to those who appear not to want to talk. You have a responsibility to help them feel comfortable and bring them out of their silence.
Have a proper spirit in every meeting. Although the meetings don’t need to be somber, they should have a tone of respect for each other, for the difficulty of the process of change. Every meeting should begin and end with prayer to invite the power of the Spirit to guide you through the process. Watch your conversations so they don’t drive the Spirit away.
Avoid inappropriate conversations. Share your feelings and experiences with others, but don’t give graphic details of sexual activities or divulge locations where sex or pornography is available. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you know, but spare them from temptations by not divulging such information. Profanity has no place in the meetings. It is also important to keep conversations about others positive and not let the discussions become a pity party where you devalue other people, but instead encourage each other to get out and build relationships with those of your gender.
Help others recognize and develop feelings of self-worth. Group members should be positive and build each other up and encourage each other in righteousness. Help others see their value as individuals. Always be watching out for others and when it appears they need extra help, do all you can to include them and help them feel a part of the group. In addition to acts of kindness, tell them you love them and appreciate their friendship. Help them see their friendship is of great value to you.
Move to deeper levels of conversation. It is usually easy to talk about surface-level things like the weather, school, work, politics, and other knowledge-based things. Although a certain amount of this kind of conversation is necessary to build a relationship, be sure that you soon move from the knowledge area to feelings. It is when you begin talking about your feelings and emotional reactions to things that you move into the areas that will be the most beneficial.
Be accountable to each other. Group members should hold each other accountable by asking each other to report on their progress each week. During the week, you may want to organize a buddy system so that when you are tempted to do something inappropriate, you have a buddy you can call to help.
Be wise in your activities with other participants. Don’t participate in activities that cause you to be vulnerable, which may arouse same-sex feelings, or include any degree of physical intimacy with others of your gender. Avoid campiness (acting gay) and inappropriate jokes or innuendo. Behave with them the way you would with men who do not experience same-sex attractions. Don’t spend excessive time with any one participant to protect yourself from emotional dependency or from the possibility of sexual behavior. Limit the time you spend with group members. Spending excessive time with them limits your time to associate with others from outside the group, and you should give top priority to those relationships.
Relationships with others in the group. You will develop strong relationships with members of the group and although you will have a lot of clean, wholesome fun, remember that the support group is not a social club. Your purpose in the group is to learn how to relate in wholesome ways so you will have the confidence to relate with others of your gender at work and at church. While the group is a safe place to learn to relate to each other, it should not be the ultimate goal. You should work on making your primary relationships with others outside the group.
Relationships with others outside the group. When you disclose your "dark secrets" to members of the group, you find that they still love and accept you. And although this love and acceptance will be meaningful, the voice of the Adversary will whisper, "Of course they love you, because they are gay themselves." Your next step will be to reach out into the mainstream world and discover that love and acceptance is available there as well. Someone else needs to be allowed into the deepest levels of your life. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to know all about your attractions, but you need to open up and let them in.
For additional guidelines on creating an environment of support, you may want to read the book Group Techniques by Gerald Corey.
Confidentiality and anonymity
Many people who have same-sex attractions have chosen not to disclose such to others outside the group and could be deeply hurt by the release of information about their situation. In some cases, even spouses may not be aware of their participation in the group. Rules of confidentiality ensure privacy for individuals in the group. It is a safeguard of special significance to those who may hesitate to participate in an organization if they have any reason to believe that their same-sex attraction could be revealed to others.
In addition to protecting the identities of fellow participants, it is vital to keep confidential what is said in the group. A helpful phrase to remember is: "What we say here stays here." Outside the meetings, don’t mention the people you saw or repeat the things you heard. One careless slip of the tongue overheard by someone else could have a devastating effect on a fellow participant. While this principle may be clear in theory, putting it into practice may not always be easy. The following general guidelines may be helpful:
Keep identities anonymous. Most groups have guidelines about using only first names and last initials.
Membership lists. Lists of names, telephone numbers, and addresses should be kept only when absolutely necessary. If you keep lists of members, guard them with strict care.
Return addresses on mailings. Most organizations associated with same-sex attraction do not include the name of the organization in the return address of mailings.
Telephone messages. When leaving messages, be careful not to identify the individual with any group or meeting or to inadvertently divulge information that may be revealing. Assume that the person who receives the message knows nothing about the individual’s involvement with any group. Be aware that some people pretend to know more than they actually do to get information from you, sometimes unintentionally (out of curiosity) and sometimes willfully (out of spite). Either case can be damaging. Since others may have access to the individual’s voice mail or e-mail, leave only the information you would give to a stranger.
The place of spirituality in group meetings
For many people, spirituality can be a great motivator to keep one's behavior in check and continue to work at the issues underlying same-sex attraction. If this is your motivation, it is critical that you make spirituality a key ingredient in your support group program. You can strengthen each another by sharing testimonies, praying for each other, and encouraging each other to be righteous. There are many encouraging stories from groups about spiritual experiences that have had a profound influence on their growth and recovery. If your group is not having similar experiences, evaluate your activities and plan for ways to invite the Spirit into all you do.
One evening at our support group meeting, two women came by invitation. One was previously married to a man with same-sex attraction and wanted to understand him better and know what to do to support him. The other had a brother who died the previous week of AIDS and she wanted to find a measure of peace about his death. They were both anxious to learn and understand, and part way through the meeting one of them began to cry because the Spirit was so strong. She said she was overwhelmed by being in a group of faithful men who believed they could overcome their problems and were trying desperately to do so.
The need for safety in the group
Support groups for individuals with same-sex attraction have an inherent risk—the ever-present danger that participants could become involved with each other sexually. This is why it is of primary importance to have controls in place to make the environment safe. Getting individuals together in a support group provides opportunities for growth and the development of relationships which is the key to resolving the attractions, but at the same time, the risks need to be carefully monitored and controlled. It is critical to the success of the group to establish and enforce policies of safety and confidentiality. There should be strict rules of no sexual or seductive conduct with other members of the group. Absolutely none. Never.
In addition to the safety rules of the group, it is important to establish personal boundaries. While the group process is helpful, it can also open you to dangers you need to manage. In the group setting, you experience emotional intimacy with individuals of your gender on levels that perhaps you have not experienced before. Although you do not talk about sexual details, the fact that you discuss sexual problems may put you in a vulnerable state. If your discussions open up old wounds, you may experience anxiety or hurt and be tempted to revert to old patterns of behavior to relieve the pain. Since each person in the group discusses his or her area of vulnerability, others can wittingly or unwittingly take advantage. Therefore, boundaries must be established for the protection of everyone in the group. These external controls are safeguards during your period of growth to prevent you from responding to situations in unhealthy ways.
You will likely need to set personal boundaries on what you will and will not do after the meeting. When my friend Randy first joined his support group, he was so relieved to find other men with similar goals, that he didn’t want to go home after the meetings ended. He would stay in the parking lot talking with his newfound friends for hours. He also discovered he was vulnerable during these late-night chats alone with other men, and sometimes found himself getting intimate with one man. He quickly had to set boundaries to stay out of trouble and committed never to be alone with another man because he knew there was safety in numbers. He also set for himself a limit of thirty minutes after the meeting, at which time he would get in his car and go home. He found that from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. after the meeting he could undo all the good he did from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. in the meeting. Go home while you are still on a high so you can continue to think through new ideas and keep positive thoughts on your mind. Keep the momentum going and don’t lessen the experience with something less uplifting.
If two members of the group car pool to the meetings, it may be a good idea to hold them accountable each week for the time they were alone together. When they arrive at the meeting, ask them how the drive went, and before they leave after the meeting, ask them if they feel they are vulnerable and what they intend to do about it.
For many people entering a support group, boundaries are nebulous, and while there is room for growth, there is also the potential for sexual problems if it is not managed properly. Watch for people who cross boundaries or don’t set boundaries. Challenge people to look at how they respect themselves, how they set boundaries, and how they maintain integrity for themselves.
Sexual problems in a group
An incident of sexual activity among group members brings serious personal consequences and weakens the group as a whole. Are you a highly committed person with a deep addiction, or a person who keeps acting out because you are ambivalent about the healing process? The group can tolerate a motivated participant who is sincerely trying to overcome an addiction, but not one who is just playing games.
The following are warning signs of sexual activity: seductive behavior, needing undue attention, not willing to work on their own issues, challenging authority, playing the role of the helpless victim, inside jokes, rebellion, resistance, not willing to follow rules regardless of their prior agreement to them, paranoia about being watched, and avoiding another participant (which may indicate shame because of sexual involvement). Those who are isolated and not involved with others may be especially vulnerable.
When group leaders suspect problems, they should confront those involved to determine if there are problems. Such confrontation should not be accusatory, but in a spirit of concern for their welfare and a desire to help them grow beyond any problems. This can be a good learning opportunity for those who may not know how to interact with each other socially in appropriate ways.
If sexual activities occur, group leaders should intervene immediately since sexual activity can quickly destroy the unity of the group. The leaders should confront those involved and discuss the occurrence to help them understand what led to the behavior and to set in place precautions to avoid a recurrence. The leaders should help them understand the consequence and responsibility of what they have done. If sexual activity continues, those involved should be asked not to participate in the group. When a participant is removed from the group, the ultimate goal is restoration. He should not be told that he isn’t wanted in the group, but that he needs more individual counseling before he is ready for the group setting.
"Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1).
If a leader falls, he should step down from his leadership position immediately so he does not bring the rest of the group down, and also to relieve him of the burden of leadership so he can concentrate on his own problems.
How to find a support group
To find a support group whose values and beliefs match yours, see the Organizations page.