Dilemmas in Religious Research: When a Stigmatized Researcher Researches a Conservative Church

When I was introduced to church-sect theory while studying undergraduate sociology of religion in Australia, I immediately realized that it gave me a new understanding of Seventh-day Adventism, the faith in which I had been raised. I wrote a paper exploring the evolution of Adventism in these terms, and determined that this would be the focus of my dissertation. When funding, both in graduate school and afterwards, led me in other directions, I swore to myself that I was postponing, not abandoning, my study of Adventism. I was finally able to return to this topic in 1984, by which time it had become potentially much more interesting, for Adventism’s growth-rate had accelerated sharply, especially in the Developing World, and it was experiencing widespread change and mounting tensions.

Paper read at the meeting of the Religious Research Association, Houston, October 2000.
Click here for a PDF version of this paper: When a Stigmatized Researcher Researches a Conservative Church

In the meantime, however, I had become Adventism’s best known gay activist. Not only was I consequently a member of a category that was stigmatized as abhorrently sinful and whose new openness was proclaimed in sermons to be a sure sign that the apocalypse was upon us, but there was ample evidence of strain between the church hierarchy and Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, the organization of gay and lesbian Adventists, in which I held the position of Church Liaison. I was forced to ponder how I should take this situation into account in designing my research strategy, where in-depth interviewing was central – and to worry about whether I would be able to gather the data I sought. The situation became more worrying as this tension mounted during the years of data-gathering, especially as one of the factors which heightened tension was my discovery, in my research, of widespread sexual abuse in a church-funded ministry designed to “heal” young homosexuals. This discovery placed me on the horns of a dilemma, since I felt morally obliged to expose the head of the ministry in order to stop the abuse, which consequently opened myself up to anger from church officials, who reacted by “blaming the messenger.” I became increasingly afraid that my research would be disrupted or even aborted.

However, my fears were not realized, and data-gathering continued smoothly. On four occasions, in different parts of the world, when the issue was raised, warnings about me were issued, and it seemed likely that my research there would be impacted seriously, the projected storm passed quietly. I was left to wonder why everything had gone so well.

This paper sets out to explain this outcome. It begins by outlining the context in which the research took place: the rejection by the Adventist Church of its homosexual members, and the growing conflict between the church leaders and SDA Kinship. It then explores the impact of this context on my research. It probes, in particular, the four occasions when it appeared that my stigmatized status was about to disrupt data-gathering, and accounts for the fact that this did not happen: I completed over 3,000 in-depth interviews in 54 countries without major problems.

The Adventist Church and its Homosexual Members

The Adventist Church largely ignored the topic of homosexuality until the early 1970s. The church’s prophet, Ellen White, never referred to it directly in her vast published works or correspondence1 [Pearson, 1990: 231]. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, published during the mid-1950s, merely repeated the traditional interpretations of the passages which have been used by conservative Christians to condemn homosexuality; other Adventist publications rarely mentioned the topic. Church leaders assumed that there were no homosexuals among their members: the categories “Adventist” and “homosexual” were regarded as mutually exclusive. When, occasionally, a homosexual was discovered in pulpit, classroom or pew – perhaps following an arrest resulting from police entrapment – he2 was usually dealt with summarily: disfellowshipped from membership, expelled from church schools, fired from church employment. One notable example of such treatment befell a president of the Adventist Seminary in Washington, D.C., in the early 1950s, who disappeared from Seminary and church “over night” after being caught in a police raid on a homosexual meeting place [interviews]. Those who grew up as gay Adventists in these years tell stories of isolation and guilt, of unavailing struggle and unanswered prayer for a miracle that would make them heterosexual. If they sought counseling within their church they were met with platitudes like “go away and pray about it” or bad advice such as “it’s only a phase: get married and everything will turn out all right.” Since they had been taught that it was impossible to be both Christian and gay but found themselves irretrievably gay, they often despaired, assuming that they were eternally lost.

However, in 1971, shortly after the gay issue had become prominent in society, Adventists addressed it in their general and youth periodicals [Wood, 1971; Day, 1971]. The flow of comments, in articles, pamphlets, public pronouncements and in two books dealing with sex, continued throughout the1970s, strengthening especially after mid-decade. Several of these responded negatively to the rise of the gay liberation movement, viewing it as a sign of moral decay that heralded the return of Christ; condemning gay activists who demanded acceptance rather than wanting to change their behavior; and recognizing homosexual behavior by a spouse as just cause for divorce [Wood,1977; Pierson, 1977; Annual Council, 1977]. While the majority of the articles and pronouncements urged simplistically that those with aberrant drives should seek deliverance through God, both books recognized that change in orientation was unlikely, and urged that divine strength be enlisted to resist temptations [Wittschiebe, 1974: 187; Kubo, 1980: 83]. Although most of these publications assumed that the issue was exterior to the church, they elicited several letters to editors which suggested the presence of many homosexuals among Adventists.

Almost as if to confirm this, a number of gay Adventists in southern California, emboldened by the gay movement to seek out their own for mutual support, formed an organization in 1977 which they ambitiously named Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International. By following networks and placing advertisements in gay and lesbian publications, Kinship began to expand around North America and to reach out overseas.

As time passed, pressure on church leadership to respond somehow to the needs of gay Adventists began to build. A series of three articles published in Insight, the church youth periodical, in 1976 proclaimed that victory over homosexuality through faith was possible [Cook, 1976a,b,c]. These were -authored by Colin Cook, a former pastor who, after being dismissed from the ministry in New York following discovery of his homosexual behavior, had sought spiritual healing for his unwelcome drives and eventually married. When these articles drew a spate of letters from persons desiring help, he began counseling those who were willing to come to Reading, PA. In 1978 he prepared ten hours of tapes, which were widely distributed under the title Homosexuality and the Power to Change. In another contribution to Insight in 1980, he estimated that there were between 10,000 and 20,000 homosexuals within the Adventist church in the USA alone, and chastised the church for failing to foster ministries to help these members [Cook, 1980]. Meanwhile, a prominent pastor, whose sensitivity to the issue had been raised by the trauma experienced by his gay brother, spoke to groups of clergy in southern California and around Washington, D.C. in 1979 about the plight of gay Adventists. Estimating that there must be tens of thousands of gay Adventists in North America, he urged that scholars study the issues thoroughly and that the church prepare itself to minister to its gay children [interviews].

Church leaders were forced to address the issue of gay Adventists early in 1980, when the leaders of SDA Kinship, searching for spiritual nurture and help in answering our most agonizing question, Could a gay person be a Christian?, invited three seminary professors and two pastors to participate in our first national “Kampmeeting,” and these sought official approval. Neal Wilson, President of the General Conference [GC], responded sympathetically, perhaps because he is reputed to have two gay members within his family. When he found opposition to the request on the President’s Executive Advisory Council [PREXAD], he avoided taking a vote there and took responsibility for the decision himself [Wilson, 1981a,c]. Final negotiations were completed in a meeting between GC Vice-president Duncan Eva, one of the seminary professors, and the author (representing Kinship). Eva, saying “You have approached us; it is the responsibility of the church to reach out to you,” laid down two conditions: Kinship could not use the participation of clergy as an opportunity to assert in the press that the GC had accepted homosexuality; and Colin Cook, whose claim to be able to help homosexuals change their sexual orientations was attracting favorable attention among church leaders, should be added to the five invited. In return, the GC agreed to pay the fares of all six clergy participating, and the latter were to have an opportunity to make a personal report to PREXAD after the event.

Kinship had asked the biblical scholars to focus on what was, for them, a new area. The latter concluded, as a result of their study in preparation for the meeting, that the Bible was silent about persons with a homosexual orientation and that its procriptions were the same for homosexuals as for heterosexuals. They were deeply moved by the stories they heard of the trauma of growing up as a gay Adventist [Anonymous, 1982]. Their report to PREXAD included nine sweeping recommendations, which would have transformed the treatment of homosexuals within Adventism. PREXAD initially voted to accept seven of these, but rejected two that implied an official recognition of Kinship.

However, this vote was then forgotten amid a series of raging but unrelated theological and fiscal controversies, which greatly increased leader sensitivity to the criticisms of conservative members. When an independent right-wing publication orchestrated a letter campaign querying whether the participation of GC-sponsored clergy in a homosexual “kampmeeting” indicated that the denomination had “accepted homosexuality,” church leaders embraced the approach of Colin Cook, the self-described “recovered homosexual”, who had formally founded the Quest Learning Center in Reading, Pennsylvania, late in 1980. His program, proclaiming “deliverance from homosexuality,” brought homosexuals together for a year or more of counseling and involvement in a mutual support group called “Homosexuals Anonymous” [HA]. The decision of the Adventist Church in 1981 to provide more than half of Quest’s budget made it the first denomination to fund a healing ministry for homosexuals. Duncan Eva, who was now a special assistant to the GC president, became the chair of the Quest board, and church officials, along with Quest staff, made up the rest of its board. In casting their lot with Cook, church leaders were in effect saying that the only acceptable homosexual was one struggling to change his/her orientation and who, meanwhile, remained celibate. Their attitude towards SDA Kinship concurrently became much more negative.

When GC president Wilson discovered, in the Spring of 1981, that Kinship had invited unnamed clergy to a second kampmeeting, he wrote to college, hospital, and church administrators, asking them to try to prevent the invitees from attending. He justified this on the ground that Kinship seemed to reject “the real possibility of change and deliverance”, and wanted the church to recognize the “gay lifestyle” as an acceptable alternative within the church [1981b]. Meanwhile, the North American Division Committee followed suit when it voted that the church could not condone practicing homosexuals, that it could not negotiate with organized groups who called themselves SDA gays and lesbians nor engage in “diplomatic relations” with them, since this would be interpreted by church members as “recognition and endorsement of a deviant philosophy and lifestyle.” Indeed, it voted to seek legal counsel “as to what appropriate action can be taken to prevent such groups from using the name of the church” [1981; Spring Council, 1981].

Church periodicals provided the Quest/HA program with extensive publicity within Adventism, presenting it as the answer to homosexuality. Adventist pastors and counselors in Adventist schools began recommending that anyone who came to them with a homosexual issue contact Quest/HA. Ministry, the publication for ministers, broadened the network recommending Quest/HA when it featured a long interview with Cook in an issue that was distributed free to 300,000 clergy of other denominations [Spangler, 1981]. Church leaders never conducted a study of the impact of the program on counselees. They eagerly extended Quest’s funding when Cook and his wife appeared hand-in-hand before the Annual Council of the church: Cook became their token “ex-gay”.

The denominational role in financing and publicizing the Quest/HA program helped make church members more conscious of the existence of homosexual Adventists. Three articles published by Spectrum, an independent liberal Adventist journal, in the Spring of 1982, had a similar effect [Benton, 1982; Anonymous, 1982; Cook, 1982]. The arrest of the President of Andrews University during the Annual Council of the church in 1983 and of an associate pastor of the congregation serving many GC officials the following year, both on vice charges, brought the issue into uncomfortably close focus.

Consequently, church leaders received considerable criticism from conservative Adventists, who would have preferred to deny the existence of such members. The leaders’ sense that they were under scrutiny made them more eager to proclaim the success of their program in changing sexual orientations and more careful to avoid appearing as if they were accepting of homosexuals.

Meanwhile, Kinship had begun two series of mailings. One was to students at Adventist colleges in North America. Given the absence of publicity concerning Kinship in the official church media, these tried to reach out to gay students who were confused or struggling alone. The second series of mailings was to Adventist pastors and to teachers, counselors, and administrators at Adventist colleges and academies. The purpose was to raise the consciousness of recipients concerning the needs of gay parishioners and students for nurture and to break down prejudice through information. These mailings created a stir among students on several campuses, and provoked some of the recipients to complain to GC personnel.
Church leaders responded to the flow of publicity and attendant controversy by preparing to take a stand on the issue. The GC’s Biblical Research Institute began to commission papers on homosexuality, and Elder Eva pulled together a committee to issue a definitive theological statement. The first of these resulted ultimately in the publication of a conservative, traditionally anti-homosexual book [Springett, 1988], and the second in the insertion of a statement explicitly condemning “homosexual and lesbian practices” into the Church Manual, the document governing the operations of the church, at the quinquennial session of the General Conference in 1985.

It was thus clear to me when I was preparing to launch my study of Adventism in 1984 that church leaders were continuing to harden their attitude towards homosexuals, and that their antagonism towards SDA Kinship was waxing. Relations between Kinship and the church leadership continued to deteriorate during the years of research, thus increasing my fears that I would face a crisis.

In November 1985 I received a letter from the GC which demanded that SDA Kinship change its official name:

“The problem is the use of ‘Seventh-day Adventist’ and ‘SDA’ in conjunction with ‘Kinship International.’ Church leaders feel strongly that the combination implies official endorsement of Kinship International, and those leaders object strongly to that implication” [Nixon, 1985].

Although Kinship was able to postpone the issue until its next general meeting, to be held in conjunction with its kampmeeting in August 1986, it was clear that the GC and Kinship were on a collision course.

Meanwhile, my research stumbled on evidence of a pattern of sexual abuse in the church-funded “ex-gay ministry” which placed me in an immediate ethical dilemma and, ultimately, exacerbated the relations of both Kinship and me personally with church leaders.

The Dilemma of Discovering Sexual Abuse – and its Aftermath

I planned to include chapters on several key social issues – such as race relations, the position of women, divorce, polygamy in the developing world – within my study of Adventism. Since one of these issues was homosexuality, this led me to do a study of Colin Cook’s Quest Learning Center, the church-funded “ex-gay ministry.”

I had followed Cook closely over the years, meeting him first when he was a pastor in New York City in the early 1970s, and again in 1980, when he had spoken at Kinship’s first kampmeeting. In 1983, when the kampmeeting was close to Reading, I had arranged for Kinship members to spend a day at Quest, when we had observed a Homosexuals Anonymous meeting, heard Cook explain the program to us, and listened to triumphant testimonies of deliverance from homosexuality from five counselees – testimonies which we found extremely puzzling because they in no way reflected our own experiences. However, when the lead testifier, who had asked, after the meeting at Quest, if he could attend the kampmeeting, told me the next day that he had just spent a sexually active weekend with a man he had met at a gay meeting place in Philadelphia, I sensed something was awry.

A study of Quest and its impact required focused research, which could not be accomplished within the framework of the general interviews that I carried out during an itinerary around North America in 1984-85. However, when I came across a teenager who had been sent to Quest for counseling while he was a student at an Adventist boarding academy in Pennsylvania, I took the opportunity to interview him, and was given disturbing information: this interviewee had, as a 16 year old counselee, been sexually molested by Cook. Since he had not had an opportunity to get to know the other counselees, I -could not know whether others had had the same experience. My curiosity whetted further, I took an opportunity to participate in a seminar given by Cook in New York City in 1985.

Kinship’s Kampmeeting in August 1986 proved momentous in two respects. First, Kinship members voted unanimously to reject the request of church leaders that we change the organization’s name to remove its identification with Adventism, thus making it likely that tensions would escalate. Secondly, I met there a graduate of the Quest program who, in an interview, presented me with evidence of widespread sexual abuse of counselees by Cook. I decided that the time had come for me to complete my study of the Quest program.

I approached Cook, told him of my wish to study the impact of his program, and asked for his help in drawing a random sample of past participants. When, after checking with his board, he refused to co-operate, I decided to pursue a “quota sample.” Since I was attempting to assess the impact of the program, this meant interviewing quotas of program participants representing both those who were regarded at Quest as having been successful and those who had failed. Given the emphasis of the program and the nature of the problem I had discovered, I restricted my sample to men. The informant I had met at the kampmeeting could put me in touch with many program “failures” – men who were angry with Cook and Quest because they had been sexually abused there and whose sexual orientations had not changed. Almost everyone I interviewed gave me additional names of people whom, they said, had endured similar experiences; however, they stated that they knew no “successes” at all. Frustrated in my endeavor to fill the other half of the sample, I asked Cook to put me in contact with his greatest successes, but again he refused to co-operate. Then, at a social occasion I met a woman who was completing her fifth year at Quest and had a positive attitude towards it, who was able to suggest five men who were regarded around Quest as having been successful. I consequently went to each of these interviews expecting them to be positive about their experience, but found instead that their accounts paralleled those of the “failures” very closely. Every interview was traumatic, for counselees had to relive their experiences at Quest in their minds in order to tell me about them. I interviewed a total of 14 Quest counselees. All but one – an older man – had been sexually pressured or abused by Cook.

These findings placed me in a dilemma. On the one hand, I felt that I could not allow such treatment of counselees, some of whom were underage and all of whom were fragile, to continue. On the other hand, I realized that if I reported what I had found I risked “blame the messenger” antagonism from -church leaders and consequent problems with completing my data gathering. One option was to report my findings to Quest’s board. However, I ruled that out because I had discovered that it had covered up two incidents of sexual abuse reported by HA members in other cities the previous year. A second option was to go to the press, as some Kinship leaders urged. I refused to do this in order to protect my research, for I feared that church leaders, who are very sensitive to the public image of Adventists, would regard this as betrayal. My ultimate decision was to write a letter to Adventist president Wilson documenting what I had found, with copies to about 30 other prominent Adventists in order to try to ensure that he would act. (I had heard of this tactic being used previously in Adventist circles.) I hoped that this choice would minimize anger against me while proving effective. The 13-page letter was dated October 23, 1986.

On October 27 Eva, chair of the Quest board, suspended Cook from his responsibilities and suggested that he tender his resignation [Eva, 1986]. On November 3 Cook wrote to Wilson, acknowledging that the accusations were correct, and shortly after this the board accepted his resignation and voted to close the Quest counseling program. However, the board’s decision was not because it recognized that the program had lost credibility; indeed, it affirmed that it had “no reservations about the basic counseling philosophy of Quest.” Its vote was in fact triggered by a financial and personnel crisis that followed in the wake of the scandal, as Cook was removed and sources of income dried up. Homosexuals Anonymous Fellowship Services [HAFS], the entity servicing the HA chapters, was retained.

My concern that I would, by breaking news of the scandal, become the target of a “blame the messenger” syndrome proved well founded. As early as November I was told, from within the General Conference, that it had been said in committee, when questions concerning the scandal were raised, that I had written the letter to serve Kinship’s own ends and that, given my sexual orientation, the research was inevitably biased. Since they had been humiliated by the revelations of Cook’s behavior, Eva and the other board members did not try to defend Cook’s actions in public – indeed, they adopted a strategy of praising his accomplishments and ignoring his behavior as much as possible. However, they were extremely upset by my finding that no counselee I had interviewed had achieved a change of sexual orientation, and focused their defense on this point. They saw this as casting “doubt on the effectiveness of the entire counseling program at Quest and question(ing) our basic counseling philosophy” [Roberts, 1986] – or, in other words, as attacking Adventism’s “theology” of homosexuality. Subsequently, in December, both Eva and Daniel Roberts, a Quest counselor who now became head of HAFS, circulated letters impugning my research ethics for supposedly choosing – intentionally – a sample that excluded the successful cases:

“Frankly, I would respect Dr. Lawson’s scholarship and his investigations a great deal more than I do had he looked at another side of the question and acknowledged the evidence that is there. The fact that he has not done this makes tolerably well educated people wonder why. Does not such scholarship lead one to raise questions that one would rather not raise” [Eva, 1986].

“I am sorry that you have shared publicly only the interviews of those who have been disappointed by the counseling at Quest. There is another side which you failed to adequately present in your report. That is the side showing the many people (yes, many) whose lives have been changed… I’m sorry that you chose not to balance out your report with a more fair evaluation…. You were, in fact, acting as an investigator for an organization which had a specific, but undisclosed, goal of uncovering damaging information about Colin Cook” [Roberts, 1986].

It was hypocritical for people who were involved in Quest’s refusal of my requests for access to then attack my research methods because they did not like my findings. Their pretense that the research was at the behest of SDA Kinship was also a smokescreen: they were well aware of the breadth of my study of Adventism.

If Cook had been a licensed therapist or counselor, the licensing body would undoubtedly have withdrawn his right to practice. However, since he had no counseling qualifications, he was under no such constraint. Rather than being demoralized by the scandal, he soon pushed ahead aggressively in an attempt to rebuild his ministry to homosexuals. He was helped considerably in this by Ministry, the Adventist journal for clergy that had initially played a major role in publicizing his program, which, in its September 1987 issue, published, as its lead article, a second interview with Cook, which had the effect of rehabilitating him. Its main thrust was to reaffirm that the Cook approach to the healing of homosexuality was valid and retained the blessing of the Adventist church [Spangler, 1987:4-9]. In December 1987, in a letter that was widely distributed in Adventist circles, Cook announced that he had formed “Quest II” and had begun counseling two men, and that he was being supported by private donors to write a “major book on homosexual healing.” Writing books and articles would be “the top priority of Quest II. …in time we expect to see a full range of seminars and workshops for churches and the general public, therapists, ministers and other professionals, married couples working through the homosexuality of a spouse, and people working through the healing of their own homosexuality” [Cook, 1987].

Kinship members were so disgusted to find the Adventist Church promoting Cook once more that they demonstrated on the sidewalks outside the General Conference offices in Washington, D.C. on October 23, 1987. GC personnel called the police four times during the demonstration. This action happened to take place during the Annual Council of the church, at which time it adopted a “Statement of Concern on Sexual Behavior” that targeted “homosexual practices(gay and lesbian)” in particular and declared that “all may be freed from the grip of perversions and sinful practices” [Annual Council, 1987].

In December 1987, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists filed a suit against Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, Inc. for “breach of trademark.” Because the suit had to be shaped to address commercial law, it did not even mention that Kinship members are homosexuals and Adventists. Its prime claim was that by using “Seventh-day Adventist” or its acronym as part of its name, Kinship was likely to cause confusion and so attract funds which donors think are going to the church and to harm the church’s business activities. However, the accompanying press release, entitled “Church Moves Against Support Group for Homosexuals,” made the real object of the suit abundantly clear: the GC was rejecting Adventist homosexuals and the ministry of Kinship [Newsbreak, 1988]. In addition to seeking to compel Kinship to change its name, the suit also demanded substantial monetary damages. The GC hired two major law firms to present its case, and has since admitted that it spent over $200,000 on the suit. Although I felt obliged, at this juncture, to resign my leadership position in Kinship in order to protect my study, I was inevitably deeply involved in the case, being one of the Kinship members -deposed in the Fall of 1990 and one of two to take the stand when the case was argued in the Federal Court in Los Angeles in February 1991. In its verdict, which was announced in October 1991, the court rejected the suit, thus allowing Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, Inc. to keep its full name. Church leaders accepted the advice of their lawyers not to appeal the decision.

Planning the Research Strategy

Since I, as Kinship’s Church Liaison since 1980, had been the contact person, I was the person whom church leaders most closely associated with Kinship. Therefore, as I planned to launch the research in 1984, I found it necessary to think through what could be done to reduce the likelihood that my research would be harmed as a result of my gay identity.

My initial plan limited my study of Adventism to the USA and Canada. I had a twelve-month fellowship, which I planned to devote to data gathering. I brought to this study from my previous research a commitment to using several kinds of data, which allows for the “triangulation of data,” in a significant study. In-depth interviews would be at the core of the study. In general, interviewees would be chosen to fit key categories, such as administrators at different levels of the church hierarchy, teachers, administrators, counselors and students at colleges and academies, administrators and medical personnel of hospitals, pastors representing different kinds of congregations, and leading laypersons. I planned to follow a basic interview schedule for each kind of interviewee, but be ready to explore further whenever I found that they had relevant knowledge. Some interviewees, chosen because of their specialized knowledge, would receive much more focused interviews. These data would be supplemented by lengthy, probing questionnaires from interviewees and, later, from samples of college students and laity, by field notes from observation at key meetings, and by data culled systematically from both official and unofficial Adventist periodicals and from statistical reports. I designed a 28,000 mile itinerary for the year, which would take me to all twelve Adventist colleges and universities in the U.S., all union and many conference headquarters in the continent, the major hospitals, the publishing -houses and media center, and many churches, representing all the main racial and language groups, in all quarters of the continent. The itinerary included five weeks at the GC, and it concluded with the General Conference Session in New Orleans in the summer of 1985.

Given the centrality of the interviews, I was inevitably concerned about how a stigmatized researcher would be received. What preparations and precautions could I take? It did not seem that there was much I could do in advance, but I could think through the various situations that I might be faced with, and prepare myself mentally for them.

From my close knowledge of Adventism, gained from years of unintentional participant observation, I was aware that there is usually a warm welcome for a traveling Adventist, with a sense of brotherhood, of immediate acceptance. This is rooted in the fact that the Adventist subculture is still often quite separated from the broader local society, but identifies with international Adventism. Visiting members are rarely asked probing or hostile questions because once church membership and commitment have been claimed or ascertained, the shared culture is assumed. I reasoned that I would usually be received in this way, especially in the more scattered churches, schools, hospitals, and conference offices, where it was unlikely that people would make the connection to Kinship. However, it was more likely that someone would know me or recognize me in the larger administrative offices, colleges, and other institutions. I hoped that many of those recognizing me would also be accepting of me, and not make waves; however, I realized that some could be hostile and spread the word, and that hysteria might then develop. The prospect of enduring such an experience, and of a spreading backlash that this might cause, made me highly uncomfortable.

The one precaution that I took, when I wrote ahead to arrange accommodation and encourage the key interviewees to plan to be available when I arrived, was to avoid telling the recipients the rest of my itinerary. I hoped that as a result of this strategy any problem would be easier to contain. Otherwise, I concluded that I had to go ahead, present myself as both a researcher and an Adventist, and hope that my knowledge of Adventist verbal expressions and issues would result in my ready acceptance. If fires broke out, I would have to respond as best I could. I took it for granted that I would avoid introducing myself as gay or from Kinship: there was no reason to be provocative about the issue. If any interviewees let me know that they were aware of my gay status, I would be prepared to talk with them openly about it in the hope of setting them at ease. While each interviewee was asked one question bearing on homosexuality3, I hoped that the broad range of questions asked would make it clear that this was not the chief focus.

To my great relief and amazement, my sexual orientation never became a negative issue at any time during the North American itinerary. This was true even at church headquarters, where it was certain that my gay identity was well known by many. For example, the director of the White Estate, the semi-independent organization with custody of all the papers of Ellen White, was so aware of this identity that he assumed that the reason I had made an appointment with him was to find out what among Ellen White’s writings might bear on homosexuality; however, when I explained the real purpose of my visit he happily changed agendas and answered my questions in considerable detail.

However, the issues that emerged from many of the interviews, especially at the GC and the General Conference Session, led me to realize that what was most interesting about Adventism flowed often from its international situation, and that here I could make a bold new contribution to knowledge, for there has been no major study focusing on the dynamics of a global church. Consequently, I decided to expand the study, and planned two more major data-gathering trips.
During the first of these I became acutely aware that while far fewer people in the countries I visited would know of my sexual orientation than in North America, it would be far more devastating to face a crisis flowing from its disclosure in an alien culture.

The Stigmatized Researcher in Action Abroad

For over eight months, from December of 1985 through August 1986, I traveled in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji, typically carrying out interviews from early morning until late at night. In most -countries, especially in those of the Developing World, I stayed with Adventists – largely in their institutions and the homes of missionaries. Everywhere I was warmly received. However, I found myself fearing, especially in the societies that were new to me, that the issue of my sexual orientation would explode unexpectedly, creating instant embarrassment and alienation, or that these people who had made me so welcome would discover this fact after I had gone and, then misunderstanding my purposes, feel betrayed. During a flight in South America I confided the following to my notebook:

“I have been the recipient of deep, genuine hospitality extended to someone who is immediately claimed as a member of the Adventist subculture. While this has opened wide the research doors, it has also caused me considerable anxiety. On the one hand, I have received so much generosity, but on the other hand the people I have interviewed are mostly acutely homophobic and uninformed re homosexuality – so that I am afraid that should they discover I am gay they would not understand, and would react by being hurt, thinking of me as a fraud. … These fears have disturbed me from time to time, sometimes quite seriously.”

My fears were, in general, not realized. The issue of my sexuality was almost never raised: few made the connection, and for those who did make it, or knew in advance, it did not become an issue. However, on four occasions, two during each of the international research trips, the issue did emerge and seemed likely to disrupt the research. These incidents are worth discussing in some detail.

Brazil: I learned, through a call from Sao Paulo to a family that had befriended me whilst in Chile, that my name had come up during a meeting of leaders from the various Adventist Unions at the South American church headquarters in Brasilia, and that a dignitary from the GC had declared that I was a homosexual who was working against the church. My erstwhile friend, who had heard this account from the president of the Chilean church, was hurt, warned me to repent and change my ways to avoid damnation, and proved unwilling to listen to anything I tried to say. This news made me extremely -fearful during my time in Sao Paulo, but nothing seemed amiss – I was even asked to speak to all the theology students on my last day at the college there. This experience was repeated at Manaus, in northern Brazil. However, en route to the airport, as I was about to leave, a missionary who had translated for me during some interviews told me that the local president had called Brasilia before I arrived to find out more about me, and had been told by the Division Secretary that I was the leader of an Adventist gay organization in the U.S. Then, expressing curiosity and no hostility, he asked me for more information about this. This meant that though many of my interviewees there had known of this fact, it had not made a discernible difference to the interviews.

However, this news did make me wonder what reception to expect in Brasilia, my next scheduled stop. My first meeting, scheduling all the interviews there, was with the Secretary, so I chose to mention that I had heard he had warned Manaus to be careful about me, and asked him what this was about. When he sidestepped the issue, saying that it was because I was not employed at an Adventist college, I decided to bring the matter up directly at the close of the interview we had scheduled together the next day. I put this within the context of the unity Adventists feel with one another, my interest in its boundaries, and then mentioned the changed attitude I had found when calling my friend in Chile and the accusations that had been made, and rebutted them briefly. The Secretary now became much more open, explaining that the information from the GC was merely that I was the leader of an organization of gay Adventists, and that this had such negative connotations in South America that it was assumed that I must be against the church and using it for some purpose of my own. After a spirited discussion, he stated that this had been his first conversation with a homosexual, that he had found it enlightening, and that after the long interview with me he no longer saw me as “using the church” and was willing to convey this conclusion to his colleagues.

The remainder of my time in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro passed without incident – there was no mention of my sexual orientation, and the interviews proved fruitful. The nagging fears I had felt throughout my Brazilian itinerary had not been realized.

Australia: This was not a new society to me, for I grew up there. Since I flew in from Zimbabwe, I moved from west to east, and came to Avondale College, north of Sydney, in the latter-half of my itinerary. Here, during my first organizing meeting with the Academic Dean, he informed me that I had been mentioned in a letter to Conference and institutional presidents from the president of the Union which was based in Sydney and covered northeastern Australia and New Zealand. When he proved willing to show me the letter, I discovered that it stated that I was a self-acknowledged homosexual and questioned whether I was really an Adventist.

The Academic Dean then told me that the college administration had discussed how to respond to my coming, and had concluded that since I was an academic and they a college they would ignore the letter. And, indeed, no problems presented themselves to me while I was there. Later, in Brisbane, after an excellent interview, the conference president mentioned that he had received a letter warning him about me and had subsequently advised his pastors to refuse to be interviewed. However, he said he now realized that the information contained in the letter was “obviously wrong,” and offered to phone any pastors I wished to interview in order to clear the way for me. None of the other conference presidents showed any sign of having read the letter. However, two potential interviewees did refuse me because of these rumors. One was the principle of a boarding academy in New Zealand, the other the Secretary at the South Pacific Division headquarters in Sydney. The latter rejected my request rudely on the grounds that someone with my lifestyle and who had done unspecified damage to the Adventist Church could never write an objective sociological account of Adventism. With these two exceptions, my data gathering in the South Pacific was a resounding success.

Finding out about the letter explained why its author had appeared very nervous during his interview with me. Its contents angered me because it failed to acknowledge two significant facts: that the writer and I had known each other well as children, when our families had attended the same small country church, and that later, when he was a 16 year-old counselor at a church camp I was attending when 13 years old, he had seduced me and had thus become my first sexual partner. I held my peace until I returned to the U.S., when I wrote to him, reminding him of these circumstances, and expressing dismay that, given them, he would have written as he had. His reply tried to appear friendly but avoided all mention of our early sexual liaison.

The uncertainty and tension that I had felt during this first international research trip made me feel so lonely that I determined that I would take a traveling companion with me during the next trip, which occupied the period from December 1988 through August 1989. I chose to take Obed Vazquez, a Kinship friend who was contemplating switching careers from chemical engineering to sociology, who was eager to share the interviewing. Obed and I traveled together through East and West Africa, and then, in London, we were joined by my partner, Scott Wager, who became responsible for arrangements, such as making train reservations throughout Europe, so that our party numbered three as we continued the itinerary through Western and Eastern Europe, India, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. I had decided that the comfort of traveling with these gay friends was worth the risk, in spite of the steadily worsening relationship between Kinship and the GC.

The Ivory Coast: The African itinerary ended in Abidjan, the headquarters of the Adventist Division that covers West Africa. Here, as I often did at administrative offices, I first sought out the Secretary, in order to both interview him and plan my schedule there. However, I found this man, who was the son of the President of the GC and the only non-African among the three officers, to be unreceptive.

Although he refused to explain why, I could guess that this was related to my role in Kinship. Moreover, I was told that at a meeting with the staff of the Division he had discouraged others from accepting interviews also – and indeed one department head avoided an interview, while another proved nervous and unforthcoming. However, I had excellent interviews with the President and Treasurer (both Africans) and with two other expatriates. These were supplemented the next year, at the General Conference Session, by two additional interviews with people who had been away from Abidjan at the time of our visit. That is, while we encountered problems there, the data gathering was not significantly affected.

Southeast Asia: We were nearing the end of our itinerary in Thailand when, early one morning, the President of the church there, an American missionary, suddenly knocked on our door in the visitors’ quarters of the mission compound and asked me if I was the leader of Kinship. (It turned out that he was the father of a Kinship member, and had somehow, a day or two after our interview, recognized my name.) When I replied that I was not an officer, but was a member4, he became agitated and said that if that were so they could no longer support our research. He knew that we were leaving for the college that day, a visit which passed uneventfully, and when I returned to the compound I discovered that the rest of the appointments I had made there were met as if nothing had happened. Indeed, I even returned to the president with additional questions, which he answered readily.
Our next stop was Singapore, headquarters of both the Far Eastern Division and the Southeast Asia Union. On our last day there, the Union President informed me at the end of the interview that he had heard of my Kinship membership from Thailand, and had therefore informed the Division also. He showed that he was torn by his experience with me – he had deep prejudices against homosexuality, yet could see from the interview that I was approaching the Adventist church as an insider and that I understood many of what he saw as important issues well. He showed concern that I might be inclined to see some aspects of the church negatively as a result of my background. He asked to pray with me to reinforce that, and we parted warmly – the issue had not interfered at all with a high-quality, open interview.

Meanwhile, I had been asked to return to the office of the Division President. He commented that our own interview had gone very well, and that he had enjoyed it and been impressed with its breadth and understanding. However, as word from Thailand had spread, others at the Division had become concerned because of the questions about homosexuality in the accompanying questionnaire and were suspicious that there was a connection between the study and Kinship. He had telexed two officials in the U.S. for further information about me: one, who was trained as a social scientist, had, without endorsing my work, expressed high regard for my ability as a sociologist; the other, in the GC secretariat, replied erroneously that I was the president of Kinship and the author of a book critical of Ellen White. Although I was able to clear up the misinformation and the president stated that he was personally supportive, he felt obliged to telex the presidents of the unions we had still to visit with information about what had happened, while also confirming our travel plans. It was disturbing to think of such details being telexed ahead of us and to arrive in new countries not knowing how the news would affect our reception.
When we arrived at the North Philippines Union compound in Manila we were met brusquely, told the visitors’ rooms were full, and were directed to a hotel. It seemed that our fears were being fulfilled. However, the next day we were received warmly by the Union President, who missed a meeting in order to give me an excellent interview, and after that he made sure that everything went smoothly. Although no one mentioned the issue to me, Obed was asked twice – at the Union and at a regional administrative office – about our connection to Kinship. When we arrived at the college, we found it awash with rumors about us. However, the Dean of the Seminary, a missionary, went out of his way to prepare the way for us, and once the students saw us the consensus they arrived at was that we three bearded men could not possibly be gay — we were not wearing dresses!

Nevertheless, we were inevitably nervous as we flew to the Southern Philippines Union. However, our fears were put to rest immediately when it was announced that the president had scheduled me to preach at the midweek service that night. There was no sign anywhere there, or in the remaining two unions visited (South Korea and Hong Kong), that anyone had received any warning that we were stigmatized researchers.

That is, what had initially seemed very threatening had once again not really disrupted the research at all.


I had embarked on this large, long-planned international study of the Adventist Church after I had become the most prominent gay activist within Adventism and as the church leadership became increasingly antagonistic towards SDA Kinship, the independent organization representing Adventist homosexuals in which I was prominent. This tension was heightened when my research in the U.S. unexpectedly uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse of counselees within the Quest Learning Center, the “ex-gay ministry” funded and promoted by the church: when I reported my findings, the ministry was closed but I became the object of anger from church officials in typical “blame the messenger” fashion. Nevertheless, in spite of my fears of ostracism as a result of homophobic officials discovering my sexual orientation and my connection to Kinship as I traveled, and four occasions when it seemed as if my fears were about to be realized, I was able to complete over 3,000 interviews with Adventists in 54 countries without any major eruption or compromise to the quality of the data. Given the circumstances, how can such a result be accounted for?

At the heart of my interpretation lies the Adventist subculture, my knowledge of it, and my place within it. The distinct subculture is based on beliefs5 and a lifestyle6 that separates Adventists from others and on shared experiences7 and expectations8 that help them understand, and feel quickly comfortable with, one another. Once a newcomer states that he/she is an Adventist, and appropriate cues validate this claim, trust builds rapidly and a shared culture is assumed.

I came to the Adventist communities around the world as a fellow member: I stated that I was an Adventist in the letters I wrote introducing myself and announcing the purpose and time of my coming, and my questions and conversation revealed that I knew Adventism well and that I was familiar with well-known Adventists and with Adventist terminology. I often mentioned that my mother had been a missionary in India for ten years before her marriage, and that an uncle and aunt had also been long-term missionaries in the Central Pacific before he climbed the hierarchy of the church in the South Pacific, finishing his career as Secretary of the Division: mention of these ties emphasized that I was firmly rooted within Adventism. Moreover, because of Adventism’s emphasis on education, which has led it to establish a large international network of schools, colleges, and universities, academics are -respected within Adventism – and I presented myself as an academic. Visiting dignitaries are often invited to preach, and the fact that I was willing to do so when asked helped validate me.

My way was also eased by the fact that I matched certain general categories. One of these was that I was male: the low status of women in many societies, especially in much of the Developing World – a status which is reflected in the Adventist Church there, where changes in the position of women are often viewed as a threat to a God-ordained system – suggested that I would have had less credibility if I had been a woman. Moreover, while I was usually able to mask my sexual orientation, this is not possible with gender. Another positive characteristic was being Caucasian. Although Caucasians are now a relatively small minority among Adventists, church leaders, and especially those who are most powerful, are still drawn mostly from that segment. Although it was usually so taken for granted that attention was not drawn to it, I realized from time to time, uncomfortably, that I was being accorded greater respect because of my race. Yet another advantage was being English-speaking. Because Adventism was founded in America, the General Conference is based there, and the vast majority of missionaries have been English-speaking, English is the lingua franca of Adventism. This allowed me, much of the time, to conduct interviews without translators. I also found that English-speaking visitors are especially welcome and have an aura of authority. This was brought home to me dramatically when the president of the region of the church in Zaire centered on Goma took Obed and me down the worst road I have ever endured to a boarding academy which, because of its inaccessibility, had never been visited by a GC official. Here we found, on the Sabbath morning, that hundreds of Adventists from churches in the surrounding districts had gathered on a hillside, and we were both expected to preach to them. When the president introduced us to the assembled throng, it was as visitors from the GC – something he knew was false. On the other hand, we found, in a church where American officials have often ruled insensitively and people are beginning to realize that their continued dominance in the -church hierarchy is based on networks and control of the purse-strings rather than numbers, that it was also an advantage that I was not American-born and that Obed’s roots were in the Caribbean.

My research has taken place at a time when Adventism is undergoing rapid changes and showing many signs of strain. For example, the rapid increase in the growth-rate during the past 15 years, which was engineered by GC leaders and has resulted in competition between the various regions of the world church and in the setting of baptismal goals for all lower administrative levels – and ultimately for local pastor-evangelists – has diluted the preparation of converts and caused widespread dislocation and discontent. The fact that most of the growth has been in developing countries, and that membership in North America, which is still politically dominant, has fallen to 9.25% of the world total [derived from General Conference, 1995:26], is creating demands for a reallocation of political power. This has been revealed most starkly in the continuing conflict over the ordination of women, which the North America Division now wishes to implement but found itself thwarted, at the 1995 General Conference Session, by a coalition of delegates from the Developing World and theological conservatives from America. After the vote, which North America lost by a majority greater than 2:1, some delegates from the Developing World cheered, and stated boldly, in the hallways, that America had been “put in its place.”

My access, and the quality of my interviews, were helped by the fact that church employees are constrained from expressing their discontents by the hierarchical structure of Adventism: lower-level administrators, for example, must always put on their best face when church dignitaries arrive, for they risk being replaced if it appears that they are not being successful. Consequently, interviewees often saw me – a visiting academic who was not part of the hierarchy, who promised them confidentiality, who knew the right leading questions, and who they trusted because I was an Adventist – as someone to whom they could unburden themselves without risking their careers. I was told again and again that I was hearing things that were never reported to members of the church hierarchy.

Although the trust among Adventists can be broken if someone is seen as a danger to the group or its reputation, and I feared that this could happen to me, this occurred with only a few isolated individuals. My fears were not realized in spite of a widespread homophobia that was frequently expressed in a knee-jerk fashion in answer to a question in the interviews. In most cases this was because the interviewees did not realize my sexual orientation; moreover, this fact was apparently relatively unimportant to many of those who were aware of it, such as many of the church administrators and academics in North America, or to those who were apprised of it, such as the administrators at Avondale College and indeed most of those who were informed of it as a result of the four incidents recounted above. Many of these apparently found my research more important or my self-presentation more valid than the stigma I was said to bear, and therefore chose to overlook it. Others, especially in the Developing World but also, for example, the conference president in Brisbane, Australia, carried such narrow stereotypes of homosexuals that when they met me – and my traveling companions during the second international journey – they concluded that we did not fit the category, and thus they rejected the information presented to them by others as false.

There is one final factor whose importance is difficult to assess without inside knowledge to which I have not been privy. The GC places high value on good public relations – so that it was willing, for example, to spend a large sum on professional media consultants in an effort to avoid having the Branch Davidians linked to Adventism [Lawson, 1995]. It also likes to be able to manage what information is made available to members9. Consequently, the GC likes to control what is written about Adventism, and becomes nervous when it learns of studies by people who are independent, especially when it becomes clear that they are focusing on sensitive issues. An informant within the GC told me that Neal Wilson, the former GC President, had stated, when my name came up in a committee meeting, that since I knew so much and therefore could be dangerous, it was important not to offend me before my book was published lest this encourage me to write an angry book. I do not know to what extent the hierarchy acted to further this decision.

Whatever the reasons, the contrast between the GC-Kinship tensions in the U.S. and the manner in which I was usually received as I traveled on the research was stark indeed. In spite of my nagging fears that all might collapse, the way in which I was welcomed into each local Adventist milieu as a “family” member and the hospitality that I was typically afforded illustrated for me the closeness that exists within the Adventist subculture. At the same time, however, my gay orientation and the fear of disclosure, humiliation, and disruption that I carried with me helped keep me marginal, and therefore a better sociologist.


  1. For example, her extended discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah linked their destruction to a variety of sins, but did not mention homosexuality [White, 1890: 156-170; Pearson, 1990: 231-2].
  2. Few lesbians were discovered.
  3. For example, the question asked of pastors was “How many homosexuals are you aware of among the members of your congregation?”
  4. I had resigned my position when the GC filed its suit against Kinship.
  5. For example, the belief that the Adventist Church is God’s “Remnant Church,” which has been called to preach His final message of warning to the world, and that all other religious groups are correspondingly in error.
  6. Such as a strict observance of the Saturday Sabbath.
  7. Such as Sabbath observance, education in Adventists schools and colleges, and a sense of being part of a different minority.
  8. That Jesus will return soon, that Adventists will collectively face persecution before that occurs, and also expectations concerning how an Adventist will keep the Sabbath, what he/she will not eat, etc.
  9. When I asked the person who had been designated the media spokesperson during the Branch Davidian standoff why the church press had never informed members about the hiring of the media consultants, he replied that “there is always debate at the General Conference concerning how much to allow the membership to know” [Lawson, 1995:330].


Annual Council Action (1977). “Annual Council Passes Action on Conciliation, Divorce, and Remarriage,” Adventist Review, February 17: 18.

Annual Council, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. (1987). Minutes, October.

Anonymous (1982). “Growing Up Gay Adventist,” Spectrum, May: 38-48.

Benton, Elvin (1982). “Adventists Face Homosexuality,” Spectrum, May: 32-38.

Cook, Colin (1976a). “God’s Grace to the Homosexual,” Part 1. Insight, Dec. 7: 4-8.

Cook, Colin (1976b). “God’s Grace to the Homosexual,” Part 2. Insight, Dec.14: 7-11.

Cook, Colin (1976c). “God’s Grace to the Homosexual,” Part 3. Insight, Dec.21: 12-16.

Cook, Colin (1980). “The Church’s Responsibility to Homosexuals,” Insight, Dec.16: 9-11.

Cook, Colin (1982). “Church Funds Program for Homosexuals,” Spectrum, 12:3 (May): 46-48.

Cook, Colin (1987). Letter to Neal Wilson, December 14.

Day, Dan (1971). “What about Homosexuality?,” Insight, December 14.

Eva, Duncan (1986). Letter to Darold Bigger, December 8.

Kubo, S. (1980). Theology and Ethics of Sex. Nashville: Review and Herald.

Lawson, Ronald (1995). “Seventh-day Adventist Responses to Branch Davidian Notoriety: Patterns of Diversity within a Sect Reducing Tension with Society.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34:3 (September), 323-341.

“Newsbreak” (1988). “SDA Church Moves against Homosexual Support Group,” Adventist Review, February 4.

Nixon, Robert (1985). Letter to Ronald Lawson, November 7.

North American Division Committee (1981). Minutes, Spring Meeting, April 9.

Pearson, Michael (1990). Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas: Seventh-day Adventism and Contemporary Ethics. Cambridge University Press.

Pierson, Robert (1977). Press statement, June 24. Quoted in Michael Pearson, Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas: 248.

Roberts, Daniel (1986). Letter to Ronald Lawson, Dec. 26.

Spangler, Robert (1981). “Homosexual Healing.” Ministry, September, 4-13

Spangler, Robert (1987). “Homosexual Recovery – Six Years Later.” Ministry, September, 4-9

“Spring Council Report” (1981). Adventist Review, May 21: 14-15.

Springett, Ronald M. (1988). Homosexuality in History and the Scriptures. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Research Institute

White, Ellen (1890). Patriarchs and Prophets. Battle Creek: Review and Herald.

Wilson, Neal C. (1981a). “Interview with Neal Wilson,” Walla Walla College Alumni Review, Winter: 10-11.

Wilson, Neal C. (1981b). Letter to Division, Union, Conference, college and university, and hospital corporation presidents, and editors, April 23.

Wilson, Neal C. (1981c). Interview, May.

Wittschiebe, C.E. (1974). God Invented Sex. Nashville: Southern Publishing Association.

Wood, Kenneth (1971). “Power to Counter all Deviation,” (editorial), Adventist Review, July 15: 2.

Wood, Miriam (1977). “Anita Bryant and Homosexuality”, Adventist Review, Oct. 6.

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