An Interdisciplinary Study of Gay Fathers | Teachers College Columbia University

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An Interdisciplinary Study of Gay Fathers

 An Interdisciplinary Study of Gay Fathers
Justin Jones:  Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology
Justin Jones believes his doctoral research, which focuses on aspects of psychology, spirituality and sexual orientation, could not have come together anywhere but under the big intellectual tent that is Teachers College. But then Jones, who received his PhD in clinical psychology this month, took a decidedly interdisciplinary path to TC.

Jones, who grew up in New Orleans, earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Emory University, worked with youth at a progressive Episcopal church in Atlanta, got a master’s degree in religion from Yale Divinity School, and then came to Teachers College to work with Lisa Miller, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, who does research on the intersection of spirituality and psychology.

“I wanted to integrate psychology, spirituality and sexuality, and both my experience at Divinity School and here have allowed me to pull it all together, both personally and professionally,” Jones says. “They fit together seamlessly.”

In the summer before he went to Yale, Jones came out as a gay man. He still felt strong ties to his church work but was also drawn to studying psychology. While at Yale, he became interested in Miller’s work on how spirituality can help protect women against depression.

For his master’s thesis, Jones did a qualitative study of gay men who were becoming adoptive fathers. His interviews of gay fathers tapped something interesting and until then undocumented:  Adoptive gay fathers, some of whom had natural children as well, reported a spiritual, transcendent love for the adopted child who was not their own.

“The fathers felt a huge connection to these children who weren’t biologically theirs,” Jones says. “There’s almost this bias that you can only experience this intense love for a child if it’s your own, and they were the opposite, actually. There were a lot of ups and downs, of course, but they described it as a kind of ‘transcendent oneness,’ which is the definition of spirituality in the literature.”
For his doctoral dissertation, Jones designed a quantitative study with a larger sample, comparing gay adopted fathers to gay men who were not fathers. Funded in part by the President’s Grant for Research in Diversity, Jones again found something that no other study had:  While in the general population, depression was higher among new parents than non-parents, the gay fathers Jones studied were less depressed, on average, than gay men who had no children.

Further, of the non-fathers who reported being depressed, those who identified with an organized religion were less depressed than those who did not, and many in this group had migrated from religions of their childhoods that were less accepting of homosexuality, to those that were more accepting. “My interpretation,” Jones says, “is that organized religions have an opportunity to really impact mental health. If they are more accepting of people who are homosexual in their congregation, it can actually affect depressive symptoms.”

Jones wants to publish the research and continue his clinical work at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Bronx Psychiatric Center, and he will begin a post-doctoral fellowship at New York University later this year. He would also like to research what he describes as the “false cultural divide” between being gay and being a parent, and being gay and spiritual—even religious. By discovering through research the connection between religious practice and mental health, Jones believes he has uncovered something healing and transformative for gay men—and for everyone. “Through this program,” he says, “I learned the power of research.”

Published Thursday, May. 27, 2010


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