Issues with Issues: bisexuality and the Church of England

[content note: discussion of a biphobic document, including a specifically biphobic quotation]

Issues in Human Sexuality has become a very Anglican idolatry: a discussion document published in 1988, elevated without consultation to quasi-doctrinal status and making the lives of LGBT members of the Church of England a misery ever since. It’s the document that ordinands are asked to submit to, the document whose logical conclusion is that same-sex marriages can’t be performed or even blessed in church.

Paragraph 5.8, which attempts to deal specifically with bisexuality, has been floating around Twitter lately, and since I have more to say on the matter than will fit into 140 characters, I’ve taken it to the blog.

5.8 The first is that of bisexuality. We recognise that there are those whose sexual orientation is ambiguous, and who can find themselves attracted to partners of either sex. Nevertheless it is clear that bisexual activity must always be wrong for this reason, if for no other, that it inevitably involves being unfaithful. The Church’s guidance to bisexual Christians is that if they are capable of heterophile relationships and of satisfaction within them, they should follow the way of holiness in either celibacy or abstinence or heterosexual marriage. In the situation of the bisexual it can also be that counselling will help the person concerned to discover the truth of their personality and to achieve a degree of inner healing.

The depressing thing about this – no, there are many depressing things about this, but one of the first that springs to mind is that it relies on a definition of bisexuality that no bisexuals use, a myth that is in wide circulation beyond the Church, namely, that ‘bisexual activity… inevitably involves being unfaithful.’ The majority of my secular straight acquaintance agrees that the Church’s attitude to homosexuality is bafflingly uncharitable, but I’ve had to explain a tedious number of times that no, I’m still only sleeping with the person I’m married to.

I began identifying as bisexual in 2007, having first heard the word in 2006. At that point I was in a relationship with the man I was to marry in 2009. Our seventh wedding anniversary was last Monday. Now, you can make all the ‘seven year itch’ jokes you like, but I have never been unfaithful – unless you subscribe to a particularly literalist interpretation of Matthew 5:28, in which case I suggest you check your own eye for logs. I have from time to time developed crushes on other people, told my husband about them, laughed, and moved on. I will be very surprised if that’s not true for the majority of straight people and gay people.

The paragraph also relies on another common misapprehension about bisexuality: that it ceases to exist when somebody begins a monogamous relationship. My own experience gives the lie to that. I was already in a monogamous relationship when I took a long, hard look at the list of everyone I’d ever been attracted to and realised they weren’t all the same gender. Nor did I not stop being bisexual on 20 June 2009. In fact, it was some of the hard thinking that I had to do as part of marriage preparation that gave me the impetus to come out to my husband. (Whose response, by the way, when I showed him this paragraph the other night, was ‘What the fuck?’)

I am ‘capable’ of celibacy, abstinence and heterosexual marriage, though not all at the same time. I’ve done all three in my time, I’ve seriously considered all three, plus a relationship with someone of the same gender, as possible futures, and all the time I’ve been bisexual. What is ‘bisexual activity’, anyway? At present I, a bisexual, am typing a blog post in my lunch break, drinking tea and listening to the Sullivan cello concerto. No infidelity involved. That’s as far as my bisexual activity goes.

I have had counselling in the past. It helped, but not in the way that Issues seems to think it might. It was the beginning of an attempt to achieve what this calls ‘a degree of inner healing’. What eventually came to the surface was the inevitable conclusion that my attempt to ‘follow the way of holiness in… heterosexual marriage’, ignoring all the bits of my personality that didn’t fit that story, hadn’t worked at all; it had led to me leaving half of myself outside the church door. That stint of counselling, and all the thinking I did after that, didn’t ‘heal’ me of being bisexual, because bisexuality is not something that needs to be healed. ‘Dealing with’ bisexuality by ignoring it is, pastorally speaking, a terrible move.

And guess what? The truth of my personality is that I’m bisexual, no amount of counselling is going to take that away, and accepting it, celebrating it, has brought me a degree of inner healing that pretending to be a straight wife never did.

100 untimed books: sweets

24. sweets

24. sweets

When I was little, we had some traveller friends who lived in a converted bus in our back yard. Since most of our other friends lived a mile down a very busy road, my brothers and I spent quite a lot of time with Ed and Jenni, Izak and Riley. When it was fine, we played in the garden. When it was raining, we went to the bus.

Jenni had a copy of Mary Berry’s Step By Step Desserts. I spent many happy hours looking through this book. Later, they moved to France, and we moved to the Isle of Wight, and I haven’t seen them in years, though my father and brother visited them a few weeks ago.

All the same, when I saw a copy in a charity shop I snapped it up. I make recipes out of it occasionally, but mostly I just look, and remember contented rainy afternoons, and very hospitable friends.

100 untimed books

The wisdom of rowing coaches

DSCF0672

I’ve mentioned before that I live very close to the Cam. What this means is that it’s very rare for me to cycle to the station, go out for a box of teabags, or just have a wander, without seeing a rowing boat or three on the river.

And where there are rowing boats, there are coaches. The rowing coaches cycle up and down the towpath with buoyancy aids slung over their handlebars and with their eyes on the river, yelling at the boats. Sometimes, when the boat has slowed and the blades of the oars are trailing in the water, when the coach has brought their bike to a standstill, I overhear what they tell their charges. I like to listen, because their instructions are often useful clues.

Some seem pretty specific to the sport:

Here’s a trick that might be useful to you: imagine that you’re controlling the oar of the person in front.

Some seem to have more general application.

You should only be spending about 30% of the time on the stroke. The rest is recovery.

And then, yesterday,

You can’t fix the current stroke. You can only fix the next stroke.

You can’t fix the current stroke. You can only fix the next stroke.

What you think the project is, and what the project really is

Minor spoilers for Speak Its Name in this, including an extract from a chapter very near the end.

Visibility charm

Visibility charm

I mentioned last time that my main purveyor of author tracts (warning: that’s a link to TV Tropes, and if you follow it you may lose the rest of the day) in Speak Its Name was Peter. Which is not really surprising, when you consider that the book started out as a story of how getting too interested in student and/or Christian politics can play havoc with what you thought was a vocation to ordained ministry. That’s pretty much where I was when I started writing it, after all, so it made sense to bestow some of my own opinions upon the character who was dealing with that.

The other one was Abby, who is Lydia’s cousin, and who is in some ways much closer to an author avatar (TV Tropes again), or at least an author caricature. (‘A self-insert who turns up at the end to pontificate,’ was how I put it to one of my editors.) I am not blonde, or pregnant, or given to wearing pink, but at the time of writing I was very aware that I looked a lot like the Perfect Christian Woman. And – aside from the fact that my family is much less of a clusterfuck than the Hawkins – this was very much what my experience looked like.

‘What I wanted to say,’ Abby said, ‘was that I know that our family is not at all helpful when it comes to relationships that happen in anything like the real world, and that I know that your parents are if anything less helpful than my parents and that – if you wanted me to – I would come out.’

Lydia choked on her prosecco. ‘What?

Abby told Colette, in a stage whisper, ‘I said it wasn’t a helpful family.’ Then, in more serious tones. ‘I’m bi.’

Lydia could think of nothing to say. Colette, clearly amused, said, ‘She looked less shocked when I told her I had a crush on her.’

Abby smiled, though it looked like an effort. ‘I wasn’t ever going to tell anyone. Not in the family, at least. It never occurred to me that I might not be the only one.’

‘Same,’ Lydia just managed to squeak. ‘Does Paul know?’

‘Of course – I wouldn’t have married him if I couldn’t tell him that.’

‘People must do,’ Lydia said. ‘Oh, God, this must happen all the time.’

Abby nodded. ‘I know four or five – happily married, most of us, still in love, still Christian, still trying to find a way to be truthful, always knowing how bloody lucky we are: that we could so easily have gone the other way, fallen for someone we couldn’t take to church with us…’

Except… when I was reading it through, on the second to last editing pass, I was struck by the horrifying thought, Good grief, that sounds miserable.

And then I remembered that was me, that the last paragraph there describes precisely the way I thought about myself and my faith and my bisexuality at the time I was writing. I might as well have put it in there so that I could say to anyone who asked, ‘You know the bit with Abby at the end? That’s basically where I am.’

Not any more. Somewhere in the writing process I’d moved far beyond where Abby was. I was mostly out, as opposed to being mostly closeted. I’d stopped thinking that the only appropriate way for me to be bisexual was quietly. I’d realised what a mess I’d made of myself by trying to do that. I’d started speaking up, and out.

The project is never what you think it is. I thought Speak Its Name was about vocation, and politics, and faith, and sexual orientation, and it is, but it is mostly about being OK with who I am, and I had to learn more about that before I could finish it. Writing a book changed the book, and changed me.

I suspect that writing Wheels will have something to teach me about working too hard and physical capacity and the importance of not doing things. I asked to learn more about that, after all.

I suspect that I do not currently have the breadth of understanding to imagine what it’s going to teach me. I suspect that it’s going to go far beyond juggling my working patterns and keeping every other weekend free. I suspect that it’s going to take me apart and put me back together again, and maybe I’ll notice while it’s actually happening, and maybe I won’t. Maybe, like last time, I’ll just happen to glance back over my shoulder and think, Good grief, is that where I was? What a very long way I’ve come.

Antoinette before Bertha

I’ve been thinking more about Me Before You and ableism, and I think I’ve finally managed to pin down what disturbs me about the book. Spoilers, as before, for that book, and also for Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, and for my Speak Its Name. As ever, there’s a picture first so that you have a chance to click away.

always another way of looking at the world

always another way of looking at the world

Another story from another book club

My current book club has a practice of actually discussing the book, which was a bit of a culture shock, but, you know, I’m getting used to it. There was an interesting discussion last time around about Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ reply to Jane Eyre. One member of the group had found the book dissatisfying. The bookseller had described it to them as a ‘feminist work’, and they were disappointed that the main character, Antoinette, retained very little agency and ended up thoroughly subjugated – in fact, in the same attic in which Brontë’s Rochester had incarcerated her over a century before.

I felt, and argued, strongly that Wide Sargasso Sea is indeed a feminist work. I don’t think that the fact that Jane Eyre still happens, that Rochester’s wife still ends up in the attic, stops it being feminist. I don’t believe that a book has to end ‘and they smashed the patriarchy and lived happily ever after’ for it to be feminist. I believe that feminist literature has as much of a responsibility to present the problems inherent in the world in which we’re currently living, and the consequent detriment to women, as it does to offer a glimpse of a world beyond that. If not, Virago’s output for most of the seventies, eighties and nineties was a huge waste of time. There has to be a place for books that portray the unpleasant aspects of the world we live in.

I put some things into Speak Its Name that I don’t agree with. Religiously-motivated abuse, homophobia, one-true-wayism. In fact, I put them in because I don’t agree with them. I think they’re absolutely awful. But they happen. I don’t think they should happen. I don’t think they have to happen. If my writing Speak Its Name (and generally being loudly queer and Christian) can contribute in even a minuscule fashion to a world where they stop happening, then I’ll be delighted. Besides, a novel where nothing controversial ever happens and all the characters agree with the author’s worldview is not going to be a very good book*.

So why am I still so suspicious of Me Before You?

After all, I’ve just said that it’s not anti-feminist to point out that it wasn’t much fun being a woman in a westernised culture in the early nineteenth century.

It’s not homophobic to point out that it’s not much fun being a lesbian in a socially/religiously conservative milieu.

It doesn’t have to be ableist to point out that it’s not much fun being disabled in early twenty-first century Britain.

The problem for Moyes is, I think, that she hasn’t quite picked up how much of the unpleasantness is contextual.There are moments where she almost gets it – the scene at the racecourse, with its accessibility nightmare topped off by the revelation that Will doesn’t like horseracing anyway, which would probably have emerged earlier had Lou not gone into ‘able saviour’ mode, is a lovely satirical demonstration of the social model of disability at work. But Moyes and her hero Will both seem to have bought into the idea that this is how things are always going to be. Disabled parking spaces will never be in an appropriate place, ramps will always be too steep, well-meaning non-disabled people will never stop to ask what a disabled person actually wants or needs… This is always going to be a world, says Me Before You, that a disabled person literally would not want to live in. And it never stops to ask whether that might be something to do with the world as opposed to the person.

I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that’s the way that the world has to be. Sadly, I don’t believe that Me Before You‘s lazy assumptions about what being disabled is actually like have contributed to changing it.

 

*There were originally three speeches in Speak Its Name that express my pure opinions, which I would have happily claimed for myself regardless of who was saying them or what the context was. Two of them I gave to Peter. One of those was the rant about bus preservation, which isn’t particularly relevant to this post and got deleted anyway. The other comes a couple of paragraphs before the end of the Summer chapter, where he tells Lydia that God always welcomes her, and that anyone in the Church who doesn’t has got it’s wrong. That’s all me. Well, my High Church reader pointed out that Peter would say ‘the Church here on earth’, but apart from that it’s me.

And the third was Abby’s point, very near the end, about the hidden bisexuals. At the time I wrote it, that was my own experience. Not any more – but that’s another story.

100 untimed books: yellow

89. yellow

89. yellow

I’ve seen Slow Time described as ‘The Artist’s Way, but for time’. It’s a twelve-week workbook for exploring one’s relationship with time and seasons, and, like all these things, you skip the bits that make you roll your eyes (the astrology, for me) and play with the bits that appeal.

I wouldn’t recommend it to hardcore Quakers who Don’t Do Festivals, but I was surprised how much I, as a wacky but orthodox Anglican, got out of it.

100 untimed books

Overload before Me before You

Here’s how this post works. I talk a bit about a book club I used to belong to. Then there’s a picture of an electricity pylon. Then there’s a content note. Then there’s the same picture of an electricity pylon. Then there are spoilers for Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and for Overload by Arthur Hailey. If you wish to avoid spoilers, stop reading before you get to the pylon.

My previous office had a book club. From the beginning the emphasis was more on the ‘club’ than the ‘book’. At first we waited until everyone had read the book before we arranged the meeting. When we realised that it had taken us two years to read eight books we started going ahead with the meetings regardless of how many people had got through the one in question. The result of that was that the meetings became five minutes of book talk against two hours of gossip. The night we were meant to talk about Me Before You was hijacked by… in fact, I think it was my leaving do – and we never talked about the book at all. It’s been in the news, and therefore my mind, recently, and so I’m going to talk about it now.

Here is that picture of the electricity pylon that I was telling you about

Here is that picture of the electricity pylon that I was telling you about

[content note: discussion of euthanasia in fiction in the remainder of this post and in the external posts linked to]

Here is that picture of the electricity pylon that I was telling you about

I’ve been following the coverage around the release of the film version of Me Before You with some interest. I was troubled by the book at the time that I read it, over two years ago now, but what with one thing and another (read: my leaving do) never got around to discussing it.

If you want an itemised list of the problematic aspects of Me Before You, I can’t do better than refer you to this comprehensive sporking by Cara Liebowitz.In fact, I’m going to quote her summary, too:

“Me Before You” is a novel turned movie that focuses on Louisa, who takes a job as a personal care attendant for a wealthy quadriplegic man who hates himself, her, and everyone around him, in that order. She falls in love with him, though she can’t dissuade him, in the end, from going to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. Because being disabled is soooooooooo terrible and tragic, didn’t you know?! /sarcasm

The problematic aspects of Me Before You can be sorted into the following categories:

  • ableist attitudes coming from a sympathetic but ill-informed character, deliberately intended to present them as ill-informed
  • ableist attitudes coming from an unsympathetic character, deliberately intended to present them as unsympathetic
  • relatively realistic portrayals of the obstacles
  • coming from a sympathetic character, unintentionally presenting an ableist attitude as objective fact
  • an overarching ableist assumption by the author herself

My impression is that I would sort these differently from the way that Liebowitz does, and other readers will of course sort them their own ways. I’ll also refer you to this post by disabled writer David Gillon. Whether Jojo Moyes would agree with any of us is of course another question, and to a certain extent is irrelevant.

My own feeling is that she forfeits the benefit of the doubt. Choosing the ending that she does – for which I was basically prepared from the start by the cover of the paperback edition I read, which makes some problematic assumptions of its own – she acquiesces to the prevailing cultural narrative that it’s better to be dead than disabled. She never really interrogates that, not in any meaningful way, and the net result is that Will gets no character development whatsoever.

Of course there’s an argument to be made about autonomy, and personal choice, and what that looks like when physical capability is restricted, but, contrary to the protestations of the film director, the direction that Me Before You chooses doesn’t feel like the ‘brave’ one to me. In fact, it felt far less progressive than Arthur Hailey’s Overload, which, though it was written thirty-three years earlier, I’d read only a couple months before.

Overload is magnificently tacky, and occasionally plain bizarre. It has ecoterrorism, irresponsible parenting (don’t let your children fly kites near overhead lines, people), a man who loses his penis and is promised a prosthetic one, some frankly appalling health and safety failings, and an equally appalling protagonist who spends the book shagging his way around the female half of the cast list. And mostly this makes my skin crawl, but

One of said cast list is Karen Sloan, who is a far less miserable and more interesting fictional quadriplegic than Will Trainor. She’s portrayed as a sociable, attractive woman who desires and enjoys sex, who desires and enjoys life. She has a fulfilling social life. A neighbour’s child regards it as a privilege to perform small acts of care for her.  Her eventual death, when the overload of the title leads to her respirator running out of battery, is presented as a tragic accident, not a ‘merciful release’.

I’ve been taking notes on how not to fail on my own account. After all, Wheels or Bonk or whatever we’re calling it these days has a disabled main character and a non-disabled narrator who starts out as a clueless jerk. Some things I’m going to try:

  • undermining my unreliable narrator from page one
  • reading around the subject more. A lot more.
  • extrapolating from my own experience
  • having a happy ending for everyone
  • getting a friend who has a similar condition to my disabled character to read the damn thing and tell me where I’ve messed up
  • offering her copious amounts of gin for her trouble

It really doesn’t feel like rocket science. Perhaps ‘fail less than Me Before You‘ is just a very low bar.