Our Witness: the unheard story of LGBT+ Christians

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I’m looking forward to the release of Our Witness: the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians later this month. As a contributor, I’ve had the chance to glance through the proofs of this collection of personal essays, and I’ve been impressed by the sheer breadth and depth, as well as the honesty, of the content.

Too often, the debate in the Church around gender and sexuality assumes that the question begins and ends with gay men. Lesbians are ignored. The rest of us might as well not exist. Even among allies, there’s a depressing tendency to write ‘LGBT’ in the first line and then revert to ‘gay’ for the remainder of the article/sermon/book, as if that covered everyone’s experience. Terms like ‘gay marriage’ are thrown around with, er, gay abandon. One gets the impression that the middle-aged cis white gay men are the only ones in the Church with any problems.

This book goes a long way to redress that balance. There are stories from gay Christians, yes – but there are stories from lesbian Christians, bisexual Christians, and trans Christians too. I’m in there as The Amazing Invisible Bisexual Christian – the woman who’s been married to a man for getting on for a decade and still stubbornly refuses to forget that she’s queer. There are stories from ordained ministers and from laypeople; from many denominations; there are stories of hurt, and stories of hope.

Some stories are not found in there: how could they be, when there are as many stories as there are LGBT+ Christians? Some will appear in the US version, which is coming next year. Others, of course, won’t. But there are more stories in here than I have ever seen before.

Our Witness: the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians is published on 29 October by Darton Longman and Todd.

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.

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.

How to make bisexuals feel welcome at church

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I’m assuming for the purposes of this post that your church is one that wants to make bisexuals feel welcome, that perhaps already has some sort of ‘LGBT’ outreach or ministry, that’s wondering where all the bisexuals are, that’s thinking that perhaps it doesn’t have any.

If that’s not the case, some sort of LGBT outreach would be a good start. And if you are starting from scratch, here’s how to include bisexuals in that.

The tl;dr version:

See us. Let us know you’ve seen us. Believe us when we tell you who we are. Or, if you can’t see us at the moment, let us know that it’s safe to be visible.

Don’t make assumptions.

Understand that you almost certainly have bisexuals in the congregation already. Who knows – they might even have got married in your church. Yes, even if your church doesn’t do same-sex marriages.

A significant relationship pattern among my friends is bisexual Christian woman + straight atheist man. That’s what mine looks like. In fact – let’s take that a little further. My husband goes to church almost as much as I do, and the potential for hilarious misunderstandings is endless. Quite often people come to the conclusion that he’s Roman Catholic – a Polish middle name and a habit of coming to the communion rail for a blessing rather than to receive will do that. They see us sitting side by side in the choir, and they assume that we’re a straight Christian couple.

But he’s not Christian. And I’m not straight.

The moral of this story is: don’t make assumptions about people’s sexuality based on their relationships.

Similarly, don’t make assumptions about people’s relationships based on their sexuality. For me, when I say that I identify as bisexual, I’m talking about potential: what might have been, what might still be. For most married bisexuals, our sexual identity just doubles the pool of people with whom we’re not committing adultery.

None of which is to say that there aren’t other models of relationships that are valid. Christians can be celibate; Christians can be polyamorous. A bisexual might have committed to only pursuing relationships with people of the opposite gender. A bisexual in a different-gender relationship might not want to get married because they know that if they’d fallen in love with someone different, they wouldn’t be able to.

Speaking for myself, I got married when I was 23, and I wouldn’t do it again. Not because of any difficulties in our relationship (except for that incident the other week where I laughed when he dropped his pizza…) but because I’ve come to find society’s insistence on marriage as the highest expression of human relationships damaging and verging on the idolatrous. But that’s just me, and I don’t speak for all bisexuals, not even all Christian ones. Don’t make assumptions based on me, or on anyone else.

Include bisexuality. Explicitly.

I went to a church where we once sang Over The Rainbow under a rainbow flag. It still took me years to come out, because I wasn’t sure that I was queer enough to ‘count’. I came out to the rector, who was fantastic. I was never out to the congregation at large. It would probably have been fine, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure that people would accept me as a bisexual. I wasn’t sure that they’d believe me: they’d seen me get married to a man, after all. And so, for five years in a church that I loved, that was fantastic in all other respects, I was never quite myself.

It’s very reassuring to know that my church would accept me if I were to turn up with a partner of the same gender, but that doesn’t tell me that it sees and accepts me as I am now. So talk about bisexuality. Show that you understand that some people are attracted to more than one gender. Show that you understand what that means.

Remember that bisexuality exists. Don’t assume that people with same-sex partners are the only ones who have problems with, or in, the Church. Don’t use ‘LGBT’ if you just mean ‘lesbian and gay’. Don’t include the B and the T in the acronym in the top line of your sermon or newsletter article and then talk about ‘gay people’ all the way through the rest of it. It’s lazy and it doesn’t make us feel included; it shows that you haven’t actually thought through the distinctive experience of bisexuals – let alone trans people. (That’s a post of its own, and I’m not the person to write it.) Similarly, assuming that bisexuality is included on the basis of the ‘everyone’s bisexual really’ meme erases the experiences of those who do identify as bisexual, and of those who explicitly don’t.

Understand that bisexuals are likely to have specific pastoral issues.

There is a statistic floating around that says that bisexuals are more likely to have mental health problems than either gay people or straight people. I resemble that statistic. And I am not remotely surprised.

Whatever our relationship might look like, we’re always half in and half out of the closet – or we’re having to work very hard swimming against the tide of other people’s assumptions. We’re always aware that there’s a side of us that people are choosing not to see. We feel guilty, as if we’re hiding something, but we fear that if we are explicit about our identity then people will accuse us of attention-seeking. Sometimes we worry that we are attention-seeking, but if we try to settle into the role that society has assigned to us we’re always aware that there’s something else, something that we must acknowledge or be damned.

The Christian life calls us to a sexuality that’s pretty much the opposite of the promiscuity that popular culture ascribes to bisexuals. The more we try to live out our Christianity, the more our sexual identity is erased. Monogamy is mistaken for monosexuality, and we disappear into the gap between straight and gay. Being invisible is not healthy, spiritually speaking, and if your vocation is to care for your congregation, then you need to care for both halves of us.

God sees us as we are.

One day, I hope the Church will do so too.

Reverb day 10: litany

When we heal our spirits the ripples are felt from the highest branches to the deepest roots of our family trees.

What radical act of love or non-conformity did you embrace this year?

I wonder how many thousands of people can recite Philip Larkin’s This be the verse from memory, people who wouldn’t necessarily describe their childhoods as awful, who are fully aware that their parents were doing the best they could under difficult circumstances, but who recognise the unforgiving truth.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,/ They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had,/ And add some extra, just for you.

I don’t agree with his conclusion, but I can’t fault his observation. This seems to be the way things happen. We are the sum of our ancestors’ assumptions, convictions, hang-ups and foibles. And then we add some more of our own. It deepens like a coastal shelf.

I’m less pessimistic. I think it’s possible to interrupt the patterns, to throw away the scripts, and watch the coastal shelf dissolve, one layer at a time. Maybe we don’t get very far through it in this generation. Oh, but it’s worth trying. I think it’s possible to make things incrementally better, starting where I am, with the material I have.

I almost answered this question a couple of days ago, and so I’m just going to expand on that, and copy in a couple of pages from my diary, from May this year.

I have told myself that it doesn’t matter that I am bisexual when actually it is very important.

I have thought in terms of ‘either’/’or’ and suppressed ‘both’/’and’.

I have had the opportunity to come out as bisexual and not taken it, many times.

I have preached the glory of God’s infinite, unconditional, love, to all LGBT people except myself.

I have told myself that I am only OK so long as I act straight.

I have hidden behind a heterosexual relationship and have been ashamed of my true self.

I have behaved as if only part of myself were acceptable.

I refused to act on hints from myself. I ignored clues. I was afraid to entertain the possibility.

I thought it must be all about the sex and ignored everything that wasn’t.

I have shut myself in a container in which there isn’t room for all of myself.

I have made myself feel grateful for being het-married and have let myself feel guilty about not having to deal with the crap LG people have to deal with.

I have wished to be monosexual and have let myself think that at least that would have been easier.

I have worried and worried that I’m making it all up and have minimised every manifestation out of fear and false modesty.

I have confined myself to the Rules.

I have allowed myself to be limited to other people’s expectations.

I have made unconditional acceptance conditional.

I have denied my true nature.

I did not come out to myself until there was no way to decently act upon it.

I have told myself that celibacy or heterosexual marriage are the only valid expressions of a bisexual identity.

I have stunted my own growth and development by refusing to allow for the possibility that I might be bisexual.

I have wondered in my turn whether my bisexual brothers and sisters might be making it up.

I have limited myself to the theoretical.

 

I am ashamed. I would not have treated another person the way that I have treated myself. I bristle at the slightest implication that I might.

 

I ask for forgiveness.

I ask for forgiveness of myself, for God’s forgiveness is granted already.

I ask forgiveness from my sad, suppressed, denied, self; from the self that was never allowed an opportunity to think that it might be both until the choice was made and irrevocable.

I ask for forgiveness from the one who might have made a different choice, had she been allowed to know of that choice’s existence.

I ask for forgiveness from the one who made the choice, and always knew that there was more to it than that.

 

I ask to see my whole self.

I ask to be reintegrated.

I ask to receive everyone I am and have been and might have been and could yet be.

I ask to be myself.

 

Reverb day 7: knowing myself

In her seminal book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott offers the observation: “The evidence is in, and you are the verdict.”

Regardless of where you live in this crazy beautiful world, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s been a BIG year.

Today, I want to acknowledge that you are here and I am here and we are here.

We’re just… HERE.

That feels like a BIG DEAL.

And, that being said, I invite you to reflect on all that this evinces. What are you the verdict of?

Thirty years. Thirty years, four months, and a few days I’ve been on this planet now. And yes, this one has been a big year.

I’ve written a book! I’ve taken ownership of the book to the extent that I’m prepared to put it out into the world under my own name and propulsion. I’ve let go of the need for other people’s approval; I’ve given up on waiting for other people to give me permission.

After several years of thinking that I was pretty much OK with my sexuality, I’ve found a whole lot more snarls, and have disentangled them.

I’ve let go of the idea that I ought to have always known, and the guilt that went with it. I’ve met other people who didn’t always know, who didn’t know for far longer than me. Together, we’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps it’s not our fault for not knowing; it’s just a different story from the one that the rest of the world expects. We’re going to claim our own identities anyway, damn it.

Relatedly, I’ve stopped feeling guilty about being in a heterosexual relationship while claiming my queer identity. And I’ve stopped apologising for the people who disgrace my religion.

I worried a lot about what other people were thinking about who I was, about why they kept apologising for swearing in front of me, and couldn’t work out why it upset me so much. Then it occurred to me that I was terrified that I actually would turn out to be that person: the prissy, mealy-mouthed killjoy who was far more offended by a ‘fuck’ or a ‘shit’ than by, you know, dishonesty, untruth, cruelty – the things that matter.

I examined myself through this lens and found that, while I really wasn’t bothered by swearing, I’d done a pretty thorough job of suppressing the parts of myself that didn’t seem respectable. Keeping quiet, trying not to take up space, and, for heaven’s sake, if I had to insist on being bisexual, then not doing it where it might be getting in the way of people with real problems.

It was as if, every time I went to church, I left half of myself outside the door. There’s a line in one of the Collects: ‘forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid…’ That’s how it felt; except it turned out that very few of those things turned out to need forgiving. What really needed forgiveness was the fear, which had for years stopped me looking at myself properly, had stopped me accepting myself.

The other line that felt extremely relevant was from 1 Corinthians 13:

‘Then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.’

The implication of this verse only dawned on me a few months ago: that nobody could possibly expect us to know ourselves fully now; that there is always going to be more to find out. That I could stop feeling guilty for not having always known, and that I could trust that, some day, I would.

Today, is of course, not that day. Today I’m slightly closer to St Paul’s unspecified ‘then’ than I was this time last year, but there, of course, is a very long way to go.

All the same, I’m here. And here seems like a very good place to be, for now.