Bisexual (In)Visibility

We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness.

 

revrobin2-023Robin:

Reading one of the sex- and bodies-focused blogs I receive, my attention was drawn to the subject of bisexuality, a topic Malachi and I have not addressed in a focused way. So here goes.

The particular article, “And New on the Bisexuality Spectrum—‘Mostly Hetero’,” looks at a phenomenon recently under discussion among researchers, namely a nuancing of the traditional sexuality continuum. What caught my eye was the term “mostly hetero.” In response, I  murmured  “I am mostly homo.”

That “mostly” may surprise some readers, because I clearly identify myself as gay. But it was not always so. I was married for more than eight years (1974-83), and my wife gave birth to three daughters.  I was the sperm donor, not through artificial insemination but through penile-vaginal sex. She and I had sex, and more than three times!

I loved Judy very much, but in reality our sex—much desired by her—was not so much for me about lust for her body (which was very sexy by many standards, not to mention her energy and winning personality) as it was to satisfy my own need for sexual release and to honor my commitment to her.  I did not fantasize about men during our love-making, but I did the rest of the time. I never stopped looking at men.

don't assume gay or straightWhen I finally accepted my same-sex desires, working with a therapist and coming out to Judy, and had my first male-male sex (other than one time of masturbation with a friend in our early teens), I suddenly knew why many talked about sex as the pinnacle of pleasure.  The fireworks were there in a way they had not been with her.

But I wondered, off and on for a while, am I bisexual or homosexual? Still, over a relatively short time I became clear I am homosexual.  On the traditional scale, first enunciated by Alfred Kinsey in the late 1940s, that is a 6. But I do find the occasional woman attractive enough to wonder what it would be like to be sexual with her.

So maybe I am a 5.5 or 5.7 or 5.8, not quite a 6.0. Mostly homo.

Yet, I never had sex with a woman after Judy. Not even close. And I had sex with many men during my times of being a single male. So my heterosexuality is very muted.

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I know many gay men and lesbian women who are parents like me—children born during a marriage into which they entered before realizing, or finally accepting, they prefer sex with a person of the same gender. Most of these people report not being very happy in the marriage, but they had sex.

What this points to is the elasticity of sexuality, the wideness of the range of possibilities. I remember a lesbian friend who for decades was in a relationship with the woman of her dreams—when I got to know them there were no longer young, but there was no hiding their obvious love and joy each other; it was infectious to all around them. Then her wife died. A year or two later, she met a man and they fell in love. Many were shocked, and even angry.

Perhaps because I remembered how much I loved Judy, I called her to extend congratulations. She said to me that her new love was, in her mind and heart, just a male version of her wife.

So sometimes it is the person that makes the difference. A former male lover of mine was, like me, married. When he divorced, and we were sharing a seaside cottage with our respective daughters for a week, I seduced him. We were together after that for more than six years—and he has had a second husband for more than two decades.  Was he gay before, or did things, he, just change?  Or did he let some part of him, previously hidden, emerge?

sex is not love so no confusion hereAnother way to see this is accept that sex and sexual orientation are not synonymous with affection and love.  We are able to act sexually through our bodies—our genitals, our hands, our tongues—in ways that are not always synchronous with the social structure or construction of sexuality we have adopted (or has been given to us). And, as outlined above, these structures or constructions, these categories, are not always as fixed as we may wish. Human beings, human bodies, are complicated—no matter how much many want to get us each into one of the major boxes.

Hidden is a word many use about bisexuality. Bisexuals often complain about invisibility in the LGBT movement.  They have a good argument. We know a lot about the L and the G—and more and more (although not enough) about the T, but precious little about the B.

I have heard many gay men and lesbian women claim that a person claiming the B is “just going through a phase,” or is “getting up the courage to claim their real identity” as L or G. This is so sad. It might be true in some cases, but so what? It still is not easy for everyone to come out, just because it is far easier than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago.  And, of course, it sounds so much like the judgment and jibes aimed at many gay and lesbian people on our own coming out journeys.

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These attitudes are so much about making sure the boxes work, and that each person is in the right box. Indeed, the very term “bisexuality” rests on the concept that there are two genders, thus reinforcing the gender binary, and three sexual orientations—hetero, homo, and bi. Both concepts fail to account for the fluidity of sex and gender, indeed the fluidity of our bodies.

That does not mean that people should not claim bisexuality. I know people for whom it is an entirely accurate self-designation. They like to have sex with men and they like to have sex with women—most of them may lean in one direction or the other—while some are equal opportunity folks—however they lean or don’t, they refuse to deny themselves the opportunity to experience both. I think “both” is great. And “all,” too, as in pansexual (but that is another post for me).

So, is the hiddenness, the silence, about bisexuality because it is too complicated? That may be part of the explanation. But I think the far greater reason is that bisexuality, despite seeming to reinforce the boxes, really does call into question the fixedness of sexual identity, sexual orientation, and potentially even gender (more about this another time, too).

labels can limit usSometimes, I chafe against labels, but I know they are useful for organizing ourselves. We do make choices and want to name them. So, in the name of opening up more about sex and bodies, we need to stop invisiblizing the bisexuals. Stand up for B!!!

It may help to think and write this way—LGBT, and we need to keep on doing this, too—LGBT. And LGBTQIA (bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, Intersex, and Ally/Advocate), too (WordPress won’t allow me to make the particular letters larger, which is what I hoped to show).

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I find it difficult to jump into the topic of bisexuality, although it’s an important subject and one that needs to be talked about more, not less. The “B” in LGBT is often ignored, overlooked, or erased.

Often times, we use someone’s appearance to make an assumption about their identity. If we see, for example, a person presenting as male holding hands with someone who is presenting as female, we assume heterosexuality. If we see two people who appear to be of the same gender, we often assume homosexuality. Bisexuality isn’t something we tend to assume because it would require us to see the same person in a variety of situations in which they were holding hands with different people… and since monogamy (along with heterosexuality) are both the assumed default, that doesn’t tend to happen as often.

Bisexual folks are often faced with a lot of belittling and erasure of their identities: “Oh, you just can’t make up your mind,” or “You’ll sleep with anyone,” or “Well, you’re only bisexual when you’re single; once you have a partner, that kind of determines it, doesn’t it?” or “This is just a phase; you’ll settle on your identity eventually.” This kind of erasure is incredibly toxic and is predicated on the idea that someone else knows your identity better than you do. Tangentially, it feeds into the ideas of slut-shaming, or that having a lot of sex with different people is an inherently bad or negative thing.

And yet, sometimes, I have to confess, I have a hard time with bisexuality- partially

bisexual symbol
Bisexual Symbol

because of the way bisexual identities contribute to my erasure. “Bi-” means two, and bisexual is “sexual attraction to both genders.” And for some people, that’s a completely accurate assessment of their sexual orientation: they are attracted to men and women. For others, though, they take bisexual to mean “attracted to all genders,” without realizing that bisexuality is predicated on enforcing the gender binary (there’s that “bi-“ prefix again). There is no room for gender non-conforming in a binary world, and bisexuality is based on the idea that there are two genders, and someone is attracted to both of them.

It’s a tricky, nuanced line of discussion, because I don’t want to disrespect someone else’s identity or contribute to the erasure of who they are… but I also have to recognize that there is a level of bisexuality that makes me uncomfortable. Not because I care about someone being attracted to more than one gender, but because bisexuality implies by definition that there are only two genders, and I actively work against things that reinforce the gender binary. And so I’m not always sure how to have a discussion and dialogue around bisexuality. I feel conflicted about raising that up when greater visibility for one group of people directly contributes to erasure for another group- particularly a group of which I am a part.

A non-binary adaptation of bisexual is “pansexual;” that is, a sexual orientation that spans across gender binary and non-binary individuals and recognizes an attraction for a variety of types of bodies, identities, and presentations. At times in my life, I have identified as pansexual. In fact, in high school, I had a black side bag in which I wrote “PANSEXUAL” in white out across the front. What can I say, I was a pretty brazen high schooler.

pansexual pride
Pansexual Pride

I shifted from pansexual to queer when I realized that the way I fuck, the way I have relationships, the way I interact with sexuality and bodies is heavily informed by my politics and social analysis. My politics, as it turns out, are a direct result of my understanding and identity as a Christian, so in many ways, my faith has informed my identity as a queer person- including my sexual identity. And I think, at the heart of the erasure that many bisexual folks feel, they want to be seen as people who have the capacity to love different types of bodies, configurations, and identities. And I think it’s important that people feel seen in their sexuality, even if the way in manifests right now, or in this relationship, doesn’t paint the whole picture.

When queer femme-identifying people are seen holding hands with their male-presenting partners, they often feel the complexities of their identities are erased (I’ve written about this some in a piece Are You Queer Enough? and Femme Erasure in the Queer Community) or that, by “passing” as straight, they aren’t welcome in queer spaces. And that’s something we have perpetuated, beginning with things like bisexual erasure and not allowing people to live their authentic, sometimes complicated, truths.

We have bisexual (and pansexual, and queer) people in our churches, people whose identities don’t necessarily match up with how we see them presenting. We might assume that the couple that just walked in is a heterosexual couple, but in reality, he might be a queer transmasculine person, and she might be a femme lesbian. We may shun someone if, after ending a same-sex relationship, they begin to form a relationship with someone of the opposite gender. These are problematic behaviors- to ostracize or shun anyone based on their sexual orientation- that are often based in our own assumptions about who someone is based on how we view them, rather than how they view themselves.

We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness. We must allow space for people to be seen and share their experiences authentically, and not worry about hearing the same toxic, damaging messages they hear elsewhere. Bisexuality and pansexuality are not myths, nor are they the result of someone “not being able to make up their mind.” People’s identities are not defined in comparison to their intimate partners; their identities exist regardless of the relationships they are in. It’s time we allow people to see and be seen for their whole selves, and not just the selves we feel most comfortable interacting with.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your feelings about bisexuality? Are you, or have you ever been, bisexual? Do you think bisexuality is a valid sexual orientation? Why or why not? Do you have sex with a person of only one gender (as you and others define that) or more than one? Do you have fantasies about crossing the line? Do you watch sex films (aka pornflicks), and if so, do you watch people with only one orientation or do you sometimes see what others are doing? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us in two weeks, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Previous month’s sessions can be watched here.

Queer Is a Verb

My entire world is queer. Queer is not just an adjective; queer is a verb.

We are focused on creating an atmosphere of sex positivity and wholeness, of self-love and pleasure within and through our bodies, and doing these things through the lens of Christian faith. Sex, Bodies, Spirit is not just a title, but a way of navigating and understanding the world, who we are within it as whole, embodied people, and how we relate to that which is Holy.

Most weeks, we touch on two (if not all three) of these main focal points of this blog. This week, though, we’re going to dive into something that really ties all three together: the concept of queerness. Queering our spirituality, queering our sexuality, queering our relationship with our bodies. And to do this, we have to tackle the idea of “queer.”

Malachi Grennell:

Queer is a slippery word. I’ve written some about queerness elsewhere (Are You Queer Enough?  and Femme Erasure in the Queer Community), but it is, at its core, a concept defined by negation: to be not something. So part of understanding queer is understanding what is the antithesis of queer, or what concept queer negates.

13494904_10100653721109769_3022759221022255872_nThe other piece to really understanding queer is the powerful, often violent, history of the word. My late godmother, Rev. Jeri Ann Harvey, spoke with disdain when people of my generation sought to “reclaim” queer. “How can you reclaim something you don’t understand?” she would ask. “People were killed over that word. I was shot at for that word. The bullet grazed a piece of my hair off. All for that word. How can you reclaim it without understanding the power of it? If you understood that word, you wouldn’t use it.”

The last time I saw her before she died, we had another conversation about queer. She told me that language was important. If people of a new generation wanted to find power in that word, she understood. It would just never be a word for her, and for many of her generation. There was too much pain associated with it.

As a person who self-identifies as queer, I cannot forget that conversation. But I struggled for years because I wanted to respect all that she (and so, so many others) gave to the LGBT population. I wanted her to know that I understood, as much as I could.

The journey from that conversation to my own sense of identity is so strongly rooted in my understanding of queerness. Ignoring the power of that word didn’t feel like embracing an authentic understanding of it. Grappling with the complicated ideas that queerness presents has been a much more honest way of embracing the struggle of those who came before me.

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SlideShare

I feel like it is often used as a synonym for LGBT, but I don’t really feel like that’s appropriate. LGBT, to me, specifically deals with sexual and gender identity. Queerness feels like it encompasses something different than simply sexual orientation. It’s a framework for life, a context, a way of viewing and responding to oppression. When I think queer, I think of non-normativity. When I think queer, I think radical.

For example, I am not LGB: I am not a woman (and therefore not a lesbian); I am not only attracted to men (and therefore not gay), and I fundamentally believe in more than two genders (and am often attracted to ambiguity of gender), so bisexual doesn’t really fit either. A term was coined some years backed called “pansexual”- a term to describe people who are attracted to a multitude of genders (beyond the binary of male and female). It’s the non-binary gender spectrum version of bisexual.

I identified as pansexual for a good deal of time. (I remember, somewhat to my chagrin, my high school side backpack with “PANSEXUAL” written unapologetically in whiteout across the black front canvas). So what, then, is the defining difference between “pansexuality” and “queerness”?

For me, the distinction comes in the scope of the identity. Pansexual is a definition of sexual orientation and attraction. Queerness identifies that a person does not conform to standard expectations of relationship attraction. Pansexual is an “inclusion” identity: it is defined by what it is (e.g. “I am attracted to a variety of people.”). Queer is an “exclusion” identity: it is defined by what it is not (e.g. “I do not conform to social standards in my attraction.”).

There is no moralistic definition associated with inclusion or exclusion identities; one is not “better” than the other. It is simply a way to think about how the terms are defined, and the scope of those terms. There are many kinds of exclusion identities- most of them begin with the prefix “a-“ (atheist, anarchist, agender, etc.) To be defined by what you are is a much narrower focus. But to be defined as what you are not leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

were-here-were-queer-we-riot-art-and-anarchism
art-and-anarchism

Queerness also speaks to a political slant. The Stonewall Riots, for example, feel very quintessentially queer: non-normative, non-gender conforming, fighting back against a violent, oppressive system.

Queerness feels radical, revolutionary, pushing back against the status quo, unapologetic in authenticity. Sounds a lot like Jesus… but then, I have often related to queerness through the model of Jesus.

Which brings us directly to this idea of queering spirituality. In the context of queer as “non-normative,” what does queer spirituality look like today? For me personally, my queer faith is not well-expressed inside of a church building, sitting quietly and singing hymns (although there is a part of me that loves that). My queer faith is gritty and dirty and messy and not always (or usually) pretty.

But when I ask, “What would Jesus do?” I never picture Jesus in a $1,000 three-piece suit, or living in extravagance, or locking his door in the “bad” part of town, or taking more than he needed to sustain himself. I picture the man under the bridge, bringing bottles of water to the homeless in the summer because he understands that deep thirst from that time he was homeless and sleeping under the bridge. I see the man who buys coats and blankets from Goodwill and hands them out in the winter as it starts to get cold. I see the person who picks up their friend doing sex work who was assaulted when a trick got violent. I see a man passing out clean needles on the street so that users don’t have to share. I see someone flipping tables and making a scene because of greed and corruption. I see someone talking about sex in a real, practical, meaningful way in our churches and with one another.

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I don’t see a squeaky-clean image of Jesus, and it’s certainly not an image of Jesus that I can image being worshipped in most mainstream churches. I won’t tell them their image of Jesus is wrong, although I disagree with it. But it’s not my faith.

My queer faith is radical. It’s messy. It’s certainly not blonde-haired, blue-eyed, baby-faced white Jesus. It’s a revolutionary faith. It’s trying to find ways to relate to and embody that model in a world so vastly different from Jesus’. My queerness as a whole- my queerness within my own relationship with my body and gender, my queerness as a sexual person, my queerness in spirituality- it comes together as an integrated, whole person. It’s not just that I am queer in who I sleep with; it’s that the entire outlook of my life is based on a fundamental concept of being other, and navigating social dynamics as someone who cannot- and will not- fit inside the prescribed boxes. My entire world is queer. Queer is not just an adjective; queer is a verb.

Robin Gorsline:

Queerness is a state of mind, a way of being, an orientation to life, and for me a way to think and write, both theologically and otherwise, and even to pray.

revrobin2-023I wrote some years ago in an essay, “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God, Who Is Always Up to Something New,” (Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, Praeger 2013) that “God is continually engaged in disrupting the status quo.”  In some ways, that is my basic understanding of who God is and what God does, as The Lover. And that is the foundation of my queerness.

It is not that God, or I, want change for change’s sake, but I believe God always has more for us than we can possibly understand and accept. That more, whatever it might be in a particular context, is the source of queerness, the source of disruption, the source of unsettling us, or at least me, in our all-too-human comfort with what we already know or claim to know.

For example, I have a friend who has lived a solely gay life for many decades; he had never had sex with anyone but men who were born male. Then, recently, he realized an attraction to several transgender men, and in particular to a transgender man whose anatomy is a mix of parts. Their first sexual sharing was a revelation to my friend, an awareness  that if he had not allowed himself to be open to feelings he did not expect he would have remained in the only category he thought was allowed him.  Now, he is enjoying sex in ways he had never even remotely considered. I think, as he does, that that is God up to some really good stuff.

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Queerness is about undermining categories that seem immutable and fixed. This blog is Queer in that Malachi and I intentionally bring together sex and spirituality, we keep our eyes on human bodies without shame or judgment, we talk openly about our fantasies and our actual sex lives and we are clear that we experience God in all that and believe others can, and some do, as well. In fact, I believe that I experience the divine most through my body. That clearly contradicts the usual Christian line of demarcation between spirit and body, and the attitude that spirit is good and body bad.

Queer theologians and writers (Patrick Cheng, Robert Goss, Mona West, Lisa Isherwood, Tom Bohache, Marcella Althaus-Reid, and myself, among others), as well as other non-Queer theologians, recognize that this division is not an accurate reflection of either Jesus or Paul (or their Jewish ancestors), but that does not stop the tradition from maintaining it. What queers do though is not to continue to argue the case so much as to move on and act from our own embodied wisdom.

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So that is another aspect of Queerness. It is action as well as reflection, it is living in a world that we recognize as decidedly queer at its core—because God is queer—even when others cannot see or experience it . . . yet.

In terms of sex, that can be, like my friend, crossing boundaries we think are impenetrable. And in terms of bodies, it can be choosing to live in ways that challenge social norm, not so much because they challenge norms as that they reflect the reality around and in us.

For example, as many readers know, I wear earrings that most observers assume are meant for persons with female bodies. Earrings may not seem like much, but for me it is what some might call “soul expression.”  They are a reminder to me every day of my inner queerness, and I hope a statement to the world that all is not as it seems (or as dominant culture would have us believe).

Queerness wonderfully affects my daily spiritual practice. I meditate almost every morning, and during part of that most days I masturbate. I sometimes call it “medibating.” I discovered this through another friend, a priest whom I admire greatly. In this form of meditation, embodied pleasure is not only not separate from God, but in truth an integral part of God and my relationship with God.

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Celie (left) and Shug The Advocate.com

It reminds me of a favorite queer theological text, from the conversation Shug and Celie have in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. When Shug speaks of her joy at losing the dominating white man/Father God in her soul and realizing she is part of everything, of the whole creation, she says,

It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

I often speak of God on the move, not locked up in a book that people insist is the last word of God. I suspect that folks who want to keep God locked up in the Book or in their ecclesiastical rules feel insecure about God, even afraid of God. Life feels safer for them if they know where God is, or at least where they think God is.

I have a different idea. The Bible is very queer, which is why I can agree with those who claim it is a holy text.  The Bible, and the people in it, move like God—they live in a queer universe—because it and they are inspired by God.

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amazon.com

One of my favorite biblical texts is from 2nd Samuel 7 in which God tells Nathan to tell King David not to build a house for God. The text has God saying that life in the tent and tabernacle has been and is fine by God.  Of course, the text also has God saying that David’s successor will build the home for God and the tabernacle (but in my view Solomon’s enterprise is when Israel begins to go off course).

The queer God I know is this God who is not needing a fancy address or dress (although I think God enjoys people dressing up for special occasions) and does not want to be tied down.  In fact, David’s celebratory, leaping dance before the ark as it was brought into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6) feels very queer to me. Saul’s daughter Michal comes out to greet David, chastising him for uncovering himself in front of everyone. David’s response is to claim he will do more things like that, and that feels queer to me, too.

And he is, according to tradition, Jesus’ ancestor. We have no record of Jesus leaping into Jerusalem, but we do have him riding on a donkey and being cheered like a reigning monarch. Of course, it feels sad when we know what is coming and I think Jesus had a pretty good idea about that, too. But the event also feels queer, in that it turned things upside down—the last shall be first, the first last, a queer concept if I ever heard one.

Living is queer, queer is living. Praise God!

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What is your experience or connection with or feelings about Queerness? Do you think of yourself as queer in any way? Do you find the concept of Queer helpful? Or not? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

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discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, November 17th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Workshop description: Robin and Malachi are still working on the content of the November 17 meeting, but they are seeking to design a session that will examine what they are calling the authenticity of our sexual selves. They anticipate that this will be the first in several sessions in which several non-traditional sexual practices will be explored. They seek to provide factual content as well as to present their views. As always, there will be time for questions and discussion as well.

As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although a primary focus is on clergy education, everyone is welcome to attend and participate.