“There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Hamlet
Bisexuality has been too long oversimplified in the Church. We had some deep discussions within the Family, in our own LGBTQ+ people-of-faith circles, but censored ourselves in front of non-ally straight folks as we presented to Sunday School classes or testified at GA, so as not to confuse them. (As we used to say, it’s not that bisexuals are confused. It’s that I’m bisexual; you’re confused.) In our attempt to simplify matters, there are some things we just didn’t talk about in church.
Identities Defying Categorization
For example, too often we let a one-dimensional Kinsey Scale of sexuality suffice to describe the range and variation in our human community. By now even most Presbyterians have probably learned to place same-sex attraction on one end of a scale, and opposite-sex attraction on the other, and to think of bisexuality as somewhere in the middle… but there are other less linear dimensions of sexuality we don’t discuss. For example, Fritz Klein expanded Kinsey’s work to consider not just sexual orientation but also affectional orientation, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies whether they are acted upon or not, social preferences, and self-identification. He recognized that these experiences change over time for individuals. You can take a Klein quiz here; be warned that taking this quiz might provide multiple new perspectives on your sexuality.
Bisexuality is a sensibility that can hold multiple truths; you might score one way on sexual orientation, and another way on affectional orientation, and this multiplicity is accepted as part of who we are. This brings us to a second oversimplification: presenting (or not correcting) a definition of bisexuality as attraction to “both” sexes or “either” gender, which problematically reinforces the gender binary. But as several bi bloggers have recently reminded us, the “bi” in bisexuality has long been about resisting binary constructs. In the case of Kinsey or Klein we defied categories by positioning between, as simultaneously neither and both “homosexual” (attracted to genders like our own) and “heterosexual” (attracted to genders different from our own). The quintessentially queer potential to radically re-define heterosexuality as attraction to multiple genders other than one’s own is intriguing indeed. Why couldn’t we talk about this in church? In reducing bisexuality to attraction to “both” genders, we have set limits on our own understandings of how God has created us, and failed to extend full welcome in particular to bi+ and trans* folks.
I say bi+ because, as with trans*, in efforts to broaden or blow up restrictive categories, multiple related identities have proliferated into a bi+ family of identities, including ambisexual, omnisexual, pansexual, fluid, and unlabeled. This is in addition to reclaimed labels some bi people use like dyke and queer, as well as related but distinctly not-bi labels like heteroflexible, homoflexible, bi-curious, and questioning. Bi+ people hold every type of gender identity including trans* and cis-gender identities. Churches may find it challenging to stay up to date with new labels and no labels, but the starting place is to get to know the bi+ community.
There is something about this potential to love people of any (or at least more than one) gender that puts some monosexuals into a promiscuity panic. This is so even though many monosexuals have the potential to love individuals with, say, any eye color, but no one assumes that means they are interested in a hazel-blue-brown menage a trois.
Because there was (and still is) a stereotype of bisexuals as promiscuous (with judgments following), we did not question the mononormative narrative. But can we go there for a minute? What does the Church have to say about polyamory or other post-mononormative relationships? Let’s be clear: research on sexuality and monogamy suggests a broad swath of folks regardless of sexual orientation both aspire to and successfully practice monogamy, and at the same time there are also members of all sexual orientations who choose instead to make polyamorous commitments, who are monogamish (mostly monogamous; faithfulness means honesty but not exclusivity), or who make monogamous commitments but fail to keep them (i.e. cheat). The three cannot be morally equated because while the latter is a betrayal and breach of morality, the former two are commitments that entail explicit and exacting ethics deserving discussion in faith communities.
So why bring all this up in a post about bisexuality? Because this dance we have been doing, this “love me, I’m not like the other bisexuals, I’m monogamous,” is itself biphobic. Psychology studies have generally not found increased rates of non-monogamy among bisexuals but a recent study interestingly found differences in attitudes toward monogamy. As a blogger discussing the findings noted, these data don’t mean bi people are incapable of practicing monogamy (in fact large majorities of bi men and women in the study reported practicing monogamy), but it does suggest that “the same flexibility that allows bisexuals to defy societal constraints on who they can love also allows them to defy social constraints on how many they can love, and how. Their attraction to both sexes may be just an additional impetus for questioning the monogamy norm.” And as we know from Klein, this questioning could take many forms along different dimensions from theory to practice, and from affectional to sexual.
As it happens, queer theology has already gone there, decades ago. For example, Presbyterian and Professor of Christian Ethics Marvin Ellison put it this way in his book Erotic Justice:
Some marriages make room for additional sexual partners. Others thrive only by maintaining sexual exclusivity. Although justice requires relational fidelity, the precise requirements of this fidelity cannot be determined in advance (86).
The sexual ethic Ellison puts forward of justice-love — based on the substance rather than the form of relationships — is as challenging as it is liberating:
Living comfortably with change and ambiguity requires maturity and a willingness to delight in difference and novelty. It also requires confidence in our collective ability to make meaningful moral distinctions and responsible choices. Religious communities should not be policing people’s sex lives, but rather educating them about this real world of sexual diversity and expanding their moral imaginations (88).
Can we face the ambiguity demanded of us? Do we have the moral imagination to comprehend how polyamorous partners can develop highly principled faithful relationships, or how monogamish couples might reflect Rita Nakashima Brock’s observation”that human needs are met in a variety of ways”? It’s complicated, yes. But we owe it to our community to be honest with ourselves and the Church. It is not enough to leave it at “I’m bisexual; you’re confused.”
A life-long Presbyterian, ordained deacon, and bisexual woman, Donna Riley served as the first webspinner for Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns starting in 1995, as a member of the national boards of PLGC and MLP from 1997-2005, and as Co-Moderator of MLP from 2003-2005. She has been a member of Sixth Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA, Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York City, and Treasurer of the Western Massachusetts House Church. Since 2001 her day job has been teaching engineering at Smith College, the first US women’s college to house an engineering program. She will be spending the next year in Washington DC and looks forward to reconnecting with the Open Doors chapter and More Light churches in the area. She is currently working a federal government detail in Washington, where she is a member of Church of the Pilgrims.