Recognizing Bi People of Faith: Beyond Myth, Ignorance, and Individualism

I am happy to host this guest post by Keisha E. McKenzie, one of my team members, who serves as researcher and analyst. Keisha challenges my own assumptions and is a valued thought partner as we look at LGBTQ issues, environmental justice, race, faith, and much more.

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Recognizing Bi People of Faith: Beyond Myth, Ignorance, and Individualism

Review by Keisha E. McKenzie

This week, the Religious Institute has launched a new guide, Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities. Aiming at religious leaders in Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim spaces, but focused more on Christian texts and Reform Jewish statements, coauthors Marie Alford-Harkey and Rev. Debra W. Haffner developed the text from multifaith discussions of bisexuality, and are publishing it now to “help congregations understand bisexuality and to encourage faith communities to ‘make the invisible visible.'”

The Religious Institute is a US-based interfaith organization that promotes “sexually healthy” congregations, religious professionals, and conversations by conducting workshops, publishing guides, and presenting on faith and sexuality around the country. Alford-Harkey and Haffner have each spent decades working with Episcopalians, Unitarians, and other people of faith to make religious groups more welcoming for sexual and gender minorities. (It was not clear to me from the text how the authors themselves identify.) I learned about their work through Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International and the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, which is a program of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. [1]

What to Expect

The guide has three sections: Bisexuality Basics, the facts about human sexuality that religious people need; Sacred Texts and Religious Traditions, interpretations of Christian and Hebrew texts and short first-person reflections from (presumably) bi-identified religious leaders; and Creating a Bisexually Healthy Congregation, highly practical action steps readers can take locally in congregation, as clergy, during services, and in the wider world. Each section includes call-out quotes and short cases from bi people of faith on their experiences coming out as bisexual, navigating their religious community’s misconceptions, or providing support to other members.

For progressive Christian and Jewish congregations and fellowships in the United States, Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities will be a good start. It encourages religious leaders to reflect on the state of knowledge about bisexuality, what they don’t already know, and how to improve their counseling and build respectful awareness. It challenges faith-full people to vocally support bisexual, fluid, and other non-monosexual people in their congregations based on their traditions’ values, scriptures, and policy structure. And it suggests highly practical ways that faith groups can signal welcome and integrate all people into the worship and social life of their religious community.

These are solid contributions and there’s no better time to share them with local religious leaders and lay change-makers.

Where we need to go from here

Zoom out from the individual: The version of the guide published today emphasizes individual freedom, expression, and rights in progressive religion and in a society that offers more and more legal affirmation for individuals seeking access to one form of marriage and other middle-class markers of progress including individual labor and college education. But what of bi people of color who aren’t members of progressive religions or citizens of progressive nations, and who are consistently left off the mainstream LGBT float? Recent surveys suggest that in America, people of color are more likely to identify as LGBT, more likely to be poor and experience employment discrimination, and less likely to be married than Non-Hispanic White Americans. But mainstream LGBT activism consistently Others us. Could a follow-up to this guide help the bi religious community to challenge this pattern?

The Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing that opens the book is promising. The Declaration, developed by Rev. Haffner and endorsed by nearly 4,000 religious leaders in less than two years, appeals to “the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality” and asserts that abusing or exploiting that good creation is “sin.” It then zooms out from the isolated, individual body and names critical issues we must collectively resolve in order to achieve “sexual and spiritual wholeness in society.” These issues include HIV/AIDS, violence against women and LGBT people, and “unsustainable population growth and over-consumption.” These are all international well-being and sustainability issues that affect all humans regardless of orientation and require the active engagement of all people.

Based on that declaration, I expected the guidebook to keep its broader context in mind. I expected to read the writers’ or contributors’ thoughts on how faith communities and the wider human world benefited from nurturing free bisexual participation: how honoring bi wholeness gives religious groups an enhanced ability to address transpersonal issues critical to the entire human race, not just the LGBT community and not just local congregations of faith.

But the closing Social Action and Call to Action sections only briefly reference employment non-discrimination, marriage equality, reproductive healthcare, youth issues, immigration, and adoption as those policies that “affect bisexual people” and merit congregational attention. The authors ask readers “What other issues could include bisexual advocacy?” but do not revisit “unsustainable population growth and over-consumption” or discuss environmental issues like food justice and industrial pollution that intersect with the poverty that LGBT people of color experience. They quote Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng on “interacting oppressions” and use the metaphor of identity “intersections” across the text, yet never once reference Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw, the social theorist who introduced intersectionality to social justice studies in 1989, or others like Dr. Cathy J. Cohen who have expanded and refined the theory since then.

Ground change in core values, not in textual self-defense: The authors thrilled me when they listed creative diversity, abundance, individual conscience, human dignity, and the facts of sexual orientation as foundational to a healthy spiritual conversation about bisexuality and community. I don’t believe that the analysis of verses can inspire more leadership than reflecting on and acting from our most elevated religious values can: we need to pour far more energy into the development, discussion, and expression of our values than in counter-volleying anti-bi, anti-LGBT, and anti-sexual theology.

Immediately afterward their list, however, the authors devoted a significant section to recapitulating and responding to anti-LGBTI interpretations of Hebrew passages and Christian verses. In the middle of that section, I read this caution from Jewish chaplain Allison Kestenbaum:

“I feel ambivalent about wrestling with bisexuality largely through text. While the textual tradition offers infinite inspiration, exegesis detached from diverse lived experience can objectify bisexual people.”

This is a powerful thought! So it was unclear to me why the Theological Connections section defaulted to textual self-defense. Why didn’t this section expand on the values and principles that Alford-Harkey and Haffner named a page before, or reframe it all with Love and Justice? Why did the authors reify written words over us, the living words of creation, and the scriptures we write through the lives we live: the guide literally relegates all but five first-person reflections to short call-out boxes, while offering pages to “exegesis detached from diverse lived experience.” The authors also discussed intimacy and emotional connection using the “primary/secondary attachment” language of polyamory, but never affirmed poly life as a relational structure that is just as faithful in potential as monogamy—and even scriptural! Despite my own love of the scriptures, I was surprised to find this section one of the most alienating sections in the book.

Pass the mic to muted voices: The book also seems to mute the range of perspectives given voice amplified through the text. Both authors write from within White Protestant Christianity, and so much of the text responds to a text-centered Christianity. Other mentioned faiths, Islam, “the Black Church,” Judaism, the Presbyterian Church, and Roman Catholicism are represented by one essay each. Christian scriptures and statements are presented in detail, with fewer space given to Jewish texts, and no text space to Muslims except for one imam’s perspective.

Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities has broken ground for those of us working in faith and sexuality spaces, expecting to live and serve as whole people, and building a world of resource and relationship that’s far more sustainable than the one we inherited. I will share it with my communities and encourage others to do the same. But we need many more perspectives to see our new world, and a much wider, deeper vision of the work to be done.

Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities by Marie Alford-Harkey and Rev. Debra W. Haffner is available from the Religious Institute website and from Amazon.com. $15

[1] SDA Kinship, an organization I work with, is listed in the guide as a welcoming group associated with a religious denomination.

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