5 Ways to Make Your Faith Community More Bisexually Healthy
Congregations that embrace bisexual+ people can help heal the suffering caused by the invisibility of bisexual+ people.
Many mainstream denominations, movements, and congregations have made significant progress in welcoming and affirming lesbian and gay people. Some congregations have begun responding to the needs and concerns of transgender people, but the “B” in the LGBTQ acronym is still largely ignored.
This Bisexuality Awareness Week, do you know if your faith community is bisexually healthy? Ideally, a faith community is a place where people can be whole and authentic, whatever their sexual orientation. Here are some ideas for making your faith community safer and more welcoming for bisexual+ people.
1. Intentionally celebrate the diversity of sexual identities in preaching and worship.
Often, even in LGBTQ-affirming faith communities, there is an enduring silence around bisexuality. The “B” gets a passing mention as part of the acronym, but the experiences and perspectives of bisexual+ people are rarely centered. Sacred texts are analyzed for how they address same-sex relationships, but the possibility of bisexual+ characters or themes is rarely mentioned. That’s why it is so important that faith communities break the silence. When you include LGBTQ people and issues in worship, be aware that bisexuality is a distinct sexual orientation. When preaching about LGBTQ issues, faith leaders can say all the words in the acronym. Mention bisexuals as a distinct identity group. Lift up sexuality and divinity beyond binaries. Address fluidity and complexity as values and strengths.
2. Set aside assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation based on the sex or gender of their partner.
One of the most common ways bisexuality is made invisible is when others assume they can know a bisexual+ person’s sexual orientation based on the gender expression of their significant other. It’s often hard to set aside these assumptions, especially within the queer community where we’re often excited to find people who are “like us.” But, for many bisexual+ people, maintaining a connection to their identity as bisexual+ is extremely important even in partnered relationships. Especially in religious communities, we must remember that we don’t know a person’s sexual orientation unless they have told us what it is. One of the ways to shift the culture of our faith communities and challenge assumptions is to use language that is inclusive of bisexual+ people. By defaulting to “gay couple” or “lesbian couple,” for example, you make an assumption about the sexual orientation of the individuals in the couple (unless you know for certain that both partners identify as gay or lesbian). Try using “same-sex couple” instead. The same goes for “same-sex wedding.” And speaking of same-sex weddings, think about whether a descriptor is even needed in front of the word “wedding.” If you’re letting folks know that your faith community marries all couples, then it could be appropriate. Otherwise, it’s probably just a wedding.
3. Be aware that there is not one way of being bisexual+.
Like people of all sexual orientations, bisexual+ people are a varied bunch. Some are monogamous; some are not. Some have been bisexual+ for years; some are just coming to that realization. Some are erotically attracted to people of a different gender; some are not. Some are romantically attracted to people of a different gender; some are not. Some are transgender; some are not. Just as there is no one way to be lesbian or straight, there is no one way to be bisexual+. Breaking the silence around bisexuality in faith communities is so important because it fosters more open and authentic conversations about the complex and differing ways people experience sexual orientation. Once that silence is broken, bisexual+ congregants may feel more open bringing their experiences up in pastoral care, religious education, or worship. This is what it means to be truly welcoming: allowing people to bring their full selves to our faith communities.
4. Remember that there is no litmus test for being bisexual+.
People coming out as bisexual+ are often met with mistrust and questioning. Instead of having their experiences respected and affirmed, many bisexual+ people are expected to provide convincing evidence that they’re truly bisexual+. This often comes with invasive and insensitive questions, and, instead of making bisexual+ people feel more heard and understood, can make them feel more isolated. This kind of response points to several larger problems within our culture of sexuality. We don’t trust people to know themselves, their bodies, and their experiences, including around sexuality. Instead, we are obsessed with policing each other’s sexuality, often attempting to stabilize or solidify experiences that are much more dynamic and complex. An aphorism I often return to when training faith communities around sexuality is “People are who they say they are.” You wouldn’t tell a young person who identifies as straight that they can’t be sure because they haven’t yet had sex with someone of a different gender. By the same token, bisexual+ people are bisexual+ no matter who they have, or haven’t had sex with, or how many people of how many genders they’ve had sex with. In addition to the fact that bisexual+ people don’t owe this information to anyone, people get to claim their own identities and they don’t have to do anything to prove them. Bisexually welcoming faith communities are prepared for congregants to come out as bisexual+, understand helpful ways to respond, and avoid harmful assumptions about bisexuality.
5. Be a good “bi-stander.”
Bisexual+ people are the subjects of many harmful stereotypes and “jokes.” To foster a safe community for bisexual+ people, speak up when someone makes jokes or inappropriate comments about bisexual+ people. Respond to myths and stereotypes with facts, compassion, and truth. Be aware that even lesbian and gay people can be biphobic. Ensure that LGBTQ groups in your congregation are bi-inclusive. At their best, our faith traditions call us to create communities that are nourishing and whole. Perpetuating biphobia in our words, policies, or actions has the opposite effect. If your faith community truly wishes to be bisexually healthy, the onus of creating such a community must not be placed on bisexual+ people. It is everyone’s responsibility to proactively create such a community.
Bisexual+ people suffer because of the failure of faith communities, LGBTQ communities, and society at large to fully embrace bisexuality as a distinct sexual orientation. Congregations that embrace bisexual+ people can help heal the suffering caused by the invisibility of bisexual+ people in society. Perhaps more importantly, embracing the complexity of sexual orientation beyond binaries helps create a more open, honest, and holistic culture of sexuality for all members of your faith community.
Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey is the president and CEO of the Religious Institute. She is an ordained Metropolitan Community Church pastor and lives in Milford, Connecticut with her wife April, cats Jane and Memphis, and ministry dog Sandy.