Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities”

An hourlong teleconference with

Marie Alford-Harkey and Rev. Debra W. Haffner

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

1 PM to 2 PM EDT

WATER thanks Marie Alford-Harkey and Debra Haffner for their work on a new book, Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities, and their generosity in sharing it. What follows are their opening presentations and notes on the discussion period that followed. These are not meant to be verbatim, but to be used along with the posted audio of the call.

Debra Haffner:

Welcome and thank you to Mary and WATER for hosting this call today. And I want to thank the American Institute of Bisexuality for supporting our project and the 15 experts who participated in the colloquium which led to this guidebook. Thought you’d be amused to know that if you Google-searched WATER and bisexuality to find out information about this call, you come to articles about bisexuality being caused by bottled water. We’re here to tell you that’s indeed a myth!

I’m Debra Haffner, president & CEO of Religious Institute. Religious Institute is a 13- year-old multi-faith nonprofit organization working to advocate for sexual health, education, and justice in America’s faith communities and society. We hope many of you are familiar with our work and have endorsed our seminal document, the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

Very pleased to be with you today to talk about our latest guidebook, Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities. For too long now, even the most progressive faith leaders who have learned to say “LGBT” or even the alphabet soup of LGBTQQIAAK have ignored the B in LGBT, leaving the presence and needs of bisexual people virtually invisible and unaddressed. In this guide, we define bisexuality as “an enduring romantic, emotional, and/or sexual attraction toward people of more than one sex or gender” – and we recognize that many more people have sexual behaviors and attractions to people of more than one sex or gender than those who self-identify as bisexual. So, depending on whether self-identification, sexual attraction, or sexual behaviors with people of more than one sex or gender is used, between 1.2% and 16% of the general population – as many as 50 million people in the U.S. could be considered bisexual in their sexual orientation. Indeed, 40% of LGBT people in a PEW study identify as bisexual and many people who identify as heterosexual experience sexual attractions, fantasies, or have had sexual behaviors with people of more than one sex or gender.

Women are much more likely to identify as bisexual. Women are three times more likely than men to identify as being attracted in at least some degree to people of more than one sex. Today’s young adult women (ages 18 – 24) are much more likely to self-identify as bisexual than women 35 and older, reflecting perhaps a greater openness to bisexuality than in previous generations. About 6% of teen women and 6% of young adult women self-identify as bisexual compared to just 1% of women ages 35. We also introduce a relatively new concept from researchers at Cornell University in this guidebook: people who are “mostly heterosexual”: those who have a small degree of same-sex sexual and/or romantic attraction and occasionally same sex behavior.

As we write in this guidebook, what is most important for congregations is to “recognize that there are far more people who are attracted to and engage in behaviors with people of more than one sex or gender than is readily apparent—and that welcome and inclusion of bisexual people will affect many more people in a congregation (or society) than those who identify as such.” Only about one quarter of people who self-identify they are bisexual are out to the most important people in their lives.

Bisexual people have suffered because of the failure of faith communities, LGBT communities, and society at large to embrace them fully. People who are bisexual are at greater risk for mental health issues than LG and heterosexual people; they face greater physical and sexual health risks than LG and heterosexual people; are more likely to live in poverty, and bisexual teens engage in more risky behaviors than LG or heterosexual teens. It is not being bisexual that causes this suffering; rather these facts reflect the harmful effects of marginalization, invisibility and discrimination.

This new guidebook is a call to action to America’s faith communities

  • to educate themselves on diversity of sexual including, bisexuality
  • support the pastoral needs of congregants who are bisexual
  • to advocate for bisexual rights and recognition in the faith community
  • to publicly advocate for civil rights of bisexual persons

The guidebook addresses the science of bisexuality, the impact that invisibility and discrimination have on the lives of bisexual persons, how Scripture and religious traditions have positively addressed bisexual issues, and how religious and lay leaders can create what we have labeled “bisexually healthy congregations.”

Today, I’m joined by Marie Alford-Harkey, Deputy Director of the Religious Institute, who is the first author on the new guidebook. Marie will now address some of the theological issues and concentrate on how faith communities can more fully include and welcome people who are bisexual.

Marie Alford-Harkey:

Thank you Debra.

I want to begin with a personal experience that is one of the reasons why writing this guidebook was so important. Like many lesbians of my generation, I was married to a man when I came out. And immediately there were a lot of voices in the lesbian community in the town where I lived who asserted that I wasn’t “really” a lesbian, but rather bisexual. And it was clear to me that “bisexual” was meant as a slur.

My lesbian friends really wanted me to say that I had not enjoyed my relationship with my then-husband, that I had known practically from birth that I was attracted to women, and that all my previous relationships with men had been mistakes. None of those things was true, and so I refused. And, while I identified as lesbian, I continued to hear some of my best friends use the word “bisexual” to refer to me as if it were a slur.

Another reason why this guidebook is such an important project was that as we began to research what was already out there on bisexuality and religion, we realized that there was nothing like it.

We found good resources on bisexuality and spirituality, like Loraine Hutchins and Sharif William’s anthology Sexuality, Religion, and the Sacred, and Rabbi Debra Kolodny’s (who was at our colloquium) Blessed Bi Spirit. But what we didn’t find was a comprehensive resource for faith leaders and communities. And people were asking for it. As we were doing final edits on the book, I got an email from the faith branch of the NGLTF, asking if we knew of any resources for faith communities on bisexuality and I was thrilled to be able to say, “We’re writing that.”

So let me tell you about what’s in the guidebook and why it’s important.

I’ll start with the Bible. While we are a multifaith organization, we do recognize that there is a sort of “cultural Christianity” that we deal with in the United States. So we feel it’s important to offer an alternative to the interpretations of the bible that have done such damage to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Dealing with Scripture does mean countering the negative teaching and interpretation about sexual orientation and gender identity, and the guidebook does address the “clobber passages.” However, it also focuses on the positive, looking for the ways in which our religious traditions and scriptures can support discussions of sexuality and gender identity and offer hope, comfort, and healing to bisexual persons.

For example, we point out that the stories of David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi, often cited by queer theologians as examples of same-sex relationships in the bible, are actually stories of people who have significant, intimate, emotional relationships with people of more than one sex. David has an intimate relationship with Jonathan and with his many wives. And while some theologians emphasize the same sex dynamic between Ruth and Naomi where Ruth pledges to Naomi that “your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God,” both women had primary relationships with women and men.

Now, of course modern understandings of sexual orientation were not part of ancient culture. However, the fact that these same and other sex relationships are depicted, without commentary in these stories, may point to societies that were more accepting of diverse intimate relationships than we in the 21st century assume. For a bisexual person to whom the bible is or was important, it can be life-changing to be able to see oneself in scripture.

 The overarching message of the bible is one of love, justice, and inclusion, from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus. Challenging harmful myths and stereotypes about bisexual people as well as countering the invisibility that many bisexual people experience, is part of a commitment to upholding the dignity and sacred worth of all people, which nearly all religious traditions have as a value.

So we hope people of faith will use the guidebook as a springboard to engage in theological reflection about bisexuality. In writing these sections, what became clear is that bisexuality complicates our notions about sexuality beyond the binaries of same or opposite sex attraction. And we believe that reflecting on our complex, mysterious, diverse, beautiful sexuality helps us to reflect more deeply on a complex, mysterious, infinitely diverse divinity.

Let’s move on to specific strategies for faith communities and people of faith. In the Religious Institute publication A Time to Build, we outline the building blocks of a sexually healthy faith community. In the third part of the bisexuality guidebook, we use this set of building blocks to define a bisexually healthy faith community. It is one that has religious professionals who are educated about bisexuality and can provide pastoral care, preaching, and worship that are inclusive of bisexuality. And a bisexually healthy congregation addresses bisexuality in sexuality education for youth and adults, as well as in LGBT welcome, and in its social action efforts.

Really, becoming a bisexually healthy faith community matters. As soon as I started telling people the Religious Institute was working on a guidebook about bisexuality for congregations, I started to hear their stories. One of my friends said that he had gone to an Episcopal parish that was known for its LGBT welcome had been told that “it wouldn’t go over well” to bring up the fact that he is bisexual with the parish LGBT group. That kind of silencing does real damage, like kind that Debra mentioned, and we’re really hopeful that this guidebook can provide concrete ways to help change the conversation about bisexuality and religion.

So, let’s look at those building blocks.

One thing we know is that most religious leaders have not received adequate ministerial training in human sexuality and even fewer have had the opportunity to learn about ministering with bisexual people.

Bisexual persons in congregations frequently encounter confusion and misunderstanding from people in the community and even from religious leaders. So we recommend that religious leaders take the initiative to improve their knowledge about bisexuality. Of course we hope they will read our guidebook, and there are other educational opportunities as well, like the Religious Institute’s online sexuality education courses for religious professionals.

Faith communities can intentionally celebrate the diversity of sexual identities in preaching and worship. This helps break the silence around sexuality that exists in so many congregations and allows congregants to understand that sexuality is a sacred gift; that it can be talked about in a respectful and reverent manner, and that leaders in the community are comfortable addressing sexual diversity in general and bisexuality in particular.

We know how important it is for faith communities to help promote positive messages because of stories like this one from Lacey Louwagie, who participated in our colloquium. She gave us permission to publish this excerpt of her story from the book she co-edited called Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: True Stories by Young Adult Catholics.

She says that as soon as she named for herself the fact that she was bisexual, “a homophobic solution came on its heels: I would just decide not to pursue my attraction to women.” She goes on to say that “Ironically, this is pretty much exactly what the Catholic Church tells me to do….I thought I’d arrived at a prudent solution: I could inwardly acknowledge who I really was while also pursuing only love that I could declare publicly, only love that didn’t entail the risk of being cast out of my community. But the solution must not have been too great after all, because I fell into the worst depression of my life.”

Imagine if Lacey and others heard themselves named and honored in our worship services. Congregations can tie in to pride month in June or National Coming Out Day or Spirit Day (which is next week) in October, for example. The guidebook includes a prayer, a reading, a responsive reading and two hymns that could be used in worship.

Another thing we know is that people look to their religious leaders for pastoral counseling. Imagine someone who seeks counseling from their faith leader about the fact that they are suddenly finding themselves attracted to a men, when they always thought they were attracted to women, for example. It is important for religious leaders to be able to provide pastoral counseling for people who identify as bisexual or who have bisexual feelings, attractions, or behaviors. The guidebook presents a model for pastoral counseling to help religious leaders who are not trained psychologists, psychiatrists, or sex therapists address pastoral needs around sexuality.

Another building block for a bisexually health congregation is sexuality education. The Religious Institute advocates for sexuality education in faith communities because they are the logical place to communicate values about sexuality. So a congregation could host adult and youth education forums around sexual orientation and gender identity, being sure to engage presenters who are bisexual or bi-friendly and who can address the full range of sexual identity with up-to-date information.

I discovered just how much this matters this past Sunday when I led a workshop on relationships for 10-12 graders at a large UCC/United Methodist federated community church. When I asked the young people what they learned that they hadn’t known before, they said that they had learned that sexual orientation was more complicated than they had previously thought, and they really appreciated that. It resonated with them because like many young people, they dislike labels. That comment grew directly out of our discussion about bisexuality.

Another building block of a bisexually healthy congregation is around LGBT welcome. We hope that faith communities will engage their denomination or movement’s welcoming process. However, as we say in our myths section, it may not be true that congregations that say they are welcoming of LGBT people are fully welcoming, inclusive, and affirming of bisexual people.

It is very common for the policies and practices of LGBT congregations to be more inclusive of lesbian and gay people than bisexual people or transgender people. It is our hope that faith communities will fully embrace sexual diversity, including bisexuality, and open themselves up to the transformative wisdom such diversity offers.

While the guidebook is aimed at congregations, it offers a wealth of information for individuals who want to speak up and challenge the invisibility of bisexual people in the larger community as well as in faith communities. Invisibility is the challenge that we heard about most often from bisexual people. Summer Schaud, a UCC pastor in Massachusetts, says in the guidebook that

“Being out can be tricky for bisexuals because our sexuality is often invisible; bis who are with same-sex partners are often assumed to be gay and bis who are with opposite-sex partners are often assumed to be straight. Plus, bisexuals are sometimes viewed with suspicion or confusion by both ends of the Kinsey scale, gay and straight alike. All of this has meant that until now, I’ve been out only in patches: the search committee who hired me, a lot of my friends but not all, and some family members, but not most.”

But, she says, she woke up one morning, opened up her laptop and took in the stream of ignorance and homophobia on her Facebook newsfeed about same-sex marriage, and decided that afternoon that she could not go on with the vast majority of her family, friends, ministry colleagues, and parishioners being in the dark about her sexuality.

So one of the most important things that we all can do to promote bisexually healthy faith communities is to set aside assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation based on the sex or gender of their partner. Two women who show up as a couple in a faith community might both identify as lesbian, or one or both of them might identify as bisexual, or something else entirely. The practice of not making assumptions about sexuality is a good one to get into.

As Rev. Schaud alludes to her in story, there are a lot of negative stereotypes about bisexuals that contribute to the difficulty in coming out. We hope that the guidebook will help people challenge those stereotypes and myths when they hear them.

For example, one myth that we address is that only young people/white people/women/insert-identifier-here are bisexual. The fact is that bisexual people exist in all cultures, age groups, racial and ethnic groups, and gender identities. Of course that doesn’t meant that everyone’s experience is the same. We have to be aware of the ways that other identities intersect with bisexuality.

In the guidebook, we quote from Patrick Cheng’s book Rainbow Theology. He says that multiple identities (racial, ethnic, socio-economic, class, and so on) can lead to a profound sense of fragmentation for LGBTQ people, because they may be welcome in communities of color as long as they suppress their sexuality or in the LGBTQ community as long as they downplay their “of color” identity. Bisexual persons experience this and a further fragmentation because their identity is made invisible in both straight and LGBTQ communities.

One of the key point of the book is that it’s important to respect the way people identify and use their preferred terms. Many times, bisexual people are questioned about the “validity” of their sexual orientation, when they identify themselves, but what we’ve been teaching people is something that a participant in one of my trainings taught me. “People are what they say they are.”

So this is a lot of information and a lot to consider. Debra and I are looking forward your questions and comments, and I’d like to end my remarks with this prayer from the worship section of the guidebook.

Holy one, we know you by many names or no name at all, because your mystery and complexity are boundless. Likewise, we have many names for our sexual and gender identities. We give thanks for the diversity of human sexuality. We acknowledge that at times we fall short of honoring that diversity by holding too tightly to divisions and categories. Help us to honor the identities and experiences of all people and to create a world where everyone can live with authenticity and dignity.

Discussion followed:

1. A university student who is a member of an intentional Eucharistic community wondered how faith groups without the formal structures of set pastors and future religious professionals could implement these strategies seemingly targeted toward religious leaders in their communities.

Marie responded that these resources could be useful for all folks interacting in a faith-based community, to both increase awareness of what diverse sexual identities might look like, and to provide resources and background information about some of the harmful myths and stereotypes often encountered, as well as worship resources.

Debra added that one goal is for people to change their language. We need to stop referring to people as “LGBT” and use the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender so that people hear themselves named. We need to help people understand there is no such thing as “gay marriage,” only marriage. The issues on bisexuality will change when the culture becomes as comfortable talking about bisexuality as they have become talking about same sex couples.

 2. One caller wondered if people ignorant of LGBT issues mix up bisexuality and transgender issues.

People more commonly mix up sexual orientation and gender identity rather than bisexuality. They conflate one’s sense of gender, whether one is male, female, transgender, or genderqueer, with whom one experiences sexual or romantic attraction. Sexual orientation and gender identity are separate concepts. What is shared in the faith community is that in groups of people who are broadly defined as a sexual minority, bisexual and transgender people are likely to be openly welcomed or even discussed, even in the most progressive communities.

 3. Another asked what strategies can be used to engage people who are resistant to these conversations about gender and sexuality, particularly in conservative spaces.

Marie said that we must reach out to more conservative groups to help people understand that all of the sexuality issues we work on are connected. When we start talking about preventing clergy and sexual misconduct or abuse, we begin to see how other sexual identity issues are related, connected around a broader oppression.

Debra added that the way in is pastoral, not prophetic. Every congregation, regardless of theology, needs to be a safe place for children, youth and vulnerable adults so that we can prevent abuse, harassment and misconduct.

Some helpful programs: the Religious Institute provides online courses for Universalist Unitarian Ministers and Christian lay leaders, as well as a course for Jewish leaders that will be available this winter. The “Safer Congregations” program is an upcoming project to start a dialogue about the prevention of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct prevention, which we also help will begin a dialog with with people of faith who haven’t addressed any sexuality issues.

4. One caller mentioned the distortions of bisexuality equated with promiscuity and conflation of identity with behavior, wondering what insights Marie and Debra had on the implications of an ethic of relationships versus a sexual ethic.

It is a conflation of identity and behavior, Marie said, to assume that just because one identifies as bisexual, one must then be a promiscuous person. People of any sexual orientation can chose to live in monogamous relationships if that is what they desire. We need a sexual ethic focused on relationships and justice, not on particular sexual acts or on with whom one is having those acts

Debra stated that the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing states that all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, consent, and pleasure. The question of commitment is about commitment to the covenant one makes. To equate people who are non-monogamous with people who are immoral is also incorrect.

5. A reader of Marie and Debra’s book observed that she thought they chose to use gender as a term more often than gender identity. Gender implies more of a binary in terms of male/female only, while gender identity is more inclusive. She wondered why the authors made that choice and why gender identities were pushed aside even though the book mentions how bisexual people have varying gender identities.

Debra responded: Our intentionality when we defined the term bisexual was people “who had partners of more than one sex or gender.” That language was specifically chosen to make sure people understood we were not just taking about biology, but instead a range of people whose attraction did not fit neatly into binary boxes. She invited the caller to speak more with them later.

6. The moderator wondered what Marie and Debra think the impact of sexism and heterosexism have been on bisexuality.

Marie replied that issues of sexism and heterosexism are very present. In our patriarchal society, it is not as “acceptable” for men to come out as bisexual. Researchers used to think that women’s sexuality was more fluid than men’s; Lisa Diamond, a leading researcher, amended her previous conclusions because results now show that men’s sexuality can be equally fluid as women’s. Debra added that there is no question that rigidity around sexuality for men is greater. In our current culture, there is a certain eroticism of women making love to women. It is harder for men to be able to express and admit and talk about bisexuality.

Another piece is around the notion of the Kinsey scale, how we define sexual orientation. The authors presented some other models that try to get at some of the more complex ways to talk about sexual orientation, behaviors, feelings, and attractions as opposed to just current sexual behavior.

Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities can be purchased through Amazon. Check out the Religious Institute’s website and consider becoming part of their network. Religious leaders – clergy, lay religious leaders, religious educators, theologians, ethicists, academicians, and staff at faith based organizations – can endorse the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing as well as other theological statements.

For another recap of the event on Storify by the Religious Institute, see

The next WATERtalk will be with Sister of Mercy Theresa Kane, known for her prophetic statement in 1979 to Pope John Paul II advocating for equality for women in the Church. “Making History, Making Change: A Conversation with Theresa Kane” will be on Tuesday, October 28 at 1 pm. Kane will reflect on the historic event and look toward the future of equality. Register here.

 WATER’s November teleconference will be Wednesday, November 5, 2014 at 1 pm with Kate Kelley, a human rights lawyer recently excommunicated from the Mormon church. Her story and contention that human rights need to extend to those in religion will make for a fascinating hour.