Questions that Haunt: What’s in a Name?

“Throughout the ancient world, naming was a sacred act. It was the word by which a child was called into his calling. It was the voice of destiny, summoning the child into his future with all its glorious promise.”
― Anne Hamilton,

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
–Walt Whitman

In many ways coming out as bisexual was a homecoming for me, and the place I was coming home to was a fully realized version of myself. Some people have “aha” moments and work out their sexual orientation in a flash of insight. For me, it was a slow awakening. It was a slow calling forth of what had probably always been true of me and true for me. My journey toward bisexuality felt like a growth toward something, transformation into something.  It also felt like outgrowing a few containers and labels that weren’t generous enough or spacious enough to hold me. It was a long slow process of becoming.

My experience differs from that of many of my gay/lesbian peers who speak of dark days when they endured a self imposed closet. I never quite had that experience. I never had the experience of having a female partner fully and completely hidden from view of God/Church/Family. I never had the experience of censoring my language or lying about a lover to cover up their role in my life.  I did (and sometimes still do) contend with closets but here is an important distinction, they come from forces outside of me. Sometimes these closets are silent spaces that have something to gain in remaining silent. And sometimes these closet spaces are actively hostile and actively resistant and they push back against disclosure.  But rather than being in a closet, my experience was that of being a person constantly in motion and in full public view of everyone who happened to be around me. Awkward. Uncertain. Tentative. Contradictory. Working things out in real time.

As I found my way into LGBT advocacy circles, I always strove to be authentic to myself and to the LGBT people I served. I strove to tell the truth. And the truth as I knew myself was that I did not understand myself to be a woman exclusively attracted to men. I was/am drawn to the heart/soul of a person and not their outward parts. I was/am drawn to the deep rhythms of emotional connection. However this whole mysterious thing works for others, emotional connectivity is the seed in my soul that needs to be watered and bloom before a felt/experienced sexual attraction happens for me.  Once that emotional connectivity is in place then my capacity for love, and connection, and my capacity for romantic and sexual attraction doesn’t really discriminate by: a person’s weight/height/race/age/gender and a host of other factors. I can love all kinds of diverse people. In my life, in fact, I have loved all kinds of diverse people. It was paying attention to those many stories and the diverse manifestations of love over the years that helped me articulate and define this new bisexual identity.  It was a slow sort of discovery.

I felt & experienced this for years. I knew this to be true of myself for years. And in the last four or five years before I came out, this was all so close to me. It was on the tip of my tongue, but I was so frustrated that I didn’t quite know how to voice these thoughts, feelings, or experiences. I didn’t know how to organize/sort or categorize myself.  I knew who I was to myself. I didn’t know who I was to everyone else. I didn’t know where I belonged.   For one thing, for the first thirty some years of my life, however rich and connective my relationships with other women had been, all of my formally defined romantic partners had been men. And that wasn’t due to a reluctance, a questioning, or a fear on my part to engage relationships with other women, it was mostly due to the phenomenon I like to call “math.”  Men asked me out 100% more often than any other group or category did. For a long time, I was complicit in this. I was a passive actor in my own life.

It had occurred to me that there wasn’t just one way for me to navigate my life. There were infinite possibilities for me. But it had actually not ever occurred to me to take the initiative to pursue other women. This had not occurred to me because I wasn’t fundamentally unhappy dating men. It had not occurred to me because I had a loved a few women very deeply, a few who might have been partner candidates—save for two things. The first is that all of them had a much stronger sensibility of themselves as straight women than I had ever had for myself. The second is that I wasn’t fundamentally unhappy enjoying their role in my life as beloved friends.  I wasn’t afraid of loving them wholeheartedly and letting that love take its natural course. I wasn’t afraid of losing them. In many cases, I set these women up with the men they would later marry. And in some cases, I had the distinct honor of playing a part of their covenantal marriage rites and ceremonies. All of these women and their families are still in my life, and all of them are still beloved to me.

The question poised on my lips for many years was not really who I was to myself. I knew myself as someone open to a myriad of possibilities. I knew myself as someone who could love and partner and organize a family in diverse ways. The question that haunted my heart was how do I name this phenomenon? How do I name myself? How do I present myself to the world? I walked around the world feeling like I didn’t exist. Feeling like there was no real name for this was? for what I was? There is a special kind of sadness and there is a special kind of shame when you’re a woman with no name.

In a binary society, nobody was really talking about these rich interstices and these middles and these intersecting spaces. In a society that prefers binaries, I was a circle being constantly asked to cram myself into a pink triangle or a straight square. I would twist myself into desperate pretzels trying to fit into this box or that. The B in LGBT followed me into every LGBT space I ever engaged but it was a silent B. And that silence could not have been more deafening to me. I did not know others Bs. It felt like I was staring and shouting into a dark void. And what came back was total silence. Not the comforting kind. Not the peaceful kind. The unsettling kind. The disruptive kind. The kind that might engulf you and swallow you whole.

When I was going through the ordination process, the battle over ordaining LGBT people had reached a fever pitch, and several people asked me, “Are you gay or straight?” These were the only two options given to me, and I didn’t yet have the personal resources to say “neither.” In a world of black and white, red or blue, gay or straight, stay in your lane, color inside the lines, stay inside the box—I felt like a pinball trapped in a pinball machine. I was scarred and jarred by years of impact. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Pick a side. Are you gay or are you straight? Are you gay or are you straight? Are you gay or are you straight? Are you gay or are you straight? Are you gay or are you straight?

Until finally the day came, when the swirling chaos, the interpersonal tempest that had been slowly brewing over weeks and months and years and decades erupted and came rising up like a roar. Wild with pain, like a caged animal who had finally been set free, I finally clapped back and screamed at the top of my lungs into that silent void, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. I will not pick one of your two sides. I am my own side and it’s a perfectly valid side.”

No, I will not color inside your lines. No, I will not stay inside my lane. No, I will not comply with your instructions. No, I will not honor your binaries. No, I will not sort myself into a “them” vs “us.” No, I will no longer pick a side.

Rage. Exhaustion. Grief. And then finally—release.

I was especially tender to the touch. Easily triggered by anything that smacked of a fence or a boundary or a set of close ended questions.
“Tell me about this woman.”  or “Tell me about this man” were questions that abstracted pieces of me, pieces of my story, and they were frequently questions that touched a pain center.
Instead, a more open ended and exploratory “Tell me about the people you’ve loved” felt like safety, because it allowed me to spread and expand and to begin to do the patient work of personal integration.

I was easily triggered by hierarchical relationships in which roles were too inflexible and prescribed.
You are client of some kind.
I am service provider of some kind.
This didn’t allow room for me to grow and change roles.

I would butt up against boundaries, and I could not hold those spaces. I was spilling out on all sides.

Instead, I was craving journeying partners to join me in spacious containers. In spacious and flexible containers in which my roles and relationships could be re-negotiated. re-learned. re-imagined. re-structured.
I was craving spaces and relationships that were conducive to this process of “becoming.”  Spaces that saw this becoming process as a gift to be nurtured. Spaces that saw fluidity not as a beast to be tamed, conquered and held at bay, but as a gift to be nurtured and developed and given back to the world.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I was craving the rhythms of a circle model of relationships and relating. I was craving the types of journey spaces, and the types of relationships one often finds in creative circles, and writing groups, and artistic exploration groups. I was craving a transition from someone who empowers and encourages creative people (which I still love to do) to someone willing to name herself as a creative person. I was craving a transition from being a pastor who writes for her job to being a pastor who is a writer.

What’s in a name? The answer is–everything. Everything is in a name.

A second question that haunts.

“Now What?”

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