A big pet peeve of mine is engaging with spaces that market themselves as “LGBTQ” when they only center cis-white privileged GGG and sometimes cis-white privileged Ls. Conversely, I do not mind it when spaces accurately label and represent themselves as Lesbian groups or Gay white male groups or specific identity/affinity groups. Heck, my own twitter page is labeled as a space specifically for bi folks. Occasionally, I talk about other groups and other identity categories of people, and I want to lift up, support, and affirm people across all LGBTQIA identities. In my heart of hearts, I want to see everybody liberated and loved and thriving. This doesn’t mean that I do a great job reaching every identity category or that I focus on the whole LGBTQIA spectrum. People who come to my “BiRevGal” twitter site are going to see a whole lot about bisexual related content and a few smatterings about other groups and other identity categories. I hope all kinds of folks find their way to my twitter space, but my space is primarily for bi folks and I’m very precise in naming them as my intended audience. I’m precise because this creates boundaries. This creates safety. This sets certain expectations. People who show up to engage in my space know what it’s all about.
Here’s why LGBT groups that are mostly silent about the B and T draw out so much tenderness and vulnerability in me. People come to LGBT groups at the height of their personal experience of vulnerability. They’re looking to connect. They’re looking to make friends. They’re looking for peers. They’re looking to find resources that might guide them in their journey. They’re looking to share experiences with others who have had common experiences. They’re looking to forge a sense of community so that they can go about doing the work of interpersonal healing. And it’s devastating when we don’t find these things.
In my own tender coming out process, most of the LGBT spaces I encountered did not actually represent Bs/Ts in their spaces even though the B and the T were in the title. We find no one in leadership who represents our category. We find no resources unique to our particular identity experience. We find no stories being shared by Bs or Ts about B & T specific experiences. We may not even find any other Bs or Ts at all in that LGBT space. Or if we do find them in those spaces, we don’t “see” each other because bi folks are not afforded opportunities within the LGBT space to make themselves visible to the larger community or to each other. So the end result is that we come to a space advertised as an LGBT space hoping to feel better, and we wind up feeling a whole lot worse about ourselves. The intention of these spaces is often good, but the resulting impact upon the silent Bs/Ts is often bad.
Before I go any further, I should mention that my current partner is also bisexual, and she is also a woman, and that we do participate in a local Lesbian meet up group, and we absolutely adore the women in our group. They have been a godsend. They have been a rich source of community. They have been a source of connection. They have been good friends to us. The power of their friendship and inviting us into the fold as queer peers has been instrumental in our own healing process. Once you have this kind of rich community, you want to give it to everyone. But we are aware that we have the privilege of attending this group and enjoying this rich community because at this moment in time we are two women and we are in a same-sex relationship. This is different than attending the group because we are “bisexual” women. Bisexual as a category would include women who are single like I was for many years, women who are in different sex relationships like I was for many years, and women like my current partner and I happen to be in a same sex relationship right now.
As I was first coming out, I was seeking to affirm and solidify my sense of identity. However, in LGBT spaces, the pervasive narrative that I encountered among my peers about “bisexuality” was that bisexuality is a transient identity. I received this messaging in a thousand different ways. I was searching for stories of someone who had identified as bisexual for a long time and I never found them. How did they arrive at their bisexual identity? What were the stories that led to their declaration of a bisexual identity? What were the unique pressures and concerns and disparities that existed among bisexuals. And how did they go about this task of personal identity integration for their bisexual identity?In many LGBT spaces, the pervasive narrative about bisexuals mirrored back to me were stories of other queer people who left the bisexual identity. Gay men and Lesbian women who had identified as bisexual for a six-months or a year as a part of a larger coming out process in which they eventually claimed their gay/lesbian identity.
Side Note: there’s nothing wrong with that version of a coming out narrative. It’s not uncommon for people to need some time and space to sort out their identity and to try on multiple identity labels before finding the label/s that feel like home. I affirm that. I celebrate that. I support anyone’s process to know themselves better and to reserve the right to change their identity label based on a deeper self understanding.
That being said, as a blooming bisexual, it wasn’t an encouraging narrative for me to hear repeatedly as I was looking for my own safe space to grow into and claim the identity label that would eventually become my own. And this was compounded by the stark absence of bisexual counter narratives and bisexual visibility in leadership, on panels, and sharing their identity stories. The absence of bisexual specific resources also became problematic.
Many of my gay and lesbian peers assumed that my frame of reference was the same as theirs and that I might just be at a different point in a process they had already mastered. They assumed that my coming out process was the same as theirs. They assumed that my life experience had been mostly the same as theirs. It was not. This added to my sense of frustration. It also added to my growing sense of isolation. It triggered feelings of depression. It triggered feelings of vulnerability and unworthiness. These LGBT spaces generally made me feel worse about myself rather than assisting in my healing process. I applaud LGBT spaces that want to include all the letters as a show of solidarity, but if you’re not going the next step and representing people who embody all the letters in LGBT, do not do this.
As a queer person, and as a leader, these reflections are sometimes painful or difficult for queer peers to contend with and for LGBT spaces to contend with, and I understand that. People might ask me why I talk about this when there are so many disparities thrust upon us by wider society. Why can’t I be a team player? The reality is that I am a team player. The reality is I love being queer. I love queer people in my life. I love Ls/Gs/Bs/Ts/Qs/Is/As and the whole spectrum. I wouldn’t be here without so many queer people who crossed my path and came before me. I want to fight against injustice coming our way from wider society. I love being a part of the LGBT community. But I want to see our community expand and grow and include more and more people and invite more and more voices to be front and center at the table. I want us to show off and appreciate the beautiful diversity in our ranks. I want us to love each other better so that we can more effectively unite and fight against injustice as one big queer family.
Flipping the Script: My life as a Faith Leader
Now I want to talk about my experience of Church and also about my time as a faith leader in the church. I wasn’t vulnerable in my role as a faith leader before coming out. I was in a power position. I was a leader. I was charged with holding vulnerable people’s stories. As a pastoral staff member of numerous churches, I experienced this same kind of organizational and institutional impulse to “include all” on the part of many churches I have served. I have worked with many good hearted churches that wanted to put a statement in their website and promotional material to the effect that “all people are welcome” at their churches. Often, by including such a statement they hoped to appeal to LGBT people and many others who may not be inclined to come to church regularly. In regards to LGBT people, these churches wanted LGBT people to come attend worship at their church.
This act of solidarity is a sincere one for many churches. They really do mean it. They want anyone to feel the freedom to come sit in the pews of the worship service and to draw closer to God. But as I would dig deeper and ask them additional follow up questions, they hadn’t thought those questions through or considered the consequences.
I would ask, “What will you do with these LGBT people once they arrive here at our church? What if the Lesbian sitting in the pews really takes this week’s sermon to heart and she wants to articulate her Christian faith through service to this church—Will she be welcomed to serve your church?” Often, the answer that came back to me was no.
“What if the gay couple adopts a child and wants to baptize their child in our larger community sanctuary—will they be welcomed to stand fully visible before God and community and receive the blessing of this sacrament?” Often, the answer was no.
“What if a trans man and his bisexual female partner want to celebrate their marriage in our sanctuary–will they be welcomed?” Often, the answer was no.
So then I would have to press them to think deeply about what exactly they meant when they said “All Are Welcome?” I would suggest that they actually meant only that “all are welcome to attend?”
If that’s the case, that’s not a bad start, but I would let people know that we need to be very precise in our literature. We need to give people a sense of what boundaries exist. We need to keep people safe by accurately communicating our exact intentions. Saying “All Are Welcome to Attend” is very different than the radical statement that “all people are welcomed and embraced as part of our larger community.”
Saying all are welcome to attend is very different than the radical statement that all people are welcome to bring their whole self to our community, to be fully visible in our community, to fully participate in our community, to leave their unique stamp on our community, to cultivate their unique voice and live out their specific gifts inside our community.
I would remind churches that we are not saying “all are welcome.” We are saying something short of that. As I invited peers and congregants to grapple with the reality of this, it was a difficult reality. I would sometimes meet resistance from these churches. But the reality is I tangle with the church, and I passionately fight with the church, because I love the church. I believe church is worth fighting with and worth fighting for. I’ve devoted my life to serving the church. And I want my church to grow forward and love and serve more people. I want the church to love people even better than it already does.
Before I embarked upon my own coming out process, I identified for many years as a straight pastor and an ally to the LGBT community. I am 100% sure that I inadvertently engaged in this type of behavior. I really wanted to “include all” but I almost exclusively centered the voices of cis white gay/lesbian folks. I mistakenly took those narratives that I received and I projected them outward as representing an entire diverse LGBTQ community. I was not very agile and very flexible in reacting and responding to people representing diverse categories. I did not have the foggiest idea what trans people experienced, or what non-binary people experienced, or what people of color were experiencing inside the church or in LGBT community. I’m sure I wounded people or that I didn’t hold them well in their vulnerability. I wasn’t a bad leader. I just had a limited set of experiences. You always run up against your limitations as a leader. Always.
It took some humility on my part to realize that I was not an “expert” on all manner of LGBTQ people. It took some willingness on my part to be challenged by people in my life. I had a willingness to learn and grow and to listen to lots of diverse stories and to learn the rhythms and the contours and the disparities experienced by different groups. I was more interested in being curious than in being right. I’m thankful for those people willing to come by my side and hold my hand and grow me as a leader. I’m thankful for the people who loved me and stretched me. They’ve made me a better leader. I’m still learning and I’m still growing. That’s the work of a lifetime.
We unintentionally hurt people and create isolation when we do not receive people as they come, when we do not hold space for them to be visible, when we do not honor and celebrate the unique and particular facets of an individual’s story. I recognized this in part when I functioned as a straight identified pastor and when I held the power to offer people sanctuary and to share who they are. I learned this in profoundly intimate and vulnerable ways when I engaged in my own coming out process and wanted to feel welcomed–really welcomed. To feel really valued for who I was. When I wanted the gifts that I have to be wanted in community. I wanted people to be curious about the unique story that I bring and my unique way of experiencing the world. Pain and isolation can become a thing that breaks us, immobilizes us, and derails our giftedness, but it can also break us wide open. It can become a conduit for deeper insight and empathy.
So here’s what I’ve got. Rather than adopting a frame that says we have to be perfect or that we have to be “experts” on other people’s stories. I want to suggest a different frame. We absolutely do not always get things right. Let’s collectively embrace this idea that we all get it wrong sometimes. I give all of us (myself included) permission to fail each other. I also give all of us (myself included) permission to reach out and do something different today or tomorrow than we did the day before. I give us all permission to improve. Let’s embrace the idea that we’re all life long learners learning how to hold space for each other and learning how love each other well. Let’s embrace this idea whether we’re a suburban church or a suburban LGBT center. Let’s embrace the idea that everyone we meet is an expert in some unique experience that they’ve had and that we have not. And rather than making this a point of fear, let’s tear down walls and set up picnic tables. Let’s be curious. Let’s break bread together. Let’s ask each other great questions. Let’s invite each other to tell our various stories. We will come to learn a new way of seeing and experiencing the world.
As a bisexual clergywoman, the particular gift that I bring to communities is the gift of “disruptive grace.” In my own life, I oscillate between being a disruptor of various systems and being a bridge builder between those various systems. I’m at my best when I’m invited to do both and to use the resources and gifts that I have to function in both of these roles. I inhabit a world of “both/and” thinking rather than binary or “either/or” thinking. Both of these roles require a measure of trust on the part of people who are engaging with me, and they rightly should require me to earn the trust of people who will let themselves be moved by the stories I’m inclined to share.
And each of you has a unique and particular gift too. I wonder how your story will inform my story. I wonder where we’ll find connection points that draw us close to one another. I wonder where we’ll find dissonant experiences that cause both of us to wrestle and consider a point of view that is new to us. On some level, I wonder if all of us aren’t strange bedfellows who have more in common than we know.
Add your own voice. Have you ever straddled two different worlds? Have you ever felt frustrated in your attempts to bring them together?