Faith on the Fence

Anonymous Contributor

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by Leila Panjvani

It was the summer that I was 12 years old, during the later days of August at the Jewish summer camp I had attended for the past four years. As I sat out on the porch with my best friend, Brittney (not her real name), and we talked about whatever 12-year-old girls usually talk about, I paused for a second.

“Britt,” I said, “I have something to tell you. I think I might be bisexual.”

It was 2004 and same-sex marriage had recently been tenuously legalized in Ontario. Alison Krauss’ video for “Restless” was on CMT and it was around then that I realized I was perhaps a little too fascinated with how Alison looked in that video… maybe I didn’t just want to look like her or be her when I grew up.

Brittney looked ahead blankly for a second, then told me there was no possible reason she would have a problem with that. Then she paused and added, “don’t tell anyone else here that, though.”

I was already questioning  my identity in more ways than one, and this admonishment (which likely had some truth behind it, given the general prejudices of my peers at that camp) was the slight kick in the butt that I needed to start exploring the range of faith and spirituality out there.

A naturally curious child, I read every book in the library on comparative religions, wondering what was available beyond my own upbringing. In some ways, I’ve always questioned things. And, in some ways, I’ve always been “on the fence”: in between different worlds.

A symbol of normalcy, or a dividing line?

A symbol of normalcy, or a dividing line?

In these last 10 years, much has been made of issues around the inclusion of LGBT people in organized religion. While the United Church of Canada has ordained people regardless of sexuality or gender and performed same-sex commitment ceremonies for years (as is the case with Unitarian Universalists), most moderate-to-liberal religious denominations have had an ongoing debate about these same issues. And somehow, even though these great strides are being made, I don’t always see myself in them.

Not too long after that day at summer camp, I came out as lesbian to some of my friends and later, to my family (although the latter was a rather traumatic case of being “dragged out”).

I knew I was more attracted to women than men, and I didn’t have any bisexual role models to look up to. I didn’t really know what bisexuality was. To me, bisexual was just another word in the dictionary. Monosexual gays and lesbians had Elton John and Melissa Etheridge, but there was really no bisexual representation for me to look to. When I realized my number of girl-crushes greatly outnumbered my boy-crushes, I figured I must be a lesbian, as I thought bisexuality always had to be a perfect 50/50.

As many LGBT people do, after my big “coming out,” I spent a great deal of time being fairly anti-religion, or at least anti-organized religion. And who could blame me? All I could see on my TV screen were Christians (and sometimes Jews, as well as people of other religions) yelling about how my identity was immoral.

I resented being thrown into the “Jewish” box as well. While I was proud of my heritage, I wanted to make up my own mind. I never personally lost my faith in God and still prayed on occasion. However, I know many of those who did lose faith and I don’t blame them for one second.

LGBT issues in religion are often understood to fall into one of a few related categories. One is the issue of a certain religious denomination performing same-sex marriages. If a denomination feels particularly passionate about the issue, this extends into the issue of civil marriages as well. Another issue is ordaining LGBT (or, really, just LG) clergy. Other issues include such public-sphere concerns as sex education and gay-straight alliances.  When talking about internal issues (such as ordination or marriage within a denomination itself), one thing that is often common to the dialogue is that it often just talks about “gays and lesbians,” rather than the whole LGBT spectrum.

I saw myself in this monosexual language of “gay and lesbian” for a few years. Then, when I was 16, I met a boy at an LGBT youth group who I quickly developed a crush on. After spending some time trying to figure out if he was actually attracted to women or not, I took a leap of faith and asked him out. We dated for six months. At first, I tried to deflect questions about my sexual orientation with “I just identify as queer.” Coming of age in an LGBT community, I knew what that meant. However, soon after, I came out yet again – this time, as bisexual.

Walking around with my male partner and passing as one half of a heterosexual couple gave me a certain kind of minor identity crisis.

The queer identity I had considered a part of me since before I started high school was often overlooked. People who had known me for more than a year often referred to me as gay. If I mentioned my boyfriend to someone I had just met, people assumed that I was straight. This was the year I made a crack about how I was “too gay for organized religion” (my boyfriend, a member of the United Church, gave me a bit of a dirty look) and I heard, more than once, “I didn’t know you were Jewish!”

The language around LGBT (or rather, simply LG) inclusion in religion is always interesting. It’s true that the LGBT acronym, or even any of its slightly longer and more inclusive versions, often means the concerns of gays and lesbians, to the exclusion of bisexuals and other non-monosexual people, transgender people, and other gender and sexual minority groups.

Several religious denominations have declared themselves open to “same-sex couples in committed relationships.” Some use the language of sin, but being one half of these committed same-sex couples is not a sin. The language of respectability is often brought out in these debates, and I wonder: where does that leave me?

Defining someone as part of a couple is problematic in more ways than one. Are we only who we are in the context of relationships? Straight people get the privilege of being complex human beings, with multi-faceted identities. LGBT people?

We’re not only reduced to our sexualities and gender identities, but only who we are in a relationship with at any given moment.

Pretending someone is queer only when in a long-term, monogamous, preferably live-in relationship is essentially the equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and going “I can’t hear you!”

These visions of relationships are sanitized, likely so people don’t have to imagine anyone having sex. Of course, straight people have sex all the time, outside of marriage and often outside of relationships altogether. Yet, even if that is condemned on the surface, it is still seen as more ‘natural’ and normal than anything defined as ‘queer.’

This “respectable same-sex couple” is more an imagined entity than a real person or couple. The line “same-sex couples in committed relationships” puts a fence around the idea of who actually deserves to be included, and it doesn’t include me. This brings up the idea of not only active exclusion, per se, but of erasure. In our day-to-day lives, we are always expected to ‘pick a side.’ This is perhaps no more clear than in issues of sexuality and gender. When the lines are drawn so clearly, nobody sees us fence sitters.

I’m a young bisexual woman who has spent much of her time being more-or-less single. These days, I have a (pretty amazing) girlfriend and a handful of casual dates. I am not part of your respectable same-sex couple.

Whether I’m in a relationship or not, and regardless of what that relationship looks like, I don’t stop being who I am just because it may not be immediately apparent.

It’s taken me a long time to fully be comfortable with who I am, and sometimes, I catch myself apologizing for being bisexual: it’s pretty easy to feel like you have to apologize when people are constantly drawing the line between a more ‘acceptable’ gay or lesbian identity and the supposed sin of being attracted to more than one gender.

The bisexual pride flag, with the colour purple representing the space between "gay" and "straight

The bisexual pride flag, with the colour purple representing the space between “gay” and “straight

Not too long ago, I was sitting in a waiting room and picked up a copy of the Jewish Tribune. Naturally, I was immediately drawn to a headline that read “Seminary Board Okays Homosexual, Lesbian Ordination.”

Although I was initially put off by the word “homosexual,” I still thought “this is going to be good.” The article explained how a major rabbinical school in Jerusalem is now ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis. Then, I was taken aback by this sentence:

“Alexander stressed that the decision to approve gays and lesbians for the rabbinate does not include transsexuals or bisexuals, “because the former [gay or lesbian] is something that’s given, not  chosen.”

As bizarre as the logic is, and no matter how many times I heard it, it still felt like a punch in the gut. I decided rabbinical school wasn’t in my future long ago, but the fact is that this seems like a common sentiment. An artificially sanitized idea of a gay or lesbian person may be acceptable, but I’m not… whether it’s due to the bizarre idea that one chooses to be bisexual (but not to be gay or lesbian), or that people like me just don’t exist at all, it still feels the same to be on the receiving end of this prejudice.

It’s often said that in LGBT dialogue, the B and T are silent, but sometimes one group gains rights at the expense of another, and this is still nearly always seen as a great step forward.

These days, I am “on the fence” in more ways than one. Still drawing on my Jewish culture and upbringing, I’ve been able to find a home in Unitarian and progressive Christian spaces – (not) coincidentally, usually the ones that accept LGBT people without caveats. But what if I was someone who could only imagine myself in one spiritual community – one that rejected me?

I understand that change happens slowly and there is something to be said for incrementalism. Perhaps an interesting part of my story is that I never lost faith: I always had a sense that there was some kind of higher power that accepts me just as I am.

With that in mind, I am done apologizing for my bisexuality. It’s time we started creating radically inclusive communities, not just accepting those who we find palatable enough and calling it a day.

5 responses to “Faith on the Fence

  1. Hi Lindsay,
    This is the first time I’ve seen the bisexual pride flag.
    Immediately I thought the flag was troubling: it seems to be undoing the “spectrum” associations of the rainbow and relying on binaries to “make sense” of bisexuality. Interestingly, the relative “queer” portion is still purple (as opposed to orange or green, the other …ahem…secondary colors), reproducing the notion that purple is the color of sexual difference.

    What are your thoughts on the flag?

    • I think it’s pretty reductive, but in the way a lot of simple visual symbols are. I sort of expect people to know that the actual lived experience of it goes way beyond it, but you’re definitely right.

      • I think people generally grant way too much credit to others’ ability to imagined a finely nuanced lived experience outside of their own. This is most at issue when dealing with any sort of identification outside of the strictly normative. I guess what I’m saying is, as opposed to you, I expect people NOT to understand.

        This is why I think symbols matter, but I also acknowledge they are a very limited tool in education. So maybe symbolism isn’t the most relevant place to start a conversation, although it always seems to be a hotly debated one.

        Okay, end ramble.

  2. I would be considered almost a hetero-normative male. I have always found that labels do a disservice to almost everything, but especially gender and sexuality. I grant, however, that some find it more useful to think and speak using linguistic ideas, so they can better communicate with others. That said, there is a small issue I take with your view of the situation:

    People need the right to see themselves however they want to see themselves. This is something that should be universal and inalienable. If somebody ‘genuinely’ wants to think of themselves as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, there’s no good reason to stop them or change their opinion.

    People must also need the right to judge others however they want to. This goes towards freedom of thought. A world without prejudice is a beautiful ideal, but destroying prejudice usually requires a form of censorship which is far too destructive to be put into place. Education of the truth can help people form new, possibly more accepting prejudices, but still relies on people forming their own ideas with information. I know bisexuality is not a choice. I should still be allowed to choose to form a differing opinion on the matter, contrary to the facts I am aware of.

    The balance in this is action – what lies in the real world beyond the thoughts in peoples heads. Somebody who thinks of themselves as a carnivorous dinosaur isn’t allowed to assault people. Somebody who is homophobic shouldn’t be allowed to have different hiring practices regarding a bisexual applicant. People in control of legal rights, such as marriage, should not be allowed be allowed to remove them from people they don’t like.

    I am mentally ill. Severely so. The way in which I am mentally ill has left me viewing my Jewish upbringing in a way that they see me as having some sort of curse. They will not accept my unusual actions, or my thoughts. Most of my society agrees. I am a monster to them. Luckily, however, I know that while they are of the belief that I am a monster, my society has rules which protect me and keep me treated fairly (far more so than if I was gay). I will not change their opinion of my monstrosity. I will, however, take solace in knowing who and what I am. They see me as a monster, and I find my spiritual solace in knowing this. It is only bad if I agree that it that is so.

    If I thought I was a dinosaur, and others thought I was a freak, I have taken solace in being both. I am the dinosaur I want to be, and find my peace in that. I am, to others, a freak, and I find my peace in that. I do not need others to agree with me to find my spirituality.

    Religion, to me, is an incredibly useful tool for achieving the goal of spirituality. It is not required, but still very useful. You can achieve spirituality without it, though it is often harder. Consider this when looking through theology to find answers.

    • Great response Larry. I lot of interesting comments here but I just wanted to zero in on one.

      ” A world without prejudice is a beautiful ideal, but destroying prejudice usually requires a form of censorship which is far too destructive to be put into place. Education of the truth can help people form new, possibly more accepting prejudices, but still relies on people forming their own ideas with information. I know bisexuality is not a choice. I should still be allowed to choose to form a differing opinion on the matter, contrary to the facts I am aware of.”

      I think you make a point (beautifully) that many people are afraid to make: where do we draw the lines between prejudice/opinions/affect?

      You make an excellent point: internal prejudices (or just feelings) are one thing; a legislating body sanctifying those feelings? Something different.

      You say “I know bisexuality is not a choice.”

      Right here is the crux of why prejudice/belief/governance are caught in a sticky bind. How do YOU define choice? To me, any form of sexuality is a choice. It’s a choice that may feel as natural as blinking or breathing, but it’s a space where we have agency. Even if we must be defiant in our agency, if our agency is in the face of risk or danger, we are agentive.

      I see the problem in the circuit of discussion of sexuality + choice in the assumption that once we say something is NOT a choice, ie is natural, THEN it’s allowable, tolerable, safe. It’s really using the master’s tools to take down his house. I say here that my sexuality is my choice (given how I define choice, freedom, and agency), and that my CHOICE should be accepted (under the law) as is: not naturalized and muted and distilled to make it palatable to those who don’t immediately relate to me.

      Expanding on my issue with the tyranny of the “not a choice” dogma, my belief is that it falls back on certain judeo-christian principles that I reject as a template for living my life, or for governing human rights more generally: that there is a natural order, that “it was written,” that “god made me perfectly in his image,” etcetera. No thanks.

      I welcome your response 🙂

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