Opinion: Freeing sexuality from an either/or model
‘Church Times’ 18 September 2015
Bisexuality is often misunderstood, but has the potential to refocus discussions of gender, argues Symon Hill
“NOBODY’s really bisexual.” It’s a sentence I have heard often. It has been said by gay people as well as straight ones; by “liberals” as well as “conservatives”. The evidence is mounting against it. A survey last month suggested that 23 per cent of British adults did not regard themselves as exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The figure rose to 49 per cent among 18-to-24-year-olds.
As Christians, we need to be aware of this. Whatever our views on sexuality, we are called to recognise truth, and to witness to it. Bisexual people, like everyone else, need pastoral care, and that means acknowledging their existence. Bisexual Visibility Day will be marked around the world on Wednesday (23 September).
There is another reason for Christians to pay attention: the reality of bisexuality gives us a different starting-point in discussions of sexuality. Church debates are bogged down in name-calling and predictable arguments. At the same time, many churches are slow to recognise the reality of church-based sexual abuse.
In this context, we urgently need new questions, as well as new answers, if we are to respond meaningfully to issues of sexual ethics and to proclaim God’s love in the context of sexuality and human relationships.
THE tendency to ignore bisexuals seems particularly prevalent in Christian circles. The Pilling report made almost no reference to bisexuality (News, 6 December 2013). It repeatedly used the phrase “gay and lesbian”. At certain points, it seems that this is meant to mean “people who are not straight” or “people in same-sex relationships”. At other points, it seems to involve the more usual meaning of “people attracted only to others of the same sex”.
Church discussions on sexuality are confusing and controversial enough without using sloppy language and ignoring a sizeable number of people. The Pilling report is far from being the only culprit.
Campaigners on both sides of the argument say “gay marriage” when they mean same-sex marriage. As a bisexual Christian, I know that marrying a man would not make me gay, nor would marrying a woman make me straight.
I am not trying to say that bisexuals are more hard done by than gay people. This is not a competition. In some ways, bisexuals may suffer less from prejudice than gay people. In certain contexts, however, bisexuals experience additional hostility.
Homosexuality challenges traditional gender notions, but a gay person is at least looking for a partner of a particular gender. Someone who says that the gender of his or her partner does not matter may pose far more of a threat to those who are keen to defend binary gender categories.
THIS very challenge gives us a different angle from which to approach theological questions on sexuality. One of the most shocking aspects of the New Testament is its challenge to gender roles.
In the Gospels, we see Jesus allowing women to make physical contact with him, in a culture that found this shocking. We see him challenging male-centred divorce, and telling men who committed adultery in their hearts to take responsibility for their sexual behaviour towards women. In St Paul’s early writing, we read his assertion that “There is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28).
Things changed. Later writings such as the First Letter to Timothy (which, in the view of most scholars, was not written by Paul) encourage women to obey their husbands. But the radical tendency was not stamped out.
A second-century letter, Second Clement, declares that “a brother who sees a sister should think nothing about her being female, and she should think nothing about his being male.” The letter was read alongside scripture in some churches until as late as the fifth century.
SUCH attitudes raise questions not only for those who exclude sexual minorities, but for others who wish to allow gay people into the Church as a sort of exception. I have known Christians who say that gay people should be tolerated because they “can’t help” being gay. This degrading statement implies that bisexuals can help it, and should choose a partner of a different sex.
If we ignore these issues, we reject both Christian history and the needs of people who do not fit into neat categories of male and female, or straight and gay. The radical New Testament message of “no longer male and female” has the potential to free us from these human-made categories altogether.
This emphatically does not mean adopting an “anything-goes” approach to sexuality. Rather, it frees us to concentrate on what really matters. Most of the people whom I find attractive are women; some are not. Most of them have dark hair; some have not.
Society regards one of these issues as trivial, and the other one as a vital aspect of my identity. Perhaps if we were to regard them both as trivial, we might give more attention to what really is vital.
By taking gender out of the discussion, we can focus on what really makes a relationship right, how we truly live in love, and what it means to follow Jesus’s example in all areas of life.
These are tough questions that require a great deal of thought and prayer. We will not all reach the same conclusions, but at least we will be starting with helpful questions. As a popular bisexual slogan puts it, love has no gender.
Symon Hill is the author of The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, which will be published by DLT in November.