Bi-lence in the Church

By Dr Carol Shepherd (From Seeds December 21 / January 22)

Back in February, Dr Carol Shepherd gave a presentation to Our Tribe about her research on bisexuality. Now she shares some of her findings with Seeds.

 LGBT and Christianity are not easy bedfellows, and bisexuality and Christianity even less so. Even the most affirming of LGBT Churches struggle to acknowledge, let alone address, the issue of bisexuality within teaching and pastoral resources. This is curious, since a 2015 study by GLAAD (originally the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) showed that over half (52%) of the LGB community identified as bi, three times as many as identified as lesbian (17%) and about a third more than identified as gay (31%).

What is it about bisexuality that makes it so difficult to talk about in a church that increasingly engages, however positively, with same sex marriage and transgender issues? It is almost as if there is a kind of conspiracy of silence around the orientation. And this silence can be deadly, as I have discovered in my body of research on the bisexual Christian intersectional identity.

There is a good reason for this ‘bi-lence’ – why bisexuality and Christianity remain almost invisible. As in the secular world, this silence is largely due to the twin aspects of ‘biphobia’ (fear of bisexual people) and ‘bi-erasure’ (ignoring bisexual experiences or conflating them with homosexuality). But there are other aspects peculiar to religious environments which exacerbate the silence on bisexuality, even when the church purports to be affirming.

Bi-erasure via cultural appropriation takes place in queer theology and church life, just as in the secular world. For example, a number of well-known works of gay theology promote King David and his close buddy Jonathan as gay icons. Yet David sees a naked woman sunbathing in 2 Samuel in the Old Testament and is overcome by lust – hardly the act of a gay man. David is either heterosexual with an intense friendship with Jonathan or, more likely, is bisexual, but certainly not homosexual.

In a similar way, Ruth in the Old Testament is either portrayed as loyal friend to Naomi or her lesbian lover, while the notion that she could be attracted to Boaz and Naomi is rarely entertained. And then there is Jesus and ‘the Beloved Disciple’ (commonly identified as John the Evangelist) and Jesus and his close friend Lazarus, yet also Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Clearly, we don’t really know for sure about the sexual orientation of any of these figures from Scripture, and it is arguably anachronistic to attempt to do so. But if we are going to ascribe sexual orientations to such figures, let us at least do so with integrity and an open mind, and accept that David, Ruth and Jesus might just be bisexual!

Queer theologians are particularly guilty of bi-erasure, either through this kind of cultural appropriation of potentially bisexual role models, or by ignoring the subject altogether. Most affirming LGBT Christian books I have encountered usually do little more than include ‘B’ nominally in the title. There is almost never any content on bisexuality.

Sexual identity politics also play a role in the stigmatisation and erasure of bisexual Christians. Many gay and lesbian Christians have fought hard to have their rights recognised, culminating in the achievement of marriage equality in many countries of the world, including the UK. Bisexual people are seen to be flies in the ointment of sexual identity politics as they are perceived as diluting what I call the Lady Gaga argument, that ‘I was born that way’ i.e. born lesbian or gay. Bisexuality indicates an element of fluidity, which is not part of the lesbian and gay politic.

In addition, bisexuality carries the stigma of promiscuity, which is even more taboo within Church circles. Lesbian and gay Christians do not want their image tainted by ‘dirty bisexuals’ when they are trying to achieve moral parity with heterosexual Christians. As with their heterosexual counterparts, this is the result of ignorance of the bisexual orientation and the true lived experiences of bisexual Christians.

There are many more reasons why bisexuality is erased and stigmatised, and you may wish to read some of my own work on the subject to find out more. The sad reality, which I must highlight here though, is that bisexual people suffer from extremely poor mental health. This is magnified several times over in the Church, where attitudes are even more judgemental and less informed than in secular society.

A Canadian Health Survey from 2010 showed that bisexual people are six times more likely to attempt suicide than straight people, and twice as likely as their lesbian and gay counterparts. And these are ‘secular’ figures. In my own research in the UK and US, I found an 88% overall rate of depression and suicide ideation among bisexual Christians. This is hardly surprising, when bisexual people face prejudice from both the straight and LGBT communities.

These figures are horrifying and should alone galvanise pastors and supporters of LGBT folk into action.

Dr Carol Shepherd is a global expert on bisexual Christian identities and a Social Sciences Lecturer at University of Highlands & Islands. She is the author of The Damage of Silence: Bisexuality and the Western Christian Church (Palgrave, 2018) and Bi: the Way, Pastoring Bisexual Christians in Europe (EYP, 2020).