THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 50
Bisexuality – Part One
A Guide called ‘’Some issues in human sexuality’ was published in 2003 by a Working Party of Bishops for the House of Bishops. This lengthy discussion document looks at all sides of the debate about sexuality and is a very useful starting point for church members who wish to study the subject.
In this document the subject of bisexuality is reviewed in Section 6, where it is noted (section 6.3.1) that ‘bisexual people are almost always overlooked in discussions of sexuality (Thatcher)’. Indeed, the Guide suggests that bisexuality is totally ignored, and notes that theological debate on the subject of bisexuality is only just starting (6.3.3).
Just as how one views the Bible is crucial to the whole debate between the conservative evangelicals and the inclusive Christians, so also I consider the attitude taken towards bisexuality is crucial to the whole homosexuality debate.
In this article I want to examine some initial aspects of bisexuality – what it is, and what we can say about it. In later articles I hope to go deeper into the subject. In some ways the discussion of bisexuality brings us to the very heart of the whole debate on sexuality.
Firstly, what is bisexuality? A definition is offered in the Guide: ‘ those men and women who feel sexual attraction to those of both sexes’ (6.2.1). Although the simplicity of this definition is welcome, it ignores one vital aspect. There is the person who can be attracted to either sex at any time. But there is also the person who may be attracted to one sex at one period of his life but who finds that he changes his orientation and is then attracted to the other sex at a different stage of his life.
There is thus what I will call ‘concurrent’ bisexuality (attracted both ways at the same time) and there is ‘consecutive’ bisexuality (different orientation at different periods of life). The distinction is important and leads us towards the same conclusion we have reached about homosexuality: that it is quite wrong to lump all homosexuals, or all bisexuals, under a single classification. There is great variety under each heading and it is essential to recognize and allow for this in our discussions. For the purpose of these articles, however, we will accept and use these two labels.
It is also important to recognize that bisexuals are under criticism from all sides. Straight (i.e. ‘heterosexual’) people often think that a bisexual walks around constantly attracted sexually to the men and women they meet, day by day. This has been crystallized in the phrase that bisexuals are attracted to ‘anything that moves’. On the other hand, gay (i.e. homosexual) people are often critical of the very notion of bisexuality, believing either that bisexuals are people who are half way to understanding, acknowledging and accepting their homosexuality, or that bisexuals are, quite simply, confused. Sometimes bisexuals are regarded as those who want to avoid the odium that is sometimes visited on homosexual people, and are therefore attempting to find a more acceptable niche for themselves. We also have to remember that there are heterosexual people who want to explore and experiment, but who are not bisexuals.
Having defined for the purpose of this article what a bisexual is (a man or woman who is attracted to both sexes either concurrently or consecutively) let us turn to another problem that besets the subject. This concerns the numbers of bisexuals – the percentage of bisexuals in society. On the one hand it is sometimes suggested that the figure is a small proportion of the total gay population (‘a minority within a minority’). On the other hand bisexuals are sometimes thought of as everybody, or at least the vast majority of people. They are sometimes seen as comprising all those who are in the space between the two extremes of the Kinsey Scale. In other words, it is thought by some that everybody, excluding only extreme heterosexual and homosexual people, is a mixture of heterosexual and homosexual, thus making the proportion of bisexual people considerably greater.
The well known Kinsey seven point Scale places heterosexual at 0 and homosexual at 6. Between those two groups there are gradations of sexual inclination – mainly straight but partly gay between 0 and 3, mainly gay but partly straight between 3 and 6 . On this basis the term bisexual would apply to all between 0 and 6. If you see sexuality as graded in this way, then a large proportion of the population – excluding only the exclusively straight and the exclusively gay - will be bisexual to some degree. It is clear that everything depends how you decide to define the word ‘bisexual’.
If you define bisexuality in terms of attraction, then this fits the scale, but if you define bisexuality in terms of activity, then probably a much smaller number – mainly those in the middle of the scale – will be defined as bisexuals.
All attempts to estimate the number of bisexuals in a population are suspect because of this difficulty of definition. It all depends on how you define your terms.
To illustrate the problem further, suppose two schoolboys (or, for that matter, two twenty year olds) go through a phase of gay activity together – say, for a couple of years. This is not uncommon. Then both move on to become to all intents and purposes completely heterosexual, get married and have families and are happily settled with their wives. Should they be classed as heterosexual or bisexual? In other words does one exclude experimentation or not when assessing how many in the population are bisexual? This may seem academic, but many people do go through a homosexual phase before they settle down into adult life. This is just one hazard in trying to establish numbers.
It behoves us all therefore to treat any statistics and statements about the prevalence of bisexuality with great caution.
Having cleared the undergrowth somewhat, we can now turn to the debate that is said to be starting concerning bisexuality. The first point to recognize is that heterosexual people – especially those who are Christian - when discussing this subject, are mostly talking theory. They have not experienced what they are talking about, and, not surprisingly, they often get the motivation and the practice of bisexual people wrong. They can only talk of bisexuality from a heterosexual point of view. Mostly they don’t even realise that this is a handicap. For them a bisexual person is a heterosexual person who happens to be attracted to also having sex with members of the same sex. As I hope to show, I see this as a basic misconception.
First and foremost, straight people misunderstand the whole ethos of being gay or being bisexual. They look at it from their own point of view and almost always concentrate on genital acts. This seems to be the ‘be all and end all’ for them. This is not surprising – how else can they start to consider the subject? One can find this approach writ large in the Bishops report and in many of the statements that have come out of the Church. The focus is on genital acts. It is genital acts that are objected to by other Christians – and it is genital acts that are disliked by many heterosexuals.
Any truly gay or bisexual person will tell you, however, that their sexuality is infinitely more than genital acts. It affects their whole being, their whole outlook. It is something that permeates all they are and do. Genital acts are not their key focus, nor even the main preoccupation for gay and bisexual people. This may be hard for heterosexual people to understand because they can only comprehend it from their own viewpoint – they are unable to see it from the point of view of a gay person who starts from a different point than they do.
A gay or bisexual person is not heterosexual in outlook. Nor are they only concerned with genital acts. Of course genital acts are important – as important to them as they are to any heterosexual person – but the nature and situation of gay and bisexual people is different in kind from the straight person. Gay people are not heterosexuals who happen to want to have genital acts with their own sex. Gay people are different in outlook and in other significant ways from heterosexual people. I would suggest that it is possible to say that they are as different from heterosexual males as heterosexual males are different in outlook from women.
And just as men (heterosexual) enjoy being with men (heterosexual), and women enjoy being with women, so gay people enjoy being with gay people. In each case there is a need for like meeting like. Gay people need the fellowship, companionship and love of other gay and bisexual people. They cannot get that same understanding and fellowship from heterosexual people. Neither understands the other, nor can they satisfy the need each has for their own kind in a full way. Gay and bisexual people can, of course, get understanding and love from heterosexual people – but they cannot get the same degree of understanding and intimacy that a gay or bisexual person can give them.
If you could imagine, for a moment, a heterosexual man who lives among a population totally made up of women. A single male in a feminine world! Perhaps the last man on earth! Can you imagine the sense of aloneness that that man would feel? However happy he was with the women, he would pine for another man to talk with. Likewise if you imagine a woman alone in a world of men. No other woman, ever, to talk to. No other woman who understands her point of view. Can you see the sense of loneliness she would feel? Of course they can love and be loved. They can carry on a normal life, day by day. But they would long to have someone of their own ilk to be alongside.
Most heterosexuals have not understood this. It is passed over in all the literature that I read. Especially the literature by heterosexuals – especially Christian literature. They think that all a gay or bisexual person wants is sex. And they assume that a gay or bisexual person can get all they require as a human being, emotionally and in other ways, from a heterosexual partner. It is true that such a partnership can be wonderfully rewarding to both of them. Love and loyalty, self sacrifice and companionship and love are all possible. But the heterosexual person still needs some interaction with another heterosexual person to complement him, and the gay person needs another gay person in the same way.
I won’t diverge here to discuss the future for ‘mixed’ marriages. Suffice to say that I believe that they can work, where there is love and understanding. Often they work by the gay partner finding his gay needs satisfied (not genital acts, necessarily!) outside the marriage. I refer you to the article on Fidelity and the bisexual married man, parts one and two.
All of this may be hard for some people to grasp – it calls for straight people to be jolted in their thinking out of their accustomed way of seeing and thinking about gay people, and requires them to attempt to get into the shoes of the gay or bisexual person.
Once this central fact is grasped, however, it becomes clear that the whole discussion at present is on the wrong level. Instead of being fixated on genital acts, we should be looking at the differences between outlook and the various approaches to life. I am not saying that genital acts are unimportant, - they have exactly the same significance for the gay and bisexual person as for the heterosexual. They must come into the discussion somewhere – but nowhere near the top of the agenda, where they are at present.
Great weight must also be given to the type of lifestyle the gay or bisexual person pursues. For example, they may not be ‘out’ to some people in their lives. Indeed, they may be in the closet to everybody. That is a decision that a lot of gay and bisexual people make. It is one reason why gay numbers do not show up in the official census. As an oppressed minority they make things as easy for themselves as they can – and that may mean that their sexuality is very much a private matter for themselves alone, or perhaps shared with just one or two people.
Can you imagine what it is like to carry a secret like this around with you like that all your life? This is a secret that is at the heart of your whole personality. It is at the very heart of your whole being. The burden has driven some to suicide. Many young gay people these days are out in the open and that is greatly to be commended. But if a gay or bisexual person is hiding his sexuality then the consequence may be that they are unable to mix freely in gay circles. They may perhaps take any opportunities that arise – but many may never go near a gay bar, for example. But the heterosexual mixes freely all the time with other heterosexual people. The gay person has to keep a severe hold on what he says and does if he is to preserve the secrecy of his sexuality. He is continuously frustrated his desire to relax with his own kind.
If you are a Manchester United supporter you really enjoy being with other supporters. Watch them on television and you realise that it is the fellowship of being together in the Stands that is part of the attraction. If you are gay you really enjoy being with other gay people. You don’t have to be on your guard with them. You think along the same lines as the others. You have the same outlook. You laugh at the same jokes. You sympathetically share the same problems. You don’t need to explain or justify yourself all the time.
I look forward to the time when the deepest needs of gay people are properly recognized – not by any church approval for them to have genital sex with each other, but rather the acceptance that there is a valid emotional need to be with other gay people with whom they can relax. It will be recognised then that gay people do not congregate in order just to have sex with each other, but like heterosexual people, simply to enjoy each other’s company. Naturally, gay and bisexual people will, like their heterosexual counterparts, enjoy sex at the right time and place. For Christians that will be within a partnership where love and loyalty are paramount.
Being gay or bisexual is so much more than genital acts. It has to do with your very being – you are gay or you are bisexual, and inevitably you crave the fellowship of other gay or bisexual people.
Heterosexual people are, to put it mildly, two a penny. They are everywhere. They are the majority. They mix with each other all the time. So much so that many don’t even realise the enjoyment that meeting other heterosexual people gives them. To some extent there is a sexual element in that social interchange – though many would not recognise it as such. Their need for fellowship with other heterosexuals is met without even thinking about it. They automatically assume that nearly all those they meet along life’s way are of the same ilk as themselves. And rightly so. Nothing wrong there.
But gay people do not meet gay people so easily. In fact, some gay people go through days, weeks or even longer periods in certain circumstances without meeting another gay person with whom they can relax, as two gay people together. Why is that? Firstly, because there are far fewer gay people. So you don’t just bump into them, unless perhaps you are moving in certain close knit circles – for example in big cities. Secondly, you may not always recognize them when you do meet them. There is such opposition to gay people in society (and in the church in particular) that many gay people are not ‘out’. This means that they might get good ‘vibes’ about someone they meet, but it may not be easy to follow up and find out where they stand on the gay issue.
And if you do recognize that someone is gay, it may not be wise to declare your own gayness – you need to sound them out before you commit yourself.
Thankfully, being gay or bisexual is much more acceptable today than even five years ago. Society is more tolerant of homosexuality and many young people are able to declare themselves publicly without problems. But being gay or bisexual is still a minority thing, and I believe there are many older people who are hiding their sexual tendencies.
In this article I have tried to explain how I define a bisexual person, and to show how, being misunderstood, they are under pressure from all sides of society. Finally, I have tried to show that being gay or being bisexual is not primarily about genital acts. It is a state of being. The heterosexual takes his non-genital sexual and emotional needs for fellowship with other heterosexuals for granted, but the gay or bisexual person has to make a real effort to be with his own kind.
In my next article I must turn to some of the questions raised in the Guide ‘Some issues in human sexuality’. We will have to face the most basic question of all – what, at the deepest level, is sexuality for and, as a consequence, how should we humans conduct ourselves sexually? It is, in my opinion, no longer sufficient to say that the view of sexuality that has pertained for four thousand years should automatically continue. The vast changes in our understanding of our human psyche, our sexuality, the reality of contraception, and all the other scientific advances makes it imperative that we try to uncouple ourselves from the old prohibitions and rethink what Christ would have us do. How are we intended to live in the twenty first century? The very nature and basis of societies are changing. What are the primary values? And what restrictions from the past must we now slowly move away from?
These are questions I will start to tackle in the next article.