For Bisexual Awareness Week, I have a series of guest posts scheduled every day leading up to 5 posts for today (Sept 23rd). Buckle up for some bi visibility! This post by Nanci examines her relationship with God under the lens of her bisexuality. (Read all posts in the series here.)
Since I started brainstorming ideas for my contribution to Jess’ bisexual awareness week project, I’ve found myself continuously coming back to the topic of religion and how it relates to my sexual identity. As a sheltered, working class, disabled, mentally-ill bisexual, I suppose I have a mountain of other topics that I could talk about, so why is it my religiosity which remains at the forefront of my mind when I think of my sexuality? I simply cannot deny that my journey towards understanding and accepting my sexuality would have been considerably different had religion not been involved.
Religion has held me back from understanding who I really am. Religion has been the biggest contributor to my experiences of ableism and internalised biphobia. Religion has made me feel alone and isolated and it has made me feel welcomed and supported. Religion has functioned as a coping mechanism. Religion has helped me escape some dark and confusing times.
I was raised as a Christian. I went to St. Aidan’s Church of England and the Fulwood United Reformed Church every week. Going to these churches and attending a church school which was led by a priest, I always assumed that everyone I met was a Christian, just like me. It wasn’t until I got older that I discovered that not everything was a simple as this – not even my parents, who raised me in the Church, were strictly Protestant. My mum went to Pentecostal church as a child, took me to the Church of England, attended the Methodist church separately, and now identifies as a loud and proud atheist. My dad has referred to himself as a Christian his whole life but admits to questioning his beliefs and always putting science before religion.
Realising that there were other options in faith was a huge turning point for me in my journey toward understanding myself. When I was 10, big life changes started to come around, and religion was at the centre of a lot of them. I had to decide which high school I wanted to go to and considering the fact that the majority of the schools in the area were Catholic and required proof of religion to get a place, my parents and I decided I would attend the only school in the area that was not affiliated with any religion. Being without religious influence in my education for five years was liberating but also confusing. I had stopped going to church as often too, which took away some structure from my life and gave me a lot more time to think about who I was and what I wanted to be, aside from being a Christian.
After I left high school at 16, without coming to any definitive conclusions about who I was, I moved on to a Catholic college for the simple reason that it was the best college in the area, religious or otherwise. Catholic school had a bigger effect on my identity than any other experience in my life – though I’m not sure I was always completely true to myself while in attendance.
Because of the compulsory lessons in religion and weekly mass sessions (which I came to view as being equivalent to a brainwashing cult – even though I only attended mass three times in my two years there), I developed a strong distaste for religion. I certainly wasn’t quiet about my newfound beliefs. To sit in class at a Catholic college and be open about my negative views on the faith filled me with a sense of rebellion, the likes of which I had never felt before. Students who didn’t like the idea of ‘infiltrators’ in their sacred space were not quiet in their protests against the attendance of non-white, non-Catholic, gay, and transgender students. This was my first taste of openly bigoted religion, and it only fuelled my dislike for religion further. Ironically, it was Catholic school that encouraged me to cut all ties with religion – at least publicly.
When I came out, I was still in Catholic school, and for a while I wasn’t sure I truly was bisexual or if I was just continuing my so-called rebellion against religion. I continued this conflict with myself as I become more distant from my religion. Yet still, despite my attempts to cut religion out of my life completely, I would long to go into the church I passed everyday walking home from college.
After particularly bad days, the urge to take solace in the church only grew stronger. I was under immense amounts of pressure to achieve highly in my academic subjects, I was confused and uncomfortable with my sexuality, and I was seeing doctors and therapists more often than I was seeing my friends. With all of this piling up onto me, my shoulders feeling like they couldn’t carry any more weight, my body using all of its energy just to keep my eyes open, there was nothing I wanted to do more than run away and hide in a place where there was no pressure and no hard work, somewhere I could relax without all eyes being on me, somewhere I wasn’t the main focus.
The church, on those days when I was particularly struggling, was this perfect haven for me to hide and forget my troubles. The church came with the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning and not for a grade, and was somewhere in which I was not the centre of attention but rather a small yet important part of something much bigger than my problems at college. But despite how much I knew the church would be able to help me, I never went in. I’d have a fight with my brain. Telling myself they wouldn’t like the person I have become, I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t welcome, and every day I just kept walking on past.
To this day I feel ashamed bringing to light that I continued to practice religion in private at the time when I was so outspoken against religion. It was like I was living a double life, with two versions of myself wandering the streets of Preston. I can recall proclaiming in online rants that religion is oppressive to women, to members of the LGBT community, to disabled people (all key aspects of my own being) and then shutting off my phone to speak privately with God. My personality and beliefs had been split down the middle and I was less sure of myself than ever before.
In college I put a lot of time and effort into working to understand myself, at the suggestion of my mental health worker. As a result, I began to feel more comfortable with my sexuality and in turn, the less comfortable I started to become with the small aspects of religion I still clung to in private. I suppose this begs the questions: why would I abandon my religion in favour of my sexuality? Most people, I suppose, will remain closeted in their sexuality rather than their religion, so why don’t I do the same? Why am I different? Does this mean my experiences of biphobia are less valid? Am I making something out of nothing? Is my sexuality just for attention?
Over the years, a lot of people have informed me that I’m only bi for attention – the favourite argument of biphobes – but I’ve never let such comments encourage me to shy away from my sexuality. My queer identity is so incredibly important to me that I refuse to hide it. Accepting being bi has helped me establish closer bonds with people than I ever could have imagined (both romantic and platonic) and it has created a greater sense of empathy within me than I had before I realised who I was. I’m so open about my sexuality because I think it’s one of the most prominent aspects of my personality. After years upon years of fighting with myself I’ve finally reached a point where I can accept my sexuality and because of that, I feel as though I have earned the right to be out and proud.
But still I am not able to be proud of my religion. In all honesty, there isn’t much I find that I can be proud of in regards to my religion. Stories of conversion therapy and ‘praying the gay away’ haunt my mind every time I consider entering a church. I can’t deny that religion is a key motivator for homophobic attacks and I can’t excuse the awful experiences people in the queer community have faced at the hands of religion. I truly can’t blame other queer folks for being anti-religion, in fact I often wonder why I’m not the same. But because, on the whole, members of the LGBT community stand in opposition to the church, I fear that by being honest about my religious beliefs I will be shunned from the community which has been essential in contributing to my growth as a person.
The sense of community I find with other LGBT people is of such paramount importance to me that being shunned from and viewed as a traitor by those people is something I would never want to experience. To not be accepted in a community that has been my only escape for so long is something I physically cannot imagine nor do I desire to risk it. Religion, on the other hand, is not something I ever viewed as being a community event. I was never entirely comfortable in Sunday school or Church Parade as my relationship with God is more private and so, as someone who values community and comfort in others above all else, my place in the LGBT community has automatically always come first.
You’ve probably gathered by now that throughout my early teenage years I wasn’t very kind to myself and I wasn’t very kind to God. My relationship with Him was, and still is, very conflicted, not least because I felt myself questioning whether he really cares about me and wondering if I am a disappointment to the person I crave reassurance from the most. In some of my darkest times living as a disabled, chronically mentally-ill person, I find that my first instinct is to talk to God. I’m not sure if that’s because I was taught during my formative years that God had all the answers, or if I do really believe that He is the most helpful thing to me during trying times. Further, as a disabled person I often fear speaking to professions about my struggles out of fear of being ignored and mocked as disabled voices often are. In the past I have had some terrible experiences with “professionals” and so I have learnt to rely not on the judgement of health workers but on my own, and more importantly, God’s.
People in the church are encouraged to talk to the priest or to members of the congregation about their problems. Personally, I cannot even consider doing this. I can’t bring up my issues with my sexuality and I can’t bring up my issues with my disability. Wanting to talk to the religious community about my experience with my intersectional identity comes with the great risk of never knowing if I will encounter a Christian who is willing to listen to and help me or, unfortunately, the more likely ignorant Christian who will refuse to help and expose me to their bigoted views.
Many of my personal experiences with biphobia/bi-erasure stem from ableism. There are a lot of ableist stereotypes surrounding disabled church-goers which suggest I attend the church in hopes of a miracle from God to cure me. When I’m in the hospital, people I used to go to church with my offer prayers for me to get better and suggest I return to church and ask God to help me recover – it’s a nice and supportive thought so I don’t really have the heart to them that even God can’t spur recovery from a chronic illness that literally has no cure. In Catholic school, the welfare team is known as the chaplaincy and is made up of members of the church, so when I sought support for my disabilities I was encouraged to visit the private prayer room – as if God could write to the exam board and request additional time for me to take exams.
With my personal experiences of ableism in the church, my knowledge of others’ experiences of homophobia in the church, and my prioritising of queer community over the church, it is almost no wonder I make the choice every day to cover up my religious beliefs. That said, I suppose this is just another stage in my journey towards total self-acceptance. As it took me years to understand the importance of accepting my sexuality, it seems that I am now beginning what may be years of working to understand the importance of accepting my religion. It’s time for me to start being more truthful with myself and those around me. It’s time I start realising that I am allowed to be made up of many different, complex aspects without being a hypocrite. It may take time for me to start actually attending the church again and stop identifying myself as a rampant, hardcore atheist, but this is at least as step in the right direction to finding consolation and comfort in my queer and my religious identity.
Just because I’m bi doesn’t mean I can’t be Christian. And just because I’m Christian doesn’t mean I can’t be bi. I’m finally willing and able to be both.
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