When I started college, I still often wondered if I was a failed Arkansan. I’d grown up in a warmly encouraging, close-knit family, and I never doubted that my parents admired and appreciated who I’d become. (Their tears when they dropped me off at my residence hall couldn’t take away the surge of pride I’d seen wash over them the day before when the incoming freshman class had all been addressed by the college president.) But, by many measures, I was an outsider during my growing up years. I never learned to love sports like my dad, and to this day I don’t really follow any with any religiosity (though I do get inordinately excited about the Olympics and the World Cup). I never took up fishing or hunting, which put me out of step with not only my immediate and extended family but also many of my closest friends. I was decidedly un-athletic and didn’t play pick-up soccer or basketball games with my friends, let alone join a school team. And my reading was increasingly taking me down intellectual byways and toward conclusions I was sure many of even my very closest friends wouldn’t understand or, even if they did, wouldn’t share.
It’s a time-tested plot device to have a young misfit finally come into his own at university (think of Chaim Potok’s remarkable novels, for example), but it really did happen that way for me. When I got to college, I finally realized that I wasn’t so much a mutant specimen of my native culture; I just seemed to belong to a different culture altogether. In my dorm and in my classes, I finally met others who were more or less like me. I remember sitting down to lunch one day during my first week of college with a fellow student who had read all the same theologians I had, and like a smothering fan boy, I nearly asked for his autograph. I was so pleased and surprised to find a fellow nerd who was also, it seemed, rather normal by other measures, that I went a little overboard in expressing my enthusiasm. Our friendship never took off, but within days I’d met a dozen others like him.
Many of us are familiar with this dynamic: after a long search we didn’t even realize was a search until we looked back on it, we finally, at some happy juncture, found our place. Or at least we found the category that brought into focus what we hitherto thought was only a haze of disconnected characteristics, mistakes, and oddities of personality. I remember, for instance, hearing a friend of mine describe her ADD diagnosis that she only received when she was in her fifties: suddenly a whole range of life experiences that had been frustratingly opaque were now understandable in fairly straightforward terms and, thereby, deprived of their sting and stigma. What she previously thought was just laziness or thickness turned out to have an explanation, and the comfort wasn’t just from the removal of false guilt but, more, from understanding behavior that remained frustrating for her.
I thought of all this while reading Janet Edwards’ piece in the most recent issue of The Christian Century. Her essay brings out this theme of finding comfort in explanatory categories especially poignantly:
I came out to myself as bisexual in my late forties. It was an intensely healing moment. Feelings of attraction to other women had confused and worried me for years, ever since a crush on a camp counselor in my teens. Throughout my loving, sustaining marriage with a man, I had occasionally felt a pull toward women. Now, in an instant of clarity, I was finally able to see myself the way God had known me all along: I am bi, capable of loving both men and women.
Notice that final sentence, before I quote any more: there was something about recognizing her sexual attraction to women that enabled Edwards to recognize her particular capability for loving them. I think I understand what she means by that, and we have tried to talk about the same idea here at SF before—see this post from Melinda Selmys, for instance, and this one from Chris Damian’s personal blog.
“From that moment,” Edwards continues, “peace settled in.”
It was easy to come out as bi to my husband, family, and friends, as well as to the congregation where I was a parish associate. Each echoed my husband’s immediate response: “That sounds about right as I know you.”
Notice how Edwards doesn’t say that any sexual experience or partnership was healing; rather, that moment of finding a reason for the confusion she’d felt for years was what was healing. She’s talking about pre-actualized, so to speak, sexual attraction. She’s talking about her sexual orientation, not sexual behavior.
But she was quickly misunderstood on that point. Senior clergy in her denomination assumed she was talking about promiscuity, about sleeping both with her husband and with women. So in the face of that misunderstanding, she had to explain that she was talking about the freedom that can come from a newfound understanding of the pattern of her sexual desires, not what she chose to do with those desires:
Coming out to myself was one of the most transformative moments of my life. Aspects of my self-understanding that had been dissonant since my youth came into harmony for the first time. I had always assumed I was straight; my self-knowledge was distorted. When it finally sank in that the concept of bisexuality applies to me, it was as if my soul became clear, like a pond when the mud settles and you can see all the way to the bottom.
Sexual attraction is of course a component of my experience as bisexual. But it isn’t somehow more central to my sense of self, or to my interaction with others, than it is for straight people. One of the more unfortunate themes in the history of Christian thought is the bifurcation of body and soul—a tendency that has not nurtured a healthy integration of our whole selves. In my experience, being bisexual is about far more than just physical attraction. It’s about how—in my spirit—“both/and” comes more naturally into focus than “either/or” does. It’s about my whole identity as a child of God.
My two presbytery colleagues missed [the point]… that being bisexual doesn’t mean that I’m promiscuous, that it doesn’t by definition make me unfaithful to my husband. Hence their confusion when I assured them that fidelity is central to our wedding vows, and that I had not violated those vows nor had any intention to.
As far as I can see, the only difference between my faithfulness in marriage and anyone else’s is that I may be tempted by men and women alike. I exercise the same discipline of commitment that every married person does.
(At this point in the essay, by the way, I feel that Edwards missed an opportunity. I wish she had talked more about how her attraction to women may be understood with broader categories than just “temptation.” If we think of sexuality in terms of multiple layers—there is one’s basic erotic attractions, followed [or not] by the lustful cultivation of desire that Jesus describes as “looking to desire” [Matthew 5:28], and then the behaviors that can represent the fruition of that lust—then it seems we can talk about a basic attraction to women that need not be reduced to the temptation to lust. That first layer of desire, so to speak—the pre-lustful attraction that is simply part and parcel of being sexual creatures—is probably best thought of as having either sinful or virtuous realizations. It seems to me that it’s important to stress that women noticing the beauty of women can be virtuously actualized, for instance, in gratitude to God for their beauty, in intercession and loving service towards them, in friendship and conversation, etc. The technical term for this is, of course, “sublimation,” and I wanted Edwards to at least gesture in this direction.)
Janet Edwards and I see many things differently. From her website, it doesn’t look like we would understand Scripture and the Christian tradition on sexual ethics in the same way at all. But what I appreciate about her essay is its understanding that even coming out to oneself and abstaining from sex with those to whom one is attracted may be just as important to achieving a sense of wholeness and integration as other potential paths one might take. Naming desire—understanding the rationale for seemingly random, inchoate thoughts and feelings—may be one of the first necessary steps on a journey towards peace and an acceptance of one’s calling and place in the church. Or, putting it less grandly, it can just reassure you that you aren’t crazy and you aren’t alone. And that can be a very powerful reassurance indeed.