Have you ever heard of the term exposure awareness?
It works like this: when you first start drinking alcohol, you can’t tell the difference between a PBR and a Blue Moon and a Guinness, or between moscato and sauvignon blanc, or malbec and pinot noir. You think you like pretty much everything, because what you actually like is alcohol and if, like me, you grew up in a culture that performatively rejected alcohol outright in order to live “above reproach” (which feels more like trying to score points in the Holiness Olympics most of the time), alcohol is super exciting at first. Then after a while, you realize that PBR is awful and Blue Moon only marginally less so and Guinness is the real nectar of the gods. You realize moscato is sugar water and sauvignon blanc is the perfect drink on a hot summer night, and red wine is just better when you put ice in it and you continue to do so even when your friends pretend they don’t know you when you order it that way at a bar.
This is exposure awareness. The novelty and thrill of the feel of alcohol entering your bloodstream fades with time and you come to understand that not every delivery method is created equal.
I didn’t start drinking until the spring after I turned 21. I didn’t have my first kiss until a year after that. This is not a post about drinking.
A while back there were a couple of articles floating around the online spaces I hang out in that had bothered me on a visceral, spiritual level. These articles detailed different women’s stories about “struggling with same-sex attraction” while being married to men and how they had, with herculean force, managed to overcome or deny that part of themselves through the power of prayer. Words like “brave” and “courageous” accompanied each share on Facebook and Twitter, but to me their stories felt like someone desperately trying to hang a heavy millstone around my neck. I’m not here to name names or critique these specific women’s stories, because the reality is that we all have to make peace with ourselves and that looks different for everyone.
But where the hair on the back on my neck starts to stand up is when these individual ways of making peace with ourselves and the hands we’ve been dealt are universalized and tacitly imposed on others with big, sweeping, unwieldy words like “sin,” “struggle,” “brokenness.” I routinely expect this sort of narrative from the hyper-evangelical neo-calvinist milieu from which I emerged like a freak mutation in the evolutionary timetable. It’s still being published every day. (<— CW for some serious religiously motivated homophobia on that link; see my analysis here.) But between the careful way I’ve curated my social media feed and Facebook algorithms that tend to show us more things we already agree with, I’m less accustomed to seeing them float across my timeline with such glowing accolades and exhortations.
I came out as bisexual to my husband in May of 2016, after being married just 13 months. Turns out, sex works a lot like alcohol. You think you like pretty much everything, because what you actually like is sex and if, like me, you grew up in a culture that performatively rejected sex outside of one very narrow and specific and largely inaccessible context, sex is super exciting at first. Then after a while, you realize there are certain things you like and certain things you don’t, and certain things you thought you did at first that it turns out you do not, and certain things you genuinely used to like that you simply don’t anymore. Exposure awareness.
A month later my husband was standing by my side marching in the Nashville Pride parade. It was 100°F and humid and he was sick and had to work that night, but he was there.
I’m not going to pretend like the year + some change since then has been that easy or that poetic. We have had difficult conversations. We have had fights. We have had long periods of anxiety and tension and growing pains and adjustment and words we wished we could vacuum right back into our mouths just hanging there in the air between us. We have both felt resentment. This is not “just marriage” because marriage is this uniquely awful thing that we are legally stuck in, but it is marriage because it is intimacy and intimacy often involves and sometimes requires those things. And the demands of true intimacy transcend gender and orientation and marital status.
But we have also had moments where I felt like all of my skin was peeled back and all of my insides exposed in the best possible way. I have expressed things to him I didn’t imagine ever being able to express to another human being. He has championed me and celebrated me and been my biggest cheerleader. He doesn’t expect me not to be attracted to other humans any more than I expect him not to be attracted to other humans—which is to say, not at all. We are each other’s keepers, not each other’s prison guards.
Above all and through it all I have learned these fundamental truths about my sexuality: I am not “broken.” I am not “struggling.” I do not have to do penance. I do not have to carry anyone else’s heavy yoke on my back.
I may have to repeat these affirmations to myself on a daily basis, but I am holding out hope that one day their acceptance will be as natural to me as my own breath. My difficulty in being able to accept them now has nothing to do with the self-loathing internalized shame we often call “Holy Spirit” and everything to do with two decades of being taught that heterosexuality was not just compulsory, but the only way to be truly holy and acceptable and pleasing to God—and to others.
So as a person whose sexuality is consistently erased on the basis of the gender of the person I am married to, it really bothers me when people who are attracted to more than one gender resist the word “bisexual” with such gusto. “I’m attracted to women and I’m attracted to my husband—but, I’m NOT bisexual!!!” they insist, hoping that their rejection of the terminology will stave off others’ rejection of them. Of course, everybody can identify how they choose. But I see this happen a lot and I can’t help but feel that in many circumstances it’s because there is such a stigma attached to bisexuality as an idea. Because if they’re not heterosexual, then how will they maintain white heterosexual evangelical Christian societal status? It’s not enough to be monogamously married to a man. They have to go further, and reject their sexuality altogether, at least verbally—or “surrender it to Christ” as some put it. They must perform heterosexuality—or risk excommunication from the fold.
As I began to come out to more and more people after coming out to my husband last year, I had to begin asking myself: how addicted am I to the privilege of passing as straight? How addicted am I to heterosexual Christian approval? (This question was posed by UCC liberation theologian and womanist scholar Gwen Thomas at a workshop I attended at Vanderbilt Divinity School last year and has haunted me ever since.)
I think perhaps, though, the most offensive part of these articles to me is that they arrive tucked safely inside a trojan horse of “liberation” and “true freedom.”
Do you truly want to liberate people? Is that what you want to do?
Well, do it or don’t. But don’t pretend like these heavy yokes and millstones around the neck are anything but. Perhaps they don’t feel like yokes and millstones to you. Very well. Live your life. Make peace with yourself how you need to. But understand that they are literally death sentences for many others. Do not take that lightly. Do not write poetic missives about your “brokenness” being redeemed through a straight-passing marriage. Do not perpetuate the myths that non-heterosexuality is the result of past trauma. Do not make more space for a dominant narrative that is already suffocating in its ubiquity and its demands on those of us who will never, ever be able to meet them no matter how hard we try.
I am a bisexual woman in a mixed-orientation marriage with a heterosexual man. This is the path I am on. This is the way I am making peace with myself. There are other paths and other ways, running in and around and through one another. I am not here to sit in judgement on any particular one, but rather on the idea any particular one is superior or holy or morally compulsory.
I’m very early on in the journey. I haven’t yet turned the first bend. But there are a few things to know for sure, even now:
Sexuality cannot be reduced to past or current behavior. It doesn’t have to do with the gender of your partner and bisexuality is certainly not predicated on being 50% attracted to women and 50% attracted to men.
God is not mad at you and you do deserve love. Never believe anyone who says you don’t. In the next breath they’ll be trying to sell you a cure for a disease you don’t have.
You do not have to choose between accepting your sexuality and being in good standing with God or the universe. You may have to choose between accepting your sexuality and being in good standing with others, and that might suck. Remember that radical self-acceptance is an act of resistance, and radical self-acceptance is often threatening to people whose livelihood is derived from an inherently self-loathing system. If you can get free without them, then everyone can get free without them, and that is frightening. In the heat of the moment it may be impossible, but later on, in the stillness, try to remember that it is not actually about you, but rather about the loss of hierarchy that your freedom inevitably represents.
If you try to tell others they are broken and in need of redemption because they experience sexuality outside of your carefully constructed binary box, I will fight you.
If anyone tells you that you are broken and in need of redemption because you experience sexuality outside of their carefully constructed binary box, do not believe them. Your sexuality does not make you broken, and the approval of others never feels as good as truly loving yourself.
Never believe your happiness is unimportant. Hedonism isn’t practical, but neither is pretending like happiness is like a kidney or an appendix you can just live without. “Marriage doesn’t exist to make us happy, it exists to make us holy” might be one of the most pernicious oversimplifications out there. Suffering can grow you, sure. But so can pleasure. I already know how to suffer. If you ask my husband or my best friend or my therapist, they’d probably tell you that what I really need to learn is how to be happy.
In closing: Live your life how you want, but recognize that just because something isn’t death to you right now doesn’t mean it’s not death to others. It also doesn’t mean it won’t be death to you eventually. We are often insulated from death by our privilege, in so many small and large ways. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to perform heterosexuality. Not everyone wants to.
Walk in freedom, knowing that you have the option to choose your path and others have the option to choose theirs. No trojan horses. No catches. No “buts.” No bait-and-switch when it comes to your happiness. We may be surprised where we all end up.