For nearly 20 years of my adult life, I had a “project” of sorts going on in the background. My project did not get in the way of holding down a job, making friends, having relationships, seeing a bit of the world, paying bills, making mistakes, learning, growing, and generally “functioning” in the world. In fact, my project added luster and complexity and depth to all those activities. I am referring to the project of sorting out my sexual orientation.
As many of you know, I identified as heterosexual through college. From my mid 20’s to my mid 30’s, I identified as lesbian. From my mid 30’s on, I have identified as bisexual. It took the better part of a decade to settle into identifying as bisexual. So I am one of the tongue-in-cheek “lucky” ones who has come out twice. 😉 It was far easier coming out as lesbian than it was coming out as bisexual. I wrote about my experience in an essay titled “From Orientation to Orienteering.” It was published 15 years ago in the book Blessed Bi Spirit: Bisexuals of Faith, edited by Debra Kolodny. My remarks this morning are a hybrid between homily and religious education.
If I had identified as heterosexual my entire life, I would probably find it mystifying that sorting out two shifts in sexual orientation could take 20 years and merit the label “project.” What’s the fuss? What’s to sort out? For one thing, sexual orientation turns out to be more complicated that was generally thought even a few decades ago. There is a complex interplay between affectional feelings, erotic feelings, and romantic feelings. It is helpful to think of each of them as a separate orientation.
Wayne Pawlowski has created the AER (affectional orientation / erotic orientation / and romantic orientation) model to do just that. To distinguish among the three orientations, he asks open-ended questions:
A. Affectional orientation: “With whom do you prefer to socialize? With which sex(es) do you feel most comfortable and relaxed?”
B. Erotic orientation: “Which sex(es) turn(s) your on erotically? To whom are you attracted as real, potential, or fantasy sexual partners?”
C. Romantic orientation: “With whom do you fall in love? With whom do you fall in love most easily?”
The AER (Affectional/erotic/romantic) model allows for the possibility that a person may answer “no one” to the questions, and it allows for gender diversity in a way that previous models did not. In that sense, bisexuality is beyond a binary view of gender. Wayne Pawlowski suggests that of the three orientations, affectional is the most influenced by environment/upbringing/life experience. Erotic orientation and romantic orientation tend to be far less influenced by environment. My interpretation is that the “born that way” stance regarding sexual orientation is an exaggeration and oversimplification of the scientific research. It is likely that for two of the three orientations, we are born with a strong propensity. The third orientation is more malleable, especially for women.
Three sexual orientations for everyone, not just one, accounts for some of the reason why sorting out one’s orientations can take a while. And then there is society’s attitude. Not falling in line with society’s most prevalent way of relating to others can bring the risk of suffering. Not falling into the expected line takes courage and merits support from religious liberals.
Not falling in line also brings the risk of joyful relating and the deep pleasure of authenticity! It is quite frankly too easy for joy to get lost in the shuffle when talking about bisexuality because the suffering caused by prejudice and discrimination against bisexuals can be intense. For example, there is a section called “Healing the Suffering” in this excellent new publication on bisexuality by the Religious Institute of Westport, CT. Alas, there I no section called “Reveling in the Joy.” For the joy, you will have to look elsewhere. We might seek out and get to know bisexuals. The odds are they would love to talk about their joy, not only their suffering.
Yes, there is both suffering and joy in bisexuality. As a general philosophy, if we start feeling overwhelmed by suffering, it is time to search for some joy. If we start feeling overwhelmed by joy, it is time to search for the suffering of others. Why? So that we can be in touch with as much of reality as possible and be positioned to respond wisely and compassionately.