An essay of mine, titled “Beyond Either/Or,” appears in a book just published by Skinner House Press and edited by Susan A. Gore and Keith Kron, Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists. It’s a beautiful little volume, with diverse and fascinating voices represented in the fifteen essays, and I highly recommend it.

In my essay, something happened along the twisting path of editing and revising. The published version appears to be, not my final draft altered by the usual edits that every author must grin and bear (and often benefit from!), but a reversion to an earlier draft that was still floating around in someone’s hard drive, as earlier drafts do. It’s a shame, since I found the editors’ comments on my later draft extremely insightful and I knew they were improving my piece. The final version, however, didn’t incorporate these (though I’ve heard from readers that it’s good as is). Here, as best as I can recreate it, is the final version that I believe all three of us intended to appear in print.

“Beyond Either/Or”

Unlike a woman I knew in college who said unhesitatingly that she’d known she was a lesbian from age two, I had to learn my sexual orientation gradually. I didn’t get the first glimmer of the idea that I might be bisexual until I was about 18, and I didn’t strongly identify this way until several years later. There were sudden revelatory moments along the way, such as the one that came when I was watching the opening scene of Rear Window and, seeing Grace Kelly’s luminous face loom into close-up as she leans in toward the viewer to kiss James Stewart, was surprised by my emphatic wish, “Kiss me! Kiss me!” But on the whole, my realization that I was bi arrived in degrees, a gradual perceptual shift.

What I have known for as long as memory stretches back is that either/or choices make me suspicious. When presented with a confident statement that two things stand on the opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide, I reflexively ask whether they are really mutually exclusive. Material and spiritual, male and female, liberal and conservative, Israel and Palestine, teenager and elder—when two things are said to be opposites, I try to ask: what category might encompass both of these, synthesize them into a whole?

Being a both/and thinker serves me well as a minister, particularly in the role of community-builder. Part of my job is finding a way for opposites to dwell together in peace. And theologically, I am committed to moving beyond the choices that are often presented to us as either/or, and to leading others past those unreal boundaries; it gave me particular delight to once give a sermon called “Confessions of a Theist Humanist.”

I was well-trained in the habit of seeking both/and answers to either/or questions by my late teens. So when I discovered, around that time, that the world was not divided into heterosexual and homosexual, as I’d thought, but included many people who were romantically drawn to both another sex and their own, I already stood on a foundation that made that fact unsurprising, easy to accept, and, ultimately, attractive to apply to myself.

The desire to go beyond either/or also brought me to Unitarian Universalism and kept me here. I had been brought up Jewish, and the stories and rituals of that faith still meant a great deal to me even when I started searching for something else. I had found great wisdom in Buddhism and embraced much of its teaching. But neither one of those traditions was quite the right home for my spirit. And then I went to my first UU congregation, and discovered a place where I could be Jewish and Buddhist and this great new (to me) thing called Unitarian Universalist, and where no one would force me to choose just one. It was a religion that allowed room for each of us to keep adding new ideas, theologies, practices, and ethical perspectives: where the assumption that met such changes would not be “You can’t do that,” but “Let’s see how that fits in!” Unitarian Universalism was the both/and religion, the one that had successfully challenged so many rules of society and theology and shown them to be illusions.

As I learned more about my newly adopted religion, I felt more and more that this was a religion that thought the way I did, deliberately turning the false choices of either/ors into the inclusivity of both/ands. I read about how the early Unitarians and Universalists were told that if religion tried to incorporate skepticism about the Bible, it would crumble—but Channing, Parker, and Ballou insisted that reason and religion could (must!) co-exist. The resistance to women’s rights in the nineteenth century was an attempt to force an either/or choice: women could either have a moral voice in a public role or have moral authority in the private sphere. I learned that Unitarians and Universalists had led the way in insisting that women could still be women while voting, speaking, leading, in the public sphere that had so long been reserved for men. In the next century, critics of religious liberalism said that one could not both be atheistic and have moral guidance. The UU humanists who went before us replied, “Of course we can.” These Unitarian Universalists were my people!

I’m not both/and about everything. I believe there are ideas that are mutually exclusive; I believe there are actions that are incompatible with certain desired outcomes. So, for example, I am monogamous, not because I’m opposed to polyamory in principle—if people can make it work to everyone’s satisfaction, all power to them—but because what my wife and I know about ourselves tells us that we are most likely to find what we seek within a single relationship sustained as long as we both live. And then, too, much of ethics is about delineating, “If you choose A, then B will be necessarily excluded.” For example, we can’t both maintain solidarity with the poor and promote an economic system that depends on keeping people in poverty. In short, there are limits to both/and-ness. Yet the habit of thinking that seeks to rise above false either/or choices and give a more inclusive answer is one of the gifts we Unitarian Universalists have to offer the world. In turn, one of the gifts bisexuals can offer Unitarian Universalism is to help our religion to more fully develop that way of thinking, applying it to more situations, bringing ever more inclusiveness to a world that creates arbitrary categories—and to our own religious communities. I believe Unitarian Universalists will understand bisexuality better as we learn to think of ourselves as spiritual questioners dwelling in a world that prefers its categories neatly bounded, one that mistrusts those who call those boundaries into question.

We Unitarian Universalists are already boundary-challengers by nature. When I co-authored an Adult Religious Education curriculum on bisexuality, I suggested including exercises that would help people move beyond either/or thinking. One of them asks people to go to one side of the room or the other depending on whether they like vanilla or chocolate, walking alone in nature or being with friends, reading books or listening to music. Being Unitarian Universalists, they often resist the binary options. Even though the facilitators firmly instruct them to choose one side or the other, almost all participants gripe about this arbitrary division, and some disregard the rules, invent a continuum, and put themselves somewhere in between.

In other words, Unitarian Universalists are ripe for understanding bisexuality. When they don’t get it—and I’ve encountered some, both heterosexual and homosexual, who don’t–it is usually because they haven’t yet expanded their capacity for both/and thinking to encompass sexual orientation. I take hope from the fact that most Unitarian Universalists embrace both/and thinking in other areas of their lives. It also means that when we are supported in being out and clear about what our orientation means, we bi UUs can lead our co-congregants in broadening their views, not just of sexuality, but of all the elements of life that have been forced into arbitrary and false categories.

My own experience suggests that even in a Welcoming Congregation, we can have a ways to go. When I came out as bi, I was asked by one UU (sympathetically, but with an exasperatingly knowing look) whether I was “in transition.” I was so slow about the lingo that it took me a week to realize that she was suggesting that this was just a step on the way to admitting I was a lesbian. I don’t generally mind being taken for a lesbian—it’s an honorable label—but I do mind the implication that someone who claims to be bi must be only halfway out of the closet. Although many people do try on bisexuality as a self-description in the process of sorting out their orientation (and they have my support and empathy), it is a mistake to conclude from that that it is only an in-between state. Being bi is not a way station. It is an orientation of its own.

It reminds me of the bitter little joke told about UUs, that our religion is “a way station between Methodism and the golf course.” No, it’s not. Some of us live here permanently, and find it a very comfortable and beautiful home. Many people may pass through our congregations on their way from another religion to none at all, but their using Unitarian Universalism as a convenient resting point doesn’t define our religion.

Invisibility, the bane of bisexuality, is a problem in our congregations. I’ve had someone in the church’s LGBTQ community suggest that another bi person—in fact, our other minister—was not a true member of that community because she was married to a man. In other words, I and others who were in same-sex relationships were acceptable because—and, I couldn’t help concluding, only because—we resembled lesbians or gay men. Likewise, many hetero people in the congregation simply didn’t register that their other minister was bi, even though she had spoken clearly of her bisexuality from the pulpit. It was easy for them to disregard her membership in the LGBTQ community even when she proclaimed it; they could think of her as hetero, and chose to do so. In each case, people struggled to acknowledge the both/and before their eyes: that we bisexuals fit into neither category, neither gay/lesbian nor hetero, but are an entity outside that either/or.

Another such entity is our religion itself, which shares with bisexuals that painful quality of invisibility. It isn’t beneficial to either UUs or bi folk to be rendered invisible, and perhaps Unitarian Universalists can learn something about themselves, as well as about the bisexuals in their midst, from bisexuals’ dogged insistence to be acknowledged and understood by a world that often simply does not see us.

In the case of bisexuality, invisibility arises from the peculiar rules a please-check-one-and-only-one-box society imposes. It is one half of the double bind that holds us: if we are openly involved with one person, then we are implicitly identifying as either hetero or gay (depending on whether it’s a different- or same-sex relationship), which hides bisexuality from view—if not disproving its very existence. If, on the other hand, we speak openly about our past involvement in both kinds of relationship–or, heaven forbid, are in both at once—we are confirming the stereotype that bisexuals “just can’t make up their minds,” “can’t be faithful,” or are all polyamorous.

Of course, as with so many double binds, the dilemma is caused not by the nature of bisexuality but by the rigidity of the rules. When we dismiss those rules, the problem dissolves. Just as people in our congregations are learning not to assume that a man who speaks of his partner is referring to a woman, we can learn not to assume that everyone in a different-sex relationship is hetero, or that everyone in a same-sex relationship is gay. Bisexuality is always a possibility, and, studies suggest, will be increasingly so as we free people to be more candid about their true orientation. We can do that through activism—by removing the real, legal penalties for being openly bi—and, right at home in our congregations and organizations, through remembering (and reflecting in the way we speak) that many of the people who visit, join, and lead us are bi even though it doesn’t show.

When bisexuals stay closeted, it’s generally out of fear. Why do Unitarian Universalists stay in the closet? Why do we hide our religion from the world? I think it is often for the same reason. We accept the assumptions of the wider society; we define ourselves by its categories, which have no place for the likes of us; and so we become reticent to say “Actually, there is another option.” We closet ourselves. Perhaps we do so because the implications of declaring of our religious home, “We are a both/and place,” scare us. Such a statement certainly carries its pejorative connotations just as bisexuality does. According to some members of other, more creedal faiths, we Unitarian Universalists are simply unable, or unwilling, to make a commitment. Our diverse approach to spiritual sources, which is one of our great strengths, they interpret as wishy-washiness; we don’t stand for anything. We can’t commit to one path. And while this is sometimes true, it misses the larger truth that being Unitarian Universalist is a path.

All of this is very familiar to us bisexual people. We hear it all the time: you can’t commit to a single partner; you’re afraid to declare yourself as lesbian or gay; you’re trying to be trendy; you can’t make up your mind.

We know a thing or two about seeing through these accusations. We know that the reason we’re bi is not that we can’t make up our minds, but because we see the beauty of many varieties of humanity. We know that we are perfectly capable of committing to a single partner for life if we wish, just as a heterosexual woman can be attracted to men of different colors, yet choose one, with his own unchangeable skin, to be her husband; just as a lesbian can forswear women she finds attractive in order to settle down happily with just one—some say as soon as the second date. We know we are what we are, regardless of whether it fits a trend. Can Unitarian Universalism as a whole “come out” as what it truly is? We are a religion that, in explicit contradiction to what many religions consider possible, affirms both mystery and reason; is a home for both Christians and Buddhists; draws upon the Bible and other texts riddled with oppressive teachings, while firmly supporting liberation.

To assert the possibility of both/and is to blaze a new trail, or rather, to clear a trail that many have walked before but that continually becomes overgrown for lack of enough footsteps. So it can be hard going. We Unitarian Universalists have internalized many of the either/or messages from other faiths—even though, for many of us, they are the very messages that made us go look for a religious alternative in the first place. We accept too readily the either/or stereotype that says one is either a possessor of university degrees or uninterested in tackling subtle ideas, and thus we question whether our religion is attractive to people who don’t have an advanced formal education. We accept the falsehood that we must be either an activist church or concerned with tending our spirits, and thus repeat the old, tired drama of “spirituality versus social justice.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we inherit a great legacy from generations of people who heard all the “NOs” of either/or thinking and responded with a both/and, affirming, “Why not?” Will we make the most of that legacy?

A heterosexual friend of mine once said, in all seriousness, that he admired those of us who could be attracted to more than one sex–as if we demonstrated a higher spirituality, a kind of open-mindedness that “hopelessly heterosexual” people such as he had not attained. I laughed, but I strongly disagreed. There is nothing better about bisexuality; for mysterious reasons, human beings have a range of orientations and none is better than the others. We bi folks are just being ourselves. But when the wider society denies that one’s self is a true and possible thing, then being oneself is itself an act of courage and spiritual leadership. All openly LGBTQ people among us have led their UU kin in practicing integrity and wholeness, and we can continue to do so, if the others will follow. By insisting on our own truths, we can break through the walls dividing categories and lead others to freedom. What joy could follow if we Unitarian Universalists dismissed all the false categories the world and our own minds create!

We can begin with our own religious communities, where many of the barriers caused by either/or thinking still wait for us to dismantle them. We struggle, still, to say “why not?” not only to category-defying identities like bisexuality and transgender, but also to political diversity, class diversity, and racial and ethnic diversity. We are too quick to accept the either/or thinking that stuffs our religion into a mostly white, upper-class, liberal, English-speaking box. We struggle even to be open to both humanists and theists, to both children and adults, to both young adults and elders, to both cradle Unitarian Universalists and converts.

Bisexuals know just how hard it is to say both/and where others have said either/or. It puts you betwixt and between, and it’s so much more comfortable, so much more emotionally safe to fit into a set category. It is not easy to feel as if you don’t belong anywhere. It’s not easy for a bi man to turn down the solidarity offered by a gay man who assumes, with a friendly “Nice to have another gay man in this group,” that he’s gay too. It’s hard for a married man and woman to declare themselves outside the safe circle of other married couples in the church by saying, “Actually, we’re both bi.” People are comfortable with categories, and we challenge them, even frighten them, when our lives present them with evidence that the walls separating one category from another are permeable.

But we bisexuals have also learned that the problem is not in ourselves, but in the categories, which are figments of the mind. Coming out is a proclamation of faith in reality instead of the divisions that falsely claim authority. Unitarian Universalism will begin to claim its full authority as a religion when it comes out boldly as a both/and faith. Celebrating bisexuality, that dissolver of false boundaries, can be the key that opens that closet door.

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