Relevant truth telling with a queer twist
The burdens and blessing of a bisexual minister
It’s a lonely ministry, but it makes me a better pastor.
by Layton E. Williams
This past weekend, I attended the More Light Presbyterians Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a powerful experience to reconnect with LGBTQ and ally colleagues in ministry and to dream together about what the future of the church looks like beyond just queer inclusion. A particular highlight of the weekend for me was staying with a good friend who is also a bisexual Presbyterian working in ministry. We met several years ago at a retreat for emerging LGBTQ pastors and quickly bonded over our common sexual identity. Even within our close knit queer Presbyterian community, there are only a handful of us who identify as bi and I have come to really appreciate the solidarity I share with them.
On the first night of this weekend’s conference, a group of us from that LGBTQ retreat community went out for drinks to catch up and swap stories. At the end of the night, only my bisexual friend and I remained. We talked about our struggles and triumphs in ministry, the challenges of navigating queer advocacy in the church, and frustrations and celebrations in our personal lives. At no point did we explicitly venture onto the topic of our bisexuality, and yet each of us kept using it as a reference point. “You know, it’s kind of like being bi . . .” one of us would say, and the other would nod emphatically. It reminded me that my bisexuality isn’t just about whom I’m attracted to—it’s an integral part of the way I see and encounter the world. In my ministry, being bisexual has presented some unique challenges, but it has also been a blessing that helps me to be a better pastor.
In the spirit of Bi Visibility Day this Wednesday, September 23rd, I lift up some of the struggles I encounter as a bisexual minister and why, ultimately, I believe it is a gift.
No one looks at me and says, “She’s bisexual.” When I’m dating a man, I’m assumed to be straight. When I’m dating a woman, I’m assumed to be gay. I may also be presumed one way or the other based on how I dress, but I am unlikely ever to be recognized as bisexual without explicitly stating it. I want my congregation to know me, and that includes my sexual identity and its role in my relationship with God. I find myself awkwardly inserting references to my bisexuality in conversation and occasionally in sermons. I want others who are bi to know that there is space for them, but it is a constant struggle to make that clear in a system whose structure insists we don’t exist. I often fear being called out for constantly pushing my agenda in such explicit ways, but the truth is that the only way to be inclusive of bisexuals is to be explicit in naming us.
There are a lot of myths and stigmas projected onto the queer community (especially by religious entities) that suggest we are problematically and pathologically hypersexual. However, no single subset of the LGBTQ umbrella seems to earn this reputation quite like the bisexual community. Heterosexist rationalizations for our sexuality propose that we are too greedy and sex-obsessed to be satisfied with only one gender. Popular assumption presumes that being bisexual invariably means having multiple (even many) partners simultaneously.
In my own ministry life, this tendency to be viewed as hypersexual becomes even more complicated when it gets tangled up in notions of pastoral purity (which is a different thing altogether from sexual ethics). Even now and even in progressive circles, pastors are often held to unrealistic sexual standards or are even desexualized. I fear that my pastoral authority is undermined by faulty assumptions about my bisexuality, while my advocacy for a more liberated and celebrated understanding of human sexuality is undercut by assumptions about my pastoral status.
(3) HOSTILITY FROM ALL SIDES
Bisexual folks often face hostility and discrimination from both straight people and others within the queer community. We’re seen as being undecided or tricky or just pretending to be queer. As a bisexual pastor, I am caught in this crossfire. Every time I speak openly about my identity and experience, I face potential backlash from every broader community of which I am a part. Since being an out bisexual pastor has also placed me in a particular position of advocacy, I have been accused of “only being gay when it’s convenient.” I fear that other queer people think I am not queer enough, and that straight people think I am just trying to be edgy and subversive. It’s hard to be in the work of building an inclusive community when you never feel fully included yourself.
When the shiny excitement of being “one of only a few openly bisexual pastors” wore off, I found that this in reality was actually pretty isolating. Ministry is lonely work. I believe it is even lonelier when you’re single and don’t have a partner to walk beside you. To that, add the struggles of being bi. On days when I am questioning myself and my place in this work, it is hard to know where to turn. I have come to rely on the solidarity and empathy of bisexual colleagues I know in other places. Still, it is exhausting to walk this road on my own. Helping others to know that they are never alone is a huge part of my call, but I struggle with feeling that way myself.
(5) THE GIFT OF IT ALL
For all the struggles I encounter in being a bisexual pastor, I don’t wish that I were any different. My sexual identity is profoundly connected to my call, and I think it has equipped me in special ways for ministry. Bisexuality is a slippery identity full of nuance. It took me over a decade to fully come out. Some days I am amazed to find that I have arrived at a place where I feel comfortable in my identity.
That long journey has informed the way I see the world and other people. It has taught me to know deeply that what you see of someone is rarely the full story. It has taught me to appreciate the nuances and complexities of every person and every relationship. And it’s taught me that our stories are constantly unfolding. Listening to them and living into them requires patience, courage, and community. I believe that these are divine truths—they are testaments to the love, care, and intention through which God created us. I’m happy and grateful that my life reflects that truth and that my work is to share it with the world.
Layton E. Williams is a teaching elder currently serving as the pastoral resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Her ministry focuses on young adults, adult education, and a jazz worship service.