Faith Communities Have a Special Role to Play in Meeting Needs of Bisexual People

If you Google the question, "Were David and Jonathan in the Bible gay?" you will get hundreds of hits. Some sites, drawing on the scholarship of, among others, John Boswell, an historian of Medieval gay culture who focused in particular on Christianity and homosexuality, assert that the biblical story of King Saul's son Jonathan, who meets David after he has slayed Goliath, is one of homosexual love. Others deride the idea altogether. Few, if any, point out a third possibility: In today's terms, Jonathan and David are men who might best be described as having a bisexual orientation.

Passages from 1 Samuel describe their devotion to one another:

  • "Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul." (18:3)
  • "The souls of Jonathan and David became intertwined, and Jonathan loved David with all his heart." (18:10)
  • "Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life." (20:17)
  • Another -- 2 Samuel 1:26 -- records David's anguish at Jonathan's death: "I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women."

Those who know their Bible stories will remember that David had many wives. The story of Bathsheba, who became David's seventh wife, leaves no doubt that David was attracted to women: "It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David ... sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her." (2 Samuel 11:2-4)

This erasure of the bisexual nature of David's affections is worth contemplating as we mark Bisexual Awareness Day today. Many mainstream denominations and congregations have made significant progress in welcoming and affirming lesbian and gay people. These faith communities have welcomed LGBT people into their congregations and leadership and incorporated the fight for LGBT equality into their social justice work. Some congregations have even begun to respond to the needs and concerns of transgender people. But the "B" in the LGBT acronym is still largely ignored.

This invisibility of bisexuals in many faith communities mirrors their invisibility in society at large. A recent study shows that nearly one-third of Americans under age 30 consider themselves bisexual. In spite of this, and despite the lived experience of many people, there is a widespread belief that bisexuality is not a real orientation. Consider the dustup in July between actress/model Cara Delevingne and Vogue after the magazine ran a story suggesting that Delevingne's bisexuality was a phase: It is evidence of the dismissive - and, ultimately, harmful -- attitudes many take toward bisexuality. In fact, research shows that bisexuality is a distinct orientation. A 2013 Pew Research Center Survey found that 40 percent of those who fall under the LGBT umbrella in the U.S. experience romantic and sexual desires and attractions toward people of different sexes and genders.

The failure of society at large to recognize bisexuals -- much less embrace and welcome them -- exacts a painful toll: That same Pew survey of LGBT people in the U.S. found that just 22 percent of bisexual people said their sexual orientation was a positive factor in their lives, compared with 46 percent of gay men and 38 percent of lesbians. The Pew survey also found that bisexuals are more likely to be closeted than their gay and lesbian peers: just 28 percent of bisexual respondents said they were out to the most important people in their lives, compared with 71 percent of lesbians and 77 percent of gay men. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that research also shows that bisexual people have higher rates of hypertension, poorer physical health and higher rates of smoking and use of alcohol than lesbians, gay men and heterosexuals.

As sanctuaries, spiritual homes and beacons of social justice, faith communities have a particularly important role to play in providing for the spiritual and social needs of bisexual people. We can do this by creating "bisexually healthy congregations" -- those where clergy are educated about bisexuality and provide bi-inclusive pastoral care and preaching, and where bisexuality is explicitly addressed in the church's youth and adult sexuality education.

When a congregation welcomes and recognizes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, it contributes to a positive image of religion among people who may have rejected religion as intolerant or irrelevant. Such congregations become safe spaces for youth who are exploring their sexuality and have questions. Embracing bisexual people also makes it possible for bisexuals to be open about their identity and helps create a more welcoming atmosphere, encouraging authenticity and community among all members.

Whether we are people of faith or not, we all have an obligation to create a world that embraces diversity. Our religious and civic traditions, as well as our common humanity, call us to love our neighbor, to welcome the stranger and to advocate on behalf of those whose voices often go unheard.