by Lacey Louwagie
Some people tell stories about “always knowing” that they weren't straight. I didn't always know. Part of me really did want the vision that the culture told me I should want—love with a man, traditional marriage, and family. And in the end, that's what I got—sort of. The path wasn't as straightforward as it might seem.
When I first realized I was bisexual, I was sixteen, in love with a man, and having dreams about women that … didn't seem totally straight.
I made a pragmatic decision: despite an attraction toward both women and men, I would only pursue my attractions to men.
It seemed like a great solution—but if it was such a great solution, it shouldn't have plummeted me into depression. Even though bisexuality was mostly “theoretical” then—I hadn't yet fallen in love with a real woman—I was still hating, fearing, and repressing a core part of my identity. It was crushing my soul.
I was deep in my “religious phase” at the time—which was when I gave the most weight to “official” religious authorities—the Pope, the local priest, even (shudder) Focus on the Family. Still, repressing my bisexuality had nothing to do with religion.
I just knew what it meant in our culture not to be straight. I'd heard the words “fag” and “lezzie” hissed contemptuously in the halls of middle school. My classmates freely used “gay” to describe anything from a hard homework assignment to an ugly pair of socks. Gay schoolteachers got fired, and my grandmother stopped watching Ellen once she “came out.” Someone I love even remarked that she “didn't have a problem with people who were gay—but those bisexuals would sleep with anyone.”
I knew in my heart that homosexuality wasn't the sin. Homophobia was.
This was long before I learned about the supremacy the Catholic Church affords one's conscience, long before I learned about the language nuances in the original Bible texts used to condemn homosexuality, long before I knew the brilliant work of Joan Chittister or John Shelby Spong or Elizabeth Johnson. Now intellectual arguments can back my disagreement with the Church, but at the heart of it all, nothing has changed. At the heart of it all is MY heart, and the sureness placed upon it that the Church is wrong.
When I cite primacy of conscience, however, I'm often accused of having a conscience that has been “malformed.”
Yet, my conscience has been formed by Church being part of my weekly rhythm from the time I was born until the day I sit writing this. A conscience formed by seeing the outpouring of joy and love present in communities of American Sisters. A conscience formed by Picture Bibles, rosaries, and my mother holding mine and my sisters' hands as we prayed before bed. A conscience formed sitting on the floor looking for answers in my Catechism, my Bible, and my Christian teen magazines. Even the most fervent, pope-quoting, conservative could hardly argue with a conscience formation like that.
Still, it took six years from my first realization of bisexuality until I could embrace it. It took moving hundreds of miles from the place I grew up, not knowing a soul who would reflect back to me my “straight” identity, and being so lonely that falling in love with anyone was a blessing—suddenly the fact that it was another woman didn't matter so much.
I started making up for lost time. I became active in LGBTQ causes; I wore rainbows, painted my fingernails the colors of the bisexual flag, watched and read queer-themed media, attended pride events, and, yes, came out. I continued to be involved in Catholic activities, including a soul-crushing run with Theology on Tap—a program for young adult Catholics that has at its center the belief that young people won't mind Church teaching being shoved down their throats if it's done in a bar setting. I kept attending weekly Mass, which wasn't soul-crushing because I chose only parishes in which the priest never gave homilies about homosexuality or birth control (my litmus test for priests that are too controlling/sexist).
The Catholic and queer spheres of my life finally converged when I was twenty-six, and brought the woman I loved to Church with me. As I drove us home, she said, “The service was nice.” Then she paused, and continued, “But doesn’t it bother you that you have to say you aren’t worthy?”
Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed. I said quickly, “Well, it’s about humility.” But when I let her question sink in, I admitted, “Yeah, I guess it sort of does bother me.”
For how many times had the feeling of being unworthy weighed upon my shoulders? It began with sermons about why women couldn’t be priests, and continued with the Church’s resistance to gender-inclusive language. It was in the official Church doctrine that called homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered,” with no acknowledgment of the deep love that could manifest in those acts. It was in the papal decree that men who had “homosexual tendencies” should not enter the priesthood and should be weeded out when suspected—side by side with prayers about the priest shortage! It was in pamphlets scattered at Theology on Tap titled, “What the Church Says about Same-sex Marriage,” and petitions at the entrance of the church in support of the “Defense of Marriage Act.” I understood the message from the hierarchy: they didn’t want an unrepentant feminist and openly bisexual woman in their midst. A priest once told me that, “It would be better if everyone who doesn’t agree with the Church’s teachings would leave. It would result in a smaller Church, but a purer one.”
But what would Jesus say about this “purer” Church? I take strength in knowing that Jesus, too, worked within a failing system for social justice. Despite priests who once tried to convince me that women couldn’t be priests because Jesus was a man, I’d noticed something they never mentioned. Jesus had a man's body, but he set a woman's example. Like a woman, he gathered children on His lap when no one else had time for them, and like a woman, He refused to respond to violence with violence. Like a woman, His life was one of thankless service to others. Jesus was a paradigm of androgyny who, like me, loved without distinction for sex or gender.
During the years when a queer identity consumed me, I couldn't imagine spending my life with a man. Despite continued attraction to men—mostly men in books and movies—I hadn't fallen in love with a man since that first one at age sixteen. I didn't think it was possible to find in a man the understanding I got from other women, or to feel as safe with a man as I felt with my circle of female friends.
I've been married to my husband for two months—and for the first time in my life, I forget to lock doors or hide my journal or hold back tears, because I've never felt safer.
When I realized I was falling in love with Ivan, no one was more surprised than me. It had been over ten years since I'd first fallen in love with a man, and over five years since I'd been in love with anyone. (After several years of lackluster dates and forced connections with both women and men, I'd come to believe I'd just “outgrown” falling in love—something a good friend later told me she “knew wasn't true.”) With Ivan, I learned that what I'd been preaching all these years was true—when it came to my ability to love, sex and gender really didn't matter.
Still, to have a relationship with Ivan, I had to learn about a culture that was alien to me—much as I did when I began to explore bisexuality from within a “straight” culture. This time, I was learning what it meant to be a man, and what it meant to love a man. For the first time since my “religious phase,” the Church's teaching about the sexes being “complimentary” resonated with me—although disdain for same-sex love or a belief that same-sex love is “disordered” does NOT have to follow from that teaching. While I previously rejected the teaching outright, now I know that it is just one of many possible manifestations of God's love. I feel fortunate to partake in it—but not at all convinced that it's the only path, or even the only path that would have been right for me. And I still ache over the Church's narrow vision, its inability to bless a definition of love that is as wide as God's reach.
Now that I'm married, I sometimes struggle with the invisibility of my bisexuality. And even though I vowed lifelong fidelity to one man, it's worlds away from the decision I made at sixteen to only “pursue” attractions to men. I won't pursue other attractions to men or to women because I've made a commitment to one person, not because I've “stopped” being bisexual.
We got married during the Easter season, with beautiful rainbow banners hanging behind the altar. Although the church had hung them for its own reasons, seeing them filled me with affirmation—I would bring everything the rainbow had come to mean to me to my marriage. Friends who were at my side through my years of sporting rainbows saw the banners and remembered, too. I was bisexual, I was getting married, and I was whole.
A few weeks ago, Ivan and I visited a new Catholic church in our neighborhood. After the priest gave a homily about “the Church's teaching on homosexuality,” Ivan leaned over and whispered, “When should we leave?”
I don't think I've ever loved him more. Despite growing up in a family that was at odds with the Church on certain teachings, it was also a family that prioritized “getting along.” This was the first time someone was ready to stand up and walk out, both for me and with me. No matter how the rest of the world interprets me, who I really am is seen, known, and loved by those who matter most to me—my friends, my family, my husband—and above all, my God.