About the Book
Title: 119: My Life as a Bisexual Christian
Author: Jaime Sommers
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd
Release Date: April 1, 2017 (US edition); September 29, 2016 (UK edition)
Categories: Bisexual, non-fiction, memoir, Christian
119: the number of words dedicated to bisexuality in the Church of England statement Issues in Human Sexuality. The words state that bisexuality inevitably leads to unfaithfulness, and prescribe celibacy, abstinence, heterosexual marriage or counselling ‘to achieve inner healing’.
As a bisexual Christian woman, happily and faithfully married to a man, a mother of three children and with a blossoming ministry as a preacher, Jaime Sommers had always felt as if her true self did not really exist in the eyes of the Church. She could find neither theology nor pastoral support for a person who felt the need for physical closeness with both sexes in order to feel well or whole.
Following a brief, isolated incident in which Jaime kissed another woman, the full extent of the Church s inability to acknowledge or understand her identity became apparent. The disciplinary process to which she was subjected led to her suffering depression and anxiety and feelings of isolation.
Jaime s powerful and emotive story reveals the failure of the Church and of large parts of wider culture and society to recognise and support the experience and needs of those who identify as the silent B in LGBT.”
When this crossed my desk, I was eager to read it. As the author says, there isn’t much (in terms of non-fiction books) about being a bisexual Christian. Since I use both of those descriptors myself, I was keen to find out how other people reconcile their faith and their sexuality, particularly when many churches and other Christian organizations don’t acknowledge the full range of human expression.
This is a highly personal memoir of Jaime’s experiences, both in her personal life and within the Church (capital C this time, as she was in ministry). I assume she’s fairly close to my age, as despite the cultural differences, we have a number of similar childhood pop-culture memories. This resonated very much with me and immediately put me in her corner.
Similarly resonant is the struggle to conform to the expectations of the church while balancing complex feelings. One way in which a disservice has been done, particularly to bisexual women, is to erase people’s emotional needs. Jamie’s declaration of an intense and dare I say spiritual need for connectivity with people of more than one gender felt like an affirmation.
I love Jaime’s writing style. Despite the serious nature of her narrative, there’s plenty of humor. Much of it reads like tea with a friend. It’s easy to be fully on her side as she shares her memories. Still, she’s clear that she’s telling her story to the best of her ability with her biases intact. She owns her mistakes while also calling out the hypocrisy of the Church in their mishandling of the events. In fact, though the Church deeply wronged her, she still maintains a passionate love for the Church, for its people, and for God. She even holds space for those who failed to do right by her. These are marks of someone with deep faith, a person who exemplifies the very love Christ calls us to. I’m a little bit in awe.
Even though I knew where everything was headed, I honestly kept hoping someone would speak up. That someone would tell Jaime we need her, and others like her, in the church. Because we do. We absolutely must have people who can serve as spiritual mentors and guides but who are also just like us. In a sea of heterosexuality, it’s important that we have ministers of the Gospel who are safe for us.
My hope is that other bisexual Christians will read this, will share it, and will find hope in it. I also hope that many within the Church will read and take these words to heart. Change is needed, and perhaps this is a push in the right direction.
For a bravely shared story, feelings which resonate, and hope for the future of the Church, this gets 10/10 fountain pens.
Today I’m chatting with Jaime Sommers about writing, life, and their current project. Welcome! Let’s talk a little about your new book, 119: My Life as a Bisexual Christian
What inspired you to share your story?
I’ve been aware for some time, having trawled through search engines, that there’s nothing out there, and I mean nothing that speaks to the experience of being bisexual and Christian, at least not in the UK where I’m from. So I wanted to do something about that, by writing an autobiographical and reflective piece for all those bisexual Christians out there, struggling to live their lives in a climate that can barely get its head around same-sex attraction, let alone attraction to more than one gender. The title 119 refers to the miniscule 119 words used by the Church of England to describe bisexuality in Issues in Human Sexuality, a booklet that all would-be priests must read prior to ordination training. This contains just one paragraph on bisexuality, compared to around seventeen pages on homosexuality.
Aside from the sexuality/spirituality conflict, I also thought it was important to raise the subject of mental health. Bisexual people make up the largest sector of the LGB community, yet have the highest rates of depression, anxiety and suicide ideation with this cohort. Some of this is to do with the resounding silence on the subject of bisexuality, not just on the part of the monosexual majority, but also on the part of bi folks themselves. If we don’t speak up for ourselves and speak our truth, then we will continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented by people who don’t walk in our shoes.
From a more spiritual perspective, as I outline in the forward to my book, I was inspired by a Stonewall conference in London in 2015 to tell my story. A good friend of mine, a college Chaplain, encouraged me to go for it, and once I started writing, I just couldn’t stop. It was obviously meant to come out! I wrote 66,000 words in just six and a half weeks, it just came pouring out of somewhere deep inside.
What was the hardest part of writing this?
The hardest part was definitely reliving painful events from about five years ago, when I was involved in a nasty biphobic episode at a church my family was worshipping at the time. I had to confront feelings I’d suppressed for some time, as well as rereading emails that I’d kept as documentary evidence of what happened.
Another difficult issue was realizing, with the benefit of hindsight and perspective I guess, that maybe I didn’t handle people or events as well as I could have. I’ve tried to be as honest as I could about that aspect in 119.
How has your life changed since becoming a published author?
Because I have school-age children and a partner, it’s not been possible to write in my own name or identity myself publicly with 119. So perhaps it’s not changed my life externally to the same extent it would somebody with the freedom to write in their own name. However, internally, I do feel a certain degree of catharsis, and an ability to move onto the next stage of my life. The person who first inspired me at Stonewall told me that I’d never leave the past behind unless I told my story, in whatever format that took. He was right. Who knows, maybe there’ll be a sequel, What Jaime Did Next !
If you could take a time machine back 10 years, what would you tell your past self?
I don’t know to what extent things would have been different, to be honest. It’s only been in the last five years or so that it’s been vaguely possible to be open about homosexuality in a church setting, and it’s still not possible to discuss bisexuality. It remains a complete anathema to most church leaders, who rarely take the trouble to try and understand same-sex attraction, let alone sexual or gender fluidity. I think the prevailing socio-cultural conditions for someone who identifies as bi and Christian ten years ago would have still made it very difficult for somebody in my family situation to be open and honest about being bisexual. However much I berate myself for not having been more courageous in the past, we are all a product of the society we live in and it’s not easy to ‘be yourself’ if being yourself involves putting your partner or children in an uncomfortable or risky situation. Added to that, I had responsibility as a trainee church leader for the whole congregation.
How do you hope your writing influences other people?
As I said earlier, it is my deepest prayer that my writing touches all those bisexual Christian people out there suffering in silence. Mental health is a huge issue in our Western culture. I believe one in four British people and one in five Americans suffer from depressive disorders at this point in time. Imagine if 25% of Brits or 20% of Americans were suffering from broken limbs on a daily basis – there would not be shame or silence on the issue. A broken soul is, if anything, a far graver proposition.
Tell us a little about any upcoming projects.
I remain keen and motivated to write about spirituality/sexuality conflict and I also want to write about so-called MOMS, mixed-orientation marriages. I have a number of collaborative projects in the pipeline regarding these subject matters, so you’ll just have to watch this space!