By Brent Dorian Carpenter
Rev. John Selders is not at all confused about his sexual orientation. He likes women so much, he married one. And he also likes men. Sounds simple enough, right?
Sexuality is not the only arena where Selders has his hands in more than one cookie jar. Like most activists in these troubling times, his cup overfloweth. In addition to pastoring at Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut, he is a lecturer and instructor at Yale University, supervisor at Yale’s Ministry Department, and operates an HIV housing collaborative. He was in town recently as a workshop facilitator at the Together In Faith Conference at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. The topic: “Perspectives from a Bisexual Person of Color.”
“I do have a concern about the presence of the ‘B’ and ‘T’ in the LGBT movement,” he said. “We are lodged in the struggle for dualism – either/or, right/wrong, left/right – and ignoring the possibilities of the middle. And I think the ‘B’ and the ‘T’ provide for the middle and intersects folks, provides a way in which we can access the middleness, the middle ground of our lives – the spaces and places where we are not either/or. And that’s not necessarily a space of confusion. It’s a space sometimes of ambivalence and sometimes choice.”
Such ambivalence is the subject of much heated debate in recent days. In speaking of the invisibility of the bisexual component of the black gay community – the so-called “down low brothers,” he stated, “Lots of people have lots of things to say about it, but I’ll say this: What I’m feeling right now is that DL is a phenomenon that we’ve got to recognize that is a viable one that needs to come to the surface, and some of us who are willing must begin to become articulate. We must risk being alienated from a context and a community to talk about the phenomenon on the real.”
Selders finds himself in a rather unique and interesting situation. He has been married monogamously just over two decades, but is open with his wife and children, a 17-year old daughter and 9-year old son, about his bisexuality. How does that work?
“It works very clearly,” he said. “I am a bisexual man. I know who I am, and who I’m married to doesn’t define who I am exclusively. I articulate and self-identify to give honor and respect to the same-gender-loving relationships that I’ve had throughout my life. I am not ashamed of those relationships. I am not going to somehow bury them in the DL mode. It is my way of paying homage that I love and will continue to love who I love. I just happen to have fallen in love with a wonderful woman. It doesn’t impact my children at all. They all know me as their daddy.”
No confusion there. Nor, surpisingly, is there any to be found in his fully accepting church, which has roughly 1.6 million followers in 6,000 congregations in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Islands, is very gay-friendly.
“We are a united and uniting church that speaks to that which calls us together,” Selders said. “The church was pushed. This denomination is the denomination that supported [former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador] Andy Young, who is a member of the United Church of Christ. His place within the context of the larger civil rights movement came from the United Church of Christ. We paid to support the SCLC and the movement. Ben Shavers and the Wilmington 10 were supporters. Millions of dollars were spent in the Legal Defense Fund supported by the United Church of Christ. We’ve been quietly a part of lots of movements. In 1972 we were just responding to the same thing. An openly gay man became the first person ordained in our denomination, which led to our denomination taking the stand to ordain openly gay and lesbian folk.
“I’m third generation clergy,” he said. “My grandfather is a bishop in the Church of God and Christ. My father was a Pentecostal preacher and pastor and I assumed the familiy business. My dad and I were tight. He and I talked about everything. I was, for him, a confidante, and he was, for me, a mentor and teacher. He was my best cheerleader and worst critic all in the same breath.”
His father’s unconditional love is evident in his participation in a documentary entitled “Bisexual,” which features three bisexual UCC clergy who are joined by supportive family members.
“The United Church of Christ decided to do a kind of ‘Bisexual 101.’ It’s formatted for a half-hour TV presentation to open up the conversation around bisexuality in general. We tell our stories – all very different, very diverse – and yet, all under the rubric of self-defined bisexuals.
“My father passed right before the completion of the documentary,” he said. “He was asking, in fact, if they had finished it, and I said, ‘No, I’ve seen a rough cut, but that’s not the final cut, and I’ll get you one as soon as they finish.’ And he passed. And so, several months later, the filmmakers sent me a package – the rough footage of the two-and-a-half hour interview of my dad and my mother, as well, in a separate interview. One of the things that was helpful and moving for me was to hear my dad speak of me and speak of his love for me.”
Selders’ conviction, when the subject inevitably turns to equal marriage, is clear; he feels he should have the same right to marry a man had he chosen to do so.
“What’s very close to my heart right now is the response of the African American church and clergy in relationship to this conversation, and the seemingly mean-spiritedness edging toward hate that we’re [blacks] representing. And that I don’t understand at all, being people who, up until 1967 in the Virginia v. Loving Case that came before the Supreme Court, only got the right to marry who we wanted to marry and have that affirmed by the Supreme Court within my lifetime. How could we, who have suffered so much bigotry, so much hatred because of race and ethnicity, discriminate against another group of people, or stand with any other group of people against people who are being discriminated against?
“We’re in a moment. I don’t know where we are. I know what my position is, what my feelings are, and I know we are beginning this public dialogue, and what I can say is that’s not bad that we’re having it. If you’re asking would I have wanted to have this conversation, the answer would be, ‘Hell, no!’ – for any number of reasons. Here I am again feeling like I’ve been dragged into a conversation, dragged into a process that wasn’t forwarded by me and the people like me. This wasn’t an issue for black peoples, and black gay peoples in particular. This wasn’t our issue. Let’s be clear – we weren’t even trying to do this. Now that it’s here, let’s talk about it.
“But we need to talk about other things, as well,” he stressed. “We’ve got brothers in jail, we’ve got this ‘Welfare to Work’ and all this crazy legislation, we have this war. There are some other things I’d like to be spending my time on to be honest. And yet here it is, here’s the moment.”