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Sep 06 2013

How not to write about bisexuality

Earlier this year, I appeared in a small segment of English radio presenter Jeremy Vine’s discussion programme. Researchers contacted me after reading my blog; the studio guest was Julie Bindel, beloved bête noire of trans* people and bisexuals, and the topic was something like ‘Do all gay people want gay marriage?’ Most other phone-in guests sidestepped all relevant critique of the gay marriage project with worn-out euphemisms like ‘We have equality!’ and ‘We don’t personally want to get married’ – during prep, I felt my contribution being pushed in that direction, and my sense was guests were being sought who could be used to validate conservative heel-digging on the issue. (The segment no longer seems to be online, but I think I did a good job nonetheless.)

What really pissed me off, and has irked me since, was my introduction. Before going live, I’d given my handler a brief self-description on request, stating I wrote on ‘queer left politics’ and lived in Oxford; since I’m not gay, being interested in men, women and everyone between and beyond, I asked specifically not to be glossed as such. The researcher in question took helpful note of this, double-checking the description I’d provided and that point of emphasis; another producer, before placing me on the line, went through these details one last time to triple-check with me. I appreciated this. You’ll understand my annoyance then when, welcoming me to the programme, Jeremy Vine announced the studio was being joined by Alex Gabriel, a writer on ‘gay left politics’.

Never mind that ‘gay left’ isn’t even a recognised political identity; never mind that Vine’s researchers, paid to compile accurate biographies for guests, had checked three times the text in front of him was correct: I’m queer. That’s my sexual identity, the way somebody else’s might be lesbian or straight. I don’t particularly call myself ‘bisexual’, but I can live with having the word applied to me; I can’t live with being described as gay – on national radio, no less – when I’ve specifically said I’m not. (If you think, by the way, that ‘gay’ is an acceptable umbrella term for everyone in the LGBT+ population – why, actually? Would you use ‘transgender’ or ‘lesbian’ that way?)

This isn’t like someone straight being termed gay accidentally; it isn’t quite like someone gay being termed straight. Calling me gay helps spread the myth everybody’s one or the other - it promotes erasure of everyone whose sexuality’s not binary. That erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all. (In fact, she was.)

It’s the reason magazines like Attitude hire non-bisexual columnists like Iain Dale to write about bisexuality. Often, and Dale is no exception, they do it badly.

‘Inside the mind of every bisexual’ writes Dale, whose radio show I was also on a medium-to-long time ago, ‘is a gay man struggling to get out. At least, that’s the view of many. It’s a widely held view that bisexuals are people who either want the best of both worlds, or, who are still too scared to embrace their inner gayness because they are on hold in some sort of mid-way sexuality transit lounge.’ It’s also a widely held view God created the world in the last 10,000 years; it’s a widely held view humans aren’t causing climate change; it’s a widely held view benefit fraud is soaring, as compared with an actual fraud rate of 0.7 percent. Plenty of widely held views are false, including those Dale voices, his couching them in such terms notwithstanding: the specific idea bisexuals (all seemingly men) are greedy and opportunistic, for instance, or gay and in denial. I’ve no desire at all, personally, for ‘the best of both worlds’: I choose in practice to see men primarily because I dislike having straight partners, prefer the distinct texture of gay relationships and feel drawn to partnering conventions – polyamory, for example – less widespread in straight society; thanks to bisexual invisibility, moreover, I’d already identified for years as gay (sincerely and quite happily, I might add) when I became aware of an interest in women.

It’s mildly ironic, given how many of the above ‘widely held views’ inform their platform and the party’s overtly queerphobic record, that Dale calls UKIP ‘the bisexuals of British politics’ at ConservativeHome. ‘They don’t quite know whether they are Arthur or Martha’, he says. ‘Instinctively they are still Conservatives, but they fancy a walk on the wild side. The question is, once they have satisfied their self-indulgent desires or perversions, will they return to the comforting fleshy folds of the mother party?’ Adultery, at which the final words here hint, would surely be more analogous to Tory voters’ fling with UKIP – but in any case, we are not swing voters. We do not move, as swing voters do, between being gay and straight, nor are we part gay, part straight. Our identities are self-sufficient, self-contained and whole, not just composites of other people’s. Dale’s metaphor fails even on its own terms: rather than oscillating between sides in a two-party system many find dated, UKIP exists outside and beyond it – bisexuality, likewise, exists outside and beyond, rather than within, the gay-straight binary. (Gender, regarding the Arthur/Martha line, is incidentally not binary either.)

The Attitude piece was prompted, it seems, by Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski’s coming out as bisexual this June. ‘To his utter astonishment,’ writes Dale, ‘the thirty people present rose as one and gave him a standing ovation. I wondered at the time whether they would have done that if he had said he was gay.’ The author asserts ‘genuine’ bisexuals are rare, since ‘a true bisexual is someone who… doesn’t have a particular preference on way or the other’ (this applies to almost no one bisexual) and ‘experimentation does not a bisexual make’. ‘Simon Hughes may or may not be one of them,’ he continues, ‘but the Liberal Democrat deputy leader seems to be a politician who can’t quite seem to get out of the transit lounge. Should we blame him for that, should gay men criticise him because he can’t bring himself to admit what most people assume he is – gay?

‘…Daniel Kawczynski will feel a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Yes, he will be the subject of gossip at Westminster, but that goes with the territory. There will be members of his family, long term friends who feel let down by the fact that he hasn’t been honest with them. But in the end they will realise that for people of a certain age, these things are incredibly difficult.’

It’s unclear what ‘he hasn’t been honest with them’ means: is Dale saying Kawczynski lied to his family about being straight, or about being bisexual? The perfect tense (compare: ‘hadn’t been honest’, ‘wasn’t honest’) suggests the latter, especially in view of his comments toward Hughes. ‘Experimentation’ is the byword of non-normative sexualities’ dismissal and erasure, but it’s true no specific sexual act makes a bisexual; all that makes someone bisexual, and all we need consider when taxonomising them, is that they identify that way. There is, as Dale himself concedes, no fixed ratio of interest in men and women which makes that identity permissible; ‘gay’, ‘straight’ and ‘bisexual’ are arbitrary, amorphous things we use reflexively however suits us, not objective diagnostics like ‘HIV positive’ or ‘allergic to wasps’. There’s certainly reason to question, therefore, how much people’s identities actually tell us – but not to police or regulate who uses which.

Were I in Kawczynski’s position today, such innuendo wouldn’t please me: the last thing anyone needs on coming out, particularly as bisexual, is conjecture about whether or not they’re really what they say – as if anyone held empirical scales on which to measure this. (Having come out as gay at 12, I saw years of similar invalidation – and the fact my identity’s since changed doesn’t mean that one was incorrect at the time.) In my own position, reading Dale’s piece was uncomfortable. Yes, there’s often overlap between gay and bi men, but that’s perfectly fine: we all get to understand and articulate our orientation how we want.

Iain: you asked people on Twitter what part of what you’d said was wrong. I hope this post answers your question.

Attitude: if you care about bisexuals, this is not the kind of commentary you should publish.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy

    Thank you for this.

  2. 2
    Iaindale Westham

    Alex, A thought provoking and challenging piece. What you don’t point out is that the UKIp piece today was in a diary column and wasn’t remotely meant to be a serious piece of analysis. What you can fairly accuse me of is wording things in appropriately in both pieces you quote. I can accept that now. I am now remotely bi-phobic which is what I have been accused on on twitter – not by you, I hasten to add. I have been nominated as broadcaster of the year by Stonewall for breaking down prejudice on my LBC radio show. Talk to people in the transgender community and they will tell you of the programmes I have done on trans issues to promote wider understanding. Perhaps I should do something on bisexuality!

  3. 3
    Alex Gabriel

    Thanks Iain. I appreciate that response.

    I never thought you were a biphobe, no – the issue was just what you were saying and its implications. (I would point out though that Stonewall have given awards to all sorts of less-than-loved people, Julie Bindel among them, so I’m not sure how much of an accolade that is!) I’d certainly welcome a programme on bisexuality from you, and could recommend some excellent people to take part.

  4. 4
    A. Noyd

    ‘Inside the mind of every bisexual’ writes Dale, whose radio show I was also on a medium-to-long time ago, ‘is a gay man struggling to get out.

    Yes, bisexual women owe their love of poon to an inner gay man. That makes total sense. :eyeroll:

    Also, I’m scornful of attempts to explain sexuality with a model that only acknowledges gay, straight and exactly halfway between. I’m asexual/aromantic myself but if I wasn’t, I know I’d be bi or pan. There’s definitely no room for me in such simplified models, which makes those models wrong.

  5. 5
    Alex Gabriel

    I will say that when I’m with a woman, I feel like a total lesbian.

  6. 6
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    (Having come out as gay at 12, I saw years of similar invalidation – and the fact my identity’s since changed doesn’t mean that one was incorrect at the time.)

    WORD.

    I loved this entire post; thank you for sharing it. Though I’m not a bisexual guy, I really relate to what you’re talking about. It’s something I’ve struggled with, am struggling with, quite a bit.

    When I came out, I was fourteen. I said I was a lesbian, I believed I was a lesbian. I wasn’t attracted to boys at all, never had been. I loved girls, deeply loved one girl in particular, in a way that i realized went beyond friendship. (It took me a while to identify what was going on, because I was a very sheltered, homeschooled, conservative Christian kid. I’d caught, like, ten minutes of an Oprah program while in a waiting room–we normally weren’t allowed to watch talk shows–where she was talking about intersex kids, girls with excess testosterone, etc. For a while, I honestly thought that had to be what was wrong with me, that the reason I liked girls and didn’t like boys was because I had too much testosterone or something.)

    Anyway, after I came out, my parents made me see an ex-gay therapist. And she tried and tried to find the “reason” why I was gay. (You ever see “But I’m A Cheerleader!”? It’s a silly comedy, sure, and totally exaggerated–but pretty much dead on in some places.) Your mom is distant, and you’re searching for a mother’s love! Nope, my Mom and I are really close. Oh, your mom is smothering and overbearing, keeping you from being able to bond with your father and transfer your affections to the masculine! Uh, no, we’re close, but she also works a lot and I have a lot of autonomy. Also, my father and I have a strong bond and similar interests that we enjoy together. I swear, she was almost giddy with joy when she found out I had been molested. After that, it was all she wanted to talk about–and I quickly staged a full-on rebellion and refused to see her anymore.

    But that assumption still lasted: I was a lesbian because I had been abused. (Well. It was better than the therapist who thought I might be a lesbian because I was really fat. And lesbians don’t have a problem dating fat girls. She wondered, had I ever thought about dating Black or Hispanic men? I, uh, only saw her the once.) Over the years, many people have linked the two, being abused and being lesbian, especially as I became more open about what I’d experienced. And I hated that assumption. I hated the thought that something so integral to my being, my very sexuality, could be altered and–in their minds–broken by what I’d experienced. Now, there are a lot of reasons I don’t think that’s what happened, but I often feel like I have to defend my sexual orientation, that it’s real and valid, even with people you’d think would know better.

    That would be enough, but over the last couple years, I’ve started learning more about asexuality. I never really understood what asexuality meant. It certainly wasn’t a term I ever encountered growing up. And the more I read, the more I lurked around asexual blogs and forums, the more I’ve started to realize that I’m probably asexual. It just clicks, you know? I’ve never had the urge to be sexual.

    But it’s hard for me to identify that way, because I’m still attracted to women. (I know there are romantic asexuals, which would be where I’d fit in.) I love the lesbian community, the history, the energy. I don’t want to lose that.

    And the few people I’ve talked to about it all say that it’s just because I was raped. Because I was abused. Even thought I didn’t have a sex drive as a teenager. Even though I’m a 27 year old virgin (sorry, I don’t “count” being raped, though I’ve been told that’s irrational and dishonest of me–fuck that, it’s my body, and my decision), and I have no urge to change that status. I suppose if I met someone I really loved, and who really wanted to have sex, I’d give it a try, but it’s not something I’m looking for, you know? But once again, I HATE HATE HATE the automatic assumption, from fucking everyone I’ve told, that it’s because I’m damaged. That it’s something unhealthy I need to fix. More reparative therapy.

    I hate the idea that the man who raped me continues to have that much power over me. That he controls my sexuality, even now. That he broke something so fundamental to who I am.

    Okay, I’ll stop talking. Sorry, your post just brought up a lot of feels for me, stuff I’ve been churning over and over. I don’t have a good answer yet, at all, as you can tell. ;)

    Thank you, Alex. I’m really enjoying your blog and I’m thrilled you’re here at FTB!

  7. 7
    Alex Gabriel

    No problem Erin. How would you feel about this comment being uploaded as a guest post? Also, I was reminded of this piece at The New Inquiry. (As to your screen name, it’s ‘formerly’.)

  8. 8
    A. Noyd

    Erin (#6)

    I hate the idea that the man who raped me continues to have that much power over me. That he controls my sexuality, even now. That he broke something so fundamental to who I am.

    I was never raped or molested, and I still get people assuming that I was the second I tell them I’m asexual. (And they’re so damn inappropriate in their demands to know what was done to me! I dunno how actual survivors deal with that insensitivity.) If I assert over and over that nothing happened, it only makes them all the more certain that I was abused. It’s as if I’ve been issued a phantom molester/rapist to follow me around and control my sexuality because the world can’t fathom asexuality outside of that narrative. I’m sorry you have to deal with that and with being a survivor.

  9. 9
    Pen

    I’ve noticed something similar to this with trans/cis identity. Somewhere buried in the theory there’s space for gender-neutral people but getting anyone to recognize it in practice is an uphill struggle through a thicket of remarks to the tune of ‘you just don’t realize you’re cis because your body and identity are so in harmony’. Ugh!

  10. 10
    Iaindale Westham

    A Noyd, you missed a few words off the beginning of that quote: “Some people think that…”

    Puts it into a slightly different context, doesn’t it!

  11. 11
    whiskeyjack

    Erin (formerly–formally?– known as EEB):

    She wondered, had I ever thought about dating Black or Hispanic men? I, uh, only saw her the once.)

    I am sorry. Very, very sorry.

    But I laughed out loud at this. What a… I don’t even know the right way to describe it. “Dummy” doesn’t seem to do it justice. “Well-meaning idiot with a pet theory to prove” comes closer.

    Also, +100 internet points for “But I’m a Cheerleader!” That movie was amazing.

    Pen:

    “I’ve noticed something similar to this with trans/cis identity. Somewhere buried in the theory there’s space for gender-neutral people but getting anyone to recognize it in practice is an uphill struggle through a thicket of remarks to the tune of ‘you just don’t realize you’re cis because your body and identity are so in harmony’. Ugh!

    I get this. See, I’d been familiar with the idea of transexuality for years and years before I heard the term, “cis”. Because I’d never identified as trans, my first thought at hearing “cis” was, “Oh, okay, so I guess that’s what I am.” Then it’s like my thoughts hit a brick wall. No, I am *not* cis. I reject it even more strongly than I reject trans. But this is hard to explain to a lot of my trans friends (I understand why the asterisk is there now) and it makes me feel kinda crappy sometimes.

    I dunno. I do think there is a vast, silent majority out there who don’t fit the binary but who, like me, never really realized it until this discussion started happening all around us. Or who aren’t self-aware or self-confident enough to admit it.

  12. 12
    A. Noyd

    Iandale Westham (#10)

    A Noyd, you missed a few words off the beginning of that quote: “Some people think that…”

    Puts it into a slightly different context, doesn’t it!

    Uh…? Am I missing something? Your article begins with the “Inside the mind…” line. Do you mean the line after that where you play lazy journalistic deniability games by writing, “At least, that’s the view of many”? Where you then not only fail to criticize the massive idiocy of such a view but help lend it credibility by adding idiotic opinions of your own, such as, “I suppose a true bisexual is someone who is at 50 on that scale and doesn’t have a particular preference one way or the other”?

    There’s no context that changes the idiocy of the first quote. But if you’re worried people might think you feel that way yourself (which I never assumed), there are better, far more responsible options for distancing yourself. Like, next time maybe give up journalistic “neutrality” (which ain’t neutral when you’re ignorant of what you’re writing about) for fairness and accuracy.

    I mean, think what a service journalists would be doing if fewer of them tried to present gay conversion therapy or climate change denialism or the efficacy of homeopathy as you’ve presented the “view of many.” By all means, say that’s what many people think, but do the right thing after that and say that those people are wrong.

  13. 13
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    @ Alex Gabriel #7

    Sorry it took me a couple days to respond. This is the first time I’ve had time to get back to FtB in a couple days.

    How would you feel about this comment being uploaded as a guest post?

    Um. If you’re still interested, that would be fine. Thank you for asking.

    Also, I was reminded of this piece at The New Inquiry.

    ouch. Thank you for sharing. I…huh. I’m still processing that, I think. I don’t quite know how I feel. But I am glad I read it. Yeah, I’m gonna have to stew for a couple days before I even now how to respond. (That may become a blog post of my own. We’ll see.)

    In a similar vein, I read an article a few years ago in Bitch that I thought was wonderful: The Collapsible Woman.

    (As to your screen name, it’s ‘formerly’.)

    Yeah…that’s kinda the joke…’cause first I typed “formally” and then I realized it was wrong…but I have sorta formally been going by “EEB” on FtB from the very beginning (before people showing up on my facebook page made me realize a ‘nym was pretty pointless)…so it was wrong, but sorta not, and I thought it was kinda funny…and yeah, when you have to explain the joke, it’s obviously not funny at all. ::blush::

  1. 14
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    […] Ashley, I don’t describe foremost call myself bisexual (adjective), though I might mention bisexuality (noun) being part of me. It’s not my view that sexuality in essential terms is what we are, but […]

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