Bisexuality’s supposed ease: another letter to Dan Savage

April 6’s post, taking to task the warping of a two-syllable mumble by Tom Daley, did quite well. Those who shared it included Dan Savage at the Stranger, who’d joined the chorus hailing him as a former fake bisexual.

‘Daley will never have a sexual relationship with a woman again,’ Andrew Sullivan had written months before, ‘because his assertion that he still fancies girls is a classic bridging mechanism to ease the transition to his real sexual identity. I know this because I did it too.’ Gay press outlets, agreeing, waited on tenterhooks for evidence of this – jumping the gun by claiming victory when a quiz show host told the diver ‘You’re a gay man now’ and got this answer.

Assuming bi-identifying men are gay then saying they cast doubt on ‘real bisexuals’ is a common if circular tendency. Teenage boys in particular are often accused, to use Owen Jones’ words in this week’s Guardian, of ‘coming out as bisexual (fuelling a sense of “bi now, gay later”, much to the annoyance of genuine bisexuals), hoping that having one foot in the straight camp might preserve a sense of normality.’

Savage, having written rather often of ‘transitional’ bisexuality in youth, agrees. Discussing his own for Sullivan’s website The Dish, he states that when ‘you meet some somebody who’s fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, and they tell you that they’re bi, a little voice in the back of your head goes “Yeah, so was I.” You don’t think that out loud, but you think it. And I don’t think you can help it. And it’s not the fault of bisexuals that you think that, it’s the fault of people who were not bisexuals who said that they were’.

Frightened young gays, we’re told, call themselves bi to escape homophobia, restrained by fear and circumstance from just telling the truth. This isn’t fiction, but nor is it the whole story. While many gay men describe such a past, what was funniest about Daley’s non-statement was how clear a case it was of the opposite pressure – an instance where most bi folk would find accuracy near-impossible.

I’ll let Dan Savage in on a secret here: bisexuals call themselves gay all the time – or at least, allow people to call them gay. It’s often difficult not to. Like several others, Savage claimed Daley’s response to being named a gay man ‘sounded like an “I am”’ (judge for yourself), adding that if the host was wrong, ‘you would think Daley would’ve corrected him’.

While I don’t want to say he definitely is bisexual, it’s easy for me to see why, if so, he didn’t. Correcting people on your sexuality is awkward, especially in a lighthearted context; especially when their mistake (in this case a popular catchphrase) was also a joke; especially on national TV. Providing corrections, details and explanations each time we’re mislabelled can moreover be emotionally exhausting.

When I asked bisexual Twitter users if they ever went by ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, or let others describe them thus, many said things to this effect: ‘Sometimes [I’m] not comfortable trying to explain’; ‘I don’t have [the] energy’; ‘it can at times be simpler’; ‘I often just lack the moral energy to correct them; I am often guilty of failing to’; ‘if I can’t be bothered to have the conversation explaining myself to the person I’ll just go along with it.

Why, asks Savage, wouldn’t Daley correct someone calling him gay if this was false? Perhaps, as is an everyday occurrence for bisexuals, he didn’t feel like it.

Others blur categories for practicality. ‘Bi,’ Charley Hasted says when asked if they’re gay, ‘but yeah.’ (‘I know what they mean, but people are bad at accuracy.’) ‘If I’ve just said “Hey, that’s kinda homophobic”’, AutistLiam told me, ‘and someone says “Are you gay or what?”, I’ll say “Yeah, I am”.’

Sometimes it’s about hostility. Pseudonymous user TTE reports, ‘When I first came out and all I wanted was the woman I was in love with . . . she and her friends were very keen on letting me know bi women weren’t welcome.’ ‘I clarify that I’m attracted to more than one gender or just tell them I’m bisexual’, Laurel May adds, ‘and prepare to roll my eyes at their biphobia’.

Especially for women, keeping bisexuality quiet can be convenient. Valen mentions doing so ‘When dealing with friends’ jealous significant others… “Oh, don’t worry, she’s gay.”’ Charlie Edge comments, ‘I only ever call myself a lesbian to deter unwanted advances from hetero dudes’. Greta Christina likewise uses the term ‘to fend off straight guys hitting on me if I don’t feel like having the whole conversation and saying “I’m bisexual – I just want you to piss off”.

Finally, ‘gay’ has extra political or individual use for some of us. MxsQueen is ‘trying to reclaim an older usage from before everything got so differentiated’; Tyler Ford, speaking of their personality, states ‘I call myself “gay” sometimes but it’s because regardless of the gender of the person I’m with, I’m really gay.’ ‘In the nineties,’ remembers Pyra, ‘there was a panel discussion at a local university. After introduction as a lesbian, I didn’t correct them. . . . For the sake of just being a woman on the panel, and to expose some very uptight Catholic students to the idea, I didn’t feel it was bad.’ KitsuneKuro, a ‘[gender-]nonbinary person currently in a relationship that’s read as heterosexual’, says ‘I refer to myself as gay despite actually being pi/pan as a sort of reminder that I’m not straight and absolutely not a woman.’

I’ve been called gay by family and friends, on national radio and in nationwide papers. Usually I complain, but not always, and I’m fussier than most bi people I know. Some – mostly men attracted mainly, but not solely, to other men – have switched permanently to the gay label. Statistics tell a similar story. Bisexuals are dramatically more numerous in LGB populations than appearances imply (an outright majority, several studies suggest) because we frequently call ourselves something else.

From 12 to my early years at university, I went with ‘gay’. It wasn’t a lie, or meaningfully ‘wrong’, nor was there a bisexual eureka moment. ‘Gay’ was the way to interpret my attractions that made most sense and felt most useful as a label… until my thoughts changed, and it didn’t. I’ve used nonbinary labels now for several years – most recently, ‘bisexual’ – and as such, gay was to me exactly what bi is called much of the time: a temporary, adolescent bridging phase.

What’s clear to me is that since switching teams, I haven’t regained ‘a sense a normality’; I eminently don’t have ‘one foot in the straight camp’. Being bi four or five years has been emphatically harder than being gay seven or eight – because of all the enmity and erasure above, and because I’ve experienced just as much homophobia. I’m less gay than I was, but no less queer: straight men across the street harassing me have not, for some reason, discovered I’m bisexual and politely quietened down.

When I read authors like Sullivan and Savage say we ‘real bisexuals’ are dismissed because of those people who claim they’re bi for an easier life, I want to say it isn’t all that simple: that being bi is far more difficult for me and countless others than being gay ever was. (I wonder, actually, if some drop the pretence partly because it no longer seems worth it.) And then I want to tell them two can play at that game.

We know that ‘true’ bisexuals are extremely numerous – at least as much so as gay men – however many ‘fakes’ there are. How does Savage presume to tell who is and isn’t an impostor, and who made him the judge to start with? The truth is denialism doesn’t discriminate: it’s used against everyone who says they’re bi, especially among young men. If gay and straight teenagers can be believed, why can’t bisexual ones?

Yes, gay men sometimes call themselves bi – but systematically, at least as many bi people call themselves gay. Per Savage’s logic, it would be totally valid for us to treat gays, teenage and otherwise, as bisexuals in disguise; to feel a pressing, overpowering need to question the identity or truthfulness of those we meet, telling them ‘So were we, at that age’; ‘This is classic bridge-building’; ‘We know, because we did it too.’

I don’t get that urge, because I’m capable of seeing my narrative isn’t everyone’s – of detaching my experience from any given stranger’s. Also, because I don’t know their inner thoughts better than they do. Also, because when people express preferences about how their sexuality is labelled (the same as ones about their name or pronouns), respecting them is just effing polite.

I consulted dozens of bi people for this post; I know and interact with dozens more; I’ve read and followed the work of still dozens more for years. I’ve yet to encounter the anger ‘genuine bisexuals’ feel, according to gay men, at those who borrow our label because it helps them feel safe. Being constantly expected to prove it legitimate ourselves, often resorting to using other ones, we’re unlikely as a community to want anybody stripped of labels (pretend or not) that help them through the night.

As Marius Pieterse says, there’s ‘Nothing wrong with stopping over in bi-town on the way to gayville. Many stop over on the way back too. More still stay.’ Tourists from gayville and straightbury alike, indeed, can regularly be found visiting. All are welcome: mistrust of our identity is fuelled by biphobia, not by this, and gay men who propagate it, Savage included, should take responsibility.

If you’re unable to recognise that other queer lives may not mirror yours; if you can’t take people at their word on things that only they can know about; if you can’t avoid treating them like they need to prove to you their sexuality is what they say – all favours bi people do gay people – this is your fault. The problem isn’t ‘fake bisexuals’ casting doubt on them: your doubt is your choice, and the problem is you.

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