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.

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