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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Westminster’s sordid history of queer sex scandals

In common with most of humanity, I like sex. So, probably, do you. If you don’t like it, and plenty of people don’t, that’s your prerogative and equally dandy – but personally, I like various kinds of it with various people and with various motivations. I’m not a nymphomaniac: it matters less to me than Doctor Who, say, and more than Stargate SG-1 (at least in later, less happy seasons). Certainly, I know I’d rather give up sex than Doctor Who if forced to choose – if you think this makes me pathetic, I think it makes me cool – but broadly speaking it matters to me, and all else being equal, I enjoy sex for its own sake, with enthusiastic partners and at moderate intervals, while not currently craving wedding rings or joint mortgage payments.
Except perhaps the Doctor Who part, nothing here seems unusual to me. Essentially, it’s quite mundane. Try to imagine an MP saying it though, and there’s a fair chance you’ll hit a wall.Ten years ago, as Iraq rocked the second Blair government and Michael Howard oozed as Tory leader, Chris Bryant – Labour MP for the Rhondda and now Shadow Immigration Minister – faced ministerial and press lambasting when photos of him posed provocatively from Gaydar.com surfaced in the papers. Along with the scantily-clad photos, messages including ‘I’d love a good long fuck’ reached Fleet Street, sourced from exchanges with other users. ‘I’m sorry this has happened’, Bryant’s official statement read, its careful wording drenched in je ne regrette rien – after all, what had he to apologise for?

Conspicuously keen as New Labour was to liberalise LGBT laws, it always observed the culture of intense erotic shame specific to legislators, insisting its gay MPs – their sexuality a particular transgression – perform as highly articulate Ken dolls, respectable and pleasant but incapable of fucking. Yesterday, it came to light that Nick Clegg knew about the claims Lord Rennard harassed women; in government however, all sex is a crime. Had Bryant cheated on a partner, exploited an employee or divulged official secrets via pillow talk? Had he pressured or threatened partners into sex with him, or else been violent or verbally abusive? On the contrary, the act which publicly disgraced him at the time and seemed to threaten his career was his pursuit of casual sex. The same sex you, I or anyone we know might seek out unremarkably on Friday night.

Few countries have Great Britain’s rich-veined tradition of high-up sex scandals, and historically gay sex has been more scandalous than most; Westminster had queer debacles, in fact, before it had straight ones. While minister John Profumo’s dalliance in 1963 with Christine Keeler, a sex worker also linked to Soviet agents, is sometimes thought of as Parliament’s first bedroom fiasco, the scandal which kicked off gay politics in Britain occurred almost a decade previously, when the journalist Peter Wildeblood, the peer Lord Montagu and several others were charged with sex offences during time spent at Montagu’s beach hut. Wildeblood’s outing during the trial may have triggered commissioning of the Wolfenden Report, which later recommended relaxation of British laws against gay sex, but the targeting of Montagu was symptomatic of a sexual McCarthyism desperate for high-profile scalps; a few years later, MP Ian Harvey – like Montagu, a Conservative – faced arrest, found cruising in St. James’s Park.

At the same, gay sex remained taboo in any context, yet the witch-hunt for sodomites in the ruling classes stands in evidence of sex itself as an offence among politicians; its motive was to show that if the rot of homosexuality had set in even at Westminster, whose cleaner-than-clean paragons of fluidless virtue made up Britain’s parliament, it seriously must warrant drastic action. Post-legalisation, puritanism remained: during child-free, unmarried Edward Heath’s time as Prime Minister, rumours of his homosexuality persisted – as if anyone not drawn to the established tableau of the married politician with wife and children must be enveloped in sordid and forbidden desires – and two years after Heath’s defeat at Harold Wilson’s hands, claims of past indiscretions with a stable boy forced Jeremy Thorpe, then Liberal Party leader, to resign. What liberated advances in sexual politics we tell ourselves we’ve made rarely if ever reach the Westminster village: choose anything but lifelong, heteronormative monogamy, and your prospects there are shaky.

In the decade since Chris Bryant was so roundly tarred and feathered, not much except his hairstyle seems to have changed (it has, admittedly, made some degree of progress). A mere three years afterwards  two candidates for Liberal Democrat leader were Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes. Though neither won, each managed to succeed Thorpe in at least one way, as both campaigns were scandal-hit within a few days. Hughes, after details reached the press, was forced to come out as bisexual; Oaten, the News of the World made public, had hired a male sex worker for an extended period. That he was cheating on his wife, even with a man, provoked less outrage than the kink-filled threesomes it was claimed Oaten enjoyed – we may have become used, in the age of Edwina Currie and John Prescott, to adulterous parliamentarians here or there, but God forbid they have the wrong kind of sex.

As recently as 2010, Foreign Secretary William Hague alerted the nation to hitherto unnoticed rumours he was gay by publicly denying them at a specially arranged press conference, opting bizarrely to reveal fertility problems which he and his wife had faced – as if the absence from his life of squealing, blue-and-yellow-wearing Coalition babies were more likely to have fed the relevant rumours than his sharing a hotel room with 25-year-old Christopher Myers. (In their cringe-inducing, much-publicised photo together, Hague certainly looked like he shouldn’t be allowed near children, vulnerable adults or effete Italian nail technicians). Like Edward Heath before him, his failure to procreate publicly  – that is, to be wholly traditionally heterosexual – seemed to mark him out as a potentially sexual deviant, at least in his own eyes.

As last century’s Westminster gossip haunts us, the sex scandals of the past shed all too much light on contemporary ones; tell ourselves as we might that attitudes have changed, those tasked with running our society remain captives of a bygone sexual Zeitgeist  compulsively re-enacting the most straitlaced heteronormativity, shamed by queerness, kink or casual encounters. If a lesson here exists, it’s that our politics must be far-reaching: we might accept the legal reforms which Parliament, under electoral pressure, offers us, but our goal should be its liberation as well as ours from puritanism. People like sex in all its sizes, colours and shapes, and so do politicians – the instinct which stops them saying so is one we’d all be better off without. Quite unlike Doctor Who.