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Mar 25 2011

Closeted Politicians and Bi Invisibility

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, since it was very topical, and by the time the reprint rights had reverted to me the media flare-up I was writing about had run its course. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Does outing closeted gay politicians contribute to bisexual invisibility?

It occurs to me that the way I put that question is sort of answering itself. Let me re-phrase: Does outing closeted politicians who have sex with same-sex partners contribute to bisexual invisibility?

Roy Ashburn There’s been yet another story in the news lately, about yet another rabidly homophobic right-wing politician who was discovered to be gay. (Roy Ashburn’s the joker in this round of the game: he’s the one who was arrested for drunk driving after leaving a gay nightclub with another man, and who finally acknowledged that he was gay — after the story had been broken for days. Tangent: This kind of story is becoming so common, it’s starting to be flat-out silly. It’s getting to the point where, when a politician is rabidly homophobic, I just assume now that they’re gay. It’s become a standard item on my gaydar: Does he have unusually good fashion sense? Is he a little more aware of the works of Lady Gaga than is strictly necessary? Is he a right-wing politician who foams at the mouth about how disgusting homosexuals are and consistently votes against gay rights? Yup — probably gay. I think we need to start a PR campaign about this: if “rabid anti-gay political activism” becomes a standard marker for “probable homosexuality,” maybe fewer right-wing politicians will run with it.)

Anyway. Rabidly homophobic right-wing politician; secretly gay. But Amanda Mennis recently wrote me with an interesting question: Does this story of a secretly gay public figure — and the absurdly long parade of stories like it — contribute in some way to bisexual invisibility?

After all, most of the guys in these scandals (and it has just been guys so far) are married, or have some sort of sexual/ romantic relationship with women. Many of them have children. They’re clearly capable of having sex with women. Doesn’t that make them bisexual, not gay? Or at least, doesn’t it suggest the possibility that some of them are bisexual and not gay?

An interesting question. And one that I’m finding tricky to answer.

Bisexual symbol Part of the problem is that we don’t have a standard definition of what it means to be gay or lesbian or bisexual. It’s not like there’s a gay person in a vacuum in the Smithsonian, against whom we all measure ourselves to determine our own sexual orientation. Everyone defines these terms — gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, bi-curious, heteroflexible (that was a new one on me!), questioning, queer, “basically straight but wouldn’t kick Jon Stewart out of bed,” whatever — in subtly different ways. Or not so subtly different ways.

So ultimately, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about whether someone is “really bisexual.” There is no such thing as “really bisexual.” Within reason (and please don’t ask me to define what “within reason” means), we get to decide for ourselves what sexual orientation we are, and what language we use to describe it.

But what does that mean for someone who’s closeted?

Closet I mean, one of the things about being closeted is that the willingness and ability to honestly self-define one’s sexuality is shot to hell. That isn’t necessarily true with the “I know I’m a big queer but I’m pretending not to be for pragmatic reasons” sort of closeting (the way a lot of LGBT celebrities are: think Melissa Etheridge or George Takei before they came out). But it sure as hell is true with the self-loathing, totally in denial, “Homosexuals are disgusting, and the fact that I suck cock in airport bathrooms has no bearing on that assessment” sort of closeting we see with so many right-wing closet cases. If someone is having that much repression and rationalization about their sexuality, the rest of us have to suspend the “Everyone gets to define their own sexual identity” rule — since we’re not going to get an honest answer out of them. (Larry Craig, for instance, is not saying, “According to the standard tropes of sexual identity, most people would identify me as a gay man — but I’m not an essentialist, I’m a constructionist, and I’m constructing a sexual identity that frames me as a culturally heterosexual man who sometimes has sex with other men.” Larry Craig is sticking his fingers in his ears and saying, “La la la la la, I’m not a faggot.”)

We also have to remember that the ability to function sexually with a person of the opposite sex does not automatically drop someone into the Bisexual slot. Plenty of gay men and lesbians are capable of functioning sexually with people of the opposite sex. It’s just not a very high level of functioning. If you only ever fantasize about people of the same sex; if the only people who make your head turn on the street are people of the same sex; if the only porn you’re interested in is same-sex porn — but you can manage to perform rote, joyless sex acts with an opposite-sex partner as long as you close your eyes and think of Hugh Jackman (or Tilda Swinton) — that’s not a very useful definition of “Bisexual.”

Larry Craig mug shot And when I read the stories about right-wing closet cases, that seems to be the most common story. These stories never read like “reasonably happy marriage of someone with a genuine erotic and romantic connection to their spouse, but who’s also leading a double life with same-sex partners.” They always read like “marriage of convenience — which their spouse may or may not have known was a marriage of convenience.” It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly makes me think that… and the abovementioned fact that these guys aren’t being blazingly honest about their sexuality, with themselves or with anyone else, isn’t helping me figure it out. But there’s something about the intensity of these guys’ professed revulsion with homosexuality, the “lady doth protest too much” quality of their impassioned defenses of heterosexual marriage, that makes me smell a rat. A rat in the form of sham marriages, with no sincere romantic or sexual component.

Now. I do think that media coverage of outed politicians does play into bisexual invisibility in some ways. When these stories get written about, there is an assumption of a sexual orientation binary; an assumption that the world is divided into Gay and Straight, and that anyone having sex with same-sex partners must by default fall into the Gay category. That’s the assumption that gets made in almost every media story written about sexual orientation; it’s no surprise that it gets made in stories about right-wing homophobic politicians who turn out to be closet cases. And it’s a troubling and fucked-up assumption, which does perpetuate the idea that there’s no such thing as bisexuals.

Sexual_orientatione But I think this question of how we name the sexual identity of someone in the closet is profoundly tricky. If we accept that sexual orientations don’t have clear definitions, and we accept that people have the right to define their sexual identities for themselves… then how do we apply that principle to people who aren’t willing or able to be honest about who they are?

So it’s occurring to me that it might make more sense to talk about right-wing homophobic politicians who are secretly having sex with same-sex partners… instead of talking about right-wing homophobic politicians who are secretly gay. It’s occurring to me that it makes no more sense to say that these closeted politicians are “really” gay than it does to say that they’re “really” bisexual.

I mean, do we really want to say that “bisexual” is a deeply personal identity that people can only claim for themselves… but that “gay” is a culturally- defined identity that society gets to pin on other people?

I sure don’t.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    Cyc

    I never got a chance to read this when you initially wrote it so I thank you for re-posting it here.
    I have often wondered this very same thing myself. Generally when pondering this I just settle for ‘they are a dangerous hypocrite that is leading to increased hate mongering’ and find anything else about the situation irrelevant. However, the question of whether it hinders the visibility of bisexuals is a very valid question that I had not fully thought out before (I can think of no better compliment than ‘that makes me think’)
    Though I’m sure the situation is not helped by all too common belief that bisexuals either don’t exist or are just confused. Not to mention that in an article ‘such and such is discovered to be bisexual’ doesn’t have the media draw as the word gay does.

  2. 2
    Eclectic

    I have to run, but can’t resist getting in a first post. Yes, I’ve had the same idea about raving closet cases, and I’m surprised that nobody’s taken it up.
    Peter LaBarbera, who’s been doing “shocking exposes” of Inferno in Chicago (a major gay S/M event) for years is one of my faves. If he really didn’t like it, you’d think he’d stop attending…

  3. 3
    Locutus7

    My question is, why do so many (or any) gays choose to be Republicans, and to go further by becoming Republican politicians? Seems, well, odd.

  4. 4
    Kat

    @ Locutus7- the Democrats are hardly LGBT-friendly, except in a twisted, “lesser-of-two-evils” kind of way, in that both sides are only as LGBT-friendly as their biggest constituency, which in the case of Republicans (and their huge body of evangelical supporters) is not at all . Politicians on both sides will sell any group down the river if it gets the votes of a bigger group.
    If you happen to be gay, self-loathing, and evil, then the republican party might be just the place for you.

  5. 5
    Second Thought

    An interesting question regarding how the media coverage contributes to bi invisibility.
    I have had similar thoughts about the depictions of non-straight relationships in TV shows. In particular, in “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, when Willow hooks up with Amber after having lusted after Xander for years and having had a seemingly good relationship with Oz, I never once heard her, or any other characters, wonder if she was Bi. As soon as she was in a relationship with a woman it was ‘Gay now’.

  6. 6
    Wossname

    So, what happened to the blowfish blog? Did they forget to pay the monthly rental fee on their storage unitz-in-the-cloudz?

  7. 7
    Heather

    Why do we get to decide what our sexual orientation is? I think *that* thought contributes to bi erasure. When a lesbian can say “sure, I have sex with men sometimes” then she’s contributing to bi erasure.. because she’s choosing not to identify as Bi.. and the simple definition of bisexual is attraction to both genders. Gay means *only* attracted to the gender which you are also. In other words, gay women don’t sleep with men. Bi women do. And taking all of the people who will actually admit to being bi and then splitting them off further by adding omnisexual, pansexual, heteroflexible, homoflesible, queer, etc… it just makes the bisexual pool smaller and smaller and smaller… I could choose to identify as a flying pink unicorn.. that doesn’t make it true. A bi man can choose to identify as gay or straight.. it also doesn’t make it true.

  8. 8
    Greta Christina

    Heather: Why do you get to define what the language means for everyone else? Why do you get to decide that “gay” means “*only* attracted to the gender which you are also” — not just for you, but for everyone? Why can’t it mean, for instance, “primarily attracted to the same gender, and only interested in pursuing serious relationships with that gender”? Or, “occasionally attracted to the opposite, but that attraction is incidental and isn’t central to how one sees sex and the world”? Or “has had opposite sex relationships in the past, but never found them very satisfying and far prefers same-sex ones”?
    Ask twenty self-identified queer people what “gay,” “straight,” and “bi” mean, and you’ll likely get twenty different answers. Including all the ones listed above, and more. What makes your definition the right one, and everyone else’s the wrong one? Why do you get to be the arbiter of the language for everyone else?

  9. 9
    Azkyroth

    Gay means *only* attracted to the gender which you are also. In other words, gay women don’t sleep with men.

    Are you under the impression it’s not possible to sleep with someone you aren’t attracted to?

  10. 10
    Azkyroth

    Why can’t it mean, for instance, “primarily attracted to the same gender, and only interested in pursuing serious relationships with that gender”? Or, “occasionally attracted to the opposite, but that attraction is incidental and isn’t central to how one sees sex and the world”? Or “has had opposite sex relationships in the past, but never found them very satisfying and far prefers same-sex ones”?

    Or, hell, in the specific case of a self-identified lesbian occasionally sleeping with men, “has no interest or ability to envision forming a romantic relationship with a man, does not find specific men or men in general sexually attractive, but happens to really enjoy the feel/experience of a cock and finds toys to be an unsatisfying substitute?” (There’s nothing contradictory about that – it’s pretty much my state of mind aside from not being a woman and I don’t have any hesitation at labeling myself “basically straight.”)

  11. 11
    Wossname

    Maybe the old Kinsey scale would be helpful here? We are all on the spectrum somewhere, so everyone is bi!
    My 20-something friends are much more blase about these ‘sexual orientation’ issues than many of my fellow baby-boomers were/are/seem-to-be. That may be part of what the homophobic right-wingers are struggling with – despite their best efforts, tolerance for different sexualities and acceptance of alternative lifestyles is increasing. “This 21st century just isn’t fair!”

  12. 12
    Jalyth

    I’m nobody to listen to, but I am perfectly happy to be a bit more ambiguous with the words. Saying closet case could certainly imply bi as well as gay, so there’s that phrase that suffices.
    But I think there’s worse things that foster bisexual invisibility, starting with certain supposed bisexual people. I’m not imagining I’m the first to say this but the almost-completely-straight girl in college who just wants to experiment to titillate her boyfriend does more to insinuate that bi isn’t a “real” label than anything I might say or do.

  13. 13
    Jon Jermey

    Boy George — who ought to know — once said that you could seduce anyone if you knew the right triggers. Men in particular seem to be much more responsive to clothes and behaviours than women are: so in a sense your ‘sexual orientation’ merely reflects the opportunities you have had and the triggers you have been exposed to.

  14. 14
    ckitching

    A better Shakespeare quote might be from King Lear, scene 4: “Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back. Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind for which thou whip’st her.”
    Time and time again, it’s clear that those who would restrict or block harmless human activities are those who secretly would like to participate in them. The biggest anti-adulterers are those who cheat on their wives or husbands. The worst homophobes are those who engage in all kinds of excesses while having same-sex sex. The most extreme prohibitionist have been found time and time again addicted to fraudulently obtained prescription painkillers or other drugs. This is clearly not a one-off phenomenon.
    As for the situation mentioned, I say we should stick the gay label on them because they despise it so. Allowing themselves an out by labelling them bisexual lets them maintain that homosexuality is a choice, and therefore is something evil that must be resisted. If they’re listed as bi, then they continue to do harm to both groups and in this perverse way, their views become justified. If we insist on calling them gay, they become hypocrites of the highest order, and both groups benefit, although not equally. Neither labelling is particularly good, as you say, people should be able to select their own label, but I think one does less overall harm than the other.
    So, I say let them be hoist on their own petard, and don’t let them deflect the blow to anyone else.

  15. 15
    ckitching

    Of course, that King Lear quote is from act 4, scene 6. I messed that up pretty well.

  16. 16
    Azkyroth

    I’m not imagining I’m the first to say this but the almost-completely-straight girl in college who just wants to experiment to titillate her boyfriend does more to insinuate that bi isn’t a “real” label than anything I might say or do.

    Unless she claims that she’s “bi” and that her experience is typical of people who are “bi” I don’t see how.
    Even so, this sounds like a pet resentment, not a well-founded argument. From which side, if I may inquire?

  17. 17
    AMS

    I’m not imagining I’m the first to say this but the almost-completely-straight girl in college who just wants to experiment to titillate her boyfriend does more to insinuate that bi isn’t a “real” label than anything I might say or do.

    As a bi college girl, I really resent that stereotype. I cannot count the times that I’ve met up with a hot girl at a party and gone off to a corner somewhere to make out, only to come up for air and discover a bunch of guys staring at us. (Note: these are the sorts of gatherings where hetero couples are also making out all over the place) They always seem surprised when I’m mad and tell them to go mind their own business, since due to this stereotype the assumption is that femme-looking young women would only be making out for the purpose of attracting guys.

  18. 18
    Adam

    Rather than reporting that a politician had sex with a partner of the same sex, can’t we just note that said politician had sex with someone outside of their marriage agreement? Presuming, even, that their marriage agreement included sexual exclusivity! Too progressive for TV?

  19. 19
    ckitching

    Too progressive for TV? Try: barely a story. Unless they spent a large amount of their career boastfully railing against adultery, such a story wouldn’t keep the public’s attention for long these days. Showing that a politician takes a lot of lobbyist money hardly qualifies as news, but showing a politician taking loads of lobbyist money while railing about political corruption due to lobbying is something entirely different.

  20. 20
    Greta Christina

    Rather than reporting that a politician had sex with a partner of the same sex, can’t we just note that said politician had sex with someone outside of their marriage agreement? Presuming, even, that their marriage agreement included sexual exclusivity!

    Well, if we’re going to go there, then why should we even care if the politician ad sex outside their monogamous marriage? It’s not really relevant to their ability as an elected official.
    That being said, I do think there’s some value to knowing when a politician is openly hateful and bigoted of gay people, and vehemently opposed to gay rights in their public life, while secretly having sex with same-sex partners. It tells you something about their level of hypocrisy, their willingness to cravenly fearmonger and pander to people’s wost instincts for political gain… and their ability to compartmentalize in order to do so.

  21. 21
    MissCherryPi

    Matt Lauer did ask Larry Craig on the Today show, “Are you technically not a homosexual? Is it possible you’re bisexual?” To which he responded, “It’s no to both.”
    I thought that was a very interesting exchange, mainly because aside from this blog post, Lauer was the only one who brought up that possibility.

  22. 22
    Janee

    I’m definitely a believer in “you are what you think and say you are” but I think the key in that is “think” and not the say part. It’s easy to say you’re straight, but to think you are is different. And I think the problem with that and bi invisibility is that people assume that if they thought they were straight then started having feelings of attraction or interest in the same sex they’re obviously not straight so must be gay. People don’t see the “in between” for themselves and so other people can’t either. So what you identify as, people see you as, but if you can’t see bisexuality as a viable option, how is anyone else supposed to?

  23. 23
    Kogo

    *It’s not like there’s a gay person in a vacuum in the Smithsonian, against whom we all measure ourselves to determine our own sexual orientation.*
    Actually that sounds like something that would be the purview of NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). They are the ones who keep the Prototype Pound (the actual weight upon which all other weight-measures in the U.S. are derived).
    Presumably they have the Prototype Lesbo and the Prototype Gay: Y’know, two people who are both 1.0 Gay? I’m thinking Dan Savage is a little straight-looking and -acting for the job: He’s probably only like .8995 Gay. I dunno, any suggestions?

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