BY W. POWELL EDDINS
Why we need to revisit modern conceptions of sexual orientation.
I guarantee every single person reading this article knows some femme queen gay man that was “bisexual” when he first came out, and then later admitted he was lying and ended up coming out as gay like everyone expected him to. When I decided to come out, I was very aware of this stereotype, so I decided to skip the charade and come right out as gay. And at the time, I definitely felt gay. I felt stuck in some sort of awful torturous sexuality from which I couldn’t escape. I felt like, as the modern gay rights movement constantly reminds us, that I didn’t have a choice. (Now I feel that, while that attraction was a very real experience, it was ultimately constructed by my femininity and according constant pursuit of masculine validation, but that’s another article…).
Recently, there’s been a big push from bisexual people to start being treated with the respect they deserve. To stop the invisibility of bisexual people, and have people respect bisexuality as a legitimate identity, instead of one that is merely transient, or a stepping-stone. And, as a person who now identifies along the bisexual spectrum, I’m glad that’s finally happening. People can be attracted to all sorts of genders and expressions, and limiting people to “just choose one or the other” can be deeply harmful, both for bisexual people, and for pushing society to move beyond a binary conception of gender. And it’s incredibly frustrating that bisexual people are hypersexualized and considered to be more promiscuous because of their sexual orientation. However, there are some serious problems with the way that bisexual people have gone about advocating for this visibility and respect, and it’s time that someone addresses them.
The first problem is the idea that many bisexual activists have been spreading that straight-passing privilege is a myth. Their argument is that, when bisexual people are in a heterosexual relationship, people often mistake or reduce their identity to being straight, when they are actually still dealing with the stigmas and difficulties associated with homosexual attraction. And to a certain extent this is accurate: people should not question the legitimacy of a bisexual person’s queerness just because they happen to be in a heterosexual relationship at the time. However, this does not change the fact that when said bisexual person is in a heterosexual relationship that they have all the privileges of going to restaurants, demonstrating public affection, attending social events and family gatherings, and getting married without fear of social stigma, hate crimes, or a denial of their rights.
The other part of this argument, which is the part I take the most issue with, consists of gender-normative bisexual people, largely femme bisexual women, complaining that people don’t take their queerness seriously because they present in a gender normative way, and it results in a lack of their visibility in the community, which is thought to be perpetuated by people who are “visibly queer” (i.e. the sissy gay men and the butch lesbians). While I imagine that it could oftentimes be frustrating having people tell you that “you’re not really queer” because you present in a “straight way”, and that people don’t immediately think you’d be interested in a homosexual relationship because you present in a “straight way”, the other side of the coin is frankly much worse because so much of queer stigma is rooted in gender-non-conformity.
Presenting in a “straight way” means you get treated like a straight person wherever you go. You don’t have to worry about people screaming “FAGGOT!” at you walking in a subway tunnel because your walk is a little too “gay”, worry about your gender presentation in a job interview being “the wrong kind of gay” that might not be palatable to clients, or having parents uncomfortable with you interacting with their children because your visible gayness makes you visibly more “sinful”. Being a gender normative queer person allows you to fluctuate between the queer and straight communities with relative ease and respect, whereas “visibly gay” people don’t have that option. Being a gender normative queer person allows you to have far greater visibility in media representations of queerness as well (i.e. how many butch women are on the L Word, and how many femme gay men actually get their own story line in a TV show or movie instead of just being the “sassy gay best friend”?).
As a femme man, even if I enter into a heterosexual relationship, say for example, with a butch woman, I still don’t have straight passing privilege because we would just look like a fag and a dyke walking down the street together. And people don’t take my sexual orientation as bisexual seriously either because society’s concept of bisexuality is rooted in gender normativity, which I have never been able to meet, so I am automatically perceived as “gay”. And just like femme bisexual women complain that many lesbians don’t perceive them as gay so it’s hard for them to date women, women aren’t exactly beating down the door to have sex with a femme queen or ready to take my heterosexual attraction seriously.
If you’re wondering why so many gay men come out as “bisexual” before revealing their sexual orientation to actually be gay, it’s because male bisexuality is perceived to be more masculine than male gayness, and for men just coming out, identifying as bisexual is the perfect way to distance themselves from all those sissies at the bottom barrel of the gay community. (And if you don’t believe me, just go on Grindr or OKCupid and see how many profiles identify as “masc” and “bi” and say “no femmes” all at the same time.) If you’re wondering why Dan Savage used to say that bisexuality doesn’t exist, or that it only takes any bisexual a year or two before he actually comes out as gay, it’s because he was frustrated with these men not owning up to the full stigma of their identity as a gay man and trying to distance themselves from the community by identifying as bisexual. And absolutely, part of this erasure and attack is rooted in the erroneous and harmful belief that monosexual attraction is the only sort of attraction that exists and that bisexual people are somehow inherently promiscuous, but I think the greater part of this hostility within the LGBTQ community toward bisexuality has to do with the gender normativity attached to its social construction.
When I used to identify as a gay man, the “radical progressive” left always used to tell me that because no one could see my sexuality, that I had unlimited access to my other privileges of being white and male (and I’m absolutely not questioning the immense advantage the former of those identities affords me). And in many ways, this way of thinking is exactly right. No one can actually see your innate sexuality (though they can see part of it by who you choose to date and have sex with). But for some reason, I wasn’t treated like the rest of the white males in my life, largely even the ones identifying as gay, and I couldn’t figure out why. And ultimately, what I discovered is that LGBTQ rights really have never been that much about sexual orientation: they’ve been more about the right to deviate from the normativity of your perceived gender to whichever extent you feel comfortable doing so (which can often be manifested in queer relationships and sex), and that accordingly is where a vast amount of queer stigma is wrapped up. And while bisexual visibility and validity is an incredibly important part of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, understanding how gender-non-conformity and expression are intertwined with modern conceptions of bisexuality will ultimately be the key to eradicating its stigma both inside and outside of the LGBTQ community.
W. Powell Eddins ’16 (firstname.lastname@example.org) wonders who came up with the idea of gender normativity.