The B Word
by Ron Suresha
as appearing in Options RI November 2004
Recently, it seems as if there’s some sort of heated competition in the media for the category of Outstanding Performance of Misidentified Sexuality.
Our first nominee, predictably, is New Jersey governor James McGreevey, accompanied by his gorgeous, adoring wife, stands at a podium and announces his resignation, due to a doomed affair with an Israeli man whom he says is blackmailing him. While holds his wife’s hand and affirming their love for each other, he declares, “As a child I always felt ambivalent. … My truth is that I am a gay American.” Weird, but the story and misnomers get more ridiculous: the accused blackmailer’s lawyer describes his client as “heterosexual.” The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart calls him a “flaming extortionist.”
Our next nominee, George “Father Figure” Michael, says in an interview for the U.K. magazine, GQ, “When I walk into a restaurant I check out the women before the men, they’re more glamorous. If it wasn’t for [my boyfriend] Kenny [Goss], I’d have sex with a woman, no problem.” Not that having a boyfriend kept him out of public restrooms soliciting sex with men. Anyways, so he still digs women. No big deal. But why does he call himself, and why does everybody else call him gay?
Finally, on The Graham Norton Effect, Sandra Bernhard makes her entrance holding two male hunks on leashes. When Graham suggestively holds out a bunch of grapes to her and to Marlon Wayans, Sandra quips to Marlon, “You can always lick a man’s balls.” Minutes later, checking an online “hot teeth-brushing” site, Graham notes that Sandra’s mouth picture is on top of Catherine Zeta-Jones’. Sandra shoots back, “That’s just where I like to be.” The audience roars and Sandra shouts, “That’s right — the L Word, people!” Is Sandra plugging the new Showtime cable series, or actually calling herself a lesbian these days?
The envelope, please. Whoops, it’s empty: no winners, I guess.
We’re looking for a word here, people, and it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but it just seems to catch in the throats of gay men, lesbians, and straight folks.
Wayne Bryant, author of From Anais to Zee: Bisexual Characters in Film, has the answer: “Indeed, while many of the bisexual male stereotypes we have lived with for the past several decades are still with us, the most prevalent trend as we enter the new century is the inability of bi men to utter the word ‘bisexual.’ … In Hollywood, as well as independent and foreign films, it has become the sexuality that dares not speak its name.”
Indeed, Michael Cunningham’s deeply moving novel and new movie, A Home at the End of the World, depicts two boys who develop a deeply emotional and sexual friendship. After a sudden break of several decades, the two reunite in Manhattan with an older female friend. Their friendship triad becomes what many reviews politely describe as a “love triangle.” With only their hearts to guide them, the three characters struggle to create a form of family and love for which they have no model — and apparently no word: the words “gay” and “bisexual” are never used.
I thought that there was actually a word for people who love both men and women: bisexual. But apparently I’m mistaken. While preparing two anthologies on bi men, it becomes quickly apparent that, although bi communities exist in a few urban areas, a substantial, viable bisexual culture seems conspicuously absent. Why, for example, is there no national magazine of any distinction that markets itself to bisexuals? (Details, I’m assured, is for metrosexual guys.)
I ask a famous gay doctor whom I know if he can help me arrange an interview with a male bisexual celebrity, such as Allan Cumming or Michael Stipe. He replies dismissively: “In Italy almost every man marries. I know lots of gay, and I mean very gay men, who are married and have sex with women. Bi-sexuality to me is not a reality.” It’s odd, coming from a doctor: how are “very gay men, who are married and have sex with women,” not bisexual?
An old pal, Blackwolf, writes me, “Some women are deep down sexy and fascinating and indescribable in their complexity to me. Most are not … to me. Most men are, to me, a sexual blank. … I don’t know if I would still call myself bisexual, merely open to sensations. My partner is the only person to whom I’m constantly attracted.” Granted, but I wonder why he would stop considering himself bi.
I visit the Webpage “LGBT for Kerry,” which affirms that “John Kerry and John Edwards believe that every American should have the opportunity to succeed and to live the American dream. … The LGBT community contributes to our nation in so many ways, in every corner of this country. Gay and lesbian Americans only asks for equal treatment.” I appreciate these words of promise and hope for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, but cannot understand the obvious omission of bisexuals and transpeople, nor why my requests to the Website to add those terms are ignored.
Queer people of all stripes often deny a basic aspect of human (and animal) sexual nature: If you’re sexually attracted to both men and women, that makes you bisexually oriented. Bisexual. Not straight. Not gay. Not lesbian. It’s bisexual — and, for some, like noted author Patrick Califia, it may be transsexual as well. Whatever you call yourself, bisexuality is real.
The complexity of the concept is understandably difficult to grasp by gays and straights alike. As The Joy of Gay Sex (3rd rev. ed.) describes in its excellent entry on bisexuality, “Perhaps no other word in the area of human behavior is used with such imprecision. … Truly bisexual men and women belong to one of the most persecuted groups in society. Both gays and straights find them confusing, and their very existence threatens widely held preconceptions.”
Far beyond the “bisexual chic” of the “sexual revolution” three decades ago, in present-day post-sodomy USA, a bisexual revolution is silently but steadily unfolding. Accelerating numbers of previously hetero- and gay-identified men and women, and younger bicurious people, are coming out as bisexual, into an increasingly tolerant culture where eventually bisexuality may very well become the norm.
Studies indicate that almost half of Kinsey’s “one in ten” homosexual men may actually participate in sex with both men and women. Although many may call themselves bisexual, far more identify as straight or nongay and live in the straight community, even though bisexually active. In smaller numbers, bisexually active men call themselves “gay men who sleep with women” and live in the GLBTIQA community.
Although we may conjecture upon the commonness, and repression, of male bisexuality, bi men clearly are an underserved population among GLBTIQA studies, men’s studies, gender studies, fiction, and other literature in general. Notable exceptions such as bestselling writers E. Lynn Harris and J. L. King also tend to misidentify “straight” men on the Down Low as being in actuality “gay.”
Bi men are made further invisible by the medical community, who no longer even look at them as bisexual – whether self-identified as gay, bi, or straight – but as “MSMs” or Men who have Sex with Men. Strong cultural influences deeply affect many of these bisexually active men, such as married African-American men on the Down Low, and Hispanic/Latino men whose machismo prohibits submissiveness.
The apparent dearth of out, bisexual-identified men is understandable, considering the huge personal risk involved for many straight-identified MSMs afraid of being perceived as fags or “girlie men.” Straight culture illogically lumps bisexuals in with gays and other queers from sexual ignorance, common bigotry, and misogyny.
Inclusion is the guiding force of bisexuals, diversity its key. One friend asks, “Why can’t you people decide on one name to call yourselves?” Not only does everyone seem to have a nasty word or joke for bis, they themselves seem strangely unable to agree on the term. Bi folks call themselves, or are called, omnisexual, polyamorous, asexual, trisexual (“He’ll try anything!”), ambisexual, fence-sitters, transgendered, metasexual, and multisexual – often occurring in surprising new combinations. Anything but monosexual.
Bisexuality itself has limitless flavors. A local drag queen snipped at me recently, “I just don’t get bisexuals.” I explained, “If you like both Vanilla and Moose Tracks flavors of ice cream, why not eat them both? Drag is even a way of bisexuality.” To which she replied, “Drag is far more glamorous than bisexuality.” Perhaps, but while drag queens may be bisexual, bisexuals are never a drag.
There are as many sexualities as there are individual bodies and souls: to paraphrase author Susie Bright, every person has a sexual story. Because of its ambivalence, bisexuality and transgendered folks understand what it means to shift one’s sexual vocabulary.
Some gay and lesbian folks truly get that bisexuality is as valid a way of loving as any other, and don’t try to marginalize others in service of whitewashing everything “not straight” as gay. On Michael Signorile’s radio talk show recently, one guest described a married man he met who has sex with men as “hard bi.” to which another guest dismissed him, “Oh, that’s just gay.” Somehow they needed to qualify or deny bisexuality; they couldn’t simply state, “Oh, that’s just bi,” as if it weren’t abnormal.
Every day, in ways large and small, we all encounter evidence of bisexual invisibility. As we seek to describe ourselves honestly and positively, bisexuals try to live with conscious sexuality loving all. Show your compassion for bisexuals and acceptance of bisexuality by calling us as we are, rather than as you might want us to be. Especially if you’re gay or lesbian, please: say bisexual exactly the same way you want others to say homosexual, lesbian, or gay.
I don’t buy the idea that using the word enforces a binary gender system. “Bisexuality” is a word that encompasses a vast, if not unlimited, range of affectional preferences and sexual activities. Yet its simplicity is apparent: whether you’re male or female or trans, if you’re attracted to both men and women, whether simultaneously or sequentially — why yes, you, friend, are bisexual. It’s a perfectly good, perfectly usable word.
Go ahead and say it: bisexual. It just might fit.