Bi Men: Coming Out Every Which Way:
A 2005 conversation with Ron Suresha and Pete Chvany,
coëditors of the Haworth/Routledge nonfiction anthology
Ron: My first interview with you, to discuss the topic of “bisexual bears” [bears, for the uninitiated, are brawny, hirsute, masculine, mature gay/bi men] at Mary Chung’s restaurant in Cambridge in 2003, turned out quite fateful. It gave me a lot of info for my own personal inquiry into bisexuality, and also spawned our book, Bi Men: Coming Out. So it’s been nearly three years, but I finally wrote the column on “bi bears” and the book is now in print! So, to quote bi bear David Crosby, “It’s been a long time coming.”
Pete: I was delighted that you sought me out, and enthused about how the idea of doing an anthology on bisexual men’s coming-out stories developed.
Ron: Our first meeting ignited my curiosity to research materials on bisexual masculinity, including online bookstores for bisexuality titles. I discovered that women have dominated the writing and publishing about both female and male bisexuality. Clearly women have always served in the front lines of bisexual activism.
Pete: Robyn Ochs, co-editor of the anthology Getting Bi, wrote a column years ago called “Where the Boys Aren’t,” about the lack of bi male organizers. AIDS took out part of a generation of bi men. It also seems that men compartmentalize our sexuality more than women, whether or not more women are fundamentally bisexual.
Many leaders in the bi community have come from building feminist/women’s/lesbian communities and either always being attracted to men, or realizing their attractions and getting booted from dyke spaces. With that history of organizing behind them, they moved on to create women’s spaces. Bisex-ual men’s groups in Boston formed one or two years after bi women’s spaces, and that seems to be a familiar pattern.
Some of those women kept the topic alive while the men were doing whatever we were doing to stay alive. Gay friends who stumbled on Bi Any Other Name found it incredibly helpful to their coming-out process, just because it said, “If you are bisexual, that’s okay.” But as men, we had to translate some of it into our own experiences, which aren’t always parallel. For me, in particular, although being strongly queer identified, few women’s narratives gave me a clue about how to interact in gay male spaces as an out bi man.
Ron: As we discovered, the dearth of men’s narratives wasn’t only in academic or clinical or other nonfiction works. There are so many stories of bi male characters in literature and popular culture, but not so many bi-identified ones. There are bisexual women’s erotica anthologies, but none yet for men. Clearly bisexual men are an underserved population – even though Kinsey posited bisexuality among men more or less as biologically normal.
Pete: The place of bi men in society is truly an ongoing mystery, isn’t it? Especially since you and I know so many men who actively identify as bi, or who at least know that their attractions are to more than one gender.
Ron: Right – anecdotally we know lots of bi men – but why aren’t they speaking out?
Pete: A lot of culture is still organized around heterosexist norms – even among queers. Bisexual women can be threatening in lesbian communities, but straights find them compelling, and straight men’s values are still dominant. Yet, as you say, there’s much greater recognition that men can have multiple desires, too.
Ron: And though many men act on those desires, few are willing to risk being mistaken as closet cases by straights and queers alike. Who wouldn’t prefer being “invisibilized” to being shunned as social pariahs, as bi men often are perceived?
Pete: It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes at the constant chorus of “You don’t exist” and say, “Well, excuse me, but I do exist, but if you’re not going to listen, fine, the rest of my life is okay.”
Sometimes it feels more productive to just be who we are, rather than write about being who we are. The value of our project is that it lets us take a step back and remind ourselves and the world that we do, in fact, exist.
Ron: In today’s monosexually oriented world, however, coming out is one of the most potent political and social statements one can make.
Pete: One in-your-face assertion of the anthology is that bi men already exist, and we need to share our coming-out stories, but we’re going to move on from there pretty quickly and talk about the reality of bisexuality in our ongoing lives.
Ron: Which is why we arranged the stories to reflect the various stages of coming to terms with the complexity of being bi men in our world today. We first come out to ourselves, then to spouse or partner, children and family, then to friends and community. Finally we develop a holistic or spiritual outlook which solidifies a valid identity and returns us to a clearer sense of self. All of these aspects are integral and significant components of our own bi male experience.
Pete: I still hear people lament how many gay books and films are stuck on coming-of-age and coming-out narratives. And of course, coming out is a transformative thing that is subtle and rich. But part of what we said is, “Wait, there’s even more than that!” Like getting the juicer along with the Ginsu knives.
Ron: Or the blender as well as the toaster oven! Despite the unique challenges, we pulled together three dozen outstanding, moving personal essays from a wide array of amazing contributors. Not just fresh new voices, but also veteran bisexual male activists and authors, seminal essays from Bi Any Other Name and Blessed Bi Spirit, and brilliant essays from noted authors Alfred Corn, Marco Vassi, and Patrick Califia.
Pete: We were able to draw and build on the richness of previous efforts. The world keeps changing, and what it means to be bisexual in 2005 is not the same as what it meant in 1990.
Ron: Nor what bisexuality will mean in 2020.
Pete: Exactly! In coming to terms with their sexuality, the central issues that bi men struggle with are still essentially the same: Do I like boys? Do I like girls? Is it OK to love both? These questions are still just as tough and relevant in a society where the New York Times can publish a sham study like J. Michael Bailey’s* and conclude that bisexual men don’t exist or, if they do exist, they’re just liars.
Ron: It’s shocking proof of the thesis of Yale law scholar Kenji Yoshino, which he calls “Bisexual Erasure.” His point is simple and powerful: straight men and women (represented by the Times and mainstream media), and gay men and women (such as Bailey), have differing but overlapping reasons to discount the reality and to deny the true extent of bisexuality. They agree implicitly to pretend that bisexual men and women don’t exist.
Pete: Yes. People seem to need to simplify their worldview, even if it costs someone else a place in society.
Ron: It’s 2005, yet weirdly today, almost as much as during Stonewall, gay men and lesbians, and straight people, still often refuse to accept the reality of bisexuality, let alone acknowledge the possible or likely normalcy of bisexual male attraction. The authentic voices of bisexual men, such as the remarkable true personal histories collected in Bi Men, bravely challenge these phobic denials and lies.
Pete: It’s a truly impressive resource for your average bisexual or bi-curious guy. I suspect it will benefit a great many men.
* New York Times, July 5, 2005: “Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited” by Benedict Carey