Men and women will not be comfortable labeling themselves as bisexual if the label is riddled with negative implications.
He’s a bisexual. The weird thing was, he was so open about it.
When did this all happen? When did the sexes get all confused?
I’m not even sure if bisexuality exists.
It’s greedy! He’s double-dipping!
I’m very into labels. Gay. Straight. Pick a side, and stay there.
Negative bisexual clichés abound as the four Sex and the City girls debate Carrie’s latest fling: Sean, the shaggy-haired ice skater who pals around with Alanis Morissette and, oh yeah, once dated a man. Traditionalist viewpoints are typical of the label-loving Charlotte in an otherwise sexually progressive series, but throw the ladies a bisexual conundrum and watch the Charlottes multiply.
Fourteen years after “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl” premiered in 2000, sex researchers at the American Institute of Bisexuality are embarking on a “quest” to prove bisexuality’s existence, given the persistent “stereotypes and misinformation at the heart of biphobia.”
And I have to ask: In a country where snack food companies publicly endorse same-sex families, citizens rally because a transgender student can’t change dormitories, and Facebook users are able to choose from 51 different gender options—really? We can’t get on board with loving both men and women?
It’s not as though bisexuality is a novel concept. Alfred Kinsey famously declared that “the world is not to be divided into sheep and goats,” in 1948’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and following in Kinsey’s footsteps, bisexual psychologist Fritz Klein proposed the multi-dimensional Klein Sexual Orientation Grid in his 1978 book, The Bisexual Option.
A 2011 study conducted by Boise State University found that 60% of 484 self-identified “heterosexual” women admitted that they were attracted to members of the same sex, and psychologist Lisa Diamond’s 10-year study of 79 “non-heterosexual” women found that the majority of participants “maintained a stable attraction to both sexes.”
These results fly in the face of arguments that dismiss bisexuality as a mere experimental phase or closet case’s grasp at straight privilege, yet men and women who lean in both gay and straight directions still face backlash from either side.
Straight men may fear that their bisexual lady will turn into an emotionally reckless bedhopper a la Jenny from The L Word. Same-sex partners may anxiously await the day their switch hitter leaves them for a white picket fence and 2.5 kids in Pleasantville. And let’s not forget the consensus that all roads for bisexual men and women eventually lead to dick—an idea that, to me, functions more as evidence of a phallocentric culture (e.g. sex must involve a penis) than as a case against bisexuality’s legitimacy.
I guess I get it. Like Charlotte, we gravitate toward labels because labels are easy. It’s more convenient for us to view Freddie Mercury as gay and Marlon Brando as straight because of their images—Freddie as the flashy frontman with AIDS, Marlon as the “All-American” icon with three marriages—though both men had relationships with either sex.
But what happens when perception doesn’t reflect reality? Diver Tom Daley, who released a video last December announcing his same-sex relationship, received homophobic backlash on Twitter as well as criticism from the LGBT community for additionally noting that he “still [fancies] girls.” When actress Maria Bello revealed her own same-sex partnership last year and deemed herself a “whatever,” her ambiguous admission was also seen as “problematic.” Noah Michelson, an editor for Huffington Post Gay Voices felt “that there’s something to be said for saying, I am gay, I am lesbian, this is my identity.”
There’s also something to be said for drinking tea, but still liking the taste of coffee. Bisexuals often find that others limit their orientation according to their current partner’s sex, though one kind of attraction does not nullify the other. And unless you’re polyamorous or dating someone who is intersex, it’s impossible to “prove” your bisexuality by having your tea and coffee at the same time.
No doubt that these announcements were, as J. Bryan Lowder writes in his Slate article, “carefully calibrated.” But I have to disagree with Lowder’s assertion that “if Bello or Daley had meant to say bisexual…they would have done so.”
According to a 2013 Pew Research study, only 28% of bisexual men and women were “out” to their closest friends and family versus 77% of gay men and 71% of gay women, so I believe that if Daley or Bello had felt that “gay” or “lesbian” were appropriate terms to define their identities, they were more likely to have used them.
Maybe the label itself is what’s keeping so many bisexual men and women in the closet. Unlike “gay” and “lesbian,” “bisexual” has broken down into a cornucopia of terms including “queer, omnisexual, pansexual, homo- or hetero-flexible, straightish, fluid, polysexual,” and so on. No doubt that the rising visibility of genderqueer and transgender folks has influenced this shift, but consider what “bisexual” has come to mean. Beyond the tired stigmas of indecisive, promiscuous, and attention-seeking (thanks, Tila Tequila!), the word implies a perfect division of half gay and half straight, like the Arnold Palmer of sexual orientation. Patrick RichardsFink, who finds issue with the Kinsey scale for this reason, writes that such thinking promotes “bisexuals [as] not wholly integrated people…that there is an unresolvable conflict in our attractions and in ourselves that means we are undeveloped and unstable.”
Bisexuality may be coming out’s final frontier, but its visibility issue is a paradox. Whether the ultimate solution is to reclaim the word or abandon it for something new, men and women will not be comfortable labeling themselves if the label is riddled with negative implications.
The good news is that all members and allies of the LGBT community can combat bisexual erasure by educating ourselves, embracing the grey area between the sheep and the goats, and remembering that, yes, there is a ‘B’ in that acronym. When we simultaneously applaud Ellen Page and ridicule Maria Bello for their honesty, we mimic the threatened rhetoric of anti-gay conservatives who try to dictate who marriage is for.
Or, until our friends at the American Institute of Bisexuality shout eureka!, it may help to ask a familiar question: What is so threatening about you doing your thing and me doing mine?
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the media. Find her on Twitter.