Most of us have heard about “Tea Party” candidate Sharron Angle telling a group of Hispanic students, “Some of you look a little more Asian to me.” I read one interpretation which claimed Ms. Angle was attempting to show that she didn't “see race,” but reactions were, naturally, mostly negative. Nobody wants to be labeled by an outsider telling us what category she thinks we belong to.
In an earlier post, “Seeing Blue,” I talked about an idea from historical linguistics, that the first color words in any language are black and white, followed by red, and then yellow or green. It struck me that these are the four colors that have been traditionally applied to people, to “races.” Black and white are still with us, but red is pretty much over with, and as for yellow—don't even go there.
Of course no human being is literally any of these colors in their primary sense. “Black” people are various shades of brown, and “white” people have been described as pinky-gray. If you're as old as me you might recall that the crayon that's now labeled (I think) Peach used to be called Flesh. It seemed to me that perhaps these oversimplified color descriptions arose at a time, early in our history, when we hadn't yet developed a larger range of sophisticated color terms.
But why did they develop at all? We are all the same species; geneticists frequently point out there is more diversity within “races” than between them.
In our earliest evolutionary history, we lived in small groups, widely dispersed. Meeting another group of unrelated humans was potentially dangerous, even fatal. There must have been an enormous advantage to being able to see immediately whether these strangers were “us” or “them.” So useful was this ability that it was naturally selected; people who possessed it survived to procreate, and we are their descendents, still keenly aware of other people's outward “racial” characteristics. In today's crowded world, where people of every ethnicity live and work together, form friendships and intermarry, where many of us consider ourselves to be of “mixed” heritage, that prehistoric survival skill of observation is more of a disability, similar to our intense cravings for salt, sugar and fat; useful thousands of years ago, now merely making us sick, obese and prejudiced.
In my earlier post, I compared the idea of the color blue to bisexuality, a concept that required a more sophisticated society in order to have a need for the word. And there's a sort of inverse equation between the two kinds of categorization, of race and sexual orientation: the racial distinctions have gone from being clear and obvious (black and white) to obsolete and unnecessary, while the idea of sexual orientation has gone from being practically nonexistent, to becoming clear and obvious (gay and straight), and is now in the process of expanding into many finer gradations (bisexual, fluid, flexible, queer) and is, perhaps, on the way to becoming … obsolete and unnecessary?
And it's all happened within, at most, a few hundred years, with so much rapid change occurring in the space of one long lifetime. There's a volunteer at my job, a man well past ninety, who read Phyllida and said he didn't like the way the hero was “gay, then he wasn't gay, then he was again”--or words to that effect. This man, in his ninety-plus years, has lived through every “color” on that spectrum of sexual orientation, from when being gay was a criminal act, through its phase as a mental disease or psychiatric “disorder,” through the Gay Revolution that celebrated what was still an “outlaw” culture, to today's world in which most gay people just want to marry and have a family like everybody else.
But what we don't want is someone else labeling us. We don't want a Sharron Angle telling us we look gay or straight—or worse, that those are our only choices, that we are gay or straight. And that's where bisexuals are at the moment—labeled, incorrectly.
I'm at a wonderful time in my writing (or the aftermath) of my two novels. I've had a flurry of attention from the academic community, with a paper or two presented at conferences of romance scholarship, along with some other work. And I've noticed that this positive interest shares one factor in common with readers who passionately dislike my work: they call it “homoerotic.” In both groups, there's a failure to perceive that a bisexual story is as likely to have (hetero)erotic elements as homoerotic, a surprised or horrified discovery when characters they've labeled as “gay” take up with a member of the opposite sex. It's almost as if Queer Theory itself can only see black and white, hetero- and homosexual, and doesn't “see” blue—or bisexual.
Our society is still arguing over what it means to be bisexual. Fifty-fifty? Confused? On the down low? Polyamorous? Androgynous? Intersex? Some people still seem to think, like the broadsheet journalists of the eighteenth century, that a gay man is a “woman hater.” If he can kiss a woman without throwing up, he must be bisexual. More often, on the other side, there's a tendency to see any same-sex activity as outweighing all opposite-sex activity, to the point that even a man who is married by choice and in love with his wife, and who also has sex with men, must “really” be gay.
These misconceptions and half-baked ideas are all labels applied by others, sometimes from within the queer community. We roar in outrage when a “white” person tells other people what they look like to her, what “label” she thinks applies to them, but many people still accept the false categories applied to bisexuals. There was an ugly scene in an episode of Sex and the City, when Carrie Bradshaw was briefly involved with a bisexual boyfriend, a sweet, handsome young man who took her to a party where she reluctantly kissed a girl—and didn't like it. “Choose a side and stick with it,” Carrie and her friends decided in the post mortem. As if love and sex is a war and we're on opposite sides, or worse, some ghastly team sport.
Yet increasingly—and thank goodness—not only are we insisting on labeling ourselves, we're moving beyond labels altogether.
I haven't “come out” in any big dramatic way despite my writing, hoping that the stories will speak for themselves. For my appearance in The Bilicious Show I necessarily identified as bisexual, and it's not wrong—it just feels inadequate. “Performer” and “comedian” are labels that define me as well, and mean as much to me, as anything to do with my unconventional sexuality.
One interesting aspect of bisexuality is that it's a way of being that, unlike exclusive hetero- and homosexuality, can involve both sexual orientation and sexual preference. For someone like me, and the persona I write through, a woman whose strongest identifiable romantic characteristic is her preference for a bisexual husband, that is so far beyond the popular consciousness that its color equivalent would have to be something like fuchsia or chartreuse, words that arose from a specific individual or place. Perhaps there will be an “annherendeen” sexual orientation term someday, although I certainly hope not.
Instead, as I said in my performance, my hope is that I'm leading the way. If just one woman shows how sexy and cool bi guys are, then perhaps the rest of the world will follow—eventually. Bisexual men, currently the Rodney Dangerfield of the LGBT community, could become, in this label-free future, both desirable and unremarkable. And maybe even get some respect.