A couple of years ago, when I was a regular participant in a “bisexual social discussion group,” I used to have fun with a good friend, a bisexual man married to a woman, debating the difference between a bisexual man and a gay man married to a woman. We weren’t seriously trying to name names or define other people—it was more of an amusing unresolvable question, the middle-aged successor to those college dorm philosophy all-nighters that some people supposedly enjoyed as undergraduates.
Looking back at it now, I’m struck at how the question hinges less on distinctions within queer identity and more on the way marriage itself has changed over the centuries. My friend and I were talking primarily about people today, but because I’m an antisocial dork who’s read a fair amount of history, I found myself referring more easily to examples from the past. King William III? Gay. James I? Good father, affectionate husband but…probably gay. Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville West? Oh, just stop already!
One of the most useful examinations of the subject I’ve found recently is in Michael Feingold’s review of Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party in the Village Voice of Sept. 1. I’m tempted to cite the whole damn thing, but these ‘graphs will have to suffice:
“Homosexual practices, found throughout nature, have probably been part of human life since it first evolved, but homosexuality, as we understand it, has existed for barely more than a century. Oscar Wilde, a married man with two children, who saw his attraction to younger men in part as continuing an ancient Platonic tradition of ideal love, probably did not think of himself as a homosexual—not, at least, until after his imprisonment.
Homosexual identity, often viewed today as a central and absolute character trait, was seen through most of history as a quirk affecting very few. Men … embraced each other, and slept together for warmth; men took sexual advantage of slaves they owned, boys they mentored, servants they employed; prisoners, soldiers, and sailors, apart from women, engaged in clandestine mutual pleasuring. But most of them assumed that, when conditions altered, they would engage with women and presumably produce children. Few, no matter which role they played in the act, would have assumed an exclusively homosexual preference; a great many might have been startled to know that people who thought themselves exclusively homosexual even existed.”
In some ways, therefore, before the late twentieth century, that elusive distinction my friend and I were trying to tease out simply couldn’t be made. If there’s no “gay identity,” it’s hard to make a case for bisexual identity; and the difference between a bisexual man and a gay man married to a woman is a lot like calculus: trying to find the slope (two dimensions) of a point (one-dimension).
But surely, we protest, there have always been men who were romantically attracted to women and men who were not; men who married women for love and men who married only because they wanted to have legitimate children to inherit their property and continue the family business. The short answer: yes. And no.
As the ongoing struggle for marriage equality shows, gay identity as Feingold describes it has arisen during much the same time that our concept of marriage has undergone its last, fundamental change. Many people are now aware that for most of human history, marriage was a social arrangement between families, not two people. It was a way to secure property and create alliances at the upper levels of royalty and nobility, to consolidate businesses and make connections at the middle-class level, and to share the work of farm and household at the lowest level of peasant or agricultural laborer.
In the long centuries before now, a time when most people lived in villages and worked on farms, there were jobs that only women did, and jobs that only men did. As Stephanie Coontz discusses in her book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, in the Western European peasant tradition, men plowed and did more of the field work, while women milked and managed the chickens and eggs. The particulars might vary from country to country, but the idea of two men setting up a household was laughable—not because of sexual taboos, or not necessarily, but because of the impossibility of one of the men doing “women’s work.”
Coontz’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in the topic. Her main point is that it’s only very recently that marriage has become almost completely free of these economic and household concerns. Yes, Jane Austen’s novels are famous for arguing that a good marriage is more likely to result from a love match than from one that is purely mercenary or practical; but the fact that this was still a debate in her time shows the issue was by no means resolved. Beyond any quibbles over chickens, eggs, plowing and property, marriage was the way a young person, male or female, became an adult and entered the larger society. In the distant past of medieval and ancient times, romantic love was viewed more as an inconvenience than as a desirable occurrence.
When I came to write my bisexual version of her Pride and Prejudice, what interested me most was how her two main male characters viewed marriage. Anyone who’s read (and liked) Austen’s novel must be struck at how genuine the m/f love stories are. Do any of us seriously doubt that Mr. Darcy loves Elizabeth or that Mr. Bingley loves her sister Jane? If I felt, as I did, that the two men also love each other, did that require seeing the two loves, m/f and m/m, as different in some way? And for most of my book, I portrayed “Fitz” (Fitzwilliam Darcy) as making this distinction: “We share the purest form of love,” he tells Charles (Bingley), “one that can exist solely between men—disinterested love whose only object is its own fulfillment, that looks for no advantage of money or condition” (p. 226).
Yet when it comes to the women, hasn’t there always been a nervous giggle in the back of our minds about Elizabeth’s feelings? When she jokes with her sister (in Austen’s novel) that “I believe I must date [my love for Mr. Darcy] from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (vol. 3, chapter 17), don’t many of us wonder if there isn’t some truth to the statement—all the more reason to pass it off as another of her typical teasing remarks. It’s not because Elizabeth is mercenary that we think this—or at least I don’t. It’s because at that time, as Fitz has made clear in his declaration to Charles, women simply did not have the luxury of pursuing “disinterested” love. The social and economic situation for middle- and upper-class women was such that these concerns could never be separated from the prudent choice of a marriage partner. Lydia, who has a very modern (or perhaps just naturally human) notion of sex and love, is less “liberated” than stupid or self-destructive by the standards of her society. The best one could hope for, as some women my age might remember being told by their mothers, “it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as with a poor man.”
In a world where love was supposed to develop within marriage, to be the result of the wedding, not the cause of it, the idea that a young gentleman of good fortune was not “in want of a wife” (as Austen’s famous opening sentence states) was close to unthinkable. Yes, she was making fun of the husband-hunting women and their families who consider him, as she goes on to say, “the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” But realistically, as I say in my note at the end of P/P, “marriage to a lady of good family was the objective of every gentleman of good fortune.” (p. 410).
By Austen’s time, there were men who did resist marriage to women because they preferred other men. But at Fitz and Charles’s level, with their very good fortunes indeed, and no brothers to take on the responsibilities of creating a household and producing children and heirs, there could be no avoiding marriage. Of course, then as always, there were married men who also had sex with men. Modern culture has begun to show us, in works like the television series Six Feet Under and the movie (based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel) A Single Man, gay men who have, by choice, and sometimes enjoy, sexual relationships with women. The big difference, in our time, is that people, men and women, can embrace an identity based on who they fall in love with, not simply who they have sex with, or not only that.
Many readers and scholars consider Pride and Prejudice the greatest romance novel of all time because of its love story between a gentleman of good fortune and a lady of very small portion who find in each other that love between equals that is today’s most desired and admired pairing. If I dared to imagine that same ideal husband as also loving his male friend, I knew this love could only be bisexual, not gay. Fitz and Charles aren’t “cheating” on Lizzie and Jane, nor do they love their wives any less because they continue to love each other. They are expressing both sides of their bisexual nature. Their marriages, financially imprudent as they were for the men, are every bit as “disinterested” as their own same-sex love. And that, to me, is the fascinating and hidden triumph of Austen’s beautiful, witty story.