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From Phyllida's Desk

Barbarism, Decadence, and Bisexuality

There is a disparaging quotation about Russia (more often now applied to the USA), claiming that it went directly from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization. I thought of this after reading Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, last year's multiple-award nominated novel, only in this case it's bisexuality that has been skipped over. Not to equate bisexuality with civilization but .... it sometimes feels as if our society has moved within the span of a human life from homophobia and persecution to (in some places) acceptance of sexual and gender fluidity--without ever acknowledging bisexuality.

A Little Life isn't "about" sexuality, bi or otherwise. (This post isn't meant to be a traditional book review. It's just thoughts I had after reading a long novel that I otherwise very much enjoyed.) Yanagahira has said that she wanted to write about male friendship, and this very long novel follows four young men from their freshman year as college roommates through three decades of professional and personal life. A refreshing aspect of the book is how many of the peripheral characters have same-sex partners.

The bisexual erasure begins early. One of the four main characters, Malcolm, worries that, in his early twenties, he has not yet "sorted out" his sexuality. A former partner has called him "confused" and Malcolm himself, after "falling in and out of love with" several people of different genders, can't decide if he is "gay." Malcolm appears to stumble through a strictly binary world in which the only categories are gay and straight. It's hard to understand how a book published last year, and whose setting is present-day New York City and Boston, can portray a young man who is attracted to more than one gender as having to "choose" an orientation, rather than as simply bisexual (or fluid or pansexual or omnisexual or simply unlabeled). Nowhere, not once in over 700 pages, is the B-word mentioned (searches in the e-book for "bisexual" and "bisexuality" produced zero hits).

The oddest bi erasure occurs with the central story: the love between the main character, Jude, and his closest friend among the other three, Willem. Jude and Willem have been roommates for years when Willem, who is primarily oriented toward women, realizes that not only does he love Jude, he desires him physically, and the two become a couple.

But Jude, who has survived a childhood of horrific physical and sexual abuse, is necessarily asexual. Once Willem understands that Jude cannot enjoy sex, he returns to women for sexual satisfaction, maintaining the romantic relationship with Jude. Willem, a professional actor, lives in a world in which women have "had boyfriends who had slept with ... men." These women accept Willem's condition (sex without relationship) while asking him "are you not really gay?"

At this point, Willem is pressured by an LGBT organization to come out as "gay," because he's in a relationship with a man. Willem's response is that he doesn't love "men," only Jude. Willem never denies the relationship, only the label. That Willem might be bisexual is never suggested, by him or anyone. And the irony that an "LGBT" organization allows only G passes without comment. (See Shiri Eisner's 2013 book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution for a critique of what she calls the "GGGG" movement.)

So, you know, WtF?

This story reminds me of Bob and Rose, a 2001 TV show, in which an out-and-proud gay man (Bob) falls in love with and eventually marries a woman (Rose), to the shock and dismay of his friends. Like Willem, Bob rejects the idea that his orientation had changed. "I'm not attracted to women," he says, "just Rose." Back in 2001, this was such a radical idea that the show's creator, Russell T. Davies (of Queer as Folk and Torchwood) had to defend the storyline as based on real life (a friend's experience), truth being stranger--and more bisexual--than fiction.

Here's what I think: bi-erasure happens because bisexuality is so common. People don't see it or write about it because it doesn't feel like a "thing." It's so natural that it doesn't register, unlike the extremes of exclusively gay or hetero.

I think most people are bisexual. Not everyone; I believe some people are exclusively monosexual. But sexuality, like gender, is a continuum, and if we define the middle widely enough, if bisexual means the potential to be attracted to more than one gender, then it is a majority. For example, on the crude but still useful Kinsey scale of 0 (heterosexual) to 6 (homosexual), anyone between a 1 and a 5 qualifies as bisexual. If we incorporate Fritz Klein's idea that sexuality can change over time, still more of us may at some point recognize ourselves as bisexual.

Why is this so radical? Is it radical?

Our culture is still recovering from thousands of years of Judeo-Christian demonization of same-sex desire. If one kind of sexuality is criminalized and pathologized, the only people who will pursue it despite the dangers are those who truly have no options, the Kinsey 6s, the exclusively homosexual people. Some of the 5s, the people whose primary but not exclusive attractions are same-sex, will also be compelled to risk their lives to satisfy their emotional and biological needs. People who experience more varied ("equal") attractions, and those who are predominantly heterosexual, the Kinsey 4s through 1s, will try to suppress their same-sex desires in the interest of safety. This doesn't mean they aren't bisexual, only that they may have a better chance of controlling their same-sex behavior and escaping punishment.

When a society forces everybody to hide their same-sex activities, it creates a false binary between the apparent majority of heterosexuals, and the minority of homosexuals and gay-bi people who are unfortunate enough to be caught. Once things finally began to change with the gay revolution, the strongest, most emphatic, rejection of homophobia and oppression was to proclaim an exclusively gay identity. In this way, the gay movement may have reinforced the (false) binary.

Bisexuality is, of course, a normal and natural expression of human, and animal, biology and culture. For most of our past, across all cultures, bisexuality has coexisted with (mostly) heteronormative social structures. Rarely has it been defined as "bisexual." Much of human culture has been (and still is) misogynistic or sexist. The way male bisexuality was expressed often benefited cisgender men whose behavior fit their society's definition of masculine, while marginalizing people whose gender and sexual identities were more fluid, trans or inter.

I don't think we can or should look to this heteronormative bisexual past as a model for today's society. Another revolution, the ongoing struggle of women to control our bodies, our sexuality, and our reproduction, makes such a return impossible. But I think this is where bisexual erasure comes from, in part. With our (re)acceptance of same-sex love, we have resumed a more natural existence, acknowledging the variety of attractions and desires and loves that people experience over a lifetime. We're still ping-ponging between the oppression of the past millenniums and the recent sexual and gay revolutions. We don't yet recognize our normal bisexuality for what it is--normal. We have begun to understand that sexuality and gender exist on a continuum, but we still think identity should cluster at the ends, the extremes, where homophobia and misguided religion placed it.

Sexuality, like gender, is as much cultural as physical/biological: the more a society approves of same-sex and bisexual identities and behavior, the more people will feel free to acknowledge and express their bisexuality. I'm not advocating anything so dreary as tolerance, but rather encouragement and celebration, as existed, for example, in ancient Athens for the privileged male elite, the citizens.

I hope that, over time, we can stop forcing people into categories, and instead accept everyone as human beings, of various genders, sexual and asexual; and that we will come to recognize (again) the enduring nature of bisexuality and appreciate it as an essential part of our humanity, our exuberant creativity.

For any masochists who have the stamina, I'm including the link to a paper I wrote for a romance-studies conference that explores some of these ideas at great length.


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