When I was a kid, I read several times through the books put together from Art Linkletter’s popular TV shows House Party and Kids Say The Darndest Things (not Bill Cosby’s anemic modern version, but the classic of live television). They featured, among other things, Charles M. Schulz’s drawings of adults, something Peanuts fans would find fascinating.
There was a line from these books that has stuck with me for over 30 years. “Daddy’s an adult and Mommy’s an adulteress.” It’s an amusing malapropism, a child’s misunderstanding of the odd nature of the English language – I mean, there are words that are taken to be masculine even though they don’t actually have any gendered connotation that are feminized with a suffix. My favorite example is actor/actress – and I prefer use the word actor for anyone performing on stage, film, or TV. Waiter/waitress, steward/stewardess, the professions are full of them, and in cases where they aren’t it’s because of a history of rigid gender roles: there is no term “doctoress” because if you were female-identified in the medical professions, you were at best a nurse, and the “masculinization” of the term (murse) is seen as derogatory. A man acting like a woman must be of lesser value, because he’s… acting like a woman.
If you’ve made even the most cursory study of gender in the US, you’re aware that the masculine is the normative – like being White, it simply goes without saying, and if you’re not, then you have to modify the words to indicate such. Adult is one of the few words that is free from this gender policing, which is what threw the little kid who made the above observation.
Gender policing takes a few different forms. One is slut-shaming, and it’s built into the language. For example, a man with a lot of (socially acceptable female-identified) lovers is a Lady’s Man or a stud or a philanderer. That last one is especially interesting to me, because while it has a generally negative connotation, there is no parallel feminine word. Philanderer is classical and sounds sophisticated because it comes from the Greek. The words for a woman with the same sexual practices? Whore or prostitute (implying that she’s doing it for money), slut or slag, roundheels… Nothing with the antiseptic and clinical feel of “philanderer” (although I’ve seen the ultimately unsatisfying term “philangyrer” in an old home medical encyclopedia). Slut is often compared to stud, both good solid Anglo-Saxon rooted words, but the connotations are completely different, with stud being almost entirely positive. Men joke about a “stud finder” in the hardware store, pointing it at themselves and saying “beep”, but there’s no such thing as a “slut finder” that isn’t putting someone down.
(I have heard the word “stud” as a part of lesbian discourse, but other than knowing it’s out there I am not familiar enough with its meanings and connotations to expand on it – I am reluctant to go to the internet for a definition because frankly the way the internet defines identities is too often utterly different from the way people identify themselves in the real world, and I’m afraid if I look up “Lesbian Stud” on Tumblr I’ll come away with the impression that it, like bisexuality on much of Tumblr, means something very far from what people who actually use it mean by it. Anyone who identifies as a female Stud would gain my gratitude if they were to explain it to me in a way that I can understand.)
Significant gender policing is directed at males. (I’m not going to address gender policing towards women and the genderqueer, because I am not qualified to do so, and I don’t want to mansplain – I’d rather listen, and keep my discourse on those few things I actually have some authentic knowledge of – male bisexuality, a bit of philosophy, applied psychology, and science fiction for the most part.)
A huge part of male gender policing is directed at the queer, and those suspected of being queer, because being queer is so deeply tied to notions of gender – from the early roots of modern queer identification when we were all seen as psychologically immature and gender nonconforming by definition, through brain studies this century purporting to show that the brains of straight men and lesbians are the same, as well as the brains of straight women and gay men.
(Regarding those brain studies: oh, goody, yet another scientific study that doesn’t include bisexuals. I’m very much in favor of science as a discipline, but the older I get and the more I learn about history and philosophy, the more I distrust any conclusions about specifics. Scientists tend to support the current cultural paradigms and then vehemently deny that they are doing so – take a look at Fausto-Sterling’s examination of how race (and gender) was “scientifically” viewed not that long ago, views that are now easily recognized as inherently racist and supporting the White Man’s Burden of European colonial imperialism. The methods of science require the asking of very small, very specific questions that can be measured in specific and definable ways – the grand conclusions are philosophy, and when the metaphysical assumptions of this philosophy are denied, what you get is scientism, not the scientific method. Drawing foolish unsupportable conclusions, such as saying that one gene on the X or Y chromosome is “responsible” for hetero- or homosexuality or that “gay men have feminized brains therefore they are all just women in men’s bodies”, gives too much ammunition to the purveyors of pseudoscientific derp like Young Earth Creationism or The Law Of Attraction.)
Back to gender policing in males – it is a given in modern American culture that the worst thing you can possibly be, as a man, is in any way feminine. It’s crazy-making, because what culture views as masculine and feminine are not only arbitrary, but self-contradictory and constantly shifting. What was manly a hundred years ago is girlish today. (Don’t turn off because I said girlish, it’s important and I’ll be coming back to it.) Pink was a masculine color, crying in public and swearing oaths of eternal friendship to your BFF and being transported to the point of faintness by beauty were once considered the epitome of masculinity.
One of the ways that women are kept in their place is through infantilization. One of the ways that men are kept in their place is through not only infantilization, but feminized infantilization. A quick example: a male child on the cusp of puberty begins to weep in public. Does he get chided for this by being told to “stop acting like a little boy”? No. He gets called a baby, or a little girl – because in this culture, the worst thing you can be called is female, and the female is defined as immature, incomplete, and unworthy.
How is this relevant to discourse on bisexuality? The most obvious marker of queer sexuality is a same-gender partner – look at a picture of two bear hunks walking down the street with ripped muscles and broad shoulders daring someone to call them faggot. There is no gender ambiguity there.
The next is common symbols – the rainbow flag, for example, which supposedly covers all of teh queer in its many colors but is frequently simply seen as gay.
But from there on in, the markers are very much related to gender presentation. Even in the bear picture I mentioned, the thing that makes the picture effective is that two men with exaggerated masculinity are holding hands – and in this culture, two women holding hands doesn’t necessarily invite comment, but men try to crush each other’s hands when they shake them, much less walk down the street gently attached to each other. One of the things I do as a marker of queer is to link arms with another man and walk merrily down the path. (I’m generally too chicken to do this off-campus.)
Pink triangles. Purple seen as a gay color because it’s too close to pink. Jewelry. Makeup. Clothing traditionally seen as belonging to another gender. There’s another famous picture floating around of a man who is seen as being brave to wear a skirt in support of his young trans* son, but you don’t see women in pants seen as brave, at least not anymore thanks to people like Marlene Dietrich. (Who, by the way, is listed in this year’s “31 Days 31 Icons” project, but is not identified as bisexual, and whose polyamory is described in the writeup as “affairs”. Thanks a lot.)
You have Lumberdykes in flannel and boots; you have young men in form-fitting V-necks, designer skinny jeans, scarf with matching socks, and nice shoes; you have men with purses and women with wallets. You have earrings with pink triangles. You have rainbow tattoos (some that say Ally, and thank you for visibly committing yourself to my community is such a permanent way! You know who you are, B.W.!).
You have gender-bending attributes that people automatically see as gay, or if they view themselves as conceptually able to break out of the gender binary, as trans* or genderqueer.
What does not exist, outside of a tri-colored flag or symbol (or the actual word bi), is a recognized marker of bisexuality. The only images of bisexuality that are visible, that don’t involve screaming from the rooftops (or in a blog) “HEY! I’M BISEXUAL!”, are images of polyamory, and while there is a significant polyamorous bisexual population (and to the person who just came out as such, right on, glad you’re showing Pride, you also know who you are S.K.!) there is also a significant monogamous bisexual population who can’t help but feel when they see it that, well, that’s nice and all but it doesn’t represent me, just as if I were to say that only monogamous bisexuals belonged in the community I would be diminishing and erasing the polys. There’s room for us all Under The Rainbow, lesbian gay bisexual transgender asexual monogamous polyamorous kinky vanilla, we should ALL feel welcomed. When we are not, there is a problem.
The lack of markers is an inherent problem that both feeds off of and feeds into bisexual erasure, that permits researchers to make broad sweeping statements about what we do by ignoring the majority that they cannot see, that permits self-appointed gay spokesmen who would not blame gay people for being in the closet to blame bisexuals for getting shoved into one by the mainstream gay community, that makes it seem appropriate for people to say “No, but really, what is your exact preference among genders?” (Watch this space for more about that…)
Sometimes I act in ways that current Western society deems feminine. And they’ve made it perfectly clear to me for the last four decades that the worst thing I can possibly be is in any way feminized.
Feminism helps us all.