[On language: in order to keep the rating of this page as inclusive as possible, I have made a couple of clearly marked substitutions of words considered “adult” in some of the material quoted herein. I do not find the original language dirty or unacceptable or offensive to me, however, because I discuss sex, sexuality, and the politics of sexual identity in this space I prefer to adhere to some arbitrary censorship of particular words some might find problematic to avoid a more general and repellent censorship of ideas. It is more important to me to preserve the intellectual content of the quote then preserve one or two words, even if they were originally intended to break away from euphemism.]
Should the end goal of queer activism be for us to trim or mask those parts of us that don’t fit the current models and institutions, or should it be to alter those institutions to be suitable for all people and drive the incorporation of multiple models?
“Radicals still don’t accept that institutions currently structured are in any sense universal or maximally indicate human needs… Being allowed ‘in’ to mainstream culture is not the goal that we originally aimed at. It wasn’t that we wanted to become accepted members of established institutions; it was rather that we wanted to change the institutions.” Martin Duberman, 2012
Bi Queer Theory:
Queer theory, the study of Queer as Queer, as something that breaks the mainstream, as something that disrupts common understanding of the world. It’s post-structuralist, post-modern.
I’m of two minds about post-modernism. On the one hand, there certainly is some value in looking deeply at text, context, and subtext and at the role of subjective interpretations of literature (and, really, if you want to go deep, all interpretations of everything – one of my favorite pieces of writing is Samuel R. Delany’s textual examination of science fiction in the afterword to Triton). The flaws, of course, are when you go all pomo, you run that risk of not only not being understood, but no longer being understandable or accessible, or finding yourself in a place where your conclusions are so divorced from quotidian reality that they are difficult to translate into practical terms. It’s got its place, but while I’m willing to draw on it when I need to, I also just am not mentally in the right zone to dismiss everything as subjective, even though I agree with the basic queer theory concept that gender and sexual orientation are in a very real sense performances.
As I look around at the essentialism that taints our society, for example the idea that men are men because they are men rather than the idea that men are men because they are raised to be what society deems manly, I’m fundamentally disturbed by it. Does testosterone have an impact on aggression? Sure. But it’s not “testosterone poisoning” that makes things like rape jokes part of generally accepted male interactions – it’s culture.
This essentialism, one that denies all social construction, is to me as faulty as the view that everything about gender and sexuality is socially constructed. As with nearly everything, I feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle – that there are certain essential characteristics that we label as masculine or feminine in this culture, characteristics that while their assignment is socially constructed for a particular role, do have a certain innateness to them.
I’m going to step outside my field of study for a brief moment, into transgender studies, and make a statement that is really a way to ask a question. If there is nothing, nothing at all about being a man or a woman that is essential to some degree (and clearly not to the degree that the hardcore Gender Police would say), then the idea that someone can have a gender identity other than the one they were assigned at birth, and go through the sheer hell they go through to bring their outside (their performance) into congruence with their inside (their essence), would seem to be invalid, pointless, an illusion. And I do not believe in any way that transgender people’s gender identities, whether they reflect the poles of gender or a spot on the continuum without a specific label, are not valid. I think when my friend Blake introduces himself as a man, it’s not because he thinks he’s a man – I think it is because he is a man, and frankly he’s put too much work and gone through too much crap to hold the view that it’s all because of some arbitrary social construction. There is something too real and visceral about his identity for it to be a mere illusion of society.
Bisexuality versus Assimilationism:
Bisexuality is fundamentally disruptive. Bisexuality breaks the simple either/or worldview that both the dominant heterosexual culture and much of gay and lesbian culture adhere to – especially the parts of it that can be called “conservagay” as well as the parts that are being mined by dominant culture. Parts that typically started as camp, as teh queer lampooning the heteronormative society that now seems to think that watching Queer Eye For The Straight Guy or signing a petition for “gay marriage” because every queer person wants to get married to just one person and live in the suburbs with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids and a catdog means they understand exactly what it means to be gay. Because anyone that’s queer is gay and isn’t interested in anyone but their own gender.
Bisexuality messes with that.
A foundational text for looking at bisexuality is Ronald Fox’s exhaustive and astounding literature review “Bisexuality in Perspective” that opens section 1 of Firestein’s Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority. He goes into the pathologization of bisexuality, the need for community in identity development, some history, and a lot of research and theory. I could quote the entire piece, but there is one bit that is most relevant to this article (emphasis mine):
Theorists and researchers who saw heterosexuality and homosexuality as irreconcilable opposites have asserted that individuals who self-identify as bisexual or whose sexual attractions or behavior are not exclusively heterosexual or homosexual are in denial about their “real” gay or lesbian sexual orientation. (p. 21)
Q1: Anyone want to guess how many of the researchers saying such things identified as bisexual?
Q2: Anyone want to guess how many of the gay/lesbian researchers saying such things were people who had used the label bisexual as a handy rest stop on the way to monosexual queerdom?
This idea, that a mature gay/lesbian identity requires an absolute rejection of anything to do with “opposite” gender attractions leads to an idea that queer culture requires either a rejection or a queering of straight culture.
Now, queering straight culture? Making the dominant culture look at itself through eyes other than its own? That’s great. And making a space in that culture, assimilating?
These together introduce a fatal contradiction, because you can’t reject or queer dominant culture and assimilate at the same time. Assimilation requires the removal of all things queer that can’t be seamlessly adapted to dominant culture.
Bisexuals challenge the dominant culture because we’re queer. Our attractions don’t match up with the tiny little box (that most straight people don’t even see – some do, and they aren’t the problem) of heterosexuality.
But we also challenge gay/lesbian culture, because we don’t fit that little box either.
We challenge gay/lesbian culture in many of the same ways we challenge straight culture. Some of us challenge it with declarations of fluidity, a recognition that attractions can wax and wane and that labels are arbitrary. (I don’t see myself as fluid. I’m middle-aged and I don’t see the general patterns of attraction I’ve had my entire life changing anytime soon.) Some of us challenge it by directly contradicting the idea that queer is the opposite of straight. Some of us challenge it by appearing to be straight or appearing to be gay – I’m not talking about voluntarily being in the closet, but about being put into one by gays and lesbians and by people who define our orientation strictly in terms of behavior.
The dominant culture sees everything in terms of binaries. Black/White, Hot/Cold, Gay/Straight, Male/Female, Smart/Stupid, Normal/Abnormal. I don’t think this is entirely constructed, I think it’s the way the human mind operates. If you need to make a choice or put something in a category, two is the smallest number that lets you differentiate. This or That.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s alien species the Moties have three arms, two that are for fine manipulation and one much stronger. Their metaphor for choosing between alternatives, rather than our human “on the one hand/on the other hand” is “one hand/other hand/Gripping Hand” where the third choice is more compelling and quite different than the either/or.
One of the consequences of the either/or metaphor is that there are only two choices, and those choices are entirely separate and distinct.
That the two choices presented are exhaustive.
Bisexuality hits the supposedly mutually exclusive states of hetero and homo like a brick hits a window. It disrupts the assimilationist view in particular. Look closely at how the “opposites” idea, in an assimilationist view, really works.
“We’re just like you in every single way except for this one thing that is different but ultimately trivial. We are like the left and right of a pair of mittens. We have the same desires, just directed at people of the same gender. You can trust us because we’re the same.”
Yes. In many ways we are the same. But in order to fit bisexuality into this narrative, we are forced to remove a part of ourselves – same gender attraction to assimilate into the heteronormative, other gender attraction to fit the homonormative. In mitten world, we’re a pair of ambidexterous gloves, and we don’t feel that we should be forced to bind our fingers together in order to fit into mittens. Why can’t we have gloves?
So in a very important sense, straight and lesbian/gay can be seen as nearly indistinguishable. This is not necessarily a good thing. It is a good thing for you, if you choose to (and are able to) focus entirely on those similarities as a basis for acceptance. But I question the long-term effects on the “mainstream queer” movement, because an exclusive focus on similarities leads to tolerance.
What’s wrong with tolerance?
You are only tolerated as long as the dominant culture is comfortable with you, and what makes them comfortable is being able to ignore you without consequence. An ideology of assimilation through tolerance forces anyone who is outside the bounds of sameness to amputate the very things that make them individuals. It eliminates the polyamorous (straight, gay, or bi). It eliminates those whose sexual practices fall under the broad heading of kink. It eliminates anyone who does not approach a transgender identity with the specific goal of becoming a “normal” person of the “opposite” gender, willing to restrict themselves to attraction only to one of the two accepted genders – the “opposite” or the same. It is straightness and gayness that erase the genderqueer.
Here’s the kicker of tolerant assimilation. It’s a fraud. It’s nothing more than a bigger closet, because as soon as you do something that makes your neighbor uncomfortable, you’re outta there – whether your neighbor is straight or gay. Assimilation serves only to allow queer to police itself into an appearance of compliance with the normative, with dire consequences for those who step outside.
And the relentless normativity of assimilation erases bisexuals from both the dominant heteronormative culture and the mainstream queer culture that mirrors, with meticulous exactitude, that dominant culture with the only difference being the gender of your spouse. There’s no room inside the white picket fence for the rebel, for the kinky, for the ambiguous.
Assimilation is a form of erasure, and while those who can readily assimilate may be more comfortable in their snug cocoon, free of overt prejudice, it does nothing or less than nothing for everyone else.
Bisexuality is incompatible with assimilation. It says that there is more than one gender that is acceptable, and it broadens our conceptions of both gender and sexuality. Greta Christina, in her article “Bi Sexuality” in Tucker’s 1995 anthology Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, & Visions:
It’s that not making the distinction between the gender you [have sex with] and the gender you don’t makes you see the other differences between the genders in a radically different way. And for that matter, it makes you see the similarities in a radically different way. I think bisexuals have a unique sense – a sense that comes from first-hand experience – of which sexual tendencies are common to the culture, which ones are idiosyncratic to the individual, and which ones tend to break down along gender lines.
In heterosexual culture, concepts of top and bottom frequently tend to be normalized along gender lines, to the point that a hetero man who likes to be topped is seen as unusual if not in some cases pathological and feminized – people laugh at or look askance at the stereotype of the powerful man who gets caught visiting a Dom (and that’s short for Dominatrix, a woman who tops men, ridiculously gendered language in a world where a male top is a Master and a mistress is a “kept woman”).
In classical Mediterranean cultures of antiquity, it’s commonly said that top and bottom were really the only sexual orientations, and that modern concepts of hetero/homo/bisexuality simply didn’t apply, which is true to a certain extent – however, there was a very strong gender division operating as only men had the option of being tops, at least for the most part (no clue if Sappho and her lovers performed the same sort of power play). The same holds true for some aspects of modern Latin culture, where a man who is the “active” partner in same-gender intercourse can be considered a straight man, while a man adopting a “passive” role is considered feminized.
Such are the assimilative and erasing tactics of some modern high-profile gay men who claim that men who are attracted to people who would be considered to have preponderantly female characteristics are still straight even if the object of their attraction has a penis, only men who desire the masculine are “really” gay, and men who genuinely enjoy both are immature or confused or lying about it. (Yes, I keep promising that article on Dan Savage. It will come.)
The boxes of straight and gay, then, in an assimilative view, are identical, and there is no place in either for the bisexual – or the genderqueer, except as objects of fetish.
For these assimilationists, then, even to acknowledge bisexuality would be to put a match to their boxes and burn away the identities that they have crafted. The pushback against the bisexual is a way to assert that those pushing back are “normal”. In this world they have constructed for themselves, while homophobia is an unfortunate act of bigots that approaches the status of mental illness, biphobia is an acceptable way of delineating their own identity, of marking themselves as the integrated and healthy and mature people that until relatively recently they were (and in some circles like the ex-gay movement, to this day still are) denied the ability to be.
Grow up. Go to college if you are capable of handling academia. Get a good job. Get married. Buy a house. Have (or adopt) some kids. Pay the taxes you can’t avoid. Upward social mobility. This sounds really familiar, doesn’t it?
Assimilation gives those few people who are positioned to seize onto (and live) the American Dream in all respects but their sexual orientation. In other words, people with stratospheric levels of privilege. (Sort of like mine – hey, I have a buttload of advantages because of my race, my cismale gender, my socioeconomic class, my lack of visible disability, my country of origin. In fact, I actually got to live the American Dream for a couple of years before my job went away, my house lost 1/3 of its value, and my credit went down the tubes – but the fact I can even worry about things like my credit rating while I complain on the internet about my worries about getting into a Master’s Degree program shows just how much privilege I still have.)
Now, I’m not knocking marriage equality here. Equal rights for all, due process under the law. It’s an important battle. It’s just not the only one. It’s a very top-down approach to equal rights and equal treatment. I am keenly aware of the struggles of people who have horrible things happen to them because they are legally denied the right to name the one they love the most their next of kin, or have to struggle for custody of a child who they are the parent of in all respects but for a few genes.
Marriage equality is necessary. My fear, however, is that if it is achieved without fixing systemic issues at lower levels, while it will do some people a lot of good, it’s also going to do bupkis for a lot of people – and the people who will be left out in the cold will be the people who are just too queer for the mainstream, too queer to assimilate. And why are we too queer? Is it because we’re complex?
The Complexities of Bisexuality:
Monosexuality is simple, and bisexuality is complex, right? It has to be complex to have such a shattering effect on the paradigms of the dominant monosexual culture. I mean, it’s confusing, it’s hard to get a handle on, myths about bisexuality are based on people who really do these things, did I tell you about the guy I was dating who turned out to be married the cheating scum, did I tell you about the woman who left me for a man just like everyone said she would. It’s complicated!
A friend of mine said something that’s a perfect rebuttal to this. “All the ‘complexities’ of bisexuality are non-existent, they are simply excuses made up by people who don’t want to accept its existence so they mistake the noise for the signal.”
You know what’s really complex? The dominant heteronormative and mononormative culture. The rigid gender roles that shift but manage to remain rigid. The contradictions, that a man can affectionately pat another man on the buttocks, but only if they have been playing a manly-man sport like football. That a man who marries a woman who is 30 years his junior is a powerful and virile man worthy of respect, but a woman who marries a man 30 years younger is a cougar with a boytoy worthy of jest. (And I really wonder, if the “irreconcilable opposite” is given the illusion of reconciliation through the primacy of mononormativity, how these age disparities will be categorized, if the current language will stay or if the gay and lesbian paradigms will yield to the straight versions.)
The chisel that shatters the diamond, the brick through the window, these are the simplest of instruments, and bisexuality may be the simplest of all orientations. Seriously.
Here’s monosexual attraction: “I am attracted to only those people whose gender and/or gender presentation fits a specific definition of gender that is either the same as mine, or the opposite of mine.”
Here’s bisexuality: “I am attracted to people of the same and other genders.”
What’s complex about that? Only the myths, the stereotypes, the dross and baggage that has accumulated around the label, causing some to reject it in favor of the most specific or the most general label you can locate, or even no label at all, as if refusing to label somehow allows you to do the performance that having any public sexuality entails. But having a mutually reinforcing yet contradictory body of myth and stereotype surrounding a simple concept does not make the concept complicated in and of itself.
It makes it a concept that has been complexified in order to make it easier to dismiss.
Bi Queer Theory Redux:
The lesson of Queer Theory is that sexual orientation, like gender presentation, entails performance. Assimilation tries to pretend that there is no difference between straight and gay, and yet it simultaneously produces an antagonistic tension that straight and gay are fundamentally different, because if I know you are straight, I know you’re not gay and vice versa. Two neat little categories, one always outnumbered, one always the inferior, one always burdened with the responsibility of making sure that it’s fitting in with what the majority expects of itself. It produces a state where you can be out of the closet as long as your family is exactly like the family right next door in yet another house made out of ticky-tacky.
A lot of what’s thought of as Queer Theory is just Gay and Lesbian Theory. The incorporation of bisexuality into Queer Theory queers that theory even further, and that is a necessary queering.
We are different. And the origins of queer liberation, real liberation, is to celebrate that difference and to say “No. You move.” I’m not going to descend into the happy illusion that this liberation stayed true to these radical roots for long, even though there were people who did. But the radicals have always been outnumbered by the assimilationists.
The more I do this, the more I think about these things, the more radical I get. I don’t want to be given a place where I can exist quietly provided I don’t rock the boat. I want to tear off the roof and build a new story – and that is not a mixed metaphor. It’s a Queer one.
So, have I in any way answered the question that I opened with so many scrolls up the page? Should the end goal of queer activism be for us to trim or mask those parts of us that don’t fit the current models and institutions, or should it be to alter those institutions to be suitable for all people and drive the incorporation of multiple models?
It’s a question that bears asking. I’ve answered it for myself. It’s up to you to answer it for yourself. Because I no more have the right to answer it for you than you have the right to answer it for me. I cannot tell you if conforming or not conforming, assimilating or resisting, is right for your situation, your life, your individual circumstances. But the converse holds true as well – I will not get stuck back in a closet, no matter how large and comfortable it may seem.