When a marginalized population seeks to gain rights that have been denied them, the tactic of further marginalizing parts of their own population is appealing and seemingly effective in the short run, but it causes more problems than it solves. Further marginalizing parts of your own community is not a suitable solution.
And yet, it’s what happens, day after day after day.
A Brief Recap Of History:
The modern Queer movement is generally dated from Stonewall. While the bottles were still being thrown, the transgressive element that stood up and said “We are not going to take it sitting down anymore” was being minimized by the assimilative element through the dual tactics of disowning them and co-opting them. I’ve written about Brenda Howard before, the outspoken bisexual activist who is known as the Mother of Pride, one of the main organizers of the Christopher Street Rally that has become the modern Pride Parade. Now, back in those days, the word “Gay” meant what “Queer” means now – it was an umbrella label for everyone who did not fit the heteronormative mainstream. If you were gender nonconforming or had any orientation other than straight (or both), you were called “Gay”.
Then came the homonormative. Things like the 1979 Cass model of identity development, which threw bisexuals under the bus by describing our broad spectrum of attraction as “immature”, described having other-gender attractions as something to get past as part of your development. You couldn’t be gay anymore if you had attractions other than same-gender.
There were also politics involved – many lesbians felt that the “Gay Agenda” served gay men very well, and left out the struggles that are unique to women. Some of this was tied up with 2d Wave feminism as well. So the label split into Gay and Lesbian.
Can you see the exclusionary tendency, the further marginalization started to take hold already?
I was recently in a room with a dozen committed, engaged bisexual activists. I asked people to raise their hand if they had ever heard of Brenda Howard. Fully 2/3 of the hands stayed down. This is how the co-opting and erasure of our own history has succeeded. Brenda was first gaywashed and then *poof* she was gone. She’s not the only one to disappear.
Which is how the next thing happened.
At the same event where I asked about Brenda, there was a man who thought he was an Ally to bisexuals – sort of like a couple other people I will bring up later – who said that he’d been involved in the Gay Rights Movement for over 40 years and a)why didn’t the bisexuals just get involved in the struggle and b)why we “tolerated erasure”. He was brilliantly and passionately informed by one of the speakers of just how ignorant and offensive he was being (and oh, how I wish I had a transcript of the speech we were treated to!), but he just didn’t get it. I personally spoke to him right afterward, because it was obvious he was still somewhere off the map, and I tried to tell him why what he was saying was problematic. But like so many of the people who erase and put down bisexuals, he was so convinced of his rightness and his Allyship that he was oblivious and impenetrable.
In Vernor Vinge’s classic SF novel A Fire On The Deep, there are interludes from the galactic information network, patterned after USENET. A few of these interludes featured an utterly clueless being named “Twirlip of the Mists”, who not only seemed to think that humans have six legs, but further insisted that this “hexapodia” was the “key insight” that would explain everything that was happening. At the moment that I found myself stymied by the Teflon of this well-meaning but offensively ignorant man’s beliefs, I realized that he was Twirlip of the Mists. And he’s not the only one.
Here’s another one: Dan Savage.
But, but, Dan Savage does so much for the Gay community! He’s saved lives with the “It Gets Better” Project! He’s one of the Voices of Gay!
Yes he does, yes he has, and yes he is. And that’s part of the problem. See, Dan Savage is one of those not unusual gay men who lied about his orientation when he was first coming out. Like so many others, he used my identity (Bisexual) as a way to dip a toe into Queer before following the stages of Cass and repudiating heterosexuality. He reinforced at least two of the major myths about bisexuality while he was doing so – and continues to do the same thing today. Myth One: Bi now, Gay later. Myth Two: Bisexuals are Tourists.
Now, Dan now claims that his views have evolved and the “Angry Bisexuals With Keyboards” (of whom I am one and have been blocked from interacting with him on Twitter because I once respectfully and politely asked him to consult with some actual bisexuals before pontificating about our existence and motivations in public) are giving him a raw deal for stuff he said in the past.
The problem with Dan Savage is he really hasn’t changed all that much. He has not repudiated his earlier words. Rather, he claims that the stunning insight that a lot of people who identify as gay now did, at one time, identify as bi, means that the most significant segment of bisexuals (especially bisexual youth) are Lying Tourists. (My words, because he’s politically savvy enough to not say what he means in terms that could be so easily understood.) He continues to insist that a bisexual 15 year old knows less about his sexual orientation that a gay 15 year old. One he is willing to embrace, the other he holds at arm’s length until they are old enough to be sure. Hey Dan! Guess what! When I was 15, I was sure, I just didn’t have words for it – and I was being told that I was either a straight guy getting the homoeroticism out of my system or a gay guy who was still trying to fit into heteronormative culture. I was bi then, and I’m bi now.
I was never straight.
So Dan Savage is another Twirlip, another dude who thinks that “hexapodia is the key insight”. He has doubled down and tried to claim that he’s really been Right all along, and we should just leave him alone.
Here’s another one: John Aravosis. Here’s a guy who is mad because some bisexual activists called him out on a horribly biphobic headline, where he characterized NJ Governor Chris Christie’s flop-flopping and refusal to take a stand as “bisexual”. It was a cheap joke, and an easy one for him to make. So because of this and other incidents where he’s done callous and ignorant things, he’s claiming that after being an Ally to bisexuals for years, he’s washing his hands of us – he went so far as to compare a well-known bisexual activist to Fred Phelps for the crime of pointing out to some of the populations that Dan has notoriously ignored that he would be available to answer questions on Aravosis’s blog. Signal-boosting and increasing his audience. The fiend!
We’ve all run into fake Allies before. One of the surest signs that someone is there for their Ally Cookie rather than to actually help is the threat to take their ball and go home when they receive even the mildest criticism. No real Ally says they are Out of the Ally Business because they get told they did something wrong. Being an Ally is not a title you can take, it is one that must be given to you.
(Aside: for my own part, I don’t like the language of Ally being applied to people within the LGBT community when they offer support to a letter other than their own. For a gay man to claim to be an Ally to bisexuals is as Othering and erasing as for a bisexual to describe themselves as an Ally when they support things like the Day of Silence or marriage equality – it means that for all intents and purposes they are saying that these issues don’t affect them personally.)
So, John Aravosis is another Twirlip. Someone who claims that because he recognized we existed before there was research weakly indicating so, he should get a free pass for anything he does – such as in 2007 calling bisexuals “part-time gay”, or in 2013 heading up his interview with Dan Savage with the question of whether bisexuals exist at all.
He simply can’t see how hurtful it is, in 2013, to even feel like this is a question that needs to be answered – although from the comments on the article, it seems that a lot of people still answer it “No.” I wonder how he would feel if straight people started seriously asking “Do Gay people exist?” Actually, some have. A few years back, the (now former) Chief of Police of my town said there were “no gay people in Saint Cloud”. This was in the context of a cop who had been highly respected Rookie of the Year being first outed and then fired for being gay. (Yes, they made up a different rationale for it, because in a state that has a non-discrimination Human Rights statute they have to cover their tracks – I’m assuming you all work for a living, you know that any of us can be fired at any time for any reason, and there are few to none of us who couldn’t be forced out of our jobs for the kind of trivial offenses that every single person does at one time or another. Ever checked a personal email at work, or lingered an extra minute on a task because you just had to sit down? Yup, you too can be fired for cause. You’re welcome.)
I can see John Aravosis and Dan Savage and all the other Twirlips coming unglued at the idea that their very existence can be questioned.
Here’s a clue for you, John and Dan and all the other Twirlips: Bisexuals are not asking if they exist. So maybe it’s time you quit acting like it’s a legitimate question. It’s about as legitimate as asking if people like coffee, tea, chocolate milk, or wine, and then being surprised that some answer “all of the above”. After a couple of decades, asking “Do people really like ‘all of the above’?” is not only asinine, but proof positive that you have not been listening: that you have not been asking an honest question but rather spouting off inanities in order to… do what? What’s the goal of asking this kind of ontological question over and over? Is it to reinforce the notion that people who answer “all of the above” simply haven’t made up their minds yet? That, by the way, is an example of an honest question, even if it does have a bit of a rhetorical edge to it.
So, it’s OK to force an ontological crisis on bisexuals both old and young, because…
Because by marginalizing the people who do not fit the image that they want to present, they feel like they are making their position stronger.
But they aren’t.
What they are doing, in fact, is making it easier for the Overculture to pretend to accept them while retaining the ability to strip them of their hard-won recognition – and rights – at the drop of a hat; rights that were won not by them alone, but by a coalition that included and continues to include the very people they want to minimize, the people they want to point their fingers at and say “Them? Oh, they’re too Queer, we don’t need to include them.” You know, the way that they treat bisexuals and Trans*folk.
I’m talking about gay men who say “Tranny” when they talk about people who don’t conform to the gender roles that they themselves do. (And it occurs to me, and I have no data to back this up, but from a quick riffle through my mental notes about who I see doing this, it’s the butch gay guys who do this more loudly that others. Hmm. I might even go so far as to wonder if they are butch gay misogynists…) In Aravosis’s case, the 2007 article where he referred to bisexuals as “part-time gays” is the article where he claimed that the inclusion of Trans*folk in ENDA was the reason it lost (possibly true) and that because Congress wasn’t ready to accept Trans*folk as real people with the same rights as the rest of us, it would have been better for some to get rights while making it harder for the rest to catch up, even though they were in the trenches. Of course, he didn’t say that Trans*folk and bisexuals were there all along, because as far as he’s concerned LGBT means “Lesbian and Gay”. And even if a weak and problematic version of ENDA would have passed by throwing the T under the bus, would that have been worth it? How’s that half a loaf taste?
Ever notice how when people claim that “half a loaf is better than none”, they are always talking about the half of the loaf that they themselves are holding onto? Imagine how Aravosis would have reacted if the ENDA bill under discussion had included Trans*folk who identify as straight or bisexual, and bisexuals, but had excluded monosexual gays and lesbians? Oh, we would have heard the screams to high heaven, folks. “Rights for some but not for all? That’s just not fair! That’s un-AMERICAN!”
The Theoretical Basis:
Get ready for some Queer Theory. (Oh, don’t act so surprised, you knew I’d get there eventually, right?)
Here’s what the Overculture does. It systematically develops and uses institutional structures that define rigid roles for people, roles that it can use to determine who is an acceptable Person and who is not – who is real and who isn’t. Whose existence is a given and whose must be granted with formal research. Rules that people must follow without exception or else they are cast upon the road ringing their bells lest anyone come into contact with them and be contaminated.
One of the great triumphs of the Queer community over the last five decades or so (or at least the Gay and Lesbian parts of the Queer community) has been the construction of Mainstream Gay. People who follow the Cass Model of identity development, who have repudiated all sexual desires for anyone not of the same gender, who can blend right into the Overculture in every respect except for the gender of their partner. One of my conservative friends (yes, a screaming Leftie like myself has some treasured Conservative friends) wrote an article about how the movement towards marriage equality (or as he put it in the lexicon that Mainstream Gay has approved for us via focus group, Gay Marriage) is the triumph of Conservative Family Values, because now all those gay people have shown that all they want is to be just like everyone else, settle down in the ‘burbs with a white picket fence, a catdog, and 2.4 beautiful (adopted, or inseminated, or leftover from their “fake” marriages) children with nary a sign of difference except for a discreet rainbow triagle on the mailbox and a tendency to schedule vacations from their well-paid office jobs in June. (And they are well-paid office jobs, because it’s pretty well-known that you can’t be Queer and work in the trades, or be skating by working at a convenience store or flipping burgers – come on, you’re gay so that means you’re creative and have Special Skills that any employer will recognize and reward! You too can write a column for Big Gay Media or work in statistical analysis of electoral politics or be a doctor or a professor!)
A great triumph indeed, but also the biggest weakness of Mainstream Gay.
Because in order to do this, they have cut off the very people who get stomped on the most by the Overculture – the transgressive. The gender non-conforming. They step on bisexuals in small ways, and by doing so, they not only give the Overculture license to do so, but put themselves in the precarious position of only being tolerated as long as they toe the same line in every way save the gender of their partner.
They think they have Queered the Overculture, but they have not.
They have only mainstreamed their little piece of Queer.
They have homesteaded on shifting sands. They are like the protesters in suits and ties in the 1950s, outside the State Department, begging to be let in as long as they retain their tailoring and conservative haircuts.
Rather than continuing the clarion call of Queer Nation (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) they have adopted a new battle cry, one that is weak to the point of uselessness.
They are saying “We’re here, but we’re not so Queer, let us play the game too.”
And it’s a zero-sum game they want to play. Because as long as the rhetoric of the Twirlips and the organizations of Twirlips like the HRC (and frankly any organization that uses LGBT as a synonym for “Gay and Lesbian”) is predicated on cutting out those elements that are seen as “too far outside the mainstream”, as long as they leave out the kinky and the polyamorous and the gender non-conforming, they themselves can be cut out at any time.
A young man was shot in the face and killed in NYC not long ago for the crime of being gay – or at least being not straight, because these days, I don’t assume that everyone who isn’t straight is gay. The brutal lopping off of those who don’t blend in enough is an effective short-term tactic for those who can already fit in well enough in most respects, but it does not change the society we live in in any meaningful way. What use the right to marry when you can still be fired or denied housing for being queer? When you can, like Polish journalist Ivo Widlack, be targeted by the INS because your marriage is considered “fake” because everybody knows that LGBT means Gay, and Gay means that you only have same-gender attractions?
The point of Queer Liberation was to change society, not to change ourselves to fit society. There’s a word for that: it’s called the Closet.
And that brings me back to the first Twirlip I mentioned, the man who wanted to know why I “tolerated” being erased but seemed to think I was being unreasonable for standing up to his attempts to erase not only me, but the historical tradition that my activism is rooted in. He equated “not being listened to” with “not speaking up”.
Personally, I am monogamous and vanilla. That is certainly one of the ways to be bisexual, but it is by no means the only way. People who are polyamorous and/or kinky get pushed out by the assimilative. Even the basic busting of myths about bisexuality that every emerging bisexual activist seems to do as their first action (myself included) can sometimes do this – if you look at the language, much of the time there is a good bisexual/bad bisexual dichotomy set up. Friends, you can’t say “We’re not all sluts.” That is slut-shaming. Some of us have more partners than others, on a long-term or short-term basis, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
And the people like me, who are most comfortable in a long-term relationship with one other? We get buried, erased, told by Mainstream Gay that we’re just gay and isn’t it great that we finally made up our minds and quit being tourists (if our partners are the same gender) or that we should just shut up now that we’re all done “experimenting” and enjoy our Heterosexual Privilege (if our partners are the socially acceptable “opposite” gender), or that we must Love Hearts Not Parts (if our partners are genderqueer, as if refusing to be labeled as one of two irreconcilable opposite genders means that there’s no gender involved at all).
This is what I mean when I say the Bisexual Closet Has Two Doors. Because the Twirlips want to shove us back into the closet as fast as we can push the door open – they build closets for us as fast as we can smash them. The one that affects me the most personally is the one about “heterosexual privilege”. See, as far as the Twirlips are concerned, the fact that I can climb back into the Closet without having to hide the gender of my partner means that as far as they are concerned I want to.
In the American South during and after the days of slavery, there was a racial segregation system called “the One Drop Rule”. It mean that if you had one ancestor who was recognized as Black, you were Black. If you were light-skinned enough to pass for White, good luck, because if it was ever found out that you were not, that you had One Drop, you were done. No longer equal. No longer fully human.
And the Overculture has the same kind of rule for Queer. (Interestingly enough, it seems to play out differently for men than for women. More about that another day.) I’m male-identified. As far as the society I live in is concerned, it doesn’t matter that I have been sincerely and monogamously married to a female-identified person for a couple decades. What matters is that we met because she was dating the guy that I was chasing. “You’re exaggerating! It can’t be that way!”
Situation 1) I’m a college student. College students are by definition broke. Broke people sometimes go down to the local spot and get a pint of plasma extracted from their veins in exchange for a glass of orange juice, a cookie, and $35.
But I can’t.
Oh, I could if I was willing to lie about my past. But I’m not. Because I lied for so long, and every lie piled on my soul in a corrosive heap that came too close to killing me than I like to admit. No, I choose to live a life of integrity and Pride, one where I don’t walk around trying to fool people.
But because over the course of my life I have had sex in ways that people like Fred Phelps find icky, this resource is barred from me – and from my partner, because she has had sex with a man who has had sex with men. It’s a small thing – but when you run out of money a week before payday, $35 for an hour’s easy work can be a pretty big deal, especially when you are feeding a teenager.
Situation 2) A couple jobs ago when I was still in the closet, I was at an off-site work function, a campground frolic billed as a team-building retreat that was really just an excuse to blow off some steam. Late in the evening, as the alcohol started to flow, we ended up playing a party game similar to Truth or Dare – simplified, in that the Dares were all the same: drink up. So people were asked questions that got more and more sexual.
Here I was, surrounded by my co-workers, lots of booze flowing (it was a job on the fringes of politics and alcohol was a major part of the corporate culture – we worked hard, we played hard). At least a few people had already snuck off to the fields and had inter-office other-gender sex. So there I was, a couple of knocks under my belt, when the question came to me. “Have you ever had sex with someone the same sex as you?”
It freaking killed me inside, because I had let my guard down. I had allowed myself to feel at ease with these people, and now I was in a panic. There was no way out of the situation other than to coldly state a bold-faced lie, or come out at a time not of my choosing. An honest answer could have unknown consequences: I did not know 2/3 of the people there other than by name. I chose an honest non-answer and drank up. But the rest of the night I was quiet and withdrawn and worried that someone would stomp me in my sleep for not being straight enough.
So in both of those situations, one out of the closet and one in the closet, I ask: where was this so-called Heterosexual Privilege they keep saying I’ve got?
You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.
That’s why I get so upset when people try to claim that bisexuals enjoy “heterosexual privilege.” They don’t understand the definition of privilege.
Privilege is unearned. By definition. It is something that is handed to you whether you want it or not. That meaning has gotten twisted by people who, upon taking their first Human Relations class, think that becoming aware of their privilege one time means they don’t have it anymore.
If you have to do something for your special access to power, if you have to earn it by lying or doing things a certain way, then it’s not privilege. Being in the Closet is not privilege, not unearned access, because you have to do something for it. You have to lie, or at the very least, you have to refuse to correct people’s assumptions.
I’ve read a pretty good argument that the ability to go into the Closet (rather than actually being there) is a privilege, because some people can’t, or they don’t have a Closet to go into. I’m willing to accept this argument.
That is not an argument that bisexuals have heterosexual privilege, though. That means that we have the exact same privilege as the Twirlips of the world, and if they can’t see how horrible it is to be told that “You don’t need to worry because you can just hide” then they have themselves forgotten what it was like. And that’s sad, because it means they have lost touch with one of the experiences that should bind us all together, with what may be the only experience that the vast majority of the LGBT community has in common, from the center all the way out to the margins.
A Final Metaphor
Imagine the LGBT community as a piece of paper with something written on it: perhaps it’s the famous Queer Agenda. It’s written in standard style, with some blank space around it. Your job is to mail this piece of paper, to get this message to a recipient who can do something with it.
Now someone tells you that the paper is too big to fit in the envelope. It’s already smaller than the papers that are already in there, but hey, you really need to get this delivered. So you cut off the bottom third.
Nope, they tell you, still too wide. So you cut off the blank spaces on the sides.
Nope, they say. Still too big. So you keep cutting.
Pretty soon, you’re cutting off parts of the words, and even whole sentences.
After a while, you’ve forgotten that the point of putting the paper in the envelope was not to get the paper in however you could, but to get the words read by the person you’re mailing it to.
You’ve confused the medium with the message, and willingly mangled the message so it will fit the medium.
So did your message actually get across? Or did all you accomplish was to send the meta-message that since you’re willing to cut off anything they might not like, it’s OK to cut you off too?