Sitting down to dinner with family friends in Mexico a year ago, sipping piña coladas, we were joined by an ocean breeze. The scenery was something out of a movie, salt and wind in my hair and not a care in the world. Fast forward an hour at that very same dinner table and I was met by a brute remark that pulled me out of paradise. My host, a middle-aged mother, abruptly declared, “Bisexuals don’t exist. They are just confused individuals that need to choose if they’re straight or gay.” This offhanded comment struck me over the head like a dumbbell. And for months afterward, even a year now, I still revisit it.
In her book Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler poses the question, who gets to decide if someone is a woman or not? My host’s presumptive statement made me ask, who gets to decide to whom someone else is sexually attracted? Was this woman I had dinner with God, and I had not known?
I’ve been flirting with girls for as long as I can remember. In high school, under the influence, I would make out with my friends for fun. I started seriously considering the idea that I could be attracted to women when I moved to New York, the all holy mecca of sexuality and liberalness. Although up to this point I have only ever been in relationships with men, I have dated several women and have developed feelings for one.
The biphobic sentiments that the woman expressed at dinner were not too far from my Catholic High School community’s thoughts. Although my dad chose a Catholic education for me, I was surprised by his reaction to my attraction to women. Sitting at my kitchen counter, home for Thanksgiving, I told my dad I met a girl and I like her. He was shocked. “But…” he mumbled, “what about my grandkids? I didn’t know you liked girls? Are you sure?” I looked at him, equally shocked and said, “Are you serious? First of all, if I fell in love with a woman and married one, although I’m not looking to get married for AT LEAST 10 years, there’s plenty of options for having kids from in vitro fertilization to adoption. Secondly, my happiness should be the most important thing, end of story.” I marched upstairs. My dad followed and apologized, saying it took him by surprise.
I acknowledge that having family and friends who love me no matter what is a privilege. I do not face the same hateful prejudice many people do. But I do have an understanding, even if slight, of how hurtful it can feel to not be accepted by those you trust most, even if only for a moment.
I always find it part frustrating, part hilarious when straight people assume bi people are you are attracted to them. As a straight person, are you attracted to every person of the opposite gender? No. As a gay person, are you attracted to every one of the same gender? No. Same goes for bi people. I, in fact, am really picky. I think I’m even pickier with my choices in women than men. So no, if we’re friends, it’s not weird if we have a sleepover because I’m not sexually attracted to you. Sorry to burst your bubble. I remember when I was younger, this was an anxiety of mine. Will my straight girlfriends treat me differently if they know I like women? Will their ignorance overpower our friendship? I feel so blessed to say I have an amazing roster of loyal female friends, and my sex life doesn’t get in the way of that.
I do want to take this opportunity to mention that it is annoying when you ask someone who is bi or gay how they have sex. It’s intrusive and uncomfortable. Although, you may be genuinely curious, it comes off like you’re prying. I think you should only discuss someone’s sex life if they bring it up. And to approach it tastefully, don’t say “HOW DO YOU DO IT???!” If you want to know how they do it, there’s tons of resources online. You can even try looking at gay porn, but remember porn is made to entertain, not to educate. It’s unfortunate that our sexual education is so poor that we can’t fathom how sex can function outside of a heterosexual model. But guess what, queer sex not only functions, it’s awesome and no, I don’t want to tell you about it over coffee.
It’s no secret that bisexual people face derision not only from straight people but sometimes also, from the gay community. We are deemed as “confused,” as gay and ashamed, or for women, of doing it to please men and come off as “hot.” I am not confused. And I am most certainly not doing it for anyone but myself. In fact, I barely even talk about it. And up until this point, I’ve always been rather elusive about my sexual identity. Although, I am equally attracted to women and men, I believe that I am who I am, and that it doesn’t matter what I call myself.
I believe in a spectrum of sexual attraction. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, but we put ourselves into a box because that’s what society tells us we must do to be accepted. Sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey argued beyond a heteronormative understanding of sexuality more than half a century ago. He devised a tool called the Kinsey Scale, which was revolutionary not only because it recognized homosexuality as legitimate, but also because it treated sexual orientation as a continuum rather than as a binary. The scale ranges from zero to six, with zero representing only heterosexual attraction and 6 representing only homosexual attraction. It also included an additional point on the scale X, representing asexuality. He and his research team interviewed thousands of subjects about their sexual histories and concluded that significant percentages of both the male and female sample groups landed between 1-5 on the scale meaning they were neither straight nor gay.
If you were a part of the study they wouldn’t just ask who you’ve slept with or dated. They would want to know who you find attractive, who you have crushes on, sexual and romantic fantasies, even dreams. Kinsey’s published studies Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior of the Human Female (1953) are associated with a change in public perception of sexuality and considered some of the most successful and influential scientific books of the 20th century. Since then, researchers such as Fritz Klein have developed hundreds of methods to chart the range of human sexuality.
Even though the findings showed that many people did not fit into exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories, six decades later, few people openly identify as bisexual. Since the 50’s things have undoubtedly gotten better for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in America.* Queer activism has made huge strides, but we still live in a heteronormative culture, which doesn’t accept or understand anything other than straight relationships. Bisexuality, understood as attraction to two or more genders, is not just the inverse of heterosexuality, it challenges the categories we cling to… categories some of us might be happy to leave behind all together.
So what can I pass to you as a young woman living in New York who I guess, if you have to call me something besides Eileen, is bi? Well, be who the fuck you are and love it. If people can’t accept you for your authentic self, then to hell with them. Life is much too short to not enjoy the rainbows that show up every now and then.
*Transgender activism has also made great strides. I didn’t discuss trans issues here because I am focusing on sexual orientation rather than gender identity/expression.
To learn more about the Kinsey Institute’s studies of human sexuality check out http://www.indiana.edu/~kinsey/research/ak-data.html
Try charting yourself on the Klein Sexuality Grid
* Photo by Chadwick Tyler