“…a particular temporal framing of sexuality has cast bisexuality in the past or future but never in the present tense” – Steven Angelides, A History of Bisexuality
2019 has been dubbed – by the collective consciousness of the Internet – “TwentyBiTeen“. It follows from “TwentyGayTeen” last year (and we’re all looking forward to what 2020 will yield).
I’ve struggled to write about bisexuality, a hint perhaps at the deep ways that biphobia lodges within oneself. Now in a long term gay relationship, I’ve found that my previous loud and proud bisexual identification (which I frequently deployed to demand inclusion in queer spaces), has faded, and my silence leaves me feeling like a traitor to my bisexual kin. Like Willow from Buffy, I’ve felt little need to bring up my past as relevant to my current to my identity, and I tend to use the terms “queer”, “gay”, or even “dyke”, to fudge the question. My sense is that there are a lot of bisexuals in “gay” relationships, we just don’t talk about it. But now, this year of TwentyBiTeen, with multiple bisexual texts appearing to haunt me on a daily basis(!), it’s time to confront the question.
As a recent GLAAD report suggests, bisexual representation in popular culture is on the rise – at least on television – but figures are still disproportionately low given findings that suggest at least half of the LGBTQ population (in the USA) identifies as bisexual.
This marginal but increasing representation raises the crucial question of how bisexual identity is being conveyed. This is particularly important to consider given the insidious and harmful tropes that underpin biphobia, including: 1) that bisexuals have “straight privilege”; 2) that it is merely a temporary fluctuation between the fixed poles of gay or straight; 3) that bisexuals are confused, greedy, and/or risky when it comes to love and sex. Are contemporary representations resisting these tropes, or repeating them?
Bisexuality in the Past/Future
As Steven Angelides describes in A History of Bisexuality, even in its most utopian iterations bisexuality has been understood as a starting point or end point of human sexuality, rather than something that is possible as a stable position in the present.
He describes how Sigmund Freud imagines sexuality as multi-directional and dispersed across the body (“polymorphous perversity”), that then develops into “healthy” heterosexual desire. In this way Freud offers a rather radical understanding of sexuality as innately bisexual, but fixes bisexuality distinctly in the past. On the flip side, Angelides describes how Gay Liberation in the 1970s held bisexuality up as an ideal form of liberated human sexuality, though one that would not be possible without the revolution/destruction of compulsory heterosexuality. In this way, bisexuality was located as always in the future.
Angelides suggests that seeing bisexuality as impossible in the present is used to maintain the binary distinctions upon which both Freud’s theories and Gay Liberation were based – male/female, man/woman, gay/straight. To accept bisexuality in the present would be to trouble this organisation. Bisexuality is a threat. As Marjorie Garber writes, “The more borders to patrol, the more border crossings”.
Bisexuals (and especially bisexual men) have often been seen to “contaminate” straight life. This was most explicitly seen in the midst of the AIDS crisis, during which bisexuals were represented as adulterous hyper-sexual types who risked spreading the disease to the “normal” population. Similarly, gay communities have rejected bisexuals as “risky”, as seen in the 1990s following a rise in homophobic street attacks when the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras effectively limited the ability of non-LGT individuals becoming members. In many ways this kind of thinking was a hangover of 1970s lesbian feminism, which presumed sex with men was akin to “sleeping with the enemy”. This history illustrates how the terms of sexual violence and compulsory heterosexuality create fault-lines in our community.
In this era of TwentyBiTeen, with bi rep on the rise, we might wonder how and if bisexuality is being rendered possible in the “present tense”. To explore these questions I offer an examination of three key bisexual texts I’ve come across lately that philosophise bisexuality and complicate the tropes that underpin biphobia: Desiree Akhavan’s drama TV series The Bisexual, Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations with Friends, and Channel 10 Australia’s reality show Bachelor in Paradise.
Different Worlds in The Bisexual (Desiree Akhavan)
This six part television series debuted in October 2018, and follows the sexual and romantic pursuits of Leila (Desiree Akhavan) after her break up with long-term girlfriend Sadie (Maxine Peake). In pursuing sex and relationships with men, Leila finds herself not only having to confront her own biases about bisexuality (“it makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance”), but finds herself on the outer from her previously comfortable queer world. As Akhavan who co-created and directed the series, described to The New York Times:
“I heard myself described as ‘the bisexual’ at every other introduction: ‘the bisexual filmmaker,’ ‘the bisexual Iranian-American,’ ‘the bisexual Lena Dunham’…For some reason, hearing that word made my stomach flip, in a non-fun way. And I wanted to explore that”.
This show grapples with and complicates the trope of bisexual “straight privilege”, that is, the idea that bisexuals can simply “choose” to partner straight and therefore not experience homophobia. The Bisexual negates this assumption, showing the pressure and pain of occupying bisexual identity in a world organised into distinctly gay and straight worlds. While Leila’s desire is multi-directional, the reality of adapting to heterosexual gender expectations is jarring. In this way The Bisexual explores an idea otherwise papered over by claims that “love is love”, but that is abundantly apparent to bisexuals, as Leila states: “you’re gay or you’re straight and one comes with an entirely different lifestyle”.
The experience of gay coupling versus straight coupling as a bisexual person can seem qualitatively different not because of something intrinsic to gender, but because of these different worlds. For one, if you are in a “gay” relationship, a fear of homophobia can inform and structure daily life (holding hands in public, booking a holiday, family Christmas).
But more than that, the system of gender relations permeates everyday life in a way that partner dynamics in “straight” relationships as a bisexual person can also box you into narrow roles that you have to actively resist. This also plays out in “gay” relationships, but when the world’s not asking you “when are you getting married?”, “when are you having babies?”, etc, you’re operating in a different arena of expectations (for better or worse). As a bisexual person this experience of different, somewhat incommensurable, worlds is very discombobulating. It is also painful to realise these different social worlds exist, precisely because one cannot simply dictate one’s desires.
Parallel Loves in Conversations with Friends (Sally Rooney)
I never read the back of books, so I was surprised when the main character in everyone’s favourite Sally Rooney novel turned out to identify as bisexual. The story follows Frances, and her romances and encounters with her best friend and ex-lover Bobbi, and with a married couple Nick and Melissa.
“Don’t say ‘just bisexual’ she said. Frances is bisexual, you know.
I didn’t know that, Melissa said.
I chose to drag on my cigarette for a long time before saying anything. I knew that everyone was waiting for me to speak.
Well, I said. Yeah, I’m kind of an omnivore.
Melissa laughed at that. Nick looked at me and gave an amused smile, which I looked away from quickly and pretended to take an interest in my glass.
Me too, Melissa said”.
Unlike The Bisexual, in Conversations with Friends there is no major schism between gay and straight worlds, even as we see different intimate and sexual dynamics play out along gendered lines. The trope that this work upends is the idea that bisexuality is a temporary fluctuation between gay and straight. Instead, for Frances bisexuality means having simultaneous desires and parallel loves that are also braided together, working to resist common understandings of romantic love as monoamorous.
To be clear, the work does not make Frances’ sexual identity the major plot drama – nothing hangs on her having to “choose” an orientation. Neither can we really claim that all of Frances’ actions are functional, and she is deeply flawed. But the representation here is an experiment with characters on a stage where the rules of heteronormativity have limited bearing, or at least, where the characters are trying their hardest to come up with “alternative models of loving”. These are characters simply negotiating the stickiness of love and desire, where gay and straight are not opposing poles, but rather, there are no poles. They barely factor into the equation.
Dangerous Desires in Bachelor in Paradise (Channel 10)
For those unacquainted, Bachelor in Paradise is that particular circle of reality TV hell that involves ex-contestants from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette trapped on a Fijian island. All still “looking for love”, they are given copious amounts of alcohol and made to pair up via “rose ceremonies” where men and women take turns to choose partners. This season featured Brooke Blurton and Alex Nation, two women who openly identify as being attracted to both men and women. This show engages with the trope of bisexuals as greedy/confused/risky, (shamefully) not by rejecting these tropes, but rather by laying them out for all to see.
When Brooke and Alex first appear in the series, they repeat every negative idea of bisexuality in the book: “I’m just greedy!” “I just can’t make up my mind!” “I’m confused!” and on. Similarly other contestants repeat stereotypes, describing the women as “very sexual beings”, and men hinting they would “like to be a fly on the wall” for them getting together. Interestingly, at first their bisexuality is accepted without drama (at least that’s the edit). The hyper-sexualisation of bisexual women, and widespread assumption that bisexual women will always end up with men, means that women’s bisexuality in the context of other straight people is not always perceived as a “threat”.
However later in the show we see exactly how “threatening” bisexuality can be to the laws of heterosexuality, when Alex chooses Brooke to go on a date. Both women already have men who they are interested in on the island, which for Brooke includes a man also called Alex. The men start “freaking out” as it means that the women might give each other their “roses” and send un-partnered men home. In (what I read as) a poetic sign of bisexuality’s ability to smash gender hegemony, the men start saying things like “It’s over for us boys”, “Paradise is under threat”, and “Paradise is over”. Here we learn that all along “Paradise” was merely a synonym for the boozey swamp of heteropatriarchy.
A few episodes later, when Alex tells Brooke she’s more keen to “explore her feelings” for another (man) contestant, Brooke is heartbroken. In spite of all the biphobic guff we’ve had to endure as viewers, what’s beautiful about this event is that Brooke calls off her simmering relationship with the other (man) Alex and decides to leave the island, which acts as a kind of metaphor for the viewer – bisexuality is impossible in Paradise, so no Alex can be loved.
Bisexuality is a present
All of this is to say, the representation of bisexuality today is uneven, but where bisexual voices are at the creative centre (as in The Bisexual) tropes can be reworked and resisted in complicated ways. Unlike The Bisexual or Conversations with Friends, Bachelor in Paradise is neither high production television nor well regarded literary fiction. Perhaps then, as a mass entertainment example, it is the most important sign that despite headway bisexuality is often represented with deferral to old tropes.
What all of these texts do reveal however, is that, for those lucky enough to find themselves in the bisexual position, bisexuality can be a gift. It means often occupying a liminal space that gives you a distinct view of gender and sexual expectations.
I’ll end on this note from Jonathan Alexander who explores his bisexuality in his essay with Karen Yescavagae “Bisexuality, Queerness and Identity Politics”. After describing growing up in a highly religious homophobic family/community he reflects:
“Still, despite this abuse, I had a crush on a boy, a young Latino named Domingo. I plotted and planned how to become friends with him, and though we never ‘did’ anything, I suspected that my interest in him (and his khaki-clad bottom, his hot pink undershirt, his luxuriant Navy pea coat) was bringing me perilously close to the forbidden realm of faggotry. My internal confusion, my soul-searching cognitive dissonance was intense: could something I want so much really be so evil? Imagine my confusion when I left the all-boy environment of high school to attend university and finding myself interested in some of the young women in my classes. (I might be safe after all!) I developed a crush on a classmate, Laura, and I eventually married another fellow student, Tara, some years later. Still, my interest in men continued, and I felt buffeted back and forth – a buffeting that ended my marriage.
I eventually ‘came out’ as bisexual, thinking that’s the term that best describes my ‘condition’. I developed a primary relationship with another man (with whom I still live), but my interest in women – as intimate friends and even subjects of desire – continues. Many of my gay friends scoff at this, wondering how I could ‘stand’ vaginal sex. But I like it. And I’ve come to see this plurality of desires as something that enriches me, that speaks to the complexity of connections I want to create with people. And I like it”.