For God’s Sake Don’t Call Us Bisexual
A year after bringing “Jackie Clune is Boy Crazy” to the Edinburgh Festival, which caused the publication of several inches about her sexuality in both the gay and straight press, Jackie Clune wrote about her second ‘coming out’ for the Guardian on the 14th of June 2003.
The actress and comedian came out in the late 1980’s and embraced her lesbian identity professionally as well as personally. In her article, she provides an insightful, at times painful yet entertaining snapshot of the lesbian community. However, after declaring her fascination for “the many possibilities of human sexual expression” and that “if there is one woolly belief to which I know I subscribe, it is this: that one’s sexuality is on a continuum, the polarities being absolutely straight and absolutely gay”, she goes on to write the sentence I’ve used as a title for this article.
My first reaction in reading this was outrage: how could she talk about fluid sexuality and then dismiss bisexuality so easily? After calming down, though, I remembered what it was like, for me, to come out as bi, over three years ago, after having been out as a lesbian for several years. I was reluctant, I used phrases such as “I’m still a lesbian, I just fell in love with my best friend and he happened to be a man”. I didn’t want to use the b-word, it evoked images of (cheap and hetero) porn and wife-swapping, whereas my lesbianism was a political as well as a personal choice. Similar sentiments were expressed by Jackie Clune in an article about hasbians (lesbians who have relationships with men) in the Observer Review on the 15th of September 2002, where she stated: “I’d never call myself bisexual – it’s too ambiguous and it smacks of key-swapping fondue parties”. Sad as it is to see someone in the public eye subscribe to tired clichés, I feel that we need to ask ourselves what is it that makes so many people shy away from the label ‘bisexual’. An interesting feature of Jackie’s Guardian article is that ‘desire’ seems to be absent from her discourse on sexuality: she chose to become a lesbian in the political climate of the 1980s and her identity was embedded in feminist politics. In contrast to this, bisexuality seems much more steeped in discourses of desire and, even the word itself, highlights the ‘sexual’ part of sexuality.
A person who identifies as bisexual is still often seen as an experimental, adventurous heterosexual, a closeted gay man or lesbian or a sexual deviant. In spite of the media proclaiming that bisexuality is trendy, especially for women, the reality beyond the glossy cover pages is that bisexual people, and bi politics, are often outsiders to both the straight and gay/lesbian communities. There are still so many negative messages being passed on that deny the possibility of bisexuality as a valid identity choice. Bisexuality challenges our expectations of relationships, sex, gender and politics. How are we going to define our intimate relationships if gender roles are called into question? All same sex relationships, of course, challenge heterosexuality as the norm but to introduce the option of bisexuality means to affirm that same-sex relationships are as valid as relationships between members of the opposite sex. If I can have relationships with men I cannot be accused of being a dyke solely because I might be unable to attract a man. However, if, after sleeping with men, I am also able to have a relationship with a woman then the theory that a good f**k might be all that is needed for me to be cured of any lesbian desire also fails. Bi people choose relationships, not a sexual orientation, most of us choose people, not a certain gender and this challenges so many of the neat distinctions we have built our worlds upon.
Nevertheless, as long as bisexuality is seen as deviant and transgressive, its fright factor is considerably reduced. If, as bisexual, we keep being portrayed as AC/DC, swingers, fence-sitters, closeted gay men or lesbians, evil predators on unsuspecting gay or straight people and spreaders of AIDS, there are no alien elements to put into discussion what we have come to know about men and women and the way they should relate to each other. It’s like a garden where each flower, plant and tree is familiar and instantly recognizable. The trouble starts when we are no longer willing to sit on the fence of this garden and we start claiming our spot, living a visible “alternative” life style, whatever that expression might mean, and begin to claim rights, a community, a culture and a space.
When bisexuality ceases to be a bohemian or extreme way of living and becomes part of our lives and our societies, we are all called to reconsider our own views about gender-related institutions, such as marriage, as well as our views about sexual orientation. As Marjorie Garber states in her book Vice Versa, bisexuality is then “not just another sexual orientation but rather a sexuality that undoes sexual orientation as a category”. There is no longer the safety net of ‘purity’, be this gender, sexual, erotic or cultural purity. From both a social and political viewpoint the loss of such purity is significant for us all as it shows a way forward, which goes beyond easy labels and flat descriptions of our experiences and identities. Bisexuality, in this context, becomes a radical choice and, as such, it can be both scary and misunderstood. Personally, the bi label lost its negative connotations when I came across the bi community at the Manchester BiCon in 2000. It was there that I first witnessed the vast array of people who congregate under the banner of bisexuality and felt finally free to acknowledge both my desire and my politics. Maybe we should invite Jackie along to BiCon 2004; I’ll be bringing the fondue set…
I would like to thank Laurence for the stimulating discussion in the bicommunitynews community on LiveJournal, which inspired the tone of this article.