Bi The Way
Katy goes to the cinema and finds there’s a bi film on…
As you can tell from the festival’s title, the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which has just finished at the BFI Southbank, is not notorious for its inclusion of bisexuality. However, this year did feature two showings of Bi The Way, a 2008 documentary made by Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker, in which the two directors travel around America talking to bisexuals and people with opinions on bisexuality (psychologists, academics, random onlookers, Ani di Franco, Dan Savage…)
I did not have high expectations of this film. The notes given out beforehand, written by the filmmakers, rang a variety of alarm bells: ‘sexual ambiguity’ was used as a synonym for ‘bisexuality’, and the film apparently promised to ask various ‘crazy’ questions such as whether it only counts if you liked both sexes equally, whether bisexuality is just a fad, and whether bisexuals can be monogamous. At this point I was starting to feel that, as a bisexual and bi activist of several years’ standing, I might not be the filmmakers’ intended target. I hunched down in my seat, grumbled to my companion, and prepared to get annoyed.
Actually, however, I enjoyed myself. Yes, the film featured a lot of people expressing very irritating opinions, ranging from ‘these people need to make a choice’ to ‘male bisexuals don’t exist’. The latter opinion was given unwarranted weight by the interview with Gerulf Rieger, who got publicity a couple of years ago for claiming his research proved that men were only turned on by either male or female bodies. (I can quote a bisexual psychologist of my acquaintance as confirming that said research is ‘rubbish’.) However, the negative views were all balanced by refutations from other interviewees, and I felt their inclusion actually helped to bring some stereotypes out into the open and let them dissolve into air as they deserved to. The ‘question’ of whether bisexuality was a fad was mentioned several times and although no clear answers were given, I felt that the film in general was out to disprove it by treating bisexuality as a genuine sexuality.
The vox-pops, however, were secondary to the main narrative strands, which followed five people dealing with bisexuality in different ways. Teenage Pam was thrown out of school for making out with a girl, and now has a boyfriend who isn’t entirely comfortable with her sexuality. 24-year-old David, author of a play called Planet of the Bisexuals, has a new boyfriend and politely confused parents. (In a horrifyingly amusing moment, his dad, sitting beside him, speculates that David broke up with his previous girlfriend because he couldn’t perform with her.) Brooklyn hip-hop dancer Tahj started dating guys online and now finds he’s fallen for a male romantic interest, something his background never prepared him for.
The fourth strand follows Taryn, whose male partner Rage says he loves the fact that she’s bisexual. The film follows them as they go looking for a threesome together at various parties and swingers’ clubs. The blurb on the film’s website about this says that ‘events call into question whether Taryn’s expression of her bisexuality is more for Rage or for herself’, which suggests that Rage is the driving force behind the search and Taryn is going along with it for his sake. This is puzzling, because to me the clips in the film appeared to show Taryn trying to get it together with various women at parties, and Rage getting upset and making her leave. Which suggests to me that she very much wants to be bisexual and that he’s a lot less happy with it than he claims. I could have misunderstood, of course. In any case, it all appears to be going wrong by the end, and I admit to finding the couple somewhat creepy, though I tried hard not to.
My favourite of the five, however, was 11-year-old Josh, whose father is gay and his mother bisexual. Josh endearingly combines being a perfectly typical pre-teenage boy with a clear-eyed awareness of his parents’ sexuality and its implications for him – mainly the fact that his dad doesn’t live with them and he doesn’t see him much. His mother affectionately describes Josh’s experiments with make-up and his occasional appreciation of male bodies; Josh says that he spent a couple of years wondering if he was going to be gay, then decided to just get on with his childhood and not worry about it. He’s like a bouncy puppy who breaks into song and then suddenly says mature things about life. (In this he reminded me of my five-year-old daughter, which may have biased me slightly.)
It’s not made clear whether the filmmakers themselves are bisexual or what their interest in the topic is based on. They don’t express many opinions themselves, focusing on their interviewees. But I felt they took pains to find a genuine diversity of people and opinions, and that their intentions were benevolent towards the issue. It’s not an especially focused film, admittedly: the people interviewed are snapshots rather than rounded stories, and it doesn’t reach any especial conclusions. I didn’t find that bothered me much, though. In the end, the main reason I wanted to rant afterwards was to do with Dan Savage, an agony uncle columnist whose writing I’m a big fan of; I thought he’d got a lot better about bisexuality, but his quotes here were infuriating and definitely implied that he didn’t really think male bisexuality existed.
After seeing the film, I found myself contemplating two trite but important points. Firstly that, once you get them under even a basic microscope, people’s lives and sexuality are just really complex; no wonder the film meanders when there’s so much you could talk about. Secondly, and contradictorily: despite what some of the commentators seemed to think, there is nothing very complicated at all about the concept of being bisexual.
For trailers, screening dates and more about the film see: www.bithewaymovie.com
This article originally appeared in BCN magazine issue 95, April 2009.