In honor of the last day of Bisexuality Awareness Month (it’s sort of ironically fitting, given how overlooked bisexuality so often is, that we only just realized March was Bisexual Awareness Month), we’re publishing an essay by our friend Nathaniel Frank, originally posted on Slate. He is best known as the author of the book Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, and was an expert witness in two Constitutional challenges to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” whose success helped end the policy. And though he’s been a friend for years, until he published this essay, we’d always assumed he was gay. Which is one of many reasons why we wanted to publish it…
Bisexuality has been the subject of chatter lately, since the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on the quest to prove it exists. There was a time when I used to dread this topic. I’m one of those people who, when pressed, identifies as bi, but far more often says I’m gay. And I’m not alone: When surveyed, a majority of LGB people say they’re “B,” but how many self-identified bisexuals do you know? Most Americans have gay or lesbian friends and associates, but many fewer seem to have bisexual ones that they know of, despite their statistical ubiquity among LGB people.
Why don’t bisexuals like me come out more? Part of it is laziness. But you don’t find many gay or straight people identifying as something other than who they really are just because they’re lazy. Part of it is stigma. As discussed in (and, some say, perpetuated by) the Times Magazine piece, bisexuals get little respect, not only from the world at large, but specifically from gays and lesbians, some of whom have long insisted they don’t exist. There is a widespread belief that those who identify as bi are either in a transitional stage or are lying (to themselves or others)—trying to savor the status of straightitude while enjoying the pleasures of gaydom. And this suspicion of the enduring reality of bisexuality contributes to “bisexual erasure,” which the Times piece defines as “the idea that bisexuality is systematically minimized and dismissed.”
But stigma doesn’t really explain it either. The brighter line than gay vs. bi is the divide between straight and not, and the ability of so many gay and lesbian people to come out makes it hard to attribute the bi closet, at this point in history, to stigma alone.
There’s something about bisexuality that seems to lend itself to erasure, and not just by an oppressor class but by bisexuals themselves. I think some of the reason is contained in the bright-line distinction mentioned above: Our culture is so infused with assumptions of heterosexuality that crossing that line—between heterosexuality and everything else—becomes a far more meaningful act for many LGB people than where, exactly, we land on the other side.
But the territory on that other side is now taking on new importance in a world where so many gay rights battles are being won. And so it seems an apt time for a closer look at broader questions about the spectrum of sexuality.
A great deal of confusion around bisexuality seems to stem from the crucial but often-misunderstood distinction between identity and behavior. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern critiques the Times piece—and bi activists—for insufficiently defining bisexuality as an “identity,” and for leaving the impression that it’s largely “something you simply do” rather than someone you are. If this is true, bisexual erasure is to be expected. Whatever our feelings about monogamy may be, and whatever our success rates in achieving it, most of us, at some point, hunker down with a single partner. If bisexuality is acts-based, it can seem largely irrelevant to say you like both sexes when you’re partnered with one.
On the surface, there’s something perfectly reasonable about defining bisexuality as acts-based. That’s what we do with other identities. Bakers are bakers because they bake. Firemen fight fires. Criminals commit crimes. So bisexuals sleep with both genders, right? But from this simplistic understanding, sloppy stereotypes too easily emerge: Bisexuals must desire both genders equally or they’re not really bi; and if they desire both genders equally, they’ll never be satisfied with monogamy, because they must sleep with someone of each gender consistently to be identifying as bi. Openness to both genders gets redefined as needing both genders. And having a range of desires—which, as Freud pointed out, is the most obvious way to characterize all humans—is reconverted back into the binary our culture just can’t shake: You can like one sex or you can like two equally, but none of this weird spectrum crap.
This is silly. Some feelings and beliefs, as opposed to acts, are considered so profound and enduring that people identify around them regardless of how they behave. Romantic desire may be one of these things. You’re straight or gay even if you’re a virgin. So why not bisexual? Faith is another source of enduring identity, and many religions have their own internal debate about this. Some people don’t consider you a Christian if you don’t, as an act of will, believe in Jesus. Yet I’m a Jew no matter what I do.
I’m also bisexual, no matter what I do—and I don’t have to renew my bi card by sleeping with a woman every 10 years. I don’t scream it out, but I refuse to exorcize that part of myself when the question comes up. I suppose my bisexuality is not as politically or socially useful as my gay identity, accounting for the difference in how I bother to identify publicly. But it’s there nonetheless.
To the extent that I care about bisexual identity, it’s obviously on me that, by too often failing to identify as bi, I’ve contributed to bisexual erasure. And there are some good reasons to care. As Zack Ford points out over at ThinkProgress, “affirming bisexuality is a public health concern,” since bi-identified people face disproportionate mental and physical health challenges, including greater partner violence and harassment.
This is an obvious concern. At a personal level, however, my concern is simpler: I don’t want my feelings negated. It’s not that I need to let it all hang out and be affirmed; I just don’t like people telling me that I don’t (or didn’t) feel what I feel. Especially not if it’s because they have too limited a view of how the world works—there is a narcissistic aspect to the belief that others must have the same sexuality as you do, an inability to step outside of the self to contemplate genuine difference.
What’s it like to have feelings for both sexes? In high school, I was uninitiated and inexperienced in the ways of love. I had crushes on straight boys that went nowhere and did nothing to help deepen my understanding of how to navigate a viable relationship. But I also had sustained crushes on girls. I figured one day I’d have a wife, and I didn’t often stop to contemplate whether that would mean forgoing the kind of sex that excited me even more than the kind you could have with girls.
Had this been as far as I went with women—that is, not far at all—I may never have bothered to identify as bisexual then or since. But it wasn’t. In college and throughout my 20s, I pursued relationships with women (along with more furtive ones with men). A few became serious, lasting on and off for years. We had romantic dinners, long talks, and extremely satisfying sex. Some aspects of those relationships I’ve never matched since. They were deep, intimate, sexual, and satisfying. No matter how you look at them, they were real.
Still, they ultimately didn’t satisfy me enough. I longed for both the male body and connection with what I once described to a therapist as a man’s “himness.” And when it came to sex with women, I was a bit icked out by some sex acts—not really so different from other folks who are icked out by this or that form of sex. A rather analytic person, I agonized for years over what it was about men that I really pined for, something a wiser me later came to appreciate as a mystery better left unsolved.
What’s most notable to me about these experiences is how similar they are to those of non-bi people, even as our culture insists that sexual identity, but not other identities, conform to limiting binaries. Tons of people have relationships with someone who isn’t ultimately right for them, and we don’t say they were faking it for selfish gain. A guy whose strongest attractions were always for leggy blondes could fall for a short brunette, only to leave her for someone more to type. A Jewish girl committed to marrying another Jew could find herself deeply in love with a non-Jew and struggle through a relationship that brings great joy but is ultimately not satisfying (or is). Were these relationships fake, or built on lies?
I’m more drawn to men then women. But the more-than-platonic feelings I had for women (and could let myself have again if I weren’t happily engaged) were real. Gay men don’t have these feelings, so in that one, wholly neutral, and not very interesting way, I am different from gay men. I’m bi. That’s part of my past and, therefore, part of who I am.
I must say, I can’t blame people who worry about dating bisexuals. Given the pressure to be straight that still lingers in our culture, it seems quite reasonable to wonder if a bisexual person of the opposite sex is with you in an effort to be straight, and if you’re dating a bisexual of the same sex, it’s reasonable to wonder if that pressure will eventually get the better of him or her. That’s why our task in life involves knowing ourselves and seeing each other for who we are. And working to avoid the perpetration of unnecessary stigma, which exacerbates this problem. If more of us would focus on those things and less on boxing each other in, we’d all be a bit better off.
Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire and a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, is writing a book called The Anti-Gay Mind. This article originally appeared on Slate.com.