Let 'em talk: Not-at-all-guilty confessions from the bisexual center.
By Christopher Arnott
I'm a soft-spoken, pacifistic (read: gentle), well-read, flamboyantly dressed, young-looking single man. I don't watch sports. I don't drink cheap beer. I grew up on college campuses in the 1960s and '70s. I attend the theater and opera religiously. I wear rings and nail polish. I gesture ostentatiously with my hands. My voice is so high-pitched that telephone solicitors frequently mistake me for a woman. I type a lot, which has made my wrists gloriously flexible, or limp if you'd rather.
So there's no use in hiding any longer what is abundantly obvious.
(Gasp. "Say it!")
I'm a ... victim of social stereotyping.
Oh, I'm also a bisexual. You don't have a problem with that, do you?
To a large percentage of the seeing and hearing world I am gay. That's all the evidence anyone has ever needed to proposition me, catcall or gay-bash me, embrace me, worry about my mental or physical health. This has always amused me but never offended me. I'll cotton to reading both straight and gay pornography. (That suits my freedom-of-expression soul.) I actively support gay and gay-seeming causes, for a variety of reasons, including the most basic one: I understand the implications. And I benefit from the struggle.
A few years ago I sat in a Boston restaurant with a dear friend, an out lesbian whom I'd met through a mutual love of 19th-century French novels, who was barking at me gently yet insistently that I could not be bisexual. The distinction didn't exist. I was clearly gay.
I listened politely and intently, which led her to the crux of her argument: "Just look at you." I was poised in my most natural offhand Jack Benny impersonation, open hand clasped delicately to cheek, wrists at ease and a coy, cubbish look on my face. I could only respond that I couldn't deny my attraction, my openness, to advances from either sex, a host of contradictions and contretemps that helped me arrive at the conscious awareness that I -- to use that wondrously acrobatic and ubiquitous phrase -- "swing both ways."
The next time I saw her, my Boston friend confessed that she'd developed a crush on a skirt-wearing fellow in her gay/lesbian square dancing group.
Bisexuality is the straggling Independent party in national sexual politics. To clumsily extend the metaphor, straights are like Republicans, comfortable with tradition and not eager to challenge established ideas of what is "normal" or what constitutes "family values." The gay/lesbian axis would be the Democrats, rushing to herald new and necessary ideas that reflect changing values and social realities, especially if those ideas pack power, prestige and a flood of new members to the ranks. Many bisexuals are presently caught in a bind of deciding who best represents their views: Is it better to be left alone or misrepresented?
If bisexuals develop a popular presence -- as a consumer base, as a voting bloc, as trendsetters -- they'll be even more eagerly courted and may even break out as a valuable "swing vote." Gosh, more swinging?!
As it stands, generally, to straights, bisexuals can be forgiven for their supposed lapses in judgment and can be brought back into the fold. Confessions of bisexuality, at least on the celebrity level, are treated with much more tolerance than those involving homosexuality. (Think of the outré Elton John and the androgynous David Bowie's carefully worded self-outings of the 1970s versus George Michael's travails in the 1990s.) Homosexuals embrace bisexuals for the same things that unnerve the straights, but are annoyingly persistent in the belief that if you've traveled even a slight distance into their sights, you've registered your permanent residency and they're free to add you to their population and exploit you statistically. Gay/lesbian organizations welcome bisexuals into their community, often including them proudly in the titles and bylaws of those organizations. But whose needs are they more fully serving? And bisexuals by definition wouldn't seem comfortable making such a definitive choice. They can organize themselves, and do, but their efforts fall short of the established alternatives.
Though my painfully shy and acne-ridden youth didn't give me much opportunity to test the waters, I can't remember ever not being aware that there were numerous social and sexual relationship options open to me. Moreover, I appeared to have no hesitation when they arrived. I was seduced by a woman in my freshman year at college,entered into a torrid relationship with her, then spent a summer as a camp counselor where I was widely presumed gay and admittedly played into the mystique by dressing in drag at camp entertainments. I naively stuck colored neckerchiefs in my back pocket, using them as handkerchiefs (the backwoods of Maine can be dirty and sneezy). When a well-meaning friend clued me in that such a fashion adornment was infused with secret codings about kinky sexual proclivities, I thought about it for a nanosecond and brashly determined, "Ahh, let 'em talk."
When I returned to college as a sophomore, that freshman relationship imploded for its own abundant reasons, though not without considerable emotional turmoil. So I recovered in my usual way, by saturating myself with live music in local clubs. I hastened particularly that semester to an appearance at the school pub by two of my favorite young Boston punk groups, Boy's Life and The Outlets -- band names which in retrospect seem to lend a Freudian underpinning to the following incident. I was chatting with one of the event's organizers and a friend of his I'd just met. In the midst of the chat, my favorite Outlets song ("Third Floor for Me") came blasting out from the stage. As I am wont to do in such situations, I blurted out, "Sorry, I have to go hear this song," and glanced manically stageward.
Whereupon my friend's friend seized his moment. "Do you want to dance?" I shocked myself profoundly by my immediate eagerness, doubly fueled by love of the music and by the offered companionship. Shocked, you see, because dancing terrifies me. Why would I agree to dance with anyone?
Everybody I've ever slept with, and many whom I haven't but who have expressed interest, have been aware, or been made aware, of my not-at-all guilty secret -- my blithe, blasé, no-big-deal bisexual baggage. I don't shout it in the streets (until now, I guess), but I don't like there to be any misunderstandings with people I'm growing close to. It's inevitably an icebreaker for lots of intimate and enlightening talk, and some interesting physical innovations besides.
Recently I've been in a passionate, wonderful, fully rounded relationship with another bisexual -- a woman. Well, why not? We were friends at college long before either of us became deeply "experimental" (hate that phrase; it makes sex sound like a lab result), and our respective romantic pasts deeply inform every aspect of our couplehood.
Regardless, I maintain that the best relationships I've ever been in were the challenging intellectual relationships, those fertile meetings of minds that can have you jumping up in the middle of the night to start a philosophical conversation, and keep you endlessly enthralled on the phone or at a quiet restaurant.
But it would be a cop-out -- a copulatory cop-out? -- for me to suggest that physical sex wasn't an issue. It is, excitingly so, and it can be happily and sweatily negotiated even while the physical aspect of the relationship really does remain secondary to the pleasure of the intellectual company. I could add the greeting-card-style platitude here that when you come down to it, the most important part of great sex, whatever the gender of the participants, is based on stuff like hugging and kissing and rubbing each other -- no special parts and accessories to order, no assembly required.
So why even bother to admit that I'm bisexual, and chip one more chunk out of what little is left of what I laughingly call my private life? Why should I, in some people's minds, parade my inner passions? Why would I, in others' estimations, appear to come only halfway out of a closet, just hanging around in the threshold?
Because there are ramifications in any clear espousal of one's set beliefs. It's empowering. It amuses me to mess with people's heads. You can cause trouble. You can drive narrow-thinking purists crazy. You can draw heat or chilly stares from both extremes, create double the distrust from those whose social worlds are still driven by prejudices and suspicions.
My bisexuality has subtly manifested itself in my New Haven Advocate journalism for years by my refusal to type the comments and behaviors of my friends and companions by their gender. In my weekly columns for this paper, I deftly disguise, unless the matter is essential to the issue, whether the people I've been out having fun with are male or female. I'm sorely aware that there's a very slight vocabulary to use in this exercise -- "companion," "chum," "colleague," et al. -- and that most of these have been co-opted by gayspeak and sound unremittingly queer. This I don't mind. I've never gone out of my way to correct anyone who assumed I was gay but didn't ask me directly. I always wore blue jeans on those "anyone who wears blue jeans may be gay" awareness days at school. I've often gone out of my way to behave in an ostentatiously "gay" manner if someone blithely assumed I was totally straight. It's my little way of redressing an imbalance in the gay identity struggle caused by all those closeted hypocrites and downright bigots.
Dennis Miller's hoary and misanthropic one-liner that bisexuals are more perverted than either straights or queers: "Pick a hole and stick to it" -- presumes that bisexuality is some vain, greedy, center-of-the-universe act of self-righteousness. Well, maybe some bisexuals do see themselves as gifts to all humankind, the provocateur and dominator of (to quote the self-deprecating title of a well-known bisexual magazine) "anything that moves." But clearly the reverse is equally true -- a person who is willingly swayed and intoxicated by a wide range of passions, the participant who chooses not to make the first move. And those would be the extremes, with a lot of middle ground to travel as well. As for myself, I've had flurries of unintended one-night stands nestled between some long, centered, monogamous, conscientious relationships, but have never considered myself promiscuous or negatively sex-driven. I'm not a predator, I won't scare the horses, and I certainly don't want to fuck everything that moves.
In blathering on and on to friends and colleagues about the implications of bisexuality while preparing this essay, I came across an Internet-tendered list of "famous bisexuals," the kind of "you're not alone, you're in grand company" propaganda that is the palliative of all low-esteem subcultures. I showed the list to several of my co-workers, and their reactions were identical. "Rock Hudson? Freddie Mercury? Virginia Woolf?" They had long ago resigned themselves to the fact that these people were homosexual. It was not just a disillusioning notion, but a rather tame comedown, to realize that "bisexual" would be a more sensible label. Having accepted a shocking truth, few people are inclined to have the shock calmly lessened. Famous bisexuals have long been branded as famously gay or famously lesbian. Yet who are we to say that Oscar Wilde did not love and honor his wife and children? Or that John Cheever took equal pleasure in his traditional family home life and his private homosexual liaisons? Or that Shakespeare's romantic appeals to "Mr. W.H." undid his infatuation with the Lady of the Sonnets? (Shakespearean cryptoanalysts take note: the term "iambic pentameter" contains the latent phrase "I am bi.")
Last week I sat with some fellow theater enthusiasts and read aloud the script of Design for Living, that flamboyant comic melodrama by Noel Coward. In a manner similar to his Hay Fever (which was just revived by the Yale Repertory Theatre) and Private Lives, Coward presents characters whose lives are infernally complicated and self-absorbed, especially in matters of personal affections, yet who are so devil-may-care, bon-vivantian and brilliantly witty that they seem not just redeemable but irresistible. Design for Living follows a foursome of three men (a playwright, an artist and a stodgy art dealer) and a woman (an interior decorator). The two more artistic men both bed the woman, causing resentments and jealousies that each segment of the triangle is embarrassed to admit they feel; they all still love each other. Then the woman beds the other man, and the first two men huff off together, after a very loose bit of male bonding (all talk, but seething with metaphor) over a full bottle of brandy and some bad sherry, to embark on a jungle adventure. Ostensibly it's a foreign-legion type scenario, to forget the woman who spurned them. Yet the very fact that they tramp off together is laden with bisexual meaning. Discussing the play after the reading, the overt eroticism of the two drinking buddies came up, and each reader's preconceptions of the characters' sexual leanings (gay? bi? curiously straight?) colored all explanations of their behavior, whether moral or philosophical or oratorical.
The grand pooh-bah of 20th-century bisexual expression, in my mind, has always been Gore Vidal. A distinguished novelist whose trashy-prose instincts are rarely kept at bay in his thoroughly enjoyable fiction, Vidal chose homosexuality as the undercurrent of his controversial first book, The City in the Pillar, had glib fun with the notion of transexuality in Myra Breckinridge, satirized the mock shock of soap operas with Duluth and delved into all manners of sexual bonding in his screenplays for the TV movie Billy the Kid and Penthouse's high-end porno flick Caligula.
In his illuminating memoirs Palimpsest, Vidal lays out, as he has so lucidly in numerous interviews and essays, his beliefs that bisexuality is the base, normal sexual attitude; that it has noble historical precedents throughout civilization and corollaries in the behavior of other species. And that this natural impulse is nearly bred out of us by damnable social conditioning. He's effusive on this topic, but it's the tidy little parenthetical asides in Vidal's sweeping discourse that have thrilled me the most. Here's my favorite, a three-word glance askance during a chapter on Vidal's military service (a time of great randiness for him):
"Categorization is control."
Yeah, I'm bisexual. None of the above? All of the above? That's your problem. When you figure it out, keep it to yourself.
Things that Cross the Mind of a Bi Person