When I Call Myself Bisexual
Author: Donald Weise
June 1, 2014
I wrote this essay six months ago, to be posted online in conjunction with the June 2014 reissue of Bi Any Other Name, the landmark anthology of writings by bisexuals that Loraine Hutchins and Lani Ka’ahumanu co-edited almost twenty-five years ago. I had originally intended the piece to serve as a personal statement about my relationships to the books I publish. However, the New York Times Magazine recently ran a cover story titled “Bisexuality Comes Out of the Closet,” an article that opens with “The scientific quest to prove—once and for all—that someone (even a man) can truly be attracted to both a man…and a woman.” With that kind of prelude, I knew the article would be hard going, and it was. There’s a lot of science and data discussed, much talk of “sexual arousal patterns” “genital monitoring,” and “evidence from prior studies.” On the whole the article is balanced and sometimes insightful, owing in no small part to the fact that bisexuals themselves are quoted throughout and important points are raised from their perspectives. I don’t take issue with how the subject matter is presented necessarily but that the Times felt they had to run the article in the first place: As if the jury was still out on whether bisexuals exist, and the Times would step in and hand down the verdict “once and for all.”
At one point in the piece the author writes, “[I]n the eyes of many Americans bisexuality…remains a bewildering and potentially invented sexual orientation favored by men in denial about their homosexuality and by women who will eventually settle down with men.” For many Americans I’m sure it is, just as for many Americans black people are responsible for crime and gay men are to blame for HIV/AIDS, but do we have to keep acknowledging these frankly idiotic ways of thinking as if they’re legitimate arguments in need of consideration? Or as one woman in the article says: “Do we really have to keep debating whether bisexuality exists?”
The version of this essay I wrote originally, with no advance knowledge of the Times article, much less what was included in it, was my attempt to join the “debate” by submitting my own evidence, free of genital monitoring and based not on clinical research but on firsthand experience. Once that essay was completed, however, I sat on it, uncertain about whether I wanted to share it. Portions of what’s said can be read as controversial and might alienate some gay people. So when the Times piece came along and bisexuality, as a colleague put it, became “the new hot cheese” (don’t look at me), I decided I’d go ahead and submit the essay for publication anyway. I felt something beyond “a scientific quest” around bisexuality was called for, even at the risk of upsetting readers.
As part of the resissue of Bi Any Other Name, Loraine and Lani have written a new introduction that looks at where we were around bisexuality when the book was first published in 1991 and where we stand today. One of the more surprising statistics they cite is the fact that no national LGBT organization has an openly bisexual board member. Finding this difficult to believe, I said, “Surely the Human Rights Campaign or Lambda Legal has bisexual board members.” Not an openly bisexual board member, they told me. Yes, there was a bisexual woman they knew of on a national board, but she chose not to come out as such. As much as we know the closet is a sad place and while I personally frown on closeted gay people in most instances, I could relate to not wanting to disclose all of who you are, sexually speaking, when you’re already dealing with the ongoing, daily hassles around just being gay. Who wants to add another layer to one’s outsider status, especially within one’s own community? In fact, I found it completely understandable why someone would serve on the board of a national LGBT organization and remain closeted about their bisexuality, because I did it myself.
Until speaking with Loraine and Lani, I hadn’t really thought of myself as closeted since I’ve never self-identified as bisexual in the first place, even though that’s the truest name for what I am. And why would I self-identify when, if you lined up all the men I’ve been with end to end, they would reach to the moon and back, while my experiences with women are so limited that they could be written about on the back of a postcard. Besides, I often have a hard enough time relating to the priorities of the mainstream gay community that I could only imagine what a bisexual community, for all its own complexities, might look like. Then there’s the fact that I’m known as a gay book editor, someone for whom being gay is more than just an identity, it’s part of how I make a living. Put another way, most gay people don’t have to talk with heterosexual colleagues about anal sex, S/M, hustlers, glory holes, and gang bangs as part of their work day. After a while of this, however, you become “known” to everyone as gay with a capital G—maybe even a capital A and Y, too—making it a challenge to identify yourself in any other way, even if you wanted to.
Which raises the question: Why would I want to? I suppose if your identity as a bisexual is clear-cut, that’s another story. But mine isn’t. James Baldwin once said, “I’ve loved a few women, and I’ve loved a few men.”As dubious as his claim sounds considering the source, I can say that I have indeed loved a few women, but the math around men in his statement would have to be adjusted to account for the fact that there has been some form of a gay bathhouse in almost every city I’ve lived in or visited for the past twenty-five years. For me that’s the tough part: squaring these numbers and still being able to call myself bisexual. Or as playwright Arthur Laurents once said about Gore Vidal’s alleged bisexuality in the face of his self-avowed boy-a-day routine: “The numbers speak for themselves.” Numbers, it would appear, do matter and if nothing else seem to serve as a reliable indicator of the primary object of one’s affections, but is that really the case?
Now, I realize there are many people in the gay community who subscribe to the Arthur Laurents school of sexual labeling. I, too, once believed that numbers speak for themselves. But the problem, I’ve learned, is numbers alone don’t paint a complete picture. In other words, is the number of same-sex partners any of us has had the best measure of our sexual orientation, or is there more at play? This is not an abstract, philosophical question for me: It’s what I asked myself once I became romantically involved with a woman ten years after coming out as gay.
I met her at a dinner party in San Francisco. I don’t know that I was aware right away that I was physically attracted to her—certainly I knew she was beautiful, but I was just as impressed by her intelligence, unbridled humor, and the talent evidenced in the first novel she’d just published. The dinner host, a book reviewer and a lesbian, had invited us because she’d just reviewed both of our new books and wanted to meet. What started out as a kind of Will & Grace coupling over coffee dates and afternoons browsing bookstores soon became more, much to our mutual surprise. I was in the process of breaking up with my boyfriend of eight years, while she was in the early stages of a separation from her husband. Something about that felt fated that we should be together.
I’d had a couple girlfriends, briefly, before I came out, so this development didn’t come as a total surprise—to me anyway; to everyone else, it seemed the equivalent of discovering I could walk on water. I think “fascination” is the word I’d apply to the rapt attention I received from friends and colleagues who knew me as a gay man with a colorful past. Was I serious? people seemed to wonder. How in the world would I make it work? One lesbian whom I knew only slightly even came up to me at a book show and said, “I heard you’re seeing a woman” in the same bemused tone she might have said, “I heard you joined the circus.” These events unfolded in a part of California where a transition of this sort wasn’t entirely out of the question but still highly unexpected and unusual even by San Francisco Bay Area standards. I tried not to put a name on who or what I was—and my partner was great about that, never once asking me to think of myself as anything but gay if that’s what I chose. She was completely comfortable with this, whereas I think most women would have felt otherwise.
You may be wondering how all those men I mentioned, the ones reaching to the moon and back, fit into the equation. So did a lot of people. The most frequent curiosity expressed—either directly or indirectly, since it wasn’t always an easy question to ask or answer—was how I could go from casual encounters with so many men to a monogamous relationship with a woman. I still don’t have an answer for that except to say I was committed to my partner and that our sex life was as good, if not better, than most I’d had with men; so much so that it took about a year before I even started to miss relations with guys, but not enough to seek them out.
I did, however, return to an old haunt on Market Street, a private club that for years was the center of my nightlife. But it wasn’t to meet men this time; I was hosting an erotic reading there, though I wasn’t sure how I’d hold up once I entered those once beloved and familiar surroundings. The same door staff was on hand to greet me after such a long absence and some of the regulars, who looked surprised to see me, said hello. I felt like Dolly Levi returning to Harmonia Gardens. As it happened, I wasn’t tempted after the reading to join in the proceedings upstairs, to my surprise. My partner, however, wasn’t at all surprised. Then again, she had never been inside so didn’t know what the place had to offer.
A couple months into the relationship, I decided finally to tell my mother about my partner. She knew I’d broken up with my boyfriend, whom she adored, but hadn’t a clue what followed. When I came out to her in college, it was with a kind of self-righteous fanfare that said “this is who I am!” I almost dared her to object. Now I had to phone and say, “I’m gay…but not really.” Coming out to her once was awkward enough, but twice? When I called her in Los Angeles, I started off by asking if she was sitting down. She said yes apprehensively, she was. I told her I had something important to say and then proceeded to share the news—and as I spoke she began to sob. Confused, I stopped and said, “Mom, what’s the matter? You wanted me to have a wife and kids and it looks like that might happen after all. Aren’t you happy?” Through tears she said, “I thought you were going to tell me you have AIDS.” Now I was almost in tears, realizing that nothing in her experience or mine had prepared either of us for these oddball turn of events. It’s a testament to my mother that she hung in there, whether she understood me or not.
As for the wife and kids, that actually almost came to fruition. My partner and I got engaged, though a wedding date wasn’t ever set. For me, as a gay man, our engagement was in some way almost as much about giving our government a fuck you for telling me I couldn’t marry the person I loved all those years I was with a guy as it was about the wedding. Marriage has never been a priority for me, not after watching the married couples where I grew up. But in this instance it felt natural and right and it really was about marrying the person I loved. We also started planning for a child, something that excited us. But of course I wondered what a kid coming up with a gay father would make of my relationship with his or her mother, or what other children would say if they found out. I didn’t have to worry. My partner called off the engagement after some months, feeling it was too soon after her divorce. She’d had no time to process her feelings from that break up and sometimes brought unresolved issues into our relationship. In fact, she also called off our relationship of two and a half years at the same time for these reasons.
We stayed friends and continue to support each other—she’s one of the first people I’ve called when a romance with a guy ended, and no one was more thrilled for her than I when she was offered a new book deal at Penguin. The almost comic outcome of our separation was that, suddenly at loose ends, I decided impulsively to move to New York. Had we stayed together I’d still be living in California, and none of the work I’ve done here around gay books or the gay friends I’ve made or the big gay parties I’ve hosted, where people have made important business connections and friendships, would have happened, so in a way, a straight woman is to thank for all that.
It’s been harder living in New York City to think of myself as bisexual than it was in California because life here has been much more homo-centric for me. I’ve not managed to match Vidal’s numbers with men but then he had a headstart. I don’t know whether this has influenced my interest or lack thereof in women, but I’ve not gone out with one or even seriously considered it since I got here—or had any interest, actually. But then who you go out with, as with the number of partners one has had, is only one measure of sexual attraction: there’s also desire and fantasy. They count, too, if they continue to inform your sexuality as mine have. Like the closeted gay man who’s married to a woman: Isn’t he still gay even if he never acts out on his homosexual desires and fantasies?
Yet there are times now and then when a presumably straight woman around my age or a little older will approach me—in the market, in the park, in an elevator—in what feels like an overly friendly manner, one I recognize as my own tactic when laying the groundwork for a pick up. I don’t know whether these women are flirting or just being nice but we spend more time than seems reasonable talking in the cat food aisle or by the duck pond. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I responded to one of them in kind. How much could I say about myself before I felt I had to lie? How would I account for the absence of a wife or girlfriend for years? Would I dare tell the truth and risk outright rejection? Would I even be capable of following through with a woman after all this time? Tellingly, these questions come up for me most often not at the time of these encounters but after yet another disappointing experience on the gay online dating site. Women are never more appealing to me than when gay men behave badly.
There’s a reason I haven’t addressed my bisexuality publicly before, and it’s not because the Times hasn’t ever published a cover story in the Sunday magazine on the topic. From the time I first came out, the gay community at large hasn’t been a place where I felt comfortable or confident expressing who I really am without the risk of being ridiculed or derided. I’d heard the jokes about bisexuals doubling their chances of finding dates, I listened to what gay men and lesbians thought, quite openly, about bisexuals (fence-riders, basically, who enjoy heterosexual privileges while partnering with members of one’s own sex), I saw how bisexual men on the so-called “down low” were vilified, and I even read what some outspoken bisexual people themselves felt about their own sexual orientation but couldn’t identify with their “anything that moves” point of view. As far as I was concerned, I was a gay man who was attracted to women, but I’ve seldom come out about that for fear of becoming an outsider among outsiders. I didn’t trust that even my gay male friends (or especially my gay male friends) would relate, and most of all, I didn’t want any of my women friends—mostly lesbians—to ever think my fondness for them was anything but platonic. So what accounts for the difference now?
Thinking about my conversation with Loraine and Lani and what reissuing their book meant to me on a personal level, I started to feel that maybe for the first time I was hiding who and what I am, if only to avoid dealing with people’s unpredictable reactions. It’s like when I’m forced to choose whether to come out when a stranger assumes that I’m straight: Do I tell him I’m gay or just play along, knowing I’ll never see him again? Even if he’s “gay-friendly,” do I really want to hear about his lesbian sister? In short, how much am I prepared to put up with? Then there’s the concern over making statements that may upset gay people, such as the fact that, in an unfortunate, backwards way, the horrible and blatantly false statements the rightwing makes about us (“He hasn’t met the right woman,” “Being gay is a choice”) for me are accurate to a degree: Until meeting my partner, you could say I really hadn’t met the “right” woman, and living an exclusively homosexual romantic life for me really is a choice, one I gladly make.
We often hear today about queer people not choosing labels, because they can’t or won’t pin themselves down. My hesitance around coming out as bisexual or claiming it as part of my larger identity is less about that. Rather it’s about what others will take away from me for so self-defining. I suppose I shouldn’t care and truthfully don’t really care all that much. But unlike the people who refuse to self-define, I believe the world has a way of naming you no matter what you decide for yourself. In other words the choice is not entirely ours and the naming is more or less out of our hands.
When I call myself bisexual, I’m naming myself anyway. I’m also opening myself up to other people’s interpretations—favorable or not—of what that means to them. Since I’m not interested in what straight people think about my sexual orientation, my concern over identifying as bisexual is about what effect this gesture might have on my place in the gay community. I don’t especially want to seek out a bisexual subculture because I don’t think I’d feel at home there. Nor do I want to take part any longer in self-definitions that limit me as being something that I’m not, namely homosexual. You may ask why that’s important to me—isn’t it a fine line in my case anyway? I guess I’d say it’s about desire: who and what I desire versus who and what I’m expected to desire. Surely gay people can relate to that: Isn’t coming out about declaring who and what we desire in the face of who and what we’re expected to desire? (The topic of expectations around race and sexual desire is a subject of a whole other essay.) Said differently I’d like to be free to consider myself a gay man who’s fundamentally bisexual or a bisexual who’s primarily gay. I don’t know that it matters which I choose, or if I choose. What matters to me is coming to the most authentic expression of who I truly am and living from that place, openly. Besides, in the end, whatever we call ourselves, isn’t it about love anyway?