Thursday, August 16, 2007

Can't I Just Be Attracted to PEOPLE, Not Genders?

At first I thought that Jennifer Baumgardner's new book Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics was rather old-hat (in addition to having a simultaneously embarrassingly euphemistic, and awkwardly labeling title). However I just finished reading it, and actually I like it quite a bit. She doesn't discuss continuums and fluidity as much as I'd like, but she has some really interesting points, once she gets past establishing that bisexuals aren't just confused straight people, and that women can have sex with each other, actually.

I particularly liked her chapters on relationships (individual and political) between bisexual women and a). straight America b). self-identified lesbians and c). straight men. Also, what was very cool was her discussion of the different relationships bisexual women have with men and women, and whether it's possible to have the kind of relationship one has with a woman with a man (and vise versa). She talks a lot about bisexual women bringing "gay expectations" of equality and lack of gender roles to relationships with men. Concurrently, she also discusses the "straight expectations" of acceptance (not just passing) that bisexual women bring to the LGBT movement, as well bringing expectations of sexual aggression/assertiveness to their relationships with women. And, of course, she also discusses at length Ani (and also Anne Heche), and the casting out of women who date men after being with women.

Perhaps the most interesting part however was her (unfortunately brief) discussion of the privilege accorded to bisexuals to not only be able to pass, but to not have to fully experience the constant oppression faced by people on the extremely gay side of the continuum. She emphasizes this point with her response to Melissa Ferrick slamming a bisexual woman for suggesting that it was unfair that she couldn’t bring her male partner to an LGBT awards ceremony. "Ferrick is right,” she says. “Bisexual women don't know what it's like to be lesbian, if there are even universal elements of lesbian experience. I didn't have a crush on my gym teacher. I didn't insist my name was Billy and wear a blazer to kindergarten. We might not have been terrified to look around the locker room in high school because someone might think we're staring too hard. We don't always have to 'watch our backs' when we're holding hands with a new love.”

I wasn’t even aware of this privilege until a friend told me that she had wanted to kill herself when she was coming out. Like Baumgardner, I don’t identify with the metaphor of “coming out” at all, and I didn’t have a whole lot of personal angst over it. I’m not gonna lie—I had a little bit of angst—but nowhere near contemplating suicide. In fact, this past January, rather than having angst over being gay, I angsted over whether or not I should go to the community college’s LGBT meeting in order to meet some friends. Such meetings, I felt with some derision, were only for people who were so unenlightened as to feel their lives were over when they realized they were gay. It really wasn’t until I had this conversation with my friend that I realized how privileged I was to never have such an extreme identity crisis and depression. My question however, is whether that is really a privilege of “bisexuals” or whether that privilege was more related to me attending Smith College, the "bisexual incubator," as Baumgardner calls it.

In any case, Baumgardner suggests that we need such semi-privileged people, who are in many ways unaware of the fear that the more oppressed experience, in order to push the movement forward. She quotes Ellen as saying that she never would have burst out of the closet so blatantly if it hadn’t have been for bisexual Anne Heche pushing for their relationship to be conducted in the same way that she would conduct it with a man (holding hands in public, etc). “A gay person would never have let me be so public because a gay person would know what would happen," Ellen says. However, Baumgarnder stops just (disappointingly) short of suggesting that bisexuals (and those attracted to people, not genders) are misunderstood as confused because they are ahead of their time and the LGBT movement as a whole.

I’ve had that feeling in the past with a new friend who self-identified as lesbian. She kept inadvertently assuming that I was lesbian and I kept awkwardly being like "No, no, I don't identify as lesbian." She understood that I didn't identify as "lesbian," but I was afraid she thought that I was just being coy and politically correct about not labeling and not liking the word "lesbian". Which is true enough, but really, I'm not a lesbian, yo. I don't want to rule out half of the population forever just because at the moment I'm primarily attracted to women. That could very easily change.

Which leads me to the primary problem I had with Look Both Ways. I felt that Baumgardner's description of bisexuality, and sexuality in general, was too static. As I said, she never really gets around to critiquing the idea that it's either gay, straight or exactly in the middle of the two. But moreover, I wasn't feeling the love for the fluidity of identity and sexuality. Of course she talks about the attraction of Anne Heche, Ani and even herself to both men and women. However I felt that the book assumes a constant attraction to both genders, rather than an ability for that attraction to change and flux in its proportions (not to mention attraction to people who don't fit into neat little gender boxes). As I said, I'm primarily attracted to women now, however I feel like it would be limitingly short-sighted of me to call myself a lesbian and completely rule out the possility of my attraction changing depending on the people I meet. At the same time, I feel it's inaccurate to call myself bisexual because at this point in time I'm NOT attracted to men. It all comes down to the people you fall in love with, I think, not the gender.

At any rate, Baumgardner’s book is all very interesting, but it doesn't make me dislike the term "bisexual" any less. Her discussion has a lot of really interesting points, but it is disappointing in it's lack of a fluid approach to gender and sexuality. Although she does sort of hint at that towards the end, with this parting thought: "If Kate Millett said that 'gay' was a term that straight America made up to deal with their own bisexuality, then maybe 'bisexuality' is a term we use to deal with our own fear of sexual fluidity and the dynamic nature of attraction."

More Interesting quotes from the book:

"Homosexuality was invented by a straight world dealing with its own bisexuality." --Kate Millett

"In the same way that I didn't recall 'losing my voice' at age ten (as "Reviving Ophelia" would have it), I don't relate to the gay catchphrase 'coming out of the closet.' I reject its implication that I have been harboring a shameful secret or have forced a part of myself to fester alone in a dark, windowless space."

"Look, I'm not a lesbian," the activist June Jordan said to me with more than a touch of exasperation during a 1996 interview. "As of 1991, I have identified as a bisexual. I resent this huge resistance to complexity."

“[But] Ferrick doesn't know what it's like to be [bisexual], and feel like her relationship with a man negates her relationships to the queer music world. And Ferrick doesn't know what it's like to be me and have to constantly crowd every conversation with sign posts ("ex girlfriend," "ex boyfriend," "baby's father") to indicate the whole person I am."

"What Anne [Heche] symbolizes to me is the great what—what if it were okay for gay people to have straight expectations? Not to 'pass,' or become palatable, or go back in the closet, but simply to expect what Heche took for granted: to not have to be careful and quiet about her love life."

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