Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Reflections: On bisexuality, and passsing

I am a mostly-out bisexual woman in a married relationship. If sexuality is a continuum, I probably fall more towards women than men (hear that? That was another closet door shattering), but my opportunities to meet women have been somewhat limited by my male-dominated profession and hobbies in my teens and 20s (during which time I met The Partner). Ironically enough, I am now in a women-dominated workplace (I'll post about what a breath of fresh air that is some other time) and have "feminine" hobbies, so had I not already been partnered, who knows what might have happened. I don't actually care--I am very happily monogamous with The Partner, as he is with me (and yes, he knows all of the above, and he doesn't care either). In the end, sexuality is for me about loving an individual, and the bits that individual happens to come with are largely irrelevant.

In a lot of ways, my marriage protects me from the dangers and oppressions that come with my orientation (for which my personal preferred term is "gender-bender"). For a start, I am in a state-sanctioned union, with all the rights and protections that pertain to that. I never have to answer that awkward question about a boyfriend with some variation on "uh, girlfriend, actually". I wear a ring that marks me as part of one of these societally approved partnerships which bizarrely enough means I get to behave (at least in terms of the longing eyes, or comments on attractiveness I need to stop indulging in) much more according to my preferences, because heteronormativity often blinds people to what is actually happening right in front of them. In many ways, I benefit from the appearance of straightness, even though I am not straight. I pass, and it not only makes many things easier, it actually keeps me safer.

Nonetheless, though, I am not straight. I have had the uncomfortable experience of being "outed" under circumstances not of my choosing. Every piece of anti-gay legislation that gets passed could one day apply to me. I have to self-censor when talking about my attractions in public, particularly when I am not with The Partner. I am certainly not claiming to be as affected by any of these things as my gay friends and loved ones, but they nonetheless affect me.

And then there is the third, weird set of...issues, for want of a better word that I deal with because I am bisexual and hetero-partnered (and each of these things has been raised with me several times, so they seem to be common misconceptions):
  • The assumption that my bisexuality is not actually real for lack of a visible history, or that it was something I have "grown out of"
  • The heteronormative assumption that I am straight, and therefore will not be offended by gay jokes or slurs (now, I would be offended by these even if I was straight, but that is a whole 'nother issue)
  • Being questioned as to whether my bisexuality is meaningful now that I am married, since I won't act on it
  • Or having it assumed that I will be unfaithful, just because I am bisexual.
Here's the thing: Bisexuality is real, and we bisexuals are just as in control of our sexuality as everyone else. Being bisexual is neither a stepping stone on the way to gayness for all who claim it, not a childish dalliance. Monogamous partnering is a reduction of choice under all circumstances: confining your sexuality to a single person doesn't change the gender or type of person you are attracted to, and being attracted to a wider range of people doesn't mean confining yourself to one person is impossible.

The purpose of this post is certainly not to get into any form of "oppression olympics", nor is it to call out (often loved and respected) the people in my life who have asked me these questions--I understand that my position is unusual. Really, this post is just a descirption of my own postiont, and an explanation about me for anyone looking for it (I don't claim to speak for anyone else). My bisexuality is an integral part of my identity. I benefit dramatically from being lucky enough to be partnered with a man, for sure--but the fact that I pass doesn't change who I am--and nor would I want it to.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Rant: 'Milk' and the closet doors

Last night I went to see the movie 'Milk', about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major office in the US, and a significant force in the activism for gay rights. I'm depressed. Don't get me wrong, the movie was awesome, and if the Oscars had anything to do with real merit, Penn should win an Oscar for his performance.

The reason why I am depressed is this: Harvey Milk hoped, in a recording he made in anticipation of his assassination that 'if a bullet should enter [his] brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door...' Well, sure enough, Harvey got shot to death (and the guy who did it got away with it, essentially), but the closet door remains firmly closed.

I live on the other side of the world. I know who Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker and Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers and Angela Davis are, though some of the oppressions they fought are not oppressions I face. For fuck's sake, I even know who Camille Paglia is, though I could live without her. And to be fair, I knew roughly who Harvey Milk was, though I knew very little about him--even though the oppression he fought is one I face, to a lesser degree than many of my comrades, to be sure--I pass, making me one of the lucky ones--but I face it nonetheless. Let me be clear, I am not trying to diminish the achievements of any of the civil rights activists I listed, nor I claiming any one of them was a paragon of virtue, but...

Why isn't Harvey Milk's name up there in the pantheon of American civil rights heroes? Because that closet door is made of kevlar. Because sexuality isn't visible, and because there seems to be an insidious sense that it is a choice, and because it is about sex, GLBTQI civil rights just aren't an issue that many people are interested in.

Except they are interested. Just not in a good way. It is still bizarrely acceptable to poke fun at gay people in movies. Obama is seen by so many as ushering a new era of human rights, and being fabulous for gay people, but as Ann at Feministing points out "not-Bush" is a pretty low threshold. He didn't come out openly against any of the anti-gay-marriage bills in the US, and all 11 of them passed, including one in California, Milk's adopted home state, and the place where he did such amazing work (and this is similar the world over--there are few places that recognise full marriage equality). I'm aware of the arguments against state-sanctioned marriage--this post isn't about those--but while the state does sanction marriage, to deny it to people because they happen to be the same gender is unacceptable. Saying "that's so gay", and calling someone a faggot are not seen as the slightest bit transgressive. People still ask each other about partners in gendered terms, and it is still up to those in non-heterosexual relationships to explain themselves. For those of us who are in a heterosexual relationship, our orientation is considered confirmed. Gay people are still beaten for who they love (though probably not nearly as statistically frequently as trans people).

30 years after Milk's death, not much has changed. Gay people are still told consistently in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they are not acceptable. I still cannot imagine an openly gay leader in New Zealand (which is fairly diverse in its political representation--we've had female leaders, openly gay and lesbian MPs, a trans MP, MPs of many ethnicities...), much less the US. The closet door is still firmly closed. And the biggest shame of all? Until the movie, the world didn't even know Milk's name.

Update 28 Jan 09: Iceland has just gotten a female, openly gay prime minister (thanks, Shakesville, for bringing me the news). Yes, she has been appointed, not elected, but--was that the sound of one more closet door shattering?