By Laura Berol
When Wilson Diehl recently published her essay, “Yes, I Really Am Bisexual. Deal with It,” in the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times, I liked it on Facebook and quickly got three responses, all from the same individual:
“What are you trying to say by putting this online?”
“Sorry, but I find this disturbing.”
“Where is the unlike button?”
At last I’d found the only person on earth for whom I’m too bisexual. It was refreshing, in a way, after being asked time and again to justify my monogamous straight marriage. After all, my friends argue, if I desire women, shouldn’t I be acting on that?
Or maybe they don’t always argue. Maybe some of them just ask, “What did your husband do to make you see marriage as a possibility?” Maybe they comment in a leading tone, “So you’re attracted to women, but you’re married to a man….” Maybe they just cock an eyebrow and look curious. It doesn’t take much to start my internal critic demanding, “How can you be bi? You’re not young enough—hot enough—hip enough. You’re a middle-aged housewife!” as though bisexuality were an exclusive club from which I’d been bounced.
On the face of it, it’s a weird kind of self-doubt. Who should know my sexual identity better than I do? And why would I claim to be bisexual if I weren’t? Certainly not for all the approval it has earned me.
But Wilson Diehl’s essay showed me I wasn’t alone in doubting myself this way. “Is it reasonable for me to claim queerness when I’ve benefited so much from heterosexual privilege…?” she writes after four years of straight marriage. And, of course, there’s a cantankerous reader who can’t pass up the opportunity to reply online, “Actually, it is not reasonable.”
That’s the problem with self-doubt: there are always plenty of people (especially on the internet) willing to tell you that you’re not a good enough bi, just as there are plenty willing to tell you that you’re not a good enough queer by virtue of being bi instead of lesbian or gay. Yet I’ve found that many discerning essays about being bi include a rhetorical question along those lines—which makes me wonder why we bis question ourselves so much.
One possible answer I’ve been turning over in my head is that being a self-aware bisexual in our society requires a capacity for self-doubt. I don’t mean that bi’s are more angst-ridden than the general population: on the contrary, it’s among bisexuals that I’ve found the most striking examples of inner peace in the face of social disapproval. But since most of us grew up with the assumption that we’d be attracted exclusively to one sex, the path to a bi identity involved questioning who we thought ourselves to be.
Not only that, but being bi means continuing to doubt that our current erotic attachments will endure. Few partnered people I meet appear willing to do this. They rewrite history in a way that lets them believe they never really wanted anyone else, to comfort themselves with the certainty of never wanting someone else in the future. That fantasy takes more work when your objects of desire are of different sexes. So what if she has the most perfect breasts you’ve ever seen, or if he has the most gorgeous cock? Maybe you’ll fall for someone who doesn’t have breasts, or who doesn’t have a cock. Generalizing is treacherous business, but I’ll take the risk of asserting that, as things stand now, bis have to accept greater disjunctions among our past, present and future selves than most other people do.
All this uncertainty makes me oddly hopeful. My thinking has been influenced by two feminists, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler, whose writings explore connections between certainty and violence. We attack others because we’re certain that we’re in the right and that we know who our enemies are. But, of course, if those we attack weren’t already our enemies beforehand, they most likely will be afterward. And our insistence that we’re right may veil a deep-seated suspicion that we’re partly in the wrong. So the ability to tolerate selfdoubt can make room for nonviolent ways to negotiate our differences with others. I hope bisexuals can lead the way in accepting uncertainty for the sake of human connection.
Yet living with uncertainty isn’t easy, especially when the uncertainty concerns your very existence. The state of Israel is a case in point. Rose and Butler have both criticized Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians, but they recognize that the uncertainty of survival has prompted Israel to violence. Bisexuals, too, are threatened, both by physical attacks and by the currents in public opinion that would erase our identity by reducing us to confused gays, lesbians or straights. When we’re under assault, we want to close ranks: draw the boundaries clearly, define who’s on our side, and fight for all we’re worth. This response strengthens the group with a sense of unity, but at the expense of sacrificing people on the margins.
I don’t know how to deal with the conflicts surrounding bi identity except by maintaining connections as much as possible. After a long silence from the FB friend who found my taste in essays disturbing, I phoned her one Saturday morning. She explained that homosexuality (as she put it) was Satan’s strategy to trap me. I told her I was sorry I’d upset her but not sorry to be who I am. It was like we were holding a conversation with earplugs in, or speaking two different languages. Not only did we fail to persuade each other, we barely made contact. Still, that doesn’t make her my enemy. She’s just a person with a very different idea of what makes for a good life—which is what I am to anyone who thinks I’m not bisexual enough.
Laura lives, loves and writes in Falls Church, Virginia.