The “B” Word


(Image: a smiling man pointing at the bisexual flag.)

This article on bisexuality and bisexual people facing discrimination within the LGBT community gave me some food for thought the other day. Particularly about bisexuality in fiction, and male bisexuality in particular.

I am writing a book with a male bisexual main character. After years of believing himself to be straight, he finds he can have attraction to men, namely his best friend. He has to re-evaluate who he is and how he identifies.

In the first draft, I toyed with the idea of having the character come to some fuzzy woo-woo conclusion about his sexuality, like he was “beyond labels” and “labels didn’t matter” sort of thing. You can tell I did not find that satisfying. In many ways, that is the expected outcome of the kinds of sexual and personal experiences the character has. Doubtless most books would want to solve the problem of his sexuality by tying it up neat in the ambiguity bow — by not answering the quintessential questions about sexuality that this character’s experiences pose.

Ambiguity can be used as an avoidance of the truth. We’ve all been there: that murky place where things are left unsaid, where people don’t not tell the truth, but they don’t make eye contact with each other either. A furtive place, where we hide things by just not talking about them or confronting them. It is in that kind of space that easy answers like “labels just don’t matter” exist. It is in that kind of place we deny experiences and instead opt for a reality that pretends to embrace the complexity of human sexuality, and yet doesn’t.

Ambiguity like this is poison. And it is this kind of poison which is a little too frequently served in fiction, from TV to film to books.

A great example is the “gay for you” trope in fiction, particularly romantic and erotic fiction. The trope follows that the (presumably straight) male protagonist falls in love with another man. This protagonist remains straight, and the other man is just the “exception to the rule”.

But what an exception. In a culture where men are still instructed to “toughen up” and where masculinity is still enmeshed with virility and power, it is still a “weakness” for a man to love another man. So it is no small thing to be a straight man falling in love with another man. People will question your identity, believe you were in denial before, and based on your experience with one man, will see you as 100 % gay. A man who has loved another man is irrevocably “gayified”, his experiences as a straight man cast aside and ignored.

This is no little thing to have to endure. Nor is the homophobia that still exists, in small and large ways, especially when you have reaped the benefits of straight privilege.

And what of the challenge of taking on a new identity, of calling oneself “bisexual”, particularly in a culture where both straight and gay people are hostile towards bisexuality? If your only understanding of bisexuality was negative — that bisexuals were, say, slutty cheaters — then you would hesitate to own the label of “bisexual”.

All of this should be part of the “gay for you” discourse as it relates to men. And yet it is not. It is simply left at “well, I’m gay for you and you alone” sort of thing. That ambiguity, that proverbial shrug where anything of note and weight is cast off because it’s just too difficult to label or deal with, is awful in many ways. It denies so much about who we are.

Now, I might be asking too much if I turn to erotic and romantic fiction for answers to complicated social and personal issues. And fiction is definitely a place of ambiguity. But these examples are still indicative of larger cultural patterns of how bisexuality is handled in fiction. The usually well meaning ambiguity with which bisexuality is often treated is also something which is toxic to understanding and accepting bisexuality.

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