Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Helena Andrews, Now Do You Believe that Bisexuality is Real?

Allison McCarthy is a regular team blogger for Ms. as well as a freelance writer for magazines such as Bitch and a contributor to several anthologies.  Her full bio is available here

"Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex."

- Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948)

We all have dealbreakers when it comes to dating.  But what if your dealbreaker invoked the purposeful erasure of someone's identity?  Such is the case for Helena Andrews, author of the best-selling memoir Bitch is the New Black and most recently "Dealbreaker: He's Dated Men" column for GOOD magazine.  The article chronicles Andrews' experience dating an unnamed, older, sharply dressed and "sexually mysterious" Black male in Washington, D.C.  As the daughter of an an "out and proud lesbian" and single parent, one might expect that Andrews would offer a more nuanced perspective on sexuality.  Yet throughout the article, there is nary a mention of her ex's bisexuality -- instead, Andrews refers to him as a  “formerly gay man."  Is this really the case? 

On their first date, Andrews observes that her gentleman caller "led the back of his hand up the back of my leg from Achilles tendon to that crazy sensitive skin behind my knee."  This signals his sexual interest in her ("Yes, it was definitely a date") and he soon introduces her to his circle of friends, indicating his desire to develop a romantic connection.  As their relationship progresses, he shows further signs of interest: "showing up on time every time, always paying, wanting to buy me clothes and being willing to dog sit when I was out of town."  But in Andrews' retelling, their courtship is portrayed in sharp contrast to her ex's past.  In a private phone conversation, he tells her that he's dated men before; while Andrews finds his honesty both courageous and "really really hot," she soon realizes that his experiences with men were "a wedge between us... Eventually, neither one of us was happy pretending that I was into it." 

Given that Andrews' piece was published last week, the timing of a new study on male bisexuality could not be more apt.  The New York Times reports findings published in the most recent volume of the scientific periodical Biological Psychology,  marking "a significant step toward demonstrating that bisexual men do have specific arousal patterns."  Their research indicated that men in the study experienced sexual arousal when watching videos of both men and women.  Researchers feel this study will substantiate bisexality as an authentic sexual orientation:

“I’ve interviewed a lot of individuals about how invalidating it is when their own family members think they’re confused or going through a stage or in denial,” she [Dr. Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and an expert on sexual orientation] said. “These converging lines of evidence, using different methods and stimuli, give us the scientific confidence to say this is something real.”

It wasn't so long ago that The New York Times was asking if bisexuality was really "a distinct and stable sexual orientation" ("Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited" - July 5, 2005).  Pop culture is just as guilty of erasing bisexuality as legitimate -- I'm hard-pressed to think of more than a handful of openly bisexual characters in television or film from the last decade.  And when bisexuality isn't being ignored, you can expect to see its factuality being debated by non-bisexuals.  Consider the Sex and the City episode "Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl," where sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw brings up a recent date who told her that he was bisexual with the addendum, "The weird thing is, he was so open about it."  Oh, right.  I forgot that bisexuality is super embarrassing to bring up, probably one of those little details best kept from the sensitive ears of straight people.  Carrie then bemoans what she perceives to be the "confusion of the sexes" by lamenting, "I’m not even sure bisexuality exists; I think it’s just a layover on the way to Gaytown."  This promotes the binary of heterosexuality vs. homosexuality, insisting that all people fall sharply on one end of the spectrum over another.  Writer Stephanie Harzewski of S&F Online argues that Carrie's derision of bisexuality "dismisses [the concept] as a geographically undesirable dead-end."  Do any of Carrie's friends challenge her heterosexist assumptions?  Not really: Samantha tells her to enjoy the experience but "don’t ruin it with labels," while her best friend Miranda quips, "Isn’t that right next to RickyMartinville?" 

While any given dealbreaker rests exclusively in the eye of the beholder, I found myself growing irritated with Andrews' insistently narrow framing of her ex's sexual orientation.  If someone has sexual attraction to both males and females, zie is not "formerly gay" -- the whole concept of "formerly gay" is an unfortunate remnant of the misguided attempt by Christian and secular therapists to convert lesbians and gays from queerness to heterosexuality (and it doesn't work).  Besides "bisexuality," other terms that might be used to describe the attraction to more than one gender are "queer" or "pansexual," which encompass sexual attraction for a multiplicity of gender identities and sexual orientations, including trans*, genderqueer, and cisgender folks.  It's not clear what Andrews' ex identified as -- we're only given her side of the story.  But given her ex's range of experiences with two genders, it's a false dichotomy to label him as either "formerly gay" or newly straight.  For bisexuals, just because someone picks a partner of one gender, it does not mean that sexual attraction to other genders has been closed off.  Helena Andrews had every right to end their relationship, but that doesn't make her ex's sexual orientation -- whether bisexual, pansexual, queer, or unidentified -- any less authentic.