Thursday, July 16, 2015

“B” — The Forgotten Letter


Copyright © 2012, 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On the eve of San Diego’s Queer Pride celebration — known, as has become the regrettable custom, by the ugly and risible acronym “LGBT” — I can’t help but think of an article I recently downloaded from the Internet, a report of a study from Rice University in Houston, Texas which, according to the university’s July 1 press release (, shows, “Bisexuals tend to have worse health than Gay men and Lesbian women.”
According to the study, 19.5 percent of Bisexual men and 18.5 percent of Bi women rated their own health as “poor or fair.” By contrast, 14.5 percent of straight men, 15.6 percent of straight women, 11.9 percent of Gay men and 10.6 percent of Lesbian women said their health was “poor or fair.” The study found Bisexual respondents were less likely to be college-educated or earn more than $25,000 per year. It found that Bi people were more likely to smoke cigarettes: 23.8 percent of Bi men and 21.9 percent of Bi women smoke, compared to 14.9 percent Gay men, 16.6 percent Lesbian women, 11.1 percent of straight men and just 8.3 percent of straight women.
Justin Denney, assistant professor of sociology at Rice and director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Urban Health Program, argued that Bisexuals have poorer health and lower income prospects because they’re “minorities within the minority and experience unique and more extreme forms of discrimination.” That’s an academic’s understatement if there ever was one. Despite the sham inclusion of “B” and “T” (Bisexual and Transgender) into the name of virtually every organization serving the Queer community or every event it puts on, Bisexuals remain the odd men and women out of the Queer community, at best paid lip service and at worst openly derided, mocked, ignored or denied altogether.
And this is the case even though, ironically, more Americans identify themselves as Bisexual than as Gay, Lesbian or Transgender. A report issued in January 2011 by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s LGBT Advisory Committee included a study, published the previous year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, that showed 92.7 percent of adults surveyed — 92.2 percent of males and 93.1 percent of females — identified as heterosexual. The percentages of people identifying as Gay or Lesbian were 2.5 percent of all adults, 4.2 percent of men and just 0.9 percent of women. The percentages identifying as Bi were 3.1 percent of adults, 2.6 percent of men and 3.6 percent of women — indicating something I’d long suspected from anecdotal evidence: women who have sex with both women and men are more likely to acknowledge their desires for both and less likely than men to decide that one same-sex encounter or relationship brands them as “Queer for life.”
Among adolescents, the numbers were even more striking. In the survey, 93.5 percent of adolescents — 96.1 percent of men and 90.5 percent of females — identified as heterosexual. Just 1 percent of adolescents identified as Gay or Lesbian (1.8 percent of men and only 0.2 percent of women), versus 4.9 percent who identified as Bi: 1.5 percent of men and 8.4 percent of women. Another poll, taken in 2007 by Hunter College of City University of New York (, showed similar numbers. Focused exclusively on people who identify as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, its tally indicated that among the men, 33.4 percent said they were Gay and 15.4 percent said they were Bi — but among the women, 33.5 percent said they were Bi versus only 17.8 percent who said they were Lesbian. Yet another survey, from the U.S. government in 2002, said that 56 percent of all Americans who say they’re Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual identify as Bi rather than Lesbian or Gay.
“Bisexuals experience high rates of being ignored, discriminated against, demonized, or rendered invisible in both the heterosexual world and the Lesbian and Gay community,” said the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s report. “Often, the entire [Bi]sexual orientation is branded as invalid, immoral or irrelevant. Despite years of activism and the largest population within the LGBT community, the needs of Bisexuals still go unaddressed and their very existence is still called into question. This erasure has serious consequences on Bisexuals’ health, economic well-being, and funding for Bi organizations and programs.”
Bisexual invisibility turns up in some of the oddest places. One year I was volunteering at the Bisexual Forum booth at the Pride Festival, and a man came up to the booth wearing a T-shirt with an alleged list of “Famous Gay and Lesbian People in History.” With a disbelieving air, he asked the people staffing the booth, “Are you really Bisexual?” “Yes,” I said, grabbing the teachable moment, “and so was just about everybody listed on your T-shirt.”
More recently I found myself incensed by a retrospective article in the July 7, 2015 Rolling Stone ( on the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer and one of the principal songwriters for the rock band Queen. The author, Mikal Gilmore, acknowledged that “Mercury sustained a passionate relationship with his partner of many years, Mary Austin, a glamorous young woman he met at Biba, a London fashion house. … Mercury would remain close to Austin for the rest of his life, employing her as his personal secretary and adviser, and despite his numerous subsequent relationships, he referred to her as his common-law wife.” Later, Gilmore said, Mercury had another “passionate relationship” with German actress Barbara Valentin — but, despite these and the other female lovers Mercury had, because he also had sex with men Gilmore referred to Mercury throughout his article not as Bi, but as “Gay.”
In a recent commentary for the British Queer publication Attitude (, James Dawson listed a number of the enduring prejudices Gay men in particular have towards Bisexuals: “Bisexual men can’t be trusted in relationships; they will always want the other sex.” “There’s no such thing as a Bisexual.” “I wouldn’t date a Bi guy because there’s too much competition.” What unites these stereotypes is the sense that Bisexuals aren’t “really” part of the Queer community because they can always “run for cover,” always duck into the seeming safety and protection of dating opposite-sex partners, and therefore they don’t have as much at stake as we do. Yet at the same time they’re considered interlopers in the straight community as well — and the advent of AIDS ramped up the level of Biphobia among straights by stoking a fear that Bi men would be the “vector” that would poison straight women, and ultimately straight men as well, with the “Gay plague.”
The anti-Bi stereotypes Dawson cited — and attacked — have a few needles of truth concealed in haystacks of prejudice and bigotry. Many Gays and Lesbians (including this author) have briefly claimed a “Bisexual” identity as a sort of way station between a heterosexual lifestyle (including a serious relationship with an opposite-sex partner) and a final Gay or Lesbian identity — leading to yet one more sour anti-Bi joke: “Bi now, Gay later.” And in a community whose most recent political priority was winning marriage equality for same-sex couples, the fear of Bisexuals and the whole idea that they can’t be content with one partner — or even one gender — at a time runs counter to the message from our community leaders that in order to win marriage equality, we have to prove ourselves worthy of it by committing exclusively to our same-sex partners and not “cheating” or “straying” (words we’ve imported from the heterosexual community, along with the vicious moral judgments they imply) with anyone else.
But I’ve long thought there’s an even deeper reason for the fear and prejudice many Gay men and Lesbians feel towards Bisexuals. The official leadership of the Queer community has for decades rested much of its case for equal rights on the idea that sexual orientation is “immutable” — that, like one’s racial identity, it can’t be changed. We’ve attacked so-called “reparative therapy” programs, not on the basis they deserve to be attacked — they’re generally sponsored by anti-Queer religious groups who put psychological pressure on people to “change” their sexual orientation from Queer to straight by threatening them with eternal damnation if they stay Queer and offering them eternal salvation if they date and marry someone of the opposite sex — but on the demonstrably false idea that people never change their sexual orientation.
Nonsense. There are plenty of people in the world (including, once again, this author) who lived for years in a relationship with an opposite-sex partner and then said a sad farewell to that person in order to live as an “out” Gay or Lesbian. Why should we assume that it never happens the other way — that a person who has lived for years as Gay or Lesbian might find and fall in love with an opposite-sex partner and want to live with, and even marry, that person? I remember vividly the fracas Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon went through when, after a 15-year marriage to a man, she started a relationship with a woman in 2004. Eight years later, in an interview with Alex Witchel of the New York Times Magazine, Nixon went afoul of the Queer Thought Police big-time.
“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a Gay audience, and it included the line, ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been Gay, and Gay is better,’” Nixon told Witchel. “They tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my Gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered Gay and who is not.”
Nixon didn’t stop there. Witchel described her as waving her arms and turning red in the face as she expressed her antagonism towards the “born this way” orthodoxy of the Queer community. “Why can’t it be a choice?” she said. “Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was Gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.” Later she back-tracked, saying that it had been a choice for her because she is Bisexual, but she had still “chosen” to be in a relationship with a female partner. (See my commentary from 2012 at
What’s scary to me is that the Queer leadership has staked so much on this nonsense about “immutability” and has built so much of the case for our civil rights around it that our adversaries on the Right, especially the radical religious Right, think that if they can prove it isn’t so they can invalidate our claim to equality — “See, they can change! Therefore they’re not being discriminated against and they don’t deserve civil-rights protection.” As much as I applauded the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges establishing a federal Constitutional right to marriage equality, I must say I got upset when Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion that the same-sex couples bringing the suit deserved to win because “their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.” Read literally, that would mean that a state couldn’t deny marriage equality to Gay and Lesbian people but could deny it to Bisexuals because same-sex marriage would not be their “only real path” to the “profound commitment” of being married at all.
I don’t for a moment believe that anybody’s sexual orientation — including mine — is “immutable.” I was gifted (though some people would believe it was a curse) with a primary attraction to members of my own sex, and I recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of my relationship with my husband and the seventh anniversary of our legal marriage. I don’t for one minute believe in the opposite of the “immutable” myth — the idea that I or anyone else can change our sexual attractions as easily as we can change our shirts — but I do believe that nature may deal us the cards of what sorts of people we’re attracted to but it is we who decide how we will play that hand. And since we’re human beings who move about in a social world, the happenstances of who we meet, when, whether we’re attracted to them and they’re attracted to us determine how we express our sexuality as much or more than whatever we’ve been handed in the gene pool.
One of the reasons I’ve been so appalled at the “LGBT” designation for the Queer community — aside from the simple fact that it’s ugly, and it’s all too easy to ridicule (Queer humorist David Sedaris has said it makes us sound like a sandwich) — is that instead of rethinking the fundamental assumptions under which the Queer movement was founded and has been operating for decades, we simply stuck the letters “B” and “T” onto the end of everything. We didn’t think that the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people gives the lie to the whole silly idea that Gays and Lesbians are “born this way” — which is a great Lady Gaga chorus line but lousy science.
The existence of Bisexuals threatens the whole idea that sexuality is immutable — that we are biologically limited in our attractions to one and only one gender — and the notion we’ve picked up from the straight community that not only should we limit ourselves to one and only one gender but the ultimate sign of our sexual maturity is to limit ourselves to one and only one partner in a marriage. And the existence of Transgender people makes the “born this way” notion even harder to defend. After all, it’s hard to think of a more “immutable” characteristic a person could have than the physical configuration of their body as male or female — but if the Trans community has taught us anything, it’s that the physical configuration of their body doesn’t necessarily determine a person’s psychological sense of gender as male, female or — increasingly — something new, strange and wonderful in between the extremes of the gender binary.
This odd situation — the community’s official acceptance of “B” and “T” as part of its identity and the real struggles actually existing Bisexual and Transgender people face overcoming the prejudices of Gays and Lesbians, as well as straights — is evidence that the sexuality-as-race metaphor we’ve embraced for decades has reached its limits. Instead I’ve long thought the more accurate metaphor for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is religion, not race. The U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to believe in whatever they want in matters of faith — including, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “20 gods or no god” — even if it’s not only not the religion they were raised by their parents in but is diametrically opposed to it. The New Age movement of the 1970’s taught us that we were “body, mind and spirit”; the First Amendment historically granted Americans the freedom of mind and spirit, but it has taken until the 21st century and the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges decisions to extend that to the freedom of body.
America’s Queer community, in its 65th year of continuous equal-rights activism (there was an ongoing Queer equality movement for at least 19 years before Stonewall!), has gradually evolved from a celebration of people’s right to express themselves in terms of their sexual orientation and gender identity however they liked, as long as they didn’t harm or infringe on anyone else, to a narrower view in which we proclaim ourselves identical to heterosexuals except for who we love. I rejoice in the success of the marriage equality movement — after all, my husband Charles and I took advantage of it ourselves — but I also find myself concerned that by setting marriage as a goal for all Queer people, we’re putting Queer folk who either can’t find a partner for a long-term committed relationship or simply don’t want one at risk of the same social ostracism the heterosexual community has long imposed on straight people who can’t or don’t want to get married.
Yes, we as Queer folk and our allies should defend the right of Queer people to marry same-sex partners “because of their respect — and need — for its privileges and responsibilities,” as Justice Kennedy wrote. We should also defend the rights of Queer people who don’t want to get married, don’t want to commit to one person, don’t necessarily want to commit to one gender of partner, the right to express themselves sexually with whomever they wish as long as it doesn’t involve coercion or underage partners. And we should defend the right of people to live as men or women regardless of the hand their DNA dealt them — and indeed, as a small but growing minority of Transgender people are doing, to reject the male-female gender binary altogether and live somewhere in between, or apart from, the two. A full acceptance of Bisexual and Transgender people by the Gay and Lesbian community leadership means a movement that defends and expands people’s options in how to live and express their sexual orientation and gender identity — not one that locks them into a “you’re born this way” orthodoxy and tells them biology has choked off some of those choices forever.