Before I ever spent hour upon hour with my nose buried in the pages of a Harry Potter book, there was Matilda.
I’ve always loved to read, and have hauled too-big piles of books home from the library (although not in a red wagon, I will admit) more times than I can count. Plus, what 7-year-old budding queer femme doesn’t dream of discovering a secret superpower and running away from her loneliness into a beautiful world of friendship where she can play games and eat cookies all day long? I mean, it always seemed like a pretty solid life choice to me.
Matilda has followed me ever since childhood. And I’m not necessarily talking about the Danny DeVito movie, or even the Roald Dahl book. I’m talking about Matilda herself; Matilda the person; Matilda Wormwood, the character made real by a young girl in a 98-minute-long movie I’d wager nearly every Millennial (in the U.S., at least) has seen. I’m talking about Mara Wilson.
It felt like fate that Mara and I would meet. She went to college with one of my family members and, once I moved back to New York, kept showing up at various comedy events I attended around the city. Then, in early 2017 — after coming out publicly the previous summer — she became a Lambda Legal donor. These aren’t even all the connections we’ve had over the years. But ultimately, I knew that it was only a matter of time.
So, when we sat down to talk last week, to say that I was excited might be an understatement. Little did I know just how much her own experience as a queer woman would mirror mine.
Mara came out publicly as bi — although she now tends to prefer the label queer (“I like queer more than I like bisexual, but I have no problem with people calling me bisexual,” she says) — on Twitter in the wake of June 2016’s tragedy at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.
At the time, she’d recently come out to most of her close friends and family (they took it well — her brother “did not even look up from his enchilada” when she told him, she tells me through laughter), and felt that it was important as someone in the public eye to show solidarity with her community.
The news quickly went viral, spreading across social media and trending on Facebook.
“I think that if you’re in a place of security and privilege — which I can admit that I am — it’s important for you to [come out],” she says. “I don’t see myself as anybody’s savior, but I’d rather it were me — who can afford therapy and afford this platform — getting harassed for being who I am than a young LGBTQ kid. I think it’s important.”
But the response to her news — while mostly supportive — was not entirely positive.
“I often wish that I hadn’t done it then because I got accused of taking advantage of a tragedy for personal attention,” she says. “Now clearly I like attention, but I am not so callous as to make a tragedy about myself, my life and my story. That isn’t what I was going for.”
“A lot of people like to tell women — and especially queer women — that they are doing things for attention,” she adds. “And it is strange to me that the worst thing a woman can do is do something for attention.”
Mara’s words resonated with me more than I can even fully describe. I’ve written about what it’s like to come out and be out as a queer femme woman before, but have never really been able to put into words the intense anxiety surrounding the “attention stigma” that comes with having a non-monosexual identity.
See, a few things can happen when you come out as bi (or queer, or pan, or any of the many varied non-monosexual identities that exist), particularly as a woman.
The first is that folks don’t believe you. Another is that people ignore it. And a third is that a lot of assumptions are made about who you are and what you like.
But the theme underlying all of these reactions is attention. If someone doesn’t believe you, it’s because either they think that bisexuality doesn’t exist or that you’re confused, or they think that you’re saying you’re bi to get attention (frequently all of these thoughts occur synchronously). If someone ignores it, it’s — again — because they likely believe you’re “doing it for the attention,” and don’t want to give you the thing they think you’re seeking. And if someone begins to make assumptions about you, those assumptions are usually (surprise) that you like attention and are innately promiscuous.
“There’s definitely a stigma,” Mara says. “One of the reasons I didn’t come out for a very long time was because I grew up hearing that bisexual girls were ‘crazy,’ [which is not a term I would use]. I heard that all the time. I heard that bisexual girls were ‘crazy,’ they were greedy, they were selfish and they caused drama. They were the worst. They wanted attention.”
There’s a lot here, but certainly the most interesting (to me, at least) thing about biphobia is the sexism, slut shaming, ableism and mental health stigma that is disguised within it.
“Throughout history, women and women-identified people have had to struggle to get any kind of power or control over their lives,” says Mara. “And control is seen as a bad thing. It’s seen as being manipulative.”
“When you think of bisexuals, you think of villainy. You think of people using their sexuality to get what they want, using other people and hurting other people,” she adds. “Or just having a lot of sex, and […] if you are ‘promiscuous,’ that is seen as being inherently a bad thing.”
Just think of Jenny from The L Word, Barbara from Gotham, Piper from Orange Is the New Black and Monica from Shameless. The list goes on, and this is certainly not a trope limited to only women. But all of these fictional women hold the labels of evil, “crazy” or promiscuous.
And that’s not even to wade into the deep stigmatized waters of being a person who is bisexual and not a woman. Though we didn’t talk much about it (as it is neither of our experiences) being trans or gender-nonconforming obviously brings with it its own set of stigma, and similar — albeit similarly nuanced — stereotypes exist for male-identified people.
As Mara says, “People are punished for femininity or punished for sexuality.”
As far as how we go about changing these media tropes? Mara has some ideas.
“I think that, in the entertainment world, there need to be more bisexual characters for whom bisexuality is just kind of a common thing. It’s, ‘So-and-so has red hair and they’re also bisexual,’” Mara laughs. “That’s definitely something that I’ve tried to write into some of my more recent writing. We’ll see where that goes.”
“The Most Boring Bisexual You’ve Ever Met,” I joke with her.
“Exactly!” she exclaims. “It’ll be like, ‘Me the other day, getting up and running on the treadmill, writing a little bit and going to CVS to pick up my prescriptions, and then binge-watching Orphan Black because I love Tatiana Maslany so much.’”
“I’d like to see more male-identified people shown as bisexual,” she adds. “Because I think there’s still this belief that men can’t be, which just isn’t true.”
In the end, Mara believes it’s all about respecting others — an issue the LGBTQ community at large has much experience with.
“Is it making somebody happy? Is it improving their life? Is it something that they enjoy? Is it a part of who they are? Yes? Then respect it,” she says. “You don’t need to understand something completely to be okay with it.”
Mara and I spent about an hour talking, and I could’ve let it go on for so much longer. We joked about our celebrity crushes, chuckled together fake-writing scenes of The Most Boring Bisexual You’ve Ever Met and gave each other advice for meeting other queer women. I’ll never forget that.
It felt like I was catching up with an old friend. And in a way, I was.