I’m one of those gay guys who ALWAYS understood how sexual attraction exists on a spectrum. That understanding seared into me when I was a gay teen in love with a boy who wanted girls as badly as he seemed to ache for trysts with me.
Oh, my tender heart!
I didn’t feel any attraction to girls or women (and never have), but I felt deeply with him. I didn’t doubt my friend’s bisexuality then, and I’ve never since had reason or desire to dismiss bisexuality or find it objectionable.
Why, I’m a modern, woke, progressive, academically up-to-date paragon of queer sensitivity. Cough. So how come in a conversation yesterday with Medium’s own sexuality guru and pansexual Elle Beau ❇︎ I suddenly recognized patterns of behavior that must over the years have caused hurt to many bisexual people?
*note: given diverse and sometimes conflicting definitions of bisexual and pansexual, I’m going to use bisexual in this article as an umbrella term incorporating both sets of definitions.*
When Elle wrote about how Societal Norms Often Keep Us From Understanding Our True Sexuality, I commented right away to agree with her.
Only halfway through writing my comment did I have an epiphany: I’d spent years of my life normalizing biphobia without intending to and without feeling the slightest personal biphobia.
Let me show you. Pull up a chair, it’s story time!
Imagine Greenwich Village on a snowy winter’s night sometime in the 1990s. If you popped into a certain faux-elegant Italian red sauce joint on Bleecker Street, you might well have run into me and my partner Lenny holding down the bar joking around with Howie, a deliciously flaming queen who either managed the place or slung drinks depending on the night of the week.
When I walked in the door, Howie probably rushed over fluttering his eyelashes saying something like, “Mary Louise, it’s about time you got here!” as he slipped off my long coat like I was Marilyn Monroe and Lenny was Cary Grant.
He’d pour Lenny a red wine and sling me a Dewars that somehow never made it onto our bar tab. We’d all swap jokes until a table opened up and the pretty hostess walked over to show us to our seats.
She was always young and pretty with gorgeous hair and beautiful clothes. The owner saw to that because the Greenwich Village restaurant trade wasn’t as gay as you’d guess, and because sex sells even when it’s subliminal. The busboys were mostly hot young gym studs, but that’s a story for another day.
If you stuck around for dessert, you might see Howie sashay over to join us for espresso and tiramisu. Sometimes he’d call Jill over to share. She was a hostess before she graduated to tending bar, and she became one of Howie’s besties and eventually a good friend of mine.
“Oh, stop, darling,” Howie trilled one day after Jill kissed him on the nose between bites of red velvet cake. “I’m getting the vapors, sweetie. People will suppose I’ve changed teams!”
He wasn’t serious of course, and Jill knew that perfectly well. She’d laugh along as Howie and I prattled through a practiced schtick about finding sex with women icky and scary. If you’re a gay man, you’ve heard the jokes. If you’re not, let me tell you now they were tasteless and probably misogynistic, but we thought we had a pass because we were gay men with girls as besties.
And besides, everybody knew we were just being silly.
If you happened by on just the right night, you might have seen a grey-haired older man stop by our table. David lived in Jill’s building and cut a trim figure in his elegant Fred Rogers cardigan. His tight smile hid a cutting sense of humor he usually concealed behind a pair of champagne-blue eyes.
Mostly, he’d laugh softly at our distasteful jokes, maybe sip a cocktail, and then ask Jill if she needed a lift home since it was snowing so hard. David looked like a kindly grandfather, and that’s precisely who he was — a retired Madison Avenue man with with a handful of devoted grandkids and two Manhattan pieds-à-terre.
Can I tell you a secret about David?
He didn’t maintain two apartments because he was greedy or careless with his money. David lived in a garden apartment downstairs from Jill, while Mistress Carla worked a few blocks over on 6th Avenue.
He’d have been mortified if his grandchildren ever walked in on Carla unawares, because David WAS Carla. He was a mild-mannered retired ad man; she was a whip-wielding, spike-heeled dominatrix whose clients were mostly well-heeled gay men.
David’s gender identity and sexual orientation were complicated. Transgender wasn’t a popular word yet, and I don’t know he would have used it if it were. I suspect not, because he lived his daily life as a man, and if he wished to change that, I never heard about it. If he identified as a woman, he never mentioned it.
Carla was less effeminate than Howie when Howie swished, which was most of the time. David was gay. That’s the label he ALWAYS chose for himself, even while he regaled us with stories about the beautiful women he’d loved, including his ex wife.
David never said a word about Howie and me joking around about being grossed out by sex with women. In fact, he often laughed at our high camp. I never once stopped to wonder how he must have felt.
We were excluding him.
Look how perfectly gay we are! we were saying with our antics. We’re so gay even thinking about a vagina makes us green. And it wasn’t just David. Howie and I were influencers in our little Greenwich Village ways. He was super popular, managing or tending bar at all the hot spots. I was an Act Up regular with a large circle of friends that intersected with Howie’s.
We were the cool kids; the jokes we told were cool because we told them.
Jill didn’t have a problem with us. David/Carla never said a word about our glorification of strictly polarized gay orientation. Nobody ever butted in to say, “Hey, jackasses! I happen to like sex with women, even though you see me as gay. You don’t get to set standards for what’s OK and what isn’t. Your jokes aren’t funny.”
The thing is, after childhoods of rejection and alienation, Howie and I felt wonderful to be part of an in-group, to have the possibility of being cool and popular. We didn’t stop to think we were excluding and disrespecting people who weren’t exactly like us. We didn’t stop to think we were making gay cooler than bisexual.
But we were.
We were normalizing biphobia without intending to be biphobic. We were telling bisexual men they weren’t as cool as us.
Something to think about.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.