Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bi invisibility & biphobia on "Grey's Anatomy"

Cross posted on "The Feminist Review."

Bi characters have thankfully been gaining a bit of visibility on television lately. On the latest episode of ABC's medical drama "Grey's Anatomy," a bi woman named Callie exchanges flirtation with Arizona, a woman who kissed her out of the blue in a previous episode. This female-female kiss was nothing new for "Grey's" as Callie only recently divorced her husband and then dated a woman for the first time in her life. Amidst the rest of the current network hits, "Grey's" is one of the most sexually progressive series.

Not only is "Grey's" depicting a woman who is bi, but one who is still trying out her wings, portraying to young or recently out bi's--and to the rest of the world, for that matter--that questioning one's orientation, being uncertain and making mistakes along the way, is acceptable and doesn't always lead to venereal disease. As in real life, biphobia rears its ugly head more than once, and Callie, like many bi's, is without support or context for her identity, and knows no way of handling it well.

In one episode, Callie's first-ever woman partner breaks up with her by way of an anti-bi slur. Callie is powerless to respond as the woman she cares for tells her, "You can't be a pretend lesbian." Ouch. I don't know if the show writers knew they were treading into the fog of biphobia and bi-invisibility, but it stung to watch. It would have been helpful for Callie to be able to deal in a healthy way with such slander, but all she can do in her situation is hope that her next relationship will be healthy, and that it arrive quickly.

Queer bloggers have referred to Callie as bi far more than entertainment writers, who make the monosexist mistake of calling it lesbianism because, after all, bisexuality can't really exist, right? I watch the show regularly, but am not certain that the word "bisexual" has been used in the show, but neither has Callie been labeled a lesbian. For good or for ill, she's just Callie. Bi-visibility is still a hurdle yet to be jumped, both on "Grey's" an in tv programs in general.

There is one way that bi (and lesbian) women have become visible on tv--in an inside-joke/tongue-in-cheek sort of way--the leather jacket. AfterEllen points out,
Callie is wearing her black leather jacket outside the hospital, which is a time-honored way for TV costume designers to signal that a woman is gay or bisexual
Now the next step is to make it a little more plain, and frankly, less stereotypical.

There's no code to know who's bi in the real world. You either come out or you don't. If "Grey's" wants to respectfully portray bi people, then bi characters must come out to the audience. While ambiguity and the not-knowing is surely part of being bi, so too is refusing to be told, "You can't be a pretend lesbian," or, "You can't be a pretend straight woman." Bisexuality is not pretend anything. It is very real, and very much exists. "Grey's" and other programs are certainly to be commended, even thanked, for increasing bi visibility following the rise of gays and lesbians on tv in the 90's. At the same time, care must be taken to portray bi men and women honestly and accurately. Bring us out of the biphobic shadows of secret codes. Reveal to the world the fullness of our experiences. It will make better tv; it will build a better world.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bisexual Poetry

Queer culture online encyclopedia opens its article on bisexual literature discussing one of the genre's most noticeable features--its invisibility.
Although experiences that can be termed "bisexual" appear in works throughout literary history, they are rarely discussed from that perspective. Instead, explicit scenes or implicit evidence of erotic activity in which a single character is involved with members of both the same and other sex is usually considered as evidence indicating a primary sexual orientation that is either hetero- or homosexual. The continued reliance in modern Anglo-American and European culture upon binary systems of classification and identification has meant the practical erasure of bisexuality, as such, from most works of literary and cultural analysis.
As it happens, two of my favorite poets have been subject to bi-invisibility: Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.

Gay for Today mentions male and female lovers that Whitman may have had.

Here's one critic addressing the bisexuality in Ginsberg's tribute to Whitman.
Perhaps the most successful of the poems of bisexual celebration is the famous 'Love Poem on Theme by Whitman.' Here, as Ginsberg imagines lying between bride and groom, and making love to both, he avoids his own and Whitman's frequent error, of alternating references to man and woman, which beg to be contrasted (as above). Here, he mixes references to the two genders into a polymorphous whole, into which defining characteristics only occasionally intrude. The result is an admirable expression of that human condition to which neither of the limiting epithets 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' applies. The emphasis is on shared physical detail, such as shoulders, breasts, buttocks, lips, hands, and bellies -- apart from one reference to a 'cock in the darkness driven tormented and attacking', but even this could be either the poet's or the groom's. An orifice is left uncategorised as a 'hole'. At the climax, when 'white come' flows 'in the swirling sheets', the three seem to merge even into their surroundings, as well as into each other. However, this was an early, Utopian piece, somewhat undermined by the later poems of distaste for female flesh. In order to come any closer to the distant ideal, which has remained unchanged since the writing of 'Love Poem on Theme by Whitman', Ginsberg had first to pass through the matter of the sexism of sexual orientation. The love poem establishes a goal, but the poems of distaste were calculated to show how far he still was from it.
To find more bi writers, artists and other personalities, check out Wikipedia's list of bisexual people.

Bisexual Theology

There has been much theological reflection by queer folks on our place in the churches today. While it is a very constructive endeavor for lgbt Christians to claim theological language, conversations I have witnessed usually lump bisexual people in with gays and lesbians, leaving the bi perspective out of the discussion, and effectively out of the church. That is to say, the bisexual experience is not honored as unique among sexualities, leaving out any perspective that we might bring to the table.

But this trend may be changing. One website for Open and Affirming congregations has an entire page of links to resources on bisexuality. One particular resource I found helpful, primarily because it is different from anything I have seen thus far, is from More Light Presbyterians. It's called "More Light on Bisexuality" (also available in pdf from this page).

Much of the resource contains introductory information on bisexuality, so I'll spare you reading what you may already know. Here are the parts that I found most interesting.

Bi-blical Affirmations

The creation of "male and female" in God's image [Gen. 1.27] is independent of sexual orientation.

Bi-theology affirms our God-likeness, and the claim that the wideness of divine sexuality includes us. When God identifies as "I AM WHO I AM" [Ex 3.14], this affirms for us the sacred nature of God’s call for each person to be faithful to the image of God within, including our sexuality. This faithfulness to"be" who we were created to be leads us to live lives "worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called" [Eph 4.1ff].

We believe that in Jesus' incarnation we have an example of a man who loved and engaged in justice work for women and men that consistently went beyond human-made boundaries and stereotypes.

Blessed Bi-Spirit from the book by the same name edited by Debra R. Kolodny

As with many people on the margins, bisexuals bring some distinctive gifts to the church. Some of these are:
• the ability to build bridges between people
• a posture that invites moving beyond the constraints of western dualism
• a perspective that requires engagement with the "other"
• an embodied ability to affirm unity and embrace diversity
• an outlook that acknowledges the ambiguities of life
• an ability to integrate ideas, intellectual disciplines, and spiritual perspectives

A "Bi" Prayer by Susan Halcomb Craig

There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female,
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus
(Galatians 3.26-28).

Spirit of Life,

We are your newest bridge people,
bisexual women and men in your kindom,
at home in the middle spanning opposing shores.

Our straight friends ask us
to explain perspectives ourselves,
and our gay and lesbian friends question us
as if our place were no place.

We are pulled apart, disregarded,

We pray for your Spirit of Unity.

Help others leave their banks of fear
and join us in our place of oneness.

Bring healing from envy, denial, fear of difference,
and enable others to see us, eyes open to our beauty.

We pray for your gifts of love and understanding.

Help us love ourselves, and the connection we embody.

Neither gay nor straight, we are fully bisexual,
one in our beings and one in you.

Help us know and own and share our gifts,
for your name's sake and the wholeness of your creation.

We pray in your unity,
One in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Another perspective on fence-sitting

In researching nineteenth century abolitionist movements, I found a story of an anti-slavery preacher receiving threats to be "ridden out of town on a rail." I had heard of this before but wasn't entirely certain what it meant. I thought of "riding the rail" which sounds like riding the railroad, but being "ridden" didn't seem to fit, and riding a train is hardly a threat. I found that riding the rail and being ridden out on a rail has a much less benign meaning. Wikipedia gives the following definition:
Riding the rail was a punishment of Colonial America in which a man was made to straddle a fence rail held on the shoulders of two men, with other men on either side to keep him upright on the rail. The victim was then paraded around town or taken to the city limits and dumped by the roadside. Injuries from the ride could, if the victim were stripped, result in a cut crotch that often made walking painful. The punishment was usually imposed in connection with tarring and feathering.
This photo, linked from the Wikipedia article, entitled "Rebs on a Fence," illustrates the punishment:

Of course this reminded me of "fence-sitters," a derogatory label for bisexual persons, and gives a whole new perspective of what it means to "sit on the fence." I wrote earlier about reclaiming the identity of fence-sitting, since the societal fence between straight and gay is a false barrier that bi/pan/omni-sexual folks seek to dismantle. What might it mean for patriarchal monosexual society's fence to be an instrument of torture through genital mutilation and mob justice enacted upon social miscreants?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lohan & Bi invisibility

Somehow I stumbled across gossip that Lindsay Lohan is bi. When I checked it out on Google, the suggested search terms that came up before I could get "bi" typed out were "Lohan gay." Over six and and a half million pages supposedly match these words. "Lohan bi" on the other hand, return just over one and a half million. The same trend is true with Drew Barrymore, who is well known as a bisexual woman. Barrymore's name and "bi" brings back less than 300,000 returns while her name and "gay" gives almost one and a half million. Yes, bi invisibility does exist, even online.

Fortunately, there are some places online who are paying attention to the bi side of Lohan. Interestingly enough, the best one I've been able to find is an article from Disney owned ABC News, that asks seriously why it's more acceptible for women to be bi in Hollywood than men, and gives a serious answer: women are sexualized much more than men in popular culture.

Yes, even Gay Street can go both ways!

The image comes from this site.

Are bisexual men feminists?

Even though Alfred Kinsey's research found that the majority of people (at least as far as Kinsey's research can be applied universally) fall somewhere within the range between completely straight and completely gay or lesbian, bisexuals have long been a sexual minority. (This was not always the case, with pederasty among males being predominant in antiquity and later, but since modern times, the sexual agenda has been set by those who are straight.) Numbers have nothing to do with minority status. Women outnumber men worldwide, and nonwhites outnumber whites, but neither of these groups have been able to enter wholly into the culture and privilege of those (straight white men) who determine how the rest of the world operates. Queer people in general are in the sexual minority, but even within that community, monosexual lesbian women and gay men continue to set the standard and hold the power. Those who are neither straight or gay/lesbian are left out of typical monosexual discourse, with bi people getting either lumped in with gays/lesbians or glossed over entirely (and either treatment can come from either monosexual community). For reasons not completely known, bi women tend to dominate the discourse within the bi community. Either bi men are less apt to speak from their experience, or it is more acceptable for women to be, or at least discuss being bi than it is for men. Bi women have found acceptance within feminist and lesbian communities (though they also find much resistance at certain times) and more acceptance by straight culture as well. I have not experienced or read much about how well bi men have been accepted by the gay male community, so I cannot speak to that. What I do know, however, is there is no movement as widespread as feminism in which men, straight or queer, work to dismantle patriarchy. It makes sense, for it is men who benefit from the system. Overall, bi men seem to be more alone and more ostracized from the queer community and from struggles to end monosexist patriarchy than bi women. If a bi woman is not accepted in the lesbian community, she still has much in common with women as victims of sexual oppression. For men, however, if they are not accepted among gay men, their relationship to patriarchy is more ambiguous. As men, they are part of the ruling majority, but as bisexuals, they are separate from this majority as well.

It is easy to understand why some bi men who have found homes in or near the feminist community, and that some bi men may even label themselves feminist. But is it really possible for men, even men of a sexual minority, to be feminist? Can feminism be defined broadly enough to include those beyond the female gender without stifling the voice of women themselves? Do bi men, or even queer men in general, share enough with women of any sexual identity to be included in the feminist milieu?

These questions and more, in the next post.