Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Gay/Bisexual Debate

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has issued a 148 page report on Bisexual Health which may have some shaking their heads in disbelief (it can be downloaded at the Task Force's website); I certainly found a lot of it mind-bogglingly stupid.

First let me say that I never really saw the need to have a separate bi movement, and its interesting to me that a really strong one has never quite emerged after all these years – although it's certainly got certain gay rights groups by the balls. Even today the Bi Movement seems to consist of a few souls carrying a big politically correct stick as opposed to a huge congregation of committed bisexuals. [No doubt books are being sold and people are getting attention yapping about Bi Rights, which seems to be the reason behind just about everything]. My thinking was that if a bi-identified person wanted to live a gay lifestyle, they were already covered under the gay rights umbrella. And if they wanted to live a straight lifestyle, they didn't need protection because they'd be perceived as hetero and hence were “safe.”

The main focus in the Task Force's report, of course, is on health issues, and the fact that many people, especially men, who have sex with both genders, are both at risk and putting others at risk for AIDS. These are men who are on the “down low,” which was first reported in the New York Times as being a phenomenon of the African-American community but which in my experience occurs in every ethnic background. The “down low” is nothing new of course. There have always been men who who can't accept their homosexuality, who can't feel “macho” if they admit to being gay or even bi, and who have sex with men [generally but not always being the “top”] but who also have relationships with a wife or girlfriend. There's a word for this sort of thing and it isn't “bisexual.” It's called “being in the closet.”

Not that members of the not very huge Bisexual Movement would agree. [The web site that's linked to the Task Force's site is kind of thrown-together, and I was amused by the fact that the late male founder of the Bisexual Foundation had had a long-term relationship – with another man. If this guy occasionally had sex with women, would that really have made him bisexual?] There are some disturbing things to be read in the Bi Health Report, including the incredible new definition of bisexuality. According to the report “a bisexual orientation speaks to the potential for, but not requirement of, involvement with more than one gender.” Potential ---!? By that definition, virtually anyone could be considered bisexual! This is an attempt by the rather bullying bi movement – who've got Matt Foreman and others of the Task Force and other groups locked up tight in a grip of political correctness – to bolster their numbers to a ridiculous proportion. Why, there must be more bisexuals than gays and straights combined! [Yes, I understand that the report's compilers could argue that some people will always be gay and others will always be straight, and these are not seen to have any “potential,” but this is still a impossibly vague and nearly all-encompassing description.] According to the report bi's also “have a greater likelihood of suffering from depression due to biphobia.” Well, maybe they're depressed because they can't come out of the closet? Because they can't deal with being gay? Because they want to be completely straight but can't be?

Let me make it clear that if you now ascribe to the old theory that most bi's are gays who aren't yet comfortable in a gay skin, you're considered not only old-fashioned but a bigot. The funny thing is, until I read this report I was perfectly willing to rethink my position on bisexuality. In my experience, most bisexuals clearly had a sexual preference, generally their own sex. I had always thought that there might be a few – maybe quite a few – genuine bisexuals, but these I would describe as people who are sincerely attracted as much to men as they are to women, kind of a 50/50 deal. Just because I or any other gay man may occasionally be attracted to a woman, or may have had sexual congress with females in the past, doesn't make me “bisexual.” But according to the Task Force's report all you really have to do is have the “potential” to sleep with both sexes and – bingo! -- you're bi. Suddenly my shit-o-meter was on high alert and I began to think that I was right all along. I think the Task Force will find that rather than revise people's opinion on the whole bi question, their report may have the opposite effect.

Now I'm beginning to think that the bi's protest too much, and I question the research, statistics, and science of the report. I detest the “politic-speak” that the report is riddled with, silly terms such as “MSMW” to describe a man who has sex with both men and women [whatever happened to bisexual, for crying out loud, which is supposed to be the whole point?] And all the pc crap such as how two men in a committed relationship are no longer a “gay couple” but a ”same-sex couple” [presumably because we could both take up with women at any moment. Sure].

The Task Force (and GLAAD) protested a June '06 piece in the New York Times -- “Gay, Straight or Lying”-- for sloppy research methods but their report isn't much better. The Times piece at least went so far as to present opposing viewpoints; in fact --aside from some dumb, ill-considered quotes -- I found it reasoned and balanced. [For the record the piece described how when a group of men were shown gay and straight porn and their sexual responses were monitored, most of the “bisexual” men reacted to the gay porn but not to the straight. Big surprise.] It essentially left the whole matter up in the air, which is where it may always remain. Most people will never be honest – even to themselves – when it comes to sexual orientation so perhaps all we'll ever have is opinions without conclusions. [Although my opinions are at least based on decades of personal experience and interactions with people who have variously identified themselves as gay, straight or bi, not on a series of interviews or what-have-you with a small cross section of men or women.]

But most importantly, when you consider the stigma that still exists to this day over being gay, it's no wonder so many people refuse to use that as a label. Even saying they're “bi” gives them a kind of cachet, a connection to the straight world, the feeling that they're not quite as “abnormal” as if they were exclusively gay. Frankly, it's become very tiresome and even offensive. This was not what the Gay Rights movement was supposed to be about.

Are there genuine bisexuals in the world? Possibly. It depends on the definition. If you think a married man who has children but who has sex with men as well is bisexual, I suppose it may be a reasonably fair statement. Except for the fact that many of these men, when they finally come out of the closet [usually because they've developed romantic feelings for a guy] generally say that they were never straight or bi to begin with, but gay. Lots of gay-identified men can sleep with women and father children. I'll never forget one man on LOGO's TV show “Coming Out Stories” saying that before his marriage he didn't think of himself as gay or bi but “just a straight man who sometimes had sex with guys.” [In other words, he was on the down low.]

Then there's the interesting case of a guy I worked with years ago in the Gay Activists Alliance in New York. I recently learned that he describes himself as bisexual and is now partnered with a woman [I don't recall if he was bi-identified all those years ago, only that he had a male partner for many years]. Admirably, on his web site he doesn't deny his gay past, and even has a picture of his ex-male lover [whom he does not name] and describes how he and his “straight girlfriend” attend gay pride marches. His commitment to gay activism does not seem to have wavered. In fact he was once downright militant, like me, and probably still is. Is he a genuine bisexual, or is his relationship with his lady friend more of a loving friendship born out of mutual loneliness than any kind of serious "grand passion"? He had a long-time relationship with a man; was he simply unable to find another man to share his life with after the first relationship broke up? Is his “straight” relationship emotional or sexual or both? If he'd found the right man would he ever have really considered being with a woman? Only he knows for sure but the answers don't really matter. While he may not have taken up with a woman to “run away” from his gayness, there are still plenty of gays who do just that and if we truly care about these “bisexuals” we can't just let them spend a lifetime lost in indecision and denial.

I admit that there aren't necessarily any clear cut answers, but we should be open-minded without losing sight of certain undeniable realities. If the Task Force and the Bi Movement want to believe that most of the bi-identified are really bisexual, I certainly can't stop them. But if they insist that ALL of the bi-identified are part of some vast bisexual community, then that will be almost criminally irresponsible. Even if there are bisexuals who are not going through a phase between being straight and coming out proudly as gay, the fact remains that a great many of them are doing just that. And they need help accepting their gay orientation, not a lot of blather that will only muddy the waters and make them more confused – and miserable – than ever. This is not “biphobia” -- it is the basis of gay activism and its creed of self-acceptance. It is the whole point of the Gay Movement. If every person were to accept their homosexuality proudly, the struggle for gay rights would be aided immeasurably. Bi activists say that we're "threatened" by bisexuality, but what we're really "threatened" by is a dishonest diffusion of our masses, and the fear that instead of becoming out and proud some gays will only use "bisexual" as a label to hide behind, hoping to have a "real" hetero relationship instead of the satisying gay partnership that will lead to sincere, long-lasting fulfillment.

Let's remember that if many people who insist to themselves and others that they're hetero aren't really straight, it's also true that many who say they're bisexual aren't really bi. Although I could find absolutely no background information about this study in the report from the Task Force, the report claims that one study showed that 10% of men in New York City who identify as straight have had sex with at least one man in the past year, and that 73% of male New Yorkers who have had sex with men identify themselves as hetero. Does anybody really believe this has anything to do with “bisexuality?” Or with the sad, simple fact that these men do not want to be perceived as gay or project a gay image they somehow find distasteful? Why are we worrying about real or alleged bisexuals when our primary goal should be to publicize the diversity of our gay community [heck, we can even include bisexuals if we want to] and to utterly erase the stigma that still attaches itself to homosexuality? We need to get the message out that anyone can be gay, no matter what their style, appearance or demeanor, and life outside the closet is immeasurably sweeter than one lived in constant deceit and denial.

If this wasn't enough to deal with, the report details a conference for bi and bi-curious men and, while it admitted most men were troubled/curious about their gay leanings, there were supposedly some gay-identified men who were bemused by unexpected sexual feelings for women. Again, the fact that I or any gay guy can occasionally think a woman is sexy or even make out with one while inebriated does not necessarily mean that we are straight or bi. But will the moderators at these conferences [it is suggested they be bi-identified or sensitive to bi-issues, not bigoted old poops] be intelligent enough to realize this? [While some may think I'm being unfair, I don't think a man who makes out/has sex with another man while inebriated can get away with saying he's totally straight, again because of the stigma of homosexuality. A drunk straight guy may make out with a woman he wouldn't normally find attractive, but with a man, any man? Don't think so. You may disagree.]

Now I have no doubt that many activists are going to agree with me on this matter but will be afraid to say so, afraid to look narrow-minded or out-of-date. And then there's the fact that many will want to keep their jobs with the professional gay organizations that employ them. They won't want to offend any of their constituency, especially those -- like some bisexual activists perhaps? -- who may contribute generously to their coffers. I recognize that people who have unprotected gay sex but who do not admit to being gay [or bi for that matter] are at great risk for deadly STDS, and perhaps The Task Force felt this was the only way to educate health professionals about treating them. If only the overly political, academic-dumb, so painfully correct it hurts double-speak could have been ruthlessly excised from the report. It pains me that to appeal to these men on the down low we almost have to agree with them that they're “straight” -- they will not admit to being gay – as perhaps the only way to save their lives.

But if we forget all about teaching self-acceptance and gay pride, are we really doing anyone a favor?

NOTE: One of the most fascinating and scholarly articles I have ever read on the subject of bisexuality [through the ages] was written by Rictor Norton and can be found here :

UPDATE: In early June 2007 the Task Force released a revised and updated version of the Bisexual Health Report. Maybe because of all the criticism it got?

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Anonymous said...

I've been burned twice by "bisexuals" who somehow turned not only straight but homophobic when the women they left me for disapproved of their same-sex encounters. The majority of bisexuals I've seen are out in the open with their opposite-sex relationships but treat their same-sex relationships as a secret shame. They don't take part in working for equal rights. They look down on gays for not being "open-minded" enough to sleep with both sexes.

Now, I could very well just happen to have met a skewed sample of bisexuals. But when I hear the same bisexuals complain about not being accepted by gays, it seems hypocritical.

Bill Samuels said...

You're not alone. Most of the bisexuals I've met and have heard of fit the description you give. They simply don't want to be identified as gay in a homophobic world and lack the courage to come out fully. They show off their opposite sex relationships at the office parties and to their parents, while their same-sex relationships are mostly kept secret from their straight friends and family. Not every bi may fit this description, but many do. But it's become "politically incorrect" to say so.

There's a mere handful of Bi Rights advocates whose cause has been taken up by Gay (LGBT) groups who have empowered them, allowing them to artificially inflate their numbers. Most Bi Rights advocates will tell you that all gays are really bi, and that no bi's are secrectly gay. Sure.

Thanks for your comment. Sorry you -- and so many others- -- had to go through emotional torment because of an insecure bi partner.

Anonymous said...

Is he a genuine bisexual, or is his relationship with his lady friend more of a loving friendship born out of mutual loneliness than any kind of serious "grand passion"? He had a long-time relationship with a man; was he simply unable to find another man to share his life with after the first relationship broke up? Is his “straight” relationship emotional or sexual or both? If he'd found the right man would he ever have really considered being with a woman?

OK, so is this a fair assessment of what you believe? -

A man who has sex/relationships with women and then moves on to an LTR with a man is actually gay, has come out of the closet, and was gay all along. You'd never question the fact that his sexual/romantic love for a man (or men) is real and what he wanted all along.

But when a man who's had sex/relationships with men, then has an LTR with a woman, you have to question whether his relationship with her is 'real', whether he's only with her because he 'can't find a man', and their relationship may not even be sexual? In short, he's actually gay, and only with a woman because of the pressures of society and is only using her because a man hasn't come along? That he may well be incapable of a 'grand passion' with a woman?

What about the British singer Tom Robinson, who wrote a song called "Glad to be Gay" but has been in a relationship with a woman for many years, and has children with her?

So, your thinking is that any man who has relationships/sex with men and women is actually gay, and only the men in his life 'count'? Is that a fair assessment of your beliefs? Sex with women doesn't count? Any man who's had a relationship with a man/men is incapable of genuinely falling in love or lust with a woman, but a man who's been with women in the past is finally being true to himself when he has relationships with men?

If a man who'd only had relationships with women before fell in love with a man, would you argue that maybe this was only because he 'hadn't met the right woman'?

Bill Samuels said...

Thanks for your comment, Anon.

Two points: First, I was only posing the question, is he a genuine bisexual or is there something else at work here? Didn't say he wasn't a genuine bisexual and didn't say this relationship couldn't be the "real thing" -- only wondered about it. Because ....

Point two: we live in an essentially heterosexual world where there is no equal playing field when it comes to Gay and Straight. As I've often said and will keep on saying, any discussion of sexual idenity/orientation, any discussion of the choices people make as to their partners etc. has to consider this unequal playing field and the external/internalized homophobia that exists because of it. Not to do so is being completely unrealistic and naive.

Now as to the gentleman in question, he was and to my knowledge remains a gay activist, so in his case internalized homophobia may not be an issue, but who knows -- such things can run very silent and deep inside a person. In any case don't we all have the right to question things in order that we may eventually have a deeper understanding? I even mentioned this fellow to show that things are not always as simple as they seem and this whole issue is a complicated one.

Again, if we lived in a world where everyone thought Gay was equal to Straight, that would be one thing -- but for heavens sake we don't. There's even a growing "ex-gay" movement in the U.S. So don't ever ask me to take anything on face value when it comes to choices and orientation.

As for this Tom Robinson, I don't know. He may be "in a relationship" with this woman for the sake of their children, he may have a male lover on the side -- who knows? Then again, maybe he wasn't so "Glad to be Gay," after all. If you think the "pressures" of a homophobic society don't influence even people who at one time seem Out and Proud, then you are kidding yourself.

In any case, I've basically given up trying to make the bi-identified understand my particular Gay point of view (albeit it's one that's shared by others). They only cry "you hate me" -- and I don't -- and refuse to admit the underlying influence on many people of the unequal playing field/homophobia that I mentioned before. Some people are like ostriches -- they refuse to read gay papers and blogs and
seem blissfully and foolishly unaware of the shame that still attaches (for far too many) to the gay life and homoerotic feelings
and how deep this shame can go even in those who seem above it all.

And that's a shame in itself.