Claiming Identity, Claiming Oppression

I ran across a great blog post earlier today, “Fake” Bisexuality and Slut Shaming, on Queer Subversion. I Twittered about the article with approval. The gist is the same old song — third verse, same as the first — about who is and is not “really” bisexual.

As the author of the blog post, Jack Nacht, says,

Bisexuality is treated as a phase or a way to raise your “cool factor” by what often feels like everyone. People throw around a myriad of reasons why certain people aren’t bi… they’re just doing it to make guys horny, they have no intention of really being in a relationship with the same sex, they’re just screwing around… and so on. Or, if “cool factor” isn’t what they’re after, a bisexual is just somebody who doesn’t want to be out of the real closet yet, or true yet misrepresented statements like “most bisexuals wind up with one or the other.” It’s very intense for people who are out as bisexual, whether we’re so-called ” real bisexuals” or not, because it seems like even our allies are intent on questioning our very existence.

I’ve been hearing this since 1990. I know folks who’ve been hearing it for longer than that. That there’s somehow One Right Way to be bisexual, that involves simultaneously not being promiscuous, not dating more of one sex or gender than another, not having long term relationships with the heteronormatively approved partners, not having a greater depth of emotional commitment with one or another sex, not dating people merely because they get you off . . . One wonders, truly, what the ideal bisexual is supposed to look like.

Jack Nacht’s essay goes on to point out the hidden core of slut-shaming that is embedded in this Olympic-level judgment of bisexuals. That, if you sleep around, you’re a slut, and if you don’t sleep around, you can’t prove you’re really bi. How fucking ridiculous.

However . . .

However.

I told my partner, Jennifer, of Jack Nacht’s essay this morning. We both agreed that it was high time to stop judging whether anyone is a “real” bisexual. But then she said something I’d never heard before. She said, “the identity of bisexuality does not automatically confer oppressed status.” A lightbulb went off in my head, inspiring this entire essay. She then directed me to read the article “Oppression,”‘ by Marilyn Frye. (The entire essay is located here, and I strongly suggest reading it before commenting to this blog entry.) Identity, especially an identity which is removable, does not automatically confer oppression.

No-one can judge a fellow human being’s identity claims from the outside, it’s just not possible. If you tell me you are a bisexual, Native American, Muslim, differently abled Nav’i Otherkin, I will merely nod at you and make a vaguely interested noise. Those things are all your decision, your right, and your call. But if you claim, as a result of this identity, to understand and participate in the oppressed status of your chosen minority group or groups, I will question you more closely. I can’t know the workings of your mind and heart and groin, and, frankly, as far as the latter is concerned, I largely don’t want to know. But if, in addition to that identity, you also want to claim status as an oppressed minority, you will have to cough up a little bit more in the way of proof. I think that this is the issue that lies at the core of much bi-bashing from the GLBT community.

There’s a book, Black Like Me, which describes the experience of a white man riding the buses in the American South in 1959 — while passing as a black man. The book is unflinching in its descriptions of the racism the author, John Howard Griffin, experienced. Yet I would argue that Griffin did not come to understand more than a fraction of what it meant to be black in this country at that time. He did not grow up black. He did not grow up knowing in his bones that he was never truly safe. He did not grow up with the seething resentment and muted, helpless anger of his elders around him. He did not grow up with the constant caution that comes with growing up a target minority. Griffin gave up his privilege for six traumatic weeks; but he had it to give in the first place.

In my own experience, I have spent some time in my life dressing and presenting genderqueer. Yet I do not claim to share the oppression of transsexuals or the transgender. I do claim to have a window onto that view, a window I built by three years living publicly and obviously butch. But it’s not the same thing as passing as a man on a daily basis, not the same thing as changing my name, not the same thing as tens of thousands of dollars spent on body-altering surgeries. Not the same thing at all.

I am not attempting to argue that genderqueers, bisexuals, or even Mr. Griffin, did not or do not experience loss of privilege or oppression. I do claim that there are matters of degree in oppression.

The person who makes out with same-sex partners only rarely is indisputably bisexual. But I would hesitate to accept any claims of their oppressed status based on that fact alone. I would like more evidence that the individual was out, was open, was struggling with their privilege and was willing to lose some of it in service of their identity. A man who makes out with men only rarely, but who is also a member of GLBT groups, who organizes for diversity in his workplace, who is out to his parents, and who tells all his girlfriends he’s bi — that’s someone who I personally would feel understood the oppression side of things.

I can’t judge people’s oppression just by knowing who they’ve slept with. I can’t judge a person’s experience of privilege by watching them squeal over a new object of lust. But I can, and do, asses people’s lives as they live them, and notice how much or little people display their group membership. Under what circumstances they are out and proud, or when they retreat to the silence of heteronormative presumptions. Here’s the thing. You don’t get oppressed group membership based just on what gets you off. You get oppression status by being oppressed. By risking something, by losing something. By seeing doors of opportunity shut to you. By experiencing the threat of the power elite.

I’ll never tell you you’re not bisexual. I will never deny you’ve experienced negative treatment for your bisexuality. And I will never deny your internal assessment of your fears and concerns, your desires and passions. But I may very well hold the opinion that you are bisexual when it is to your advantage, and reside in your heterosexual privilege when that serves you better. If you are open about this, if you admit it, then I have no quarrel with you. It’s a human thing, to be afraid of losing privilege. It’s completely human to play all your advantages as best you can. I, personally, am never happier to be white than I am when I talk to law enforcement officials. It’s a privilege of mine I doubt I would surrender if I could. (I might feel really bad about that, but I might not, either. I don’t know.)

In fact, let me be absolutely honest: I am not always as out about my sexuality and my polyamorous relationship structure as I would like to be. I’m out to my family, to the homeschool groups, to the internet, and to some of my coworkers. But I haven’t gotten the courage and will to be absolutely out in all areas of my life. And, human that I am, I’m not certain I ever will be totally out about polyamory. I don’t have an excuse. It’s just tiresome to surrender all that normalcy and privilege. So if you, dear bisexual reader, are just not willing to have all the endlessly tiresome conversations about who you date, the conversations with your parents and your rabbi and your boss and your great-grandmother and the neighbor’s nosy teenage kid and the host at that really nice restaurant and oh my god, does the stupid coming out never end??? Really, you have my sympathy. Stay partially out and partially closeted, and make the decisions that are right for you at this time and in this place. I do that. We all do that. We all make our own road. Just, do not then claim to participate in the total experience of GLBT oppression.

Yet, for all that, there’s still another side to the problem of bisexual identity. There’s a whole host of people who accidentally pass as straight, whether they want to or not. When I came out in college as bisexual, there was little mistaking me for straight. In appearance and manner, I looked queer. A dyke, a butch, possibly a lesbian, (and if you were in the GLBT community in the 1990s you will understand the distinctions) but not heterosexual. On the other hand, my partner Jennifer was castigated by dykes when she came out because she inevitably passed for straight. She was white, thin, feminine, of a certain social and educational class and standing. Unless she was holding hands with a woman in public, Jennifer was presumed straight. In the last five years Jennifer has been in a serious partnered relationship with a man, Nathan. When she and Nathan go out, Jennifer is presumed to be heterosexual. Our kids, mine and hers, are presumed to be hers and Nathan’s. People do not make this assumption when Nathan and I take the kids out; no-one mistakes me for straight.

It is absurd to blame Jennifer, or the thousands of women like her, for the assumptions made by our culture. Comic artist and writer Erika Moen has talked about this in her webcomic. Author Sara Ryan talks about it in her blog. Authors Nicola Griffith and Kelly Eskridge discuss their identity, oppression, and science fiction in the context of cultural assumptions. And that’s just from blogs I am currently reading. I’m not bothering to delve into past essays by noted queers, feminists, queer feminists, and/or cultural critics. The refusal of broader culture to even contemplate the possibility that you may not be what it assumes is maddening. A friend of mine, Victor Raymond, once made up cards that read “I am a card-carrying bisexual,” for the purpose of handing out to gas station attendants and bank clerks. It was an effort to make the invisible seen, an effort born of sheer jaw-grinding frustration.

In the same way that I cannot render judgment on the identity of another, how dare I judge their public stance, their level of out-ness, their commitment to minority membership, when the whole world may conspire to maintain that individual’s privilege?

My essay winds down now with no firm conclusion, no prescription for solving the Bisexual Identity and Oppression Problem. I no longer identify as bisexual, my raging lust for Vin Diesel notwithstanding. It seems fairer to the assumptions of the rest of the world if I say I’m a lesbian — though I still prefer queer as the identity that most describes me. Yet every woman I’ve ever dated has identified as bi. My emotional response whenever I hear someone judged as “not really bisexual” is to want to stab the speaker with a spork. How dare you judge, I rage. But I still find myself judging others — not for their identity, but for the pleasure some few seem to derive out of a safe, optional membership in a glamorous and sexy oppressed group. At the same time, I am happy every time I hear some attractive celebrity is bi — as if that somehow increases my chances of sleeping with them. (In what universe, I ask you, do I think this is going to happen?)

I rail against the misjudgments of others, while applying my own. I do not think identity confers oppression. But in practical terms, I don’t have a solid standard by which I think we all should be judged.

11 Responses

  1. I definitely agree: Identity and oppression are not mutually inclusive. I believe, for example, that my essay was inspired by a conversation about Lady Gaga. I would have a hard time thinking of Lady Gaga as oppressed, although I avoid defining other peoples’ sexualities. She is highly contested and ridiculed, and she is politically active, but there are many factors that would make me extremely iffy about thinking about her that way. Like you said, I don’t know exactly what she has to lose that would qualify her for that. Same with allies… I’ve met several allies who talk about their “coming out” experiences, and I wonder if they realize they’re co-opting oppression by doing so (I could say the same about recent religious converts, John Griffin, and some others, as well).

    I would, however, question whether being “half in and half out” of the closet is truly fair indicator of whether or not somebody could be considered to have the total experience of LGBT oppression. I think the weight of that falls too heavily on bisexuals because of the generally-false idea that our sexuality is more optional than hetero- or homosexual people. The fact is, lesbians and gays and trans folk can, and many do, live such in-and-out lives. One could say they are copping-out of the life, and I’ve regrettably joined in that perception of them, but being closeted is in itself a large part of that experience.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who use bisexuality as a way to co-opt oppression, but bisexuals are still queer and still have queer experience.

  2. I almost entirely agree with you — but, in addition to whether one is perceived as queer or straight not being entirely in one’s own hands, there is also pain that COMES FROM being closeted (whether chosen or not, and even, I think, whether knowingly or not).

    I live with a whole hell of a lot of straight privilege (my friend Lucy would say “apparent straight privilege”): I’ve been in the same relationship, with a straight man who is and pretty much always passes for cis, for over 12 years. We have a child, we rent a house, we have financial arrangements that would be a lot harder to come by if we were not different genders, and so on. But that I am so often assigned “straight” by those who don’t know me well (pretty much whenever I’m out with my kid or my partner, though less often without them) *feels* like a form of oppression. It feels shitty, frankly. At least the biphobia I encounter when correctly identified acknowledges that part of my self.

    And as oppressions go, that’s really damn minor. Even having food thrown at me and called a dyke (not in the good way), back in high school, was minor as far as oppressions go. And, like you, there are times when I’ve absolutely been grateful for that straight-seeming privilege, such as when my partner was hospitalized in a rural town in a very red state. Sure, we had all the required Powers of Attorney anyway, but being able to just say “fiance” and have my right to be at his side unquestioned was HUGE, and I was acutely aware of just how privileged that made me.

    And I do know of one or two individuals who seem to positively race back to a heterosexual identity when they’re done “playing”, it seems, and it’s hard as hell not to be extremely frustrated with that — but I also don’t know what else is going on in their lives, and I do know that biphobia and homophobia can be bad enough or scary enough that the simple privilege of a straight-seeming life can be awfully appealing.

    BUT, all that said, I don’t think it’s as simple as oppression only occurring if one is out — or even trying to be out, as the second part of your post seems to say.

    Because there’s something to be said for the pain of being invisible — and worse, almost, to not even KNOWING your identity, because it is so invisible (I spent a few years not knowing “what” I was because I simply didn’t have a concept, much less a name, for attractions to more than one gender, and I was one of the lucky ones who came to my identity in my teens — I’ve other friends who are in their 30s and just coming out, or still struggling to reconcile socially-assigned notions of sexuality and what they actually feel). It seems to me invisibility is one form of pretty extreme marginalization. And in that way, even if no others, I think even those who are read as monosexual, even by themselves, can still experience some level of oppression because of their bisexuality.

    And further, I do agree with Jackson — I think in a world that assumes everyone is straight by default, almost no one is out 100% of the time — if we don’t, as your friend did, proclaim it (with cards! I love that), we can’t know what the random gas station attendant is thinking of us, no matter how butch or flaming or what-have-you we might be. So saying that one has to be entirely-in-every-situation OUT to “claim to participate in the total experience of GLBT oppression” would leave almost everyone, well, out.

    (And, because it’s 1am and I write too much especially when I’m tired, I feel obligated to again state that I do fully agree that oppression is variable by degrees, and that, for instance, I have experienced a lot less oppression for my sexuality than my friend, who’s also bisexual and has been in a relationship with a woman for just as long as I’ve been with a man — even though we’ve both been quite openly out as queer for that entire time. End quibbling.)

  3. your link doesn’t work– i assume you mean this?

    http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500Oppression.html

  4. @kalmn Thank you! Link corrected.

  5. @Jack Nacht

    “That doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who use bisexuality as a way to co-opt oppression, but bisexuals are still queer and still have queer experience.”

    I agree. It’s part of my personal struggle to remember that, to ask questions and try to understand. There’s such a damn freight train, though of claiming identity as equivalent to claiming oppressed status, that it’s hard to hear when someone is simply saying “this is my experience.” The inability of myself, or anyone else, to hear that, is, I think, a fault both of each of us as individuals and the fault of the broader GLBT and straight cultures.

    What do you think we can do, to view bi experience for what it is? How do we combat these conflations? Do we need to change things at all? Why or why not, do you think?

  6. @Arwyn I think your example is a great illustration of the complexities of even trying to talk about bi visibility and bi-phobia. If I tried to count up the number of women I know who are bi, married or partnered with a guy, and coldly livid at the cultural insistence on erasing their bi identity, I would, honestly, lose track.

    How do you think we in the GLBT community should proceed in this conversation, this discussion? What is the solution when some individuals insist on using *your* deeply held identity as a lark? What can we say or do to raise visibility and awareness of the marginalization and dismissal of bisexual identity?

  7. Thank you for this post. I was linked here by kalmn, and it has given me a lot of chewy things to think about which intersect nicely with my own thoughts lately about my identity, who I want to date, and my internalized biphobia.

    Your link on “fake bisexuality and slut-shaming” also does not work.

  8. @bifemmefatale My HTML *fail.* Link fixed, and here is the link:

    http://queersubversion.blogspot.com/2009/09/fake-bisexuality-and-slut-shaming.html

    If you want it.

    It *is* a chewy topic, and one which I have no answers for, yet. Let me know if you come up with any?

  9. [...] and a lot less checklists and gatekeepers and policing. Identity, especially a nonmonosexual identity, is highly complex, and breathtakingly simple. It’s not about who I bone, and it’s not [...]

  10. Although you mentioned that someone who has bisexual experiences within a (mostly) heterosexual life is experiencing privilege, I think that “passing” has its tradeoffs.

    I feel much less oppressed when people do *not* assume I am straight. It may limit some aspects of my life to be out of the closet, but being put in the “heterosexual female” category can be extremely oppressive – as the article you linked to explains.

    Maybe, as the author of that article says, there are disadvantages no matter what you choose, if you are female. I picked the set of circumstances that works best for me.

  11. Oppression manifests in different ways for bi men and bi women. Having been in long term same sex snd opposite sex partnerships I can speak to the striking reality of instant homophobia by holding my xboyfriends hand publically. I have preferred the opposite sex emotionally and sexually than the same sex but have made equal commitments in both relationships. But one of the most oppressive experiences is my homosexuality erases my heterosexuality. Many straight women will not date me and often it has not made the most comfortable fit. Many gay men won’t date me. Most bi men are closeted, and many bisexual women fear I will spread STDs even though I have been safe and monogomous in all relationships.

    But by saying the word “bisexual” I have been literally harassed in undergrad and grad school by gay, lesbian and straight teachers and students. I have been harassed at work, on a stage set, at parties etc. I have registered with an online dating site and have gotten dates But have been sent harassing emails from gay men and straight women.

    If I have a spontaneous attraction and pursue it I will inevitably have to come out to my partner if they don’t already know. But let’s talk about the closet. Most of the bi men I know are closeted in either the straight or gay community. They don’t talk about it. In one case a man had a five year relationship with a man in England moved to America and now says he is “straight” and dated all women and got married. The fact that he feels he needs to erase his past and closet himself is evidence of oppression.

    For me I am still seeking a long term partner. I am in relationship with a bi woman and it is wonderfully affectionate and sexual but she feels we don’t have much in common. So we are now both continuing to date to find that person. But there is this internalized fear of having to confront all sorts of misunderstandings.

    But I would also submit that there is “gay priveleges”. Gay men have been excellent at helping one another out. And I am very often excluded from those resources and jobs in a very real way. Another bi man I knew in my twenties changed his identity when he moved to New York as “gay”. Immediately he gained all these gay priveleges like jobs and networking. But he is not gay, in fact he sought out specifically a bisexual boyfriend and both date women privately. He is a popular musician and makes fun of the rumors that he is bisexual.

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