This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, since it was very topical, and by the time the reprint rights had reverted to me the media flare-up I was writing about had run its course. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.
Does outing closeted gay politicians contribute to bisexual invisibility?
It occurs to me that the way I put that question is sort of answering itself. Let me re-phrase: Does outing closeted politicians who have sex with same-sex partners contribute to bisexual invisibility?
There’s been yet another story in the news lately, about yet another rabidly homophobic right-wing politician who was discovered to be gay. (Roy Ashburn’s the joker in this round of the game: he’s the one who was arrested for drunk driving after leaving a gay nightclub with another man, and who finally acknowledged that he was gay — after the story had been broken for days. Tangent: This kind of story is becoming so common, it’s starting to be flat-out silly. It’s getting to the point where, when a politician is rabidly homophobic, I just assume now that they’re gay. It’s become a standard item on my gaydar: Does he have unusually good fashion sense? Is he a little more aware of the works of Lady Gaga than is strictly necessary? Is he a right-wing politician who foams at the mouth about how disgusting homosexuals are and consistently votes against gay rights? Yup — probably gay. I think we need to start a PR campaign about this: if “rabid anti-gay political activism” becomes a standard marker for “probable homosexuality,” maybe fewer right-wing politicians will run with it.)
Anyway. Rabidly homophobic right-wing politician; secretly gay. But Amanda Mennis recently wrote me with an interesting question: Does this story of a secretly gay public figure — and the absurdly long parade of stories like it — contribute in some way to bisexual invisibility?
After all, most of the guys in these scandals (and it has just been guys so far) are married, or have some sort of sexual/ romantic relationship with women. Many of them have children. They’re clearly capable of having sex with women. Doesn’t that make them bisexual, not gay? Or at least, doesn’t it suggest the possibility that some of them are bisexual and not gay?
An interesting question. And one that I’m finding tricky to answer.
Part of the problem is that we don’t have a standard definition of what it means to be gay or lesbian or bisexual. It’s not like there’s a gay person in a vacuum in the Smithsonian, against whom we all measure ourselves to determine our own sexual orientation. Everyone defines these terms — gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, bi-curious, heteroflexible (that was a new one on me!), questioning, queer, “basically straight but wouldn’t kick Jon Stewart out of bed,” whatever — in subtly different ways. Or not so subtly different ways.
So ultimately, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about whether someone is “really bisexual.” There is no such thing as “really bisexual.” Within reason (and please don’t ask me to define what “within reason” means), we get to decide for ourselves what sexual orientation we are, and what language we use to describe it.
But what does that mean for someone who’s closeted?
I mean, one of the things about being closeted is that the willingness and ability to honestly self-define one’s sexuality is shot to hell. That isn’t necessarily true with the “I know I’m a big queer but I’m pretending not to be for pragmatic reasons” sort of closeting (the way a lot of LGBT celebrities are: think Melissa Etheridge or George Takei before they came out). But it sure as hell is true with the self-loathing, totally in denial, “Homosexuals are disgusting, and the fact that I suck cock in airport bathrooms has no bearing on that assessment” sort of closeting we see with so many right-wing closet cases. If someone is having that much repression and rationalization about their sexuality, the rest of us have to suspend the “Everyone gets to define their own sexual identity” rule — since we’re not going to get an honest answer out of them. (Larry Craig, for instance, is not saying, “According to the standard tropes of sexual identity, most people would identify me as a gay man — but I’m not an essentialist, I’m a constructionist, and I’m constructing a sexual identity that frames me as a culturally heterosexual man who sometimes has sex with other men.” Larry Craig is sticking his fingers in his ears and saying, “La la la la la, I’m not a faggot.”)
We also have to remember that the ability to function sexually with a person of the opposite sex does not automatically drop someone into the Bisexual slot. Plenty of gay men and lesbians are capable of functioning sexually with people of the opposite sex. It’s just not a very high level of functioning. If you only ever fantasize about people of the same sex; if the only people who make your head turn on the street are people of the same sex; if the only porn you’re interested in is same-sex porn — but you can manage to perform rote, joyless sex acts with an opposite-sex partner as long as you close your eyes and think of Hugh Jackman (or Tilda Swinton) — that’s not a very useful definition of “Bisexual.”
And when I read the stories about right-wing closet cases, that seems to be the most common story. These stories never read like “reasonably happy marriage of someone with a genuine erotic and romantic connection to their spouse, but who’s also leading a double life with same-sex partners.” They always read like “marriage of convenience — which their spouse may or may not have known was a marriage of convenience.” It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly makes me think that… and the abovementioned fact that these guys aren’t being blazingly honest about their sexuality, with themselves or with anyone else, isn’t helping me figure it out. But there’s something about the intensity of these guys’ professed revulsion with homosexuality, the “lady doth protest too much” quality of their impassioned defenses of heterosexual marriage, that makes me smell a rat. A rat in the form of sham marriages, with no sincere romantic or sexual component.
Now. I do think that media coverage of outed politicians does play into bisexual invisibility in some ways. When these stories get written about, there is an assumption of a sexual orientation binary; an assumption that the world is divided into Gay and Straight, and that anyone having sex with same-sex partners must by default fall into the Gay category. That’s the assumption that gets made in almost every media story written about sexual orientation; it’s no surprise that it gets made in stories about right-wing homophobic politicians who turn out to be closet cases. And it’s a troubling and fucked-up assumption, which does perpetuate the idea that there’s no such thing as bisexuals.
But I think this question of how we name the sexual identity of someone in the closet is profoundly tricky. If we accept that sexual orientations don’t have clear definitions, and we accept that people have the right to define their sexual identities for themselves… then how do we apply that principle to people who aren’t willing or able to be honest about who they are?
So it’s occurring to me that it might make more sense to talk about right-wing homophobic politicians who are secretly having sex with same-sex partners… instead of talking about right-wing homophobic politicians who are secretly gay. It’s occurring to me that it makes no more sense to say that these closeted politicians are “really” gay than it does to say that they’re “really” bisexual.
I mean, do we really want to say that “bisexual” is a deeply personal identity that people can only claim for themselves… but that “gay” is a culturally- defined identity that society gets to pin on other people?
I sure don’t.