Race, Bisexuality, and the Rhetoric of the Closet

This New York Times article came in with my Google Alerts this morning, and while it’s just a short article buried in the Metro section, I’m struck by some of the rhetoric it employs when discussing male bisexuality, and specifically bisexuality among men of color.

The headline, “Many Gays Don’t Tell Doctors Their Sexuality, Study Finds,” is actually inaccurate; the study surveyed men who had sex with men, which is a much larger group than those who identify as gay. And in fact, it’s generally not the gays in this group who aren’t disclosing their sexuality to their doctors, but rather, the bisexuals:

The survey found a striking distinction: While 78 percent of the men who had sex with men and identified themselves as homosexual said they had discussed their sexuality with their doctors, none of the men who had sex with men but identified themselves as bisexual had told their doctors.

So why did this article identify all of these men as gay in the headline, even though some self-identify as gay and some do not? Yes, “gay” makes a shorter headline than “men who have sex with men” or “gay or bisexual,” and part of this has to do with the general invisibility of male bisexuality, but I also think it’s pretty relevant that 75% of the men in this study who identified as bisexual were black or Hispanic. There’s a revealing quote here from Dr. Monica Sweeney, the city’s assistant health commissioner for H.I.V. prevention and control:

“There is a frequent phenomenon in the black community in which a man who is gay, by the conventional ways that we all know to identify somebody as gay, identifies himself as bisexual,” Dr. Sweeney said, referring to the phenomenon known as the “down low.”

By the conventional ways that we all know: what’s going on here? Who is “we,” and whose conventions are valid? Who is granted the authority to determine whether an individual’s sexual identity is credible, and on what basis? There is a whole lot going on in the rhetoric of the “down low,” and that could be a whole series of posts in and of itself, but in the context of this particular article, I am interested in the discourse of “true” sexual identity and the notion of the closet.

This article ultimately implies that these bisexual men of color are in fact closeted gay men, but denies these men the agency to have the last word regarding their identities. Might some of them be closeted about parts of their sexuality? Certainly. But they didn’t ask them about this, and I expect there are also plenty in this group whose bisexual identity is not necessarily the direct result of homophobia and closeted homosexuality. (And let’s not forget that “down low” is not a synonym for “bisexual;” it implies deception and secrecy, and it’s interesting that the article associates this label with all bisexuals, reinforcing the stereotype that we are all deceptive or likely to cheat.)

Ultimately, though, how did the article come to report some of the men’s sexual identities without question while cast the others into doubt? Parsing the “genuineness” of anyone’s sexual identity is ultimately a problem you run into when you buy into the idea of sexuality as fixed, transcultural, and transhistorical: labels such as homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual are relatively modern inventions, and we all would have made sense of our sexual behavior and attractions very differently in their absence. None of us can really be said to “genuinely” fit them, because they are cultural ideas with political histories, not just dispassionate descriptors of a given person’s sexual behavior or attractions over time.

Does this mean they’re useless or somehow untrue? No, of course not. Just because something is cultural and exists within a historical context doesn’t mean it’s not real for those who experience it. Right now, we need descriptors of sexual identity because we’re in a historical moment when sexuality is a part of what you are, rather than just what you do, so these labels have become a very real part of people’s lives (hence this blog.) But I think it’s important to remember that these labels will always be a little fuzzy around the edges, and that adopting one of them means stepping into a particular political and cultural narrative rather than just describing the genders of one’s partners. And I think this is often overlooked when we talk about the unwillingness of some men who have sex with men to identify as gay; it’s always seen as closeting or denial, but never as a discomfort or disconnect with the culture or political history embodied by the word “gay” or the narrative of coming out.

My thoughts on closeting here are deeply indebted to Marlon B. Ross’s “Beyond The Closet as Raceless Paradigm” (anthologized here), which critiques Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet for its universalizing of elite, white, male homosexuality and its narrative of closeting as the modern homosexual condition. Ross argues:

When [Sedgwick’s] generalizations seem to contradict large populations defined by racial-class difference–Latinos, African Americans, and male prisoners, for instance–does this mean that the sexual identities of these populations are not modern? If these populations are outside of modern sexuality, in what cultural-temporal zone does their sexual identity reside? In a premodern or primitive condition?

The assumption Ross points out here–that non-white and non-elite manifestations of same-sex sexuality are somehow less progressive, liberated, or modern–is not limited to academic queer theory, and I think this plays a role in the portrayal of bisexual men of color in this article.
They are assumed not to fit a “standard” model of male same-sex attraction or the mainstream coming-out narrative, and so their sexuality is implied to be false or even duplicitous. They are identified authoritatively as gay, despite their self-identifications to the contrary; the article positions them as backward and repressed gays who would identify as such if only they progressed into a more liberated, modern, and advanced paradigm of male same-sex attraction. The sexual identities of the white men in this study were not held up to such scrutiny.

(Now, let me note that I am not arguing that there is no liberation in coming out, that coming out is a strictly white paradigm, or that there is no homophobia involved in the “down-low” phenomenon. However, I think the way these very complicated issues are handled in the media are often oversimplified and do tend to draw on an underlying and ubiquitous narrative of modernity as progress towards a white and Western ideal.)

And I haven’t even touched on the content of the article, which is actually quite interesting. I do wonder what accounts for the fact that none of the bisexuals had disclosed their sexual identity to their doctors, and I suspect it’s complicated. I’m eager to write about the particularities of coming out as bisexual, but in a future post, because this one is long enough.

Oh dear. And I had intended this to be very short…

4 Responses to “Race, Bisexuality, and the Rhetoric of the Closet”

  1. 2 willendork
    28 July 2008 at 10:40 pm

    thank you for finally giving this ignorant little white lesbian the beginning of an understanding of the “men who have sex with men” label that isn’t so entrenched in the prejudices here critiqued. I look forward to checking out Ross’s essay (and perhaps the entire anthology when I have more time.) this is one fascinating little blog you’ve started. 🙂

  2. 9 August 2008 at 11:21 am

    Looking at the reports from this study is frustrating.

    I just spent a week in SF, with one of My close friends who has been doing HIV prevention work with MSM of color for the last 7 years or so, and heard countless stories about his work, so perhaps I’m particularly annoyed about the way this isssue is discussed in these articles.

    That it’s our local DOH person in charge of HIV prevention describing these conventional ways to identify gays says a lot about where the local govt is in HIV prevention.

    How did DL come to equal closeted gay in people’s minds, and yet simultaneously stand in for bisexual? Is DL a culturally specific seperate sexual identity altogether? Hard to say, but that is more likely than getting DL MSM to identify as gay or bisexual. I wish that people would stop trying to map identities like gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual onto behaviors. It is a particularly silly thing to do when your goal is to impact behavior, like in HIV prevention.

    No one in either article seems to consider other factors that might lead to revealing/not revealing the details of your sex life to your doctor. Like, perhaps the context in which you seek medical care, for one? Can we at all consider that those folks of color that “hide” their sexual orientation from docs might be seeking medical care in context where such disclosure makes a lot less sense than seeing a PCP you have been working with for years? Let’s face the facts here; very few people have that kind of medical experience these days, and with the ways racism is intertwined with class oppression in the US and in NYC in particular, and how that impacts health care access, how much more likely is it that MSM of color in NYC might seek medical care from emergency rooms and crisis clinics? Are those contexts where such disclosure makes sense (considering the lack of privacy, the fact that it’s unlikely that they will have an ongoing relationship with the doc, etc.)? When was the last time you told your ER doc about your sex life? As a white trans MSM, the last time I did that was before they took out My uterus, when they expressed concern I might be pregnant and wanted to clear that up before doing a cat scan.

    The spectre of the DL MSM in HIV fear is really intense, and particularly targets black men, in My experience. Many folks seem to think that if these men “come out” that HIV will stop spreading to heterosexual black women, a population that is still identified as “high risk”. (Public health folks can’t seem to get away from the risk=group of people when they talk about disease vectors.) And people just can’t wait to get on board with yet another reason to demonize and fear black men. This image of black queer men is one of the predominant ones in popular culture, and is almost always linked with HIV risk; from talk shows to E Lynn Harris novels, this image is equated with fear, disease, hypersexuality, and the breakup of the family unit. (Sound like any other racist images of black men to you?)

    The idea that if these DL MSM just “come out” the HIV problem will be solved easily falls apart if you are grounded in reality. 1. It is unlikely to occur. 2. Even if it did occur, it is unlikely to decrease HIV transmission. 3. In general, anyone who knows HIV prevention work on the ground, particularly with MSM will tell you harm reduction is the way to go, which focuses on the behavior, not the identity. Hence the term MSM, which focuses on the behavior, and can encompass a whole bunch of identities.

    With the health care system the way it is these days, do these folks really think it is your doc that you go to for some other reason, that is going to magically get you to talk about your sex life, so that they can tell you to use condoms, and this time, you will suddenly decide “Of course the MD is God and knows all, and I have to start using condoms every time!”?

  3. 15 August 2008 at 4:13 am

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

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