I’ve found myself, a few times in recent months, dumbing down my queerness so it will be visible at all. This mostly consists of allowing people to perceive me as a lesbian in situations where I know bisexual girls will be viewed as straight girls with a sexy, exotic add-on rather than as genuine queers. Even though I am so much queerer than many lesbians. As an example, recently when a waiter mysteriously brought an extra order of sausage to our table at a friend’s birthday dinner and the classic straight girl next to me declared “Everybody always wants more sausage,” all I could think to do was tell her that I don’t. Even though, comparisons of body parts to sausages aside (ew! Wrong on so many levels I can’t even count them!), I’m a big fan of that particular body part. Store bought or factory-installed, on boys or girls, I could not be less grossed out by it. But here I was pretending to be, just to register on the queer-o-meter at all. And even then, at first she thought I was referring to being a vegetarian and just couldn’t take a joke.
Sitting around talking to a couple of coworkers a while ago, I was remembering just how alien my sexual views and practices are in Heteronormativeland. After a general condemnation of anal sex in which I refused to participate (there’s a big difference between “I don’t want to do that at work” — “that” in this case being a massage technique, legal in a few states, that approaches a hard-to-access muscle attachment through the rectum — and “Ew, how can people touch each other there ever?” although apparently it wasn’t a leap at all for these two), Coworker A turned to Coworker B and asked him, “Would you give a blowjob for a million dollars?”
“No way” he denied instantly.
“I would,” I piped up. I would, too. I’m not really cut out for sex work, I have the wrong personality for it, but everyone has a price. Mine is just higher than anyone ever actually offers.
“Nuh uh,”he said. “I’d have to live with myself afterwards.”
“Yeah, well, I’d be living with my million dollars,” I pointed out.
To which this genius says, “Yeah, but you’re a woman.”
“I’m a dyke!” I protested. (There it is again! I figured they’d been assuming it anyway; they know I have a girlfriend.)
“Yeah, but you’re still a woman!” WTF? “That’s what women do!” Again, all I have is WTFuck? “Even if I were gay, if a woman offered me a million dollars to lick her pussy, I’d do it.”
“I think you’re a little confused about how exactly this gay thing works,” I told him. But he continued to insist that, sexual orientation aside, it’s perfectly natural for women to suck cock. That’s just how the world works, folks. (Now, of course, I’m wondering what would have happened had I pointed out that this blowjob could have been given to a woman. Maybe I had heteronormativity poisoning at the time and that’s why I didn’t think of it; more likely I just have too strong a boundary between my personal and professional lives to seem so knowledgeable about “alternative” sexual practices while at work. Amusing aside: I’m typing this on my netbook, sitting on the subway on my way to work. The woman sitting next to me was quite obviously reading over my shoulder, and she just quite obviously got up and moved to the other side of the car. Shouldn’t snoop if you can’t handle it…)
So, yes, most of what’s jaw-dropping about that conversation is the casual sexism. Women suck cock! Men’s cocks! That’s what women are for! Whoa there, Turbo. The level of heterosexism is pretty out of control, too. But leaving that aside, what’s going on with me here? Am I the only one who makes this kind of compromise, or do other bisexuals find themselves doing the same? I spend rather a lot of my time exploring and defending the complexities of queerness, my own and that of others. And yet here I am, distilling it down not only to a sound bite, but to an inaccurate one. I’m letting my queerness be defined by a lack of interest in men, rather than a positive interest in all of the variety I’m actually hot for. Women; people who push the bounds of the gender binary in some way; radical lefty politics; a certain air of authority…and, yes, men. I feel guilty of contributing not only to bi invisibility, but also the idea that all sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) revolves around men, by defining mine in terms of whether I’m interested in them. The way I approach sexuality is so much more nuanced than that.
Part of this is…not internalized biphobia exactly, more awareness and weariness of the biphobia I’m likely to encounter. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to deal with being treated like a straight girl who just wants attention. Even with a recent determination to stay on the front lines, there’s only so many times I can bear to be asked whether I’m sure or whether I think I’ll pick a side someday. But which one do you like more??? as if it worked like that or there were only two options. Let alone being told that all I need is a thorough enough fucking to turn me all the way straight, or asked if I’d like to help a girl explore her curiosity about women in the nonthreatening context of sex with her boyfriend. Given my choices of partners in the past few years, there are probably just as many people who’d be happy to tell me to just suck it up and admit that I’m a lesbian now (or “really” have been all along).
I’m also a clergyman’s daughter, and I definitely have that clergy’s kid politeness drummed way, way into me. So I instinctively pick and choose my battles, smooth over awkward situations, and avoid pointing out when people are wrong if I think it will embarrass them. I only realize a bit later, when it would be even more awkward to bring it up again, that I had an opportunity for an easy bit of eye-opening. (When a coworker was reading about the compatibility of Aquarians and Cancers I told her it was all wrong about my relationship, that my partner’s the unpredictabe extrovert and if either of us errs toward hesitant and insecure, it’s me. She said,”Well, remember we’re talking about a man here.” And I was so floored that it didn’t occur to me until several minutes later that I could have just said “No, actually we’re not.” But the next time someone tried that — apparently the book was getting around at work — I started out with “Well, my girlfriend is a Cancer.” Because I learn fast. And now, of course, they think I’m a lesbian.)
And part of it that there really is a time and a place for long, drawn out conversations about identity and the complexity of sexuality and gender. In response to a throw-away comment at a friend’s birthday party often isn’t it, and work almost never is. That’s my aversion to conflict and controversy speaking, and I feel guilty saying such a thing in a world where some people can’t hide their distance from the norm and don’t get to choose when they have these conversations. On the other hand, I also believe it. There are times when people can be reached and communicated with, and times when I’m going to leave them thinking “Wow, that girl has no sense of humor,” and they’ll never think about anything I said again. Which hardly matters if my goal is to express myself authentically, and sometimes it is and I do and to hell with it. Sometimes, however, my goal is to educate people and try to get at some of their more dearly held misconceptions and biphobia, and then I’m likely to choose more carefully what to say and whether to say it at all.
But this is the wrong question. I should be asking not what’s wrong with me that I don’t always have the energy, but what’s wrong with the setting I’m in that the only way to get my queerness to register at all is by simplifying it to the point that it’s inaccurate. We live in a world where people hear “I have a girlfriend” as telling them everything they need to know about me, rather than hearing what it actually is — one piece of information, that leaves most of the picture blank. Where saying something true leads people to assume all sorts of other things that most likely aren’t true, and then consider it my job to explain myself fully and make sure they haven’t misunderstood. And that’s the real problem here, not anything I’m saying or leaving unsaid. The onus is considered to be on bisexuals, and all sorts of other people who fall outside of binaries, rather than on the people listening and making assumptions right and left to fit us into their boxes; otherwise, we’ve “misrepresented” ourselves. As long as that’s the case, there are going to be times that I just don’t have the energy to engage with it all, and settings where the only way to register as queer and subversive at all is to let people read me as gay. And given only the two options, I’d always rather be taken as queer than straight. But most of the time I do engage, and I insist on all of the complexities, even if that puts me entirely outside any context the person listening might have thought they had for me. Most of the time I do fight that idea of bi girls as straight girls plus a little something extra. Good enough, for now.