Coming Out Bisexual On The Real World

real worldWhen I heard that the 23rd season of MTV’s The Real World was going to take place in my hometown of Washington DC, and was going to feature two out bisexuals, I had to tune in. The show has turned out to be quite interesting. The two bisexual characters are Emily Schromm, who is 21, and Mike Manning, who is 22. Both are newly out; Emily was raised strictly religious just had her first relationship with a woman; Mike was raised very religious as well and is struggling to reconcile his faith with his sexuality, and just came out and started exploring his sexuality right before he came to DC. He came out to his housemates at dinner in the first episode, and they all seemed okay with it. He said that while he doesn’t like labels overall, he would label himself as bisexual, and has dated both men and women.

Several articles were written about both characters on BLGT blogs around the time the show premiered last December, and most were positive. Yet only one episode had aired—and already the sirens were off in the form of pages of comments saying “he’s not really bi, he’s gay, there’s no such thing as bi in men”—going on and on about the “bi now, gay later” stereotype, and quoting that ridiculous and disproven J. Michael Bailey study (how many times does a study have to be discredited before it gets through to some people)?! The absolute worst ones were here and here.  Men from both the gay and the straight communities weighed in. It was nice to see that there were several comments defending Mike, more so than the last time a bisexual man came out, so that is progress, but unfortunately the negative ones outweighed the positive ones. It is truly amazing how many people want to decide someone else’s sexuality for them, including sadly, some of Mike and Emily’s roommates who think he’s  ”just confused and is really gay” and tell her that “it’s okay if you are a lesbian”.

As much as I didn’t like the overflow of comments, there is actually progress. Much less has been said overall questioning Emily’s sexual identity, at least in the BLGT community—and I do remember a time when that was different, so it seems there is definitely a positive trend a somewhat growing acceptance for female bisexuality, though possibly not always for the reasons we would like. But it seems male bisexuality is one of the last and biggest barriers to more acceptance of bisexuals in general. What are some of the reasons for this? Let’s examine them through the adventures of Mike Manning on The Real World, and through some of the stereotypes that showed up over and over in the comments about him.

For starters there was the whole “I knew a bisexual man and he turned out to be gay”. Well, so he did. I stated in this article my opinion on what label people who are unsure when they come out should use. The actions of a few people who use the wrong label or really do go through a phase should not be used to label an entire community. I’ve actually seen a lot of the opposite: several bi men who do not want to use the bisexual label because of the negative connotation. Secondly, there was the whole “he doesn’t want to fully come out and wants to hold on to hetero-privilege”. Well, Mike Manning is totally out to his family, and came out again on national television no less. Being from a religious family myself, I can tell you that being bisexual isn’t any easier than being gay-neither one is considered good. Just ask Emily—her own sister rejected her after she came out to her on live TV. As for the hetero-privilege myth, this is my answer to that one.

A rather odd argument was that Mike has used the terms  gay  and  bi  interchangeably a few times, so that proves he is gay. I know very few bisexual and transgender people who don’t sometimes do that.  Gay has become a catchall term for BLGT, and since most of society doesn’t treat bisexuals very differently from gays, many of us feel comfortable interchanging the two sometimes.

Another argument was that rumors have said that overall by the end of the show, he had dated more guys than girls.  In the first two episodes, he made out with a girl and a guy. Why is anyone surprised by this? He just came out! He’s been suppressing the side of him that is attracted to men for years, and all those years he’s been able to act on his feelings for women, so naturally he’s going to want to explore the male attractions. When I first came out as bi, I was mainly into women for months. I’d had a 14 year head start on my attraction to men and had barely acted on my attraction to women-I wanted to make up for lost time. Once I got used to the idea of being out, I evened out. I’ve had several other bisexual people tell me they went through something similar, and I suspect that is what Mike went through. This really was not only the first time he was really out, but the first time he had access to a thriving gay community. I would have been surprised if he hadn’t chosen to explore it.

Also, Mike could “lean” more toward men, as being bisexual certainly doesn’t have to mean having a “50/50″ attraction (in fact most of us lean one way or the other).  But if he’s still attracted to both sexes-then he’s bi!  (See latest update below to learn more about this, apparently there was “creative editing” going on). Does someone’s “bi card” get revoked because their attractions aren’t always equal? Many people seem to think a “true bisexual” has to be 50/50. Most of us actually tend to lean one way or the other.

People have come up with other terms to describe which way they lean, such as “bi gay”, “bi straight”, “bi queer”, “homoflexible” and “heteroflexible”. While I don’t like to tell anyone how to label themselves, I do think people need to be less afraid to just use the term “bisexual” somewhere in their label. Words can be very powerful.  When the girl he kissed on the show (and apparently slept with behind the scenes) saw him kissing a guy, she was all grossed out and couldn’t believe she had been with a bi guy. I’m pretty sure that reactions like that from women are another reason male bisexuality isn’t popular—who wants to hear that?

Just recently Mike Manning himself gave two great interviews— one in Metro Weekly , the other in Realitywanted —both definite must reads, and most of the comments were positive!  Contrary to the rumors that he no longer identified as bisexual, he embraces the label (as much as someone who doesn’t like labels can), and talks about the biphobia in the gay community that he’s had to deal with. He also says that once guys he dates actually get to know him, they start to believe he really is bi. Personally I say thank you to Mike Manning for not bowing to pressure, for being true to who he is, and for openly embracing the label.

Emily Schromm recently gave a great interview as well to the website AfterEllen, telling us a bit more about her and her background, and about how while her bisexuality was acknowledged on the show, it was downplayed as far as showing who she dated while on the show and living in the Real World DC house.  She embraced the label as well and I’m proud of her for not caving to pressure either.  My hope is that as more bisexual men like Mike Manning and bisexual women like Emily Schromm come out, more people in both the straight and BLGT communities will take the time to get to know them and try and see them for who they really are—not who they think they should be.

Latest Update as of March 2010:  It turns out that both Mike and Emily’s hookups with women were edited out of the show, but both are talked out in this aftershow video and this interview. Both were made to appear to be mostly attracted to men. Why was it done this way?  Maybe for ratings?  I’d like to hope it’s not due to biphobia, but I really have to wonder.

The Perception of Attraction

oppinionAs I was reading this article by my co writer, Peter Ruggiero, I was struck by this quote: “On top of this, there are some extra challenges for the bisexual male. If you’re one of the “regular guys,” folks may not want to believe that you are also attracted to other men. If you’re a man who’s gender atypical, folks often have a hard time believing you like women. I have a friend, also named Peter, whom I like to quote on this subject; “I’m here, I’m queer and I like women too. Get used to it!”’ I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

That really made me think—being in the bisexual community has taught me not to judge people by appearances and even mannerisms, because those are not set in stone and mean different things to different people, and can change over time. This brings with it a certain openness, to get to know people for who they are on the inside, not outside, and not to follow stereotypes. Basically, don’t judge a book by its cover, but there is much more to it even than that.

One problem people have with understanding bisexuality seems to be based on understanding gender and gender roles. If a person doesn’t fit into a certain perceived gender box, i.e. they don’t behave, look, or dress in a way that is supposed to fit with their gender, then they can’t possibly be bisexual. This has been a problem for the gay and lesbian community as well, as many masculine gay men and feminine lesbians will tell you—but it seems to be an even bigger problem for bisexuals, because of the duality of our attractions, and because we sometimes change roles and demeanor depending on what community we are in.

If a man is considered masculine, he can’t possibly be attracted to men, if he is perceived as more feminine, then he can’t possibly be attracted to women. For women, if you are “too butch”, it’s hard to imagine you liking men, and if you’re what is considered a feminine woman, people have a hard time believing you can be attracted to other women. I’ve experienced it myself—depending on how I dress, or act, my hair length, my nails-I have to be either gay or straight, because I “can’t possibly be attracted to (insert either gender).” A few weeks ago I met what many would consider a very “butch looking lesbian”—who started telling me she’s actually bisexual and dates men as well as women. I admit, even I had thought she was a lesbian by first glance-which really goes to show that unfortunately these stereotypes get ingrained in all of us at some level.

Since there is a mainstream gay and lesbian community, and several stereotypes have grown up around it (all gay men are feminine acting, all lesbians are masculine acting), bisexuals often get caught between the stereotypes—if we behave “too straight”, we must really be straight and just “experimenting”, if we behave “too gay” we must just be denying we are really gay. These stereotypes that both sides have of each other run rampant in both communities. I tried dissecting it in the gay community once, and asking “what does it actually mean to be too straight? Am I acting too feminine for you? Does this mean I can’t possibly be attracted to women? Would you say that to someone who considers herself a “femme” lesbian?” Naturally I didn’t get an answer, just a look of confusion.

I’m sure if I asked in the straight community-“what exactly does it mean to be too gay?” If a woman doesn’t wear skirts, or has short hair, or is too opinionated— does that automatically mean she can only be attracted to women and not men? If a guy is short, not into sports, and not stereotypically masculine, is he automatically attracted to only men and not women? We’ve seen those stereotypes broken over and over again, that how someone looks or even acts in a given situation doesn’t determine who they can be attracted to—there’s even a name for it in the gay community—“straight acting” gay man or woman” and yet the stereotypes persist.

Then we have the idea of “well you don’t act like a bisexual”—how is a bisexual person supposed to act? Should we have someone of each gender on each arm? Should we be a cross between a gay stereotype and a straight one? Do I need a sign? Do I need to actively chase both men and women in front of people? I never seem to get answers to any of these questions either.

So to paraphrase Peter’s friend: “I’m here, I’m queer, and I like men too. Get used to it!”