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!”

Using the Questioning Label

question markOne of the arguments against bisexuality and the bisexual/pansexual community that I’ve seen written on too many gay blogs is the whole “when I first came out I said I was bi too, then later I realized I was gay.” This tiresome argument drives me nuts, because for starters—just because that’s how it happened to some people, doesn’t mean that’s how it is for everyone. But unfortunately, even I can’t deny that it does happen, and I’m not too fond of the whole “bi now, gay later” bit. For a while now, I’ve wanted to say to people; when you first come out, if you aren’t sure, don’t use the word bisexual—because if you do and you later realize you are gay, it will only lend credence to the stereotype. When I first came out, even though I was reasonably sure I was bisexual, I just said I was “not sure” and “questioning”, until I was sure, as I explored the BTLG world. The bi/pan community is a very welcoming place to explore one’s sexuality, something that has always been an asset, but unfortunately this can backfire if people go on to realize they are gay or straight; they can think that bisexuality and/or being between gay and straight in general is just an “in between” phase or label.

I’ve started seeing the whole idea of the “questioning” label being encouraged more, even sometimes being added to the end of GLBT to make GLBTQ. I think it’s a great idea. It seems that for some people—when they first come out,  they don’t know what label to use, and they jump to the bisexual label—because there’s this rather erroneous idea in the straight community (and unfortunately too often in the gay community as well) that it’s the “easiest” label to deal with—and that it’s more acceptable to come out as bisexual. Later on, if they realize they are gay, they drop the bisexual label, and this gives rise to our least favorite stereotype.

Using the questioning label definitely has much less potential for misunderstanding and stereotypes; after all, the label itself implies searching, transition, and being temporary. It sounds a lot better to say “I was once questioning and then I figured out I was gay”, then to say “I was once bisexual, but then I realized I was gay”. As far as I know, there aren’t people who claim questioning as a permanent label—nor is questioning an orientation. The questioning label also allows for “comfortable exploration” even for straight people—if they later realize they are straight, they can always see the questioning as a phase.  It seems most people in the BTLG community are comfortable with people who are just out using that label as well.

So how do we encourage people who are just coming out—but unsure of their orientation, to use the questioning label? The best way is already being done—to make the idea of GLBTQ more visible. Several BTLG centers now use the acronym “GLBTQ” (among others with more letters, such as GLBTQQIA) to acknowledge, and encourage people who are questioning—to come in and use their resources. Several website profiles that allow you to list your orientation, now have “questioning” or “not sure” as a choice. I’ve heard it used more on TV too; “so and so is questioning their orientation.” Hopefully, this will make its way more into BTLG vocabulary. One way we bi/pan people, especially bisexuals, can encourage its use is to encourage anyone we do know who is starting to question their sexuality to use the questioning label, until they figure things out. We can also counter the stereotype of bisexuality as a transitional label for everyone— when someone says, “I was bi once, then I realized I was gay”—we should answer, “No, you were questioning, not bisexual. You were in the process of coming out and then you did.”

To be fair, not everyone can always use the questioning label—some people may truly genuinely believe they are bisexual—then realize they are gay, and vice versa. But, I think that overall the questioning label can be used by most people—questioning their sexuality and coming out or thinking about coming out. The younger generation does seem more willing to embrace it, and both the gay and straight communities seem pretty accepting of using it. It can take the place of the word bisexual—when coming out, and help erase some of the stereotypes and biphobia that have surrounded the bisexual label and orientation. That’s something we can all look forward to in the future.

To learn and read more discussion about the Questioning Label, check out this post on Queers United.