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.

Bi Talk: Loraine Hutchins Honored by ‘Rainbow History Project’

Loraine Hutchins shares with BSN her bisexual activism on what’s happening now and how we need to get equal representation in our community.

Loraine Hutchins is a bisexual activist, professor, and author, who is also involved in civil rights and social justice work. She is the author of Bi Any Other Name: Bisexuals Speak Out, which she co-authored with Lani Ka’ahumanu and several chapters and essays about bisexuality. She also teaches a class on lesbian, gay, bi and trans[gender] studies at Towson University, and a class on sexuality and women’s studies at Montgomery College. She has done local work with The Alliance for Multicultural Bisexuals and national work with BinetUSA, and has been an out bisexual activist — advocating for bisexual rights and bi visibility since the nineteen seventies.

She was recently honored by the Rainbow History Project in Washington DC, which keeps tracks of and archives the stories of BLGT people. Every two years they have an awards night when they honor DC Community Pioneers who’ve contributed to BLGT DC history. Not many out bisexuals have been honored, and it was great to see someone who has done so much [to be] honored for her hard work and also to see more bivisibility.

I caught up with Loraine and asked her what achievements she was recognized for and how was the ceremony.  [What were] her thoughts on the growing acceptance of bisexuals in the BLGT community, and also how far we still have to go?

Here are some of her thoughts, reflections, and ideas:

“The Rainbow Project honored me for my books and organizational work. For years I’ve tried to speak up at local queer events, and I remember going to events in the 80’s where I was the only out bisexual there. I marched in the 1985 Gay and Lesbian march for equality before it was called LGBT as a bisexual contingent of one. I had a sign that says “peace to all closet bisexuals and to those already out” and I was riding a “bi”-cycle! I’m pretty sure some of the other people at the awards ceremony have had relationships with both genders, even though they don’t identify as bisexual. I hope my being there and being out has helped them to realize it’s alright to feel feelings for people of all genders. I don’t know if there will be any major news about the ceremony, but I personally love the Rainbow History Archives because I am into documentation and chronicling and history and I’ve seen this group struggle to survive and sustain itself over the years. Mark Meinke the founder got it affiliated with the DC historical society. That has helped because the city itself is helping to document the history and stories of gay, bi, and trans people. It’s a fascinating eclectic multiracial and multicultural collection and an interesting overlap of people you don’t often see mingling in DC, and that was refreshing to see.

As far as bi-visibility goes, every little thing helps. People who otherwise wouldn’t know about Rainbow History Project came to the awards ceremony because I was in touch with them. There was an overlapping of lots of communities and I loved that. There are people who came that I knew who where heterosexual, polyamorous — from the swinging community, public interest lawyers, and people who are active in the sexual liberation fields who are not necessarily queer identified, but have done some of their homework in understanding bisexuality better, because of my work in those areas. It’s always good for people to learn about other communities. Even my mom came! She was active in the nineteen nineties helping her church become a reconciling congregation. There were a lot of connections made between people. The bio that was written about me on the Rainbow Project website did a lot to educate people on some of the realities of being bisexual and how hard it is.

What came out of it concretely in one way I didn’t expect, was that I was there with Billy Jones – the only other out bisexual that I know, [who’s] ever been honored by theRainbow Project.  He told me that a few days after the ceremony, he’d be testifying at the DC city council meeting on marriage equality and asked me if I would come and testify too.  So there would be more than one out bisexual person there. I couldn’t make it but I did submit written testimony — which helped to show that bisexuals have concerns and interests in marriage equality issues too, just like lesbian and gay people do.

In some ways, the overall LGBT atmosphere has gotten friendlier for bisexuals, but I wouldn’t say that it has unqualifiedly. In my LGBT studies class recently I started talking about bisexuality and the stereotypes bisexual people face. My class is made up mostly of queer friendly straight people, some gay people, and a couple of bi people. I asked them what they had heard about bisexuals around campus, and they said things like “bisexuals are dirty and greedy.” They acknowledged that they thought it was a negative stereotype, but the fact was that the stereotypes are alive and they don’t seem to be hearing the same stereotypes about gays and lesbians. I was explaining to one student that there is more to biphobia than just homophobia — that we can be hated for “refusing to choose” or being “too sexual.” One student in particular didn’t know that under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, bisexuals are not welcome in the military just like homosexuals. So yes, it has improved, but we also still have a long way to go.

It was nice to see that the word bisexuality was mentioned by several speakers and organizers at the National Equality March, much more so than in 1993 and 2000, and that we had our own speakers. Even Cleve Jones mentioned us! I’m also seeing more acceptance for non-straight people in genera, in the younger generations of the straight world through people who sign up for my classes. There’s more of an openness to listen to the experiences of LGBT people. There is good change happening but it’s back and forth, and there’s so many other problems people are worried about right now. And when people are having a rough time that’s when they can fall back into patterns of hate and distrust of those who are different from them.”

Thanks and congratulations to Loraine Hutchins for being recognized for all the hard work on behalf of the bisexual community!