Monday, April 17, 2006
Bisexuality is Superior?
I used to believe in the superiority of bisexuality with a special sort of zeal. The arc of my thinking was grounded in a foundation of being fundamentally different from those monosexuals out there - those gay and straight people that were incapable of truly loving people because they couldn't form significantly deep or romantic feelings about people of a particular gender.
I considered myself truly free, advanced, progressive, and somehow unencumbered by whatever psychological or biological failings that monosexuals had. This feeling of superiority was usually passively expressed. I didn't go around snickering at others or making snide comments or wearing T-Shirts declaring my superiority. However, I certainly believed it.
I felt sorry for everyone else. The very few bisexual people that I knew very well seemed to only confirm my prejudice. They were really quite similar to me in behaviour and worldview. We were the Chosen Few.
Of course, anecdote doesn't equal proof. The other bisexual people in my life were people that I got along with really well. The shared values and interests were probably the reason we got along, and not because of a particular orientation.
Identity politics, the idea that a part of your identity then determines your politics, and that some sort of political change needs to happen based on group identity, has been around for a long time, and greatly affected my attitude.
The gay rights movement can be described in terms of identity politics. Politically active gay people were agitated, motivated, organized, and had "whips", to keep the message coherent and focused. Members of the group that fell outside the majority identity had to form their own smaller groups, or go it alone. The US "gay rights movement" is largely one that identifies with the left. As a politically active gay person, you were (are?) assumed to be an unchurched Democrat. Queer people that were politically right-wing formed the Log Cabin Republicans.
In popular culture, Gay Republicans are viewed as a bit weird. The Republicans largely ignore them and many left-leaning politically active gay people seem to be embarrassed about them. The belief that a part of your identity should determine a leftist vote is directly challenged by groups like the Log Cabin Republicans.
Two other groups that have suffered a similar sort of identity politics (called Values Politics) are pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. This litmus test issue in the US has made it impossible for these candidates to get anywhere within either party. Conform or leave.
All of these realities work at cross-purposes to political progress. Being political definitely requires compromise, but when compromise isn't possible, your effectivity as a political agent is very much reduced. In many cases, it's nullified.
In contrast, leveraging certain issues can greatly enhance an otherwise incompetent candidate or voting bloc.
So, for a while, I bought into the identity politics belief structure. My identity meant that I should be political as well as politically active in certain specific ways.
I did not see the gay rights movement demanding "special" privileges or asking for anything that anyone else didn't already have. However, for me, the identity extended well beyond the basic political rights questions (e.g. equal access under the law means equal access under the law, so civial unions or civil marriage licenses should be available to any two people above the age of majority that want to enter into a marriage contract).
Then, I extended the identity politics to identity religion, identity socialization, and identity entertainment. Once I did this, I began to feel the full power of conformity, all within a community that placed high value on diversity. However, the message became clear. You can be diverse, as long as you are diverse the same way we are. In other words, you could be catholic, as long as you were an ex-catholic, or hopelessly guilty about it. You could be middle or high income, as long as you apologized for it or didn't talk about it or show it in any way, since to be financially successful meant that you weren't suffering any discrimination, unlike the other "authentic" queers, who were unfairly kept down and ghettoized by "the mainstream community".
You could live outside the accepted neighborhoods, but you had to drive to the acceptable neighborhoods for any event or to meet friends. You could go to the movies, or out dancing, or out to eat, but if you went to mainstream locations, the lack of enthusiasm for others to go with you was palpable.
Therefore I went to a lot of small shabby theaters, small dingy nightclubs, overpriced no-parking mediocre restaurants, and went to lots of meetings in university meeting rooms, where lots of talk occurred about equality and rights and petitions and parades. During parades in California, I twice got a close-up view of Phelps, who was protesting the parade. One of the parades I was in was tear-gassed right before it was supposed to start. Although we were too far back to tell what was going on, the word about the source of the delay spread down the line quickly enough. This only reinforced my belief that straights (and gays) were inferior in thought, word, and deed.
During this time I wasn't just a member, acting in a way I was expected to act. I did actually help organize a GLBT university group from scratch. I did experience what was undoubtedly two different hate or bias related violent crimes during the organization of this group.
The group that we formed was for social support, and not for political action, but the identity politics at the time created the environment where the assumption existed that we were just a campus version of ACT UP or Queer Nation, and not really there to provide GLBT people a club to join where they could then talk about identity issues, goof off, and eat out as a group. This was in the US South, so the predictable collision between what I tend to think of as fundamentalist christians and our hodgepodge of mostly ex-believers happened on a regular basis. We viewed ourselves as the modern version of lepers, exiled by the "pure" folk and regularly despised by the hysterical religious right.
Although there were several gay-friendly leftist church groups that welcomed people like us, no one I knew admitted to being a member. The prevalence of organized religion in the south is high (smothering, glittering, constant, ubiquitous). It's both resplendant and burdensome.
I think most of us were either too busy studying, or occupied with being hip and cool to really delve into any religious life with any amount of energy. Besides, the message was mostly negative, so why bother when you could insulate yourself from any moral or ethical or bigottedconfrontation by sticking with your own kind in a close-knit community.
We pitied the people in the rural areas just as the larger cities pitied people like us in the smaller ones. The pity flowed like a river, with imagined headwaters in San Francisco, picking up speed in New York and LA. The river churned through the south and finally curled inward to drench the rural midwest in a muddy blanket of pity from all the rest of the land.
"At least I don't live in the midwest", we'd say to each other. "Our city might not be the most progressive, but we have it better here than they do out in the backwards sticks."
The pity turned to horror when Matthew Sheppard was beaten to death in 1998, something universally assumed to be a hate crime within my community.
That more than anything proved in my mind that straight people were one cut above animals.
Of course I made exceptions. When I met a straight person that accepted either the equality of or the obvious superiority of bisexuality, or if they never gave me a reason to doubt them on these assumptions, then we got along famously. People expressing other beliefs were strictly limited to aquaintanceship at best.
In general, I believed that being bisexual in orientation meant the following.
I was more open-minded, accepting, and tolerant of others.
I was intellectually superior because I could handle ambiguity and was unafraid of conflicting ideologies. I could see paths out of most any intractable conflict.
I was a living symbol the shortcomings of monosexuality since I was capable of fully loving all people, not just those of a certain body type.
I was better at negotiation and communication.
I was more forgiving.
At some point, I realized that the cause and effect could not truly be proven. I could easily have become bisexual at some point in my life BECAUSE of a very strong training in communication, tolerance, and empathy, and not necessarily a better person DUE to being bisexual.
I got this message of communication, tolerance, and empathy from several sources and tried to run with it as best I could. But if I couldn't really prove a causality, then my snobbish attitude wasn't really valid.
This created the opportunity to be willing to move beyond identity politics. After meeting many more people that also felt a bit cramped by being defined by (and therefore marketed to, or politicized by) their orientation, it started to feel like a necessary political phase, and not an end condition. After meeting people who simply rejected labels on their orientation, which at the time seemed inexplicable (reject a label that important? when there is so much at stake? are you kidding? Don't you have any idea how bad the situation is! you're abandoning the cause!), I started to really think about the disadvantages as well as the advantages of allowing an identity to be defined by orientation.
What were we all working towards, if not to make sexual orientation largely meaningless as a predictor of value? I could no more argue that being bisexual makes someone better as a person, than the rest of mainstream america could argue that being bisexual makes someone worse as a person, although that attitude is still widely held (referencing the study "Heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexual men and women in the United States" by Gregory M. Herek)
It would be nice if being bisexual made you a more advanced human. Then the recipe would be clear for a big step forward in human progress. To be honest, I still somewhat ascribe to that belief, but it's now more along the lines of self-affirmation or fuzzy daydream (sort of like my continuing happy dream of operating a small hardware store) instead of a prejudice.
Still to this day, however, I have the most trouble getting along with, understanding, and being friends with straight women. I can count the number of straight women friends that I have had in my life on one hand and not use all five fingers. Is this odd, considering that I'm a raving extrovert, and meet new people all the time? It can't be explained entirely by my hobbies and career, which are mostly male-oriented but not exclusively so. How male-oriented is knitting, sewing, quilting, and rose gardening? How come I can't seem to click with the large numbers of women I meet as a parent? I'm at home with little kids, and go days and days without meeting any men, especially if I just go to the play groups and school functions.
After all these meetings and groups and activities, the only person that I have clicked with in recent memory was someone's husband, mainly because he asked about the GPS receiver on the dash of my truck, and we talked enthusiastically about geocaching and hiking with our kids, and camping, and cars, and bear attacks, and random juvenile humor. His wife joined the conversation only haltingly, and didn't bother to maintain eye contact past the first few seconds.
The answer to the question of why conversations with men and queer women go so much better than with straight women is probably found more in my behaviour than theirs, but even deliberate attempts to include straight women in conversations either one-on-one or with men/boyfriends/husbands/queer women seems to fail regularly. Even if I devote all my attention to the particular assumed-to-be-straight woman, they tend to sidle off or appear uncomfortable or noncommittal.
Maybe the problem is that most straight women seem very boring to me. My assumptions about them have been that they care about their looks and status more than ideas and issues, that they tend to make decisions emotionally first and logically a distant second, that they expect both paternalism and feminism to coexist in their lives with no conflict, they tend to be mean-spirited and competitive about silly things, and that they don't have much of a sense of humor about life in general.
These are really negative assumptions, once you write them down and look at them. It takes effort to bash them back down beneath the noise of life. Negative assumptions create anxiety, which is easily apprehended as hostility, even when the anxious person doesn't really intend to project anything negative at all.
In the continuing process of trying to be an individual, which means you are composed of a lot of different facets of developing and sometimes conflicting identity, confronting assumptions like unsubstantiated feelings of superiority or the belief in negative group qualities about others almost seems like a requirement.
So that's a bit of my personal story on some of my experiences with identity politics and the belief that bisexuality is superior to monosexuality. I wonder what will happen going forward with the political and social scene in the US, when it comes to social science, philosophical and political developments, and identity politics, and whether or not it will continue to affect and shape how and what I think. I look forward to finding out.