The following essay appears in Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, 2nd Edition, ed. Robyn Ochs and Sarah E. Rowley. Bisexual Resource Center, 2009 pp. 255-257.
By Robyn Ochs
Over the past several years, I have compiled an annotated bibliography of books with bisexual content: books about the subject of bisexuality and books with bi characters. Now it’s very easy to tell if a non-fiction book is about bisexuality; it’s usually called Bisexual Lives, or Bisexual Politics, or something like that. But it’s a lot harder to tell if a work of fiction is a “bisexual book.”
As in real life, it can be difficult to determine whether someone is “really” bisexual. How do you decide how to “read” someone? If a female character is with a man at the beginning of a book, falls in love with another woman, breaks up with the man and at the book’s conclusion is deeply in love with the woman,
is she “really” a bisexual, or is she “really” a lesbian? Is this story a bisexual or a lesbian coming-out narrative? If she never labels herself as lesbian or bisexual, and if the author does not assign her a label, the reader will obviously be making a subjective interpretation, projecting her own assumptions and definitions onto the character.
It is important to keep in mind that the author’s intent and the readers’ interpretations are not always the same. This was demonstrated to me very clearly in the winter of 1996 as I was organizing a panel at the Out/Write conference here in Boston. I provided conference organizer Michael Bronski with a list of a
dozen fiction writers whom I thought would be excellent choices for a panel on bi characters in fiction. Michael reported back to me that one woman whom he had called—several of whose novels appear on my list of books with bi characters— had wondered aloud to him why she was being asked to be on this particular panel. “I don’t write about bisexuals,” she said, “I write about straight women who become lesbians.” Well, she certainly could have fooled me, and, to be quite honest, I felt disappointed, though of course I recognize the right of the author to understand her own creations as she chooses.
It would not be an understatement to say that we are starved for reflections of our lives, and as a result grab at whatever scraps we can find.
So, how can you recognize a bisexual? There is a presumption in Western cultures that all people are heterosexual, expanded somewhat in this century to the presumption that all people are either heterosexual or become homosexual. Bisexuality, for the most part, remains invisible—invisible, that is, except as a point of conflict or transition. In other words, an action or event must occur to make bisexuality visible to the viewer. Thus, with rare exceptions, the only bisexuals who are seen as bisexual are those who are known to be in relationships with more than one partner (of more than one sex), and bisexuals who are leaving a partner of one sex for a partner of a different sex. Bisexuals whose lives are
celibate, monogamous, and/or without conflict or triangulation are rarely read as bisexual by the outside viewer, but rather are seen by others as either straight or gay. Hence, there is an inevitable association of bisexuality with non-monogamy, conflict and transition.
In a review of bisexuality in literature, certain general themes can be found.
One major theme is triangulation, usually accompanied by jealousy and the fracturing of one relationship for another. The bisexual person is usually located at the triangle’s apex. Two examples are Anaïs Nin’s Henry and June, which is about a triangulated relationship between Henry, June, and Anaïs, with June at the apex; and Earnest Hemmingway’s Garden of Eden, with Catherine at the apex between Marita and David.
Then there’s the “discovery novel,” popular in lesbian literature of the 1970s, in which a previously heterosexual woman discovers her lesbianism by falling in love with a woman. Because at the end of the book she is happily paired with another woman, she is commonly read as a lesbian. But one might ask whether her previous relationships should be considered valid, as well as questioning the stability of her identity over time: should her current relationship end, what might this woman’s future hold? Despite statistical probability, because we live in a “happily ever after” culture, we are not supposed to ask this latter question. Another common character found in discovery novels is the woman (sometimes
the (ex)partner of the woman described above) who can’t handle the societal stigma attached to a same-sex relationship and “goes back” to men (is she really a lesbian unwilling to admit it, or is she really bi, or really straight?).
Another place we can sometimes find bisexuality is in fantasy/science fiction/utopian novels. Here, bisexuality is normal, a given, not stigmatized. By setting a story outside of the current reality, a great deal more leeway is allowed. A few examples are Starhawk’s The 5th Sacred Thing, Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, James Varley’s Titan, Wizard and Demon series, and Melissa Scott’s Burning Bright and Shadow Man.
Historical novels are another place to locate the elusive bisexual. Here, safely far away from the present time, men (and almost all of the historical bisexuals I’ve been able to located are male) are bisexual—no big deal—though they are not called bisexual or gay. Examples: most of the historical novels by Mary Renault (about ancient Greece), and Lucia St. Clair Robson’s Tokaido Road (set in 17thcentury
And then there’s what I call “1970s bisexuality” where bisexuality equals free love. These novels are usually written by men and, in contrast to historical novels, the bisexuals characters are almost always women who share their voluptuous bodies with both women and (primarily) with men. Authors Robert Heinlein, Tom Robbins, and John Irving would all be included under this heading.
Then there’s adolescent bisexuality, sometimes written off as youthful teenage experimentation: Hanif Kureishi’s, The Buddha of Suburbia, Felice Picano’s Ambidextrous, and Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters.
There’s the hedonistic bisexual who is often self-destructive and may leave a trail of broken lives (including his or her own), for example, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, Rupert Everett’s Hello, Darling, Are You Working? and Carole Maso’s The American Woman in the Chinese Hat.
Finally, there’s what might be called lifespan bisexuality, stories that take place over many years, in which a character experiences a long and committed relationship with one person followed later in life by a relationship with someone of a different sex. Viewed from a long-term perspective, a bisexual life becomes visible. Julia Álvarez’s In the Name of Salomé, May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears
the Mermaids Singing and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours are excellent examples. Carol Anshaw provides a fascinating spin on this genre with her novel Aquamarine, which explores three possible outcomes to one person’s life. In each, the protagonist ends up with a different life and life partner. In two of her futures, she is partnered with a man; in one she is partnered with a woman.
But few authors actually use the “b-word.” Among the few who do are Emma Donohue, Larry Duplechan, E. Lynn Harris, Dan Kavanagh, M.E. Kerr, Starhawk and poets Michael Montgomery and Michelle Clinton. In Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, author Marjorie Garber says that we write our life histories backward, from the present, eliminating facts that do not fit our current stories. Someone who currently identifies as a gay man, therefore, might discount all past heterosexual experience, even if it felt meaningful and “real” at the time. And authors may do the same for their
characters. Unlike those of us in the real world, the authors, of course, have this right: they can see into their characters’ minds. The characters are, after all, their creations.
One thing I learned from my experience organizing the writers’ panel is that in my hunger to find myself in fiction, I was focusing too hard. I can find aspects of myself not only in fictional characters that self-identify as bisexual, but also in the experiences of characters of various sexual orientations.
Labels are tools, which help us to describe ourselves to ourselves as well as to others. They are not fixed and unchanging essences. The reality is that each of us is unique. Labels, however useful, will never be fully adequate to the task of describing real people, and should not be confused with reality. In that sense, we may be able to find our own bisexual experiences in fiction, regardless of the self-identification of the character or the intent of the author.
An annotated listing of fiction with bisexual content can be found at http://www.robynochs.com/resources/fiction_bibliography.html
I can’t recall who told me this (I just admitting it’s now original, I believe it came from an MTF transsexual lesbian): I took off the labels, they scratched my neck.
Excellent essay…I am writing a trilogy (not fantasy/sci fi!) about a man who at various times in his life IDs as straight, gay and bi, covering his life from childhood to death. Not finding ANY previous attempt to do this…unless you can help me :D.
Note, I am a gay FTM who, after 2 adventures as male, has gone back to a public identity of female (at 63, it doesn’t matter which gender I am, I’m just me. That’s the plus side. The downside is, at 63, nobody I’m attracted to wants to sleep with me as either gender :D.
Can’t type either…I’M just admitting it’s NOT original. And I used to be a professional proofreader 😦
I just stumbled across this while updating my website. Thanks for taking the time to comment about my essay — I’m glad you like it. I love your identity resiliency — being “just ourselves” can be extremely challenging for some people.
And good luck with your writing!
Thank you, Robyn.
Maybe I can tuck a question in here, I sent an earlier email that may have gone astray. I’m concerned about writing sex scenes in all flavors…Truthfully, I have never read one that teased my weasel, except in gay porn which tends to be short on characterization (actually I once WROTE a story that was published in a leading examplar of what used to be called ‘cum rags’ (ahem, that’s not what I put on my resume 😀 and the editor said it was a cut above their usual stories. He accepted another one of mine, then got demoted. Yes, I saw a connection.) I read a bit of “50 Shades” to please my bookmobile librarian and it was beyond beyond awful. Het erotica from the male POV likewise leave me snooorrriinngg, or psychosociologically miffed.
I didn’t want to deal with this issue in the open forum so if anyone would like to email me with advice, caveats, suggestions for reading authors who do it well, please do. I’d like to set up a website where I publish excerpts of my writing and ask for comments/criticisms, but that would be by subscription only so no ten year olds could stumble on it by accident and ask Daddy what a clitoris is. (I’ve always thought a good answer would be that it is a type of cell phone that the owner only lets a select few adult friends use because if you push the right button it vibrates but if you push the wrong one you get an ear-splitting ‘tone.’
Hi, I realize this blog post is almost a year old but…thought i’d flick you through a note that my new book Toby, about a bisexual male prostitute living in Barcelona, comes out in early June.
Thanks for an informative post.
I found this blog post because I’m starting to think about a PhD proposal relating to exactly this topic – how characters’ ‘real’ sexuality is so closely related to the narrative arc, and how rare it is to find representations of confident, stable bisexuality or sexual fluidity in fiction. Really glad to read it.
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