My Bi Life
15 October 2018 11:23
It’s funny now, thinking about the protest my mum put up when I told her about Rachel. Especially considering how relatively easy it was to get her to come out as bi too some 15 years later, on a radio documentary I made for the BBC last year. To be fair, I probably did protest a little too vehemently that I was lesbian rather than bi, and to such an extent that my mother simply could not believe it. ‘You like men. I know you do’, she growled. ‘You’ll be back on them. It’s just how you feel right now.’ Then, a pause, before an obsolete truth rose up in her throat, jagged and raw, and suddenly bit me: ‘I just want to see you settled.’
Years later, making the BBC documentary, I remembered this moment and wondered how tightly my mum had been holding on to these sentiments about her own identity. She apologised to me when she came out. ‘Especially for saying I wanted to see you settled’. She’d realised by that point that my being settled or not was not going to be predicated on some rock of a man rescuing me.
But the idea that, as long as I was bi, I would never be ‘settled’, and so cause her undue worry, was the most damning for me. The notion that bisexuality inevitably makes for a transient pitstop on the path to homo, or a detour from a life’s truth of being straight, is a stereotype both straight and L and G people continue to perpetuate. Come to think of it, while ever I was dating a woman, that diminutive two-letter label didn’t matter – in the worst possible way. My mum just saw something snatched from me; something snatched from her.
These days I am bonded to my bi identity, even while, to all intents and purposes, I inhabit what others would deem a straight one. To look at, I’m a generic blonde, with something of the stumpy Sindy doll about me, a wide smiler who takes care not to catch my long, manicured nails inside my boxing gloves, or on people I greet. I live with a modest, thoughtful and loving man, who has never made any assumptions about what my being bi means to our relationship (answer: practically nothing). I’m lucky to have met someone who, far from being threatened by the fact I’m bi, understands that it matters that I am bi-visible, even when there’s nothing notable to see – particularly if it helps to guide other people to an easier understanding and acceptance of their own, and if it helps to reinstate the truth around how bi people have lived, loved and will continue to do so, whoever they find themselves enamoured with.
It’s for this reason that two new shows about the topic, Channel 4’s new mainstream comedy The Bisexual, and E’s strictly bi dating show, The Bi Life, deserve some attention. While The Bisexual overly explicates every political problem faced by bisexuals in the first five minutes, it’s still refreshing and relieving to see that, what has always been treated as a minority sexual identity that does not need a rights campaign, may just be taken a little more seriously by its commission. Similarly, the idea of a bi-eyes-only dating show puts paid to the notion that millennial ‘sexual fluidity’ has subsumed any need for it. In both cases, a new generation of young bisexuals, still yet invisible to themselves, can find confidence here that they are not just mired in a behavioural ‘phase’.
Much maligned though identity politics may currently be, the fact remains that representation, or its lack, does influence self-acceptance. Despite growing up in the liberal ‘90s, there was no discussion nor any accessible bi role models for me in our community, the media or society at large. Of course, I understood what being bi meant in a literal sense (I’d learned to think reading too many unsuitable Antonia Frazer histories) but beyond that, I had no conception of a bi life. It’s for this reason that when I wrote my latest book, The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder I was sure to trace the history of bi dating lives, as well as that of lesbian, gay, trans and straight people. What I found was intolerably fascinating: for more than 300 years, bi people had been significantly written out of history, absorbed into the ‘straight’ or ‘queer’ camps by turns. I made it my mission to write them back in, retelling, for example, the tales of the young women who were liberated by the sacrifice of male chaperones to the First World War – and found themselves developing romantic and erotic bonds with other females, through the sharing of neat lodgings, secretarial offices and lines of cocaine in the burgeoning jazz clubs of Britain’s big cities. In doing so, I reflected on the way I’ve often inadvertently ‘doctored’ my own backstory through the years.
If at nine years old, I’d known my preoccupation with the knowing, older girl at Guides, with her alabaster skin, coal-thick curls and Prince collection on contraband tape was really bisexual attraction, it would have helped me comprehend what happened at secondary school. Namely, that the intense and blousy short-term friendships I often experienced with other girls were a part of my coming of age, not my inability to keep and make mates. And if, when writing my first book, I had respected my own conviction to truth-tell, I would not have let the editors talk me into erasing the adventures of Rachel and I as a dominatrix double act, because it was too ‘complicated’ for the mum-about-Tescos readership to understand.
You see, even if society takes you at your bisexual word, it’s all too easy to ‘disappear.’ Take the matter of ‘passing’ privilege, whereby you’re so regularly presumed to be heterosexual if you’re dating a straight person, that you somehow end up going along with the fact too. According to the Pew Research Institute, some 80 per cent of bisexuals end up in straight long-term relationships, and so are lost to the ‘straight’ marriage stats. Couple up long-term with a gay partner and the L Word equivalent occurs.
In many ways, when you’re a bi woman, it’s the assumptions from some straight men that are particularly irritating. That you’ll automatically be up for a threesome. That you’re more inclined to an open relationship. That you’ll understand, perhaps even join in, when it comes to appreciating a tighter pair of buttocks than yours on TV, or in the pub, or innocuously waiting at the bus stop.
In their insecure moments, such men may worry about their ability to satisfy you. Male friends, meanwhile, smirk or comment on how ‘lucky’ your partner is to have bagged you, and the general over-interest in your sex life and sexuality eclipses all other details of interest, or characteristics of merit. No wonder so many bi women never bother revealing the fact – particularly on dating apps, where ‘bi’ seems to be code for ‘male fantasy – email me anything’. And when someone comes out with that tired and tawdry, ‘double the choice!’ line, you find yourself increasingly hard pressed to explain why it might actually mean twice the number of idiots through which to sift.
Equally, dating women has a different set of complexities. An ex-girlfriend of mine, who was a ‘gold-star’ lesbian, complained of having to ‘scrub me clean’ when she embarked on a relationship with me, and I suspect was always somewhat threatened by my previous dalliances with men. Incidentally, when I began dating women, I felt completely out of my depth and teenage-awkward – I had to acquire the skills to flirt and negotiate boundaries that I had spent a lifetime absorbing by societal osmosis for guys. In the beginning, I found, to my hilarity, that I was even mimicking men’s approach of me. I had never been predatory before, but here I was, paying an extra compliment where it was unmerited or draping my fingers unnecessarily about my date’s waist while we stood at the bar. It felt artificial. But it was a performance I knew so well. And it was one the other bi girls I dated seemed not only not to mind, but to expect.
However, when I met Rachel, who identified as lesbian, I was surprised to discover how much easier I found being demonstrative towards her, than she did towards me. Despite the fact she’d had 15 years of dealing with other people’s feckless questions and gnarly prejudices about her sexuality, she didn’t like to hold hands on the street – it made us too much of a target, she would say. If we kissed in public, it was only within the confines of a gay bar – and only when the light was a crepuscular midnight blue. And at Christmases and Easters, visiting her sweet yet knowing gran, whom she adored and had confided in as a child, I was still only ever a welcome ‘friend’. I had, it seemed, a straight girl’s confidence when it came to celebrating my partner, and I felt sorry that I didn’t better understand Rachel’s unease.
To any numbers of eyes, I may now have looked like a lesbian, but I never stopped feeling wholly bi. For the duration of mine and Rachel’s relationship, I experienced a dull nothing of desire when it came to men. Until I decided to break up with her. On the tube to work after I had made the decision, it was though somebody had flicked a switch – and taut, bearded jaws, cultivated biceps, and minted, heavier breath cogently flooded my senses once again.
Not that there was ever much difference in how it felt to love a woman versus a man. While I found women inclined to a little more thoughtfulness of their partner’s needs, the need to align on the big issues that determine the smooth clockwork of a good relationship – money, relations with family, attitudes to work, political and religious views – remained. In fact, it was only when dating another human being that happened to be a woman, that I truly realised what little difference gender makes.
That said, I think it’s disingenuous to say that you always focus on the ‘person not the parts’ when you’re bi. You don’t. Sometimes you are very much fixated on the parts. But you don’t compare penises to vulvas to neo-genitals any more than you compare blonde hair to black hair to red. Sometimes your appetite is for one, sometimes another. Sometimes your appetite is not at all whet by any of these fleshly reductions, and there’s far more pique in the way someone holds whatever parts they possess. Isn’t that the same for everyone?
These days, in changing rooms, I’m not envious of other women’s bodies, but smile-to-myself curious. In a party I pay little attention to the men which invariably has the effect of them ‘challenging’ me to a recognition. I do, of course, notice bi-curiousity in others with aplomb, particularly when it is directed at my boyfriend, whose beautifully-kempt bearishness tempts a few mostly-straight men, high and wild in a club on Saturday night. But outside the fug of mixed spirits and hot house music, I don’t have any particularly well-tuned sense of ‘bi-dar.’
I suppose that’s part of the luck, part of the joy of it – and yet also the problem for those who are desperately seeking community, in countries where it does not pay to inhabit a liminal sexual space. It’s a club I’m a fully paid up member of, only most of the time I’m both invisible and blind to the other members. For a Brit in possession of robust rights, the Bi Life is a good one. But in other countries, that lack of visibility – and sight – can kill a person. At any rate, it kills spirit. And that is not something to take lightly.
But – I know what matters the most to those who are curious – don’t I ever miss the body I’m not dating? Well, sometimes. But don’t we all on occasion miss our previous partner’s knack for telling, by the hold of our shoulders, when we’re feeling horny, or when we could do with that 5pm drink? There’ll always be a mood that swings through you the odd day, that has you remembering fondly a past love’s finer quality. But personally, I don’t reminisce too much on once-known genitals, whatever the gender. It’s just doesn’t do it for me.