Visi(bi)lity: Cynthia Nixon and the Politics of Labels
As I’ve read through the comments on my first two posts (thank you for those, by the way!), I’ve noticed an interesting trend that relates to what I want to talk about today: A lot of folks seem to have mixed feelings about the word “bisexual.” Some are uncomfortable using it because of the way others react to hearing it; some prefer other words to describe non-monosexual attraction, such as pansexual, queer, or fluid. I understand the reasons why “bisexual” doesn’t work for everyone (for a long time, it didn’t work for me, either), and I’m not interested in dictating language choice or policing identities. Labels are personal, and different people react to words differently. However, I am interested in exploring the reasons why people choose the labels they do and, similarly, the reasons why many people resist the label of “bisexual.”
Which brings me to Cynthia Nixon.
In an interview with the New York Times back in January, actress Cynthia Nixon boldly explained that for her, being gay “is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.” Many were uncomfortable with her assertion that one’s sexual orientation can be chosen, so two days later, she clarified her statement in an interview with The Daily Beast:
I don’t pull out the ‘bisexual’ word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals. ...I just don’t like to pull out that word. But I do completely feel that when I was in relationships with men, I was in love and in lust with those men. And then I met Christine and I fell in love and lust with her. I am completely the same person and I was not walking around in some kind of fog. I just responded to the people in front of me the way I truly felt.
But even that explanation was not enough for a large portion of the LGBT community, who seemed to prefer that she just call herself “bisexual” already. A week after that interview, she made the following statement to The Advocate:
... to the extent that anyone wishes to interpret my words in a strictly legal context I would like to clarify: While I don't often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have 'chosen' is to be in a gay relationship.
Finally, this seemed to be a satisfactory response, and the dialogue surrounding Nixon and her comments quieted down. But I’m bringing it up again now, because I believe that much of the coverage surrounding her remarks missed the point.
I am thrilled that Cynthia Nixon is speaking honestly and openly about her choice. The distinction she makes between orientation and identity is an important one, and it’s not one talked about often enough. Furthermore, the mainstream LGBT movement’s reliance on essentialism has always troubled me. It is as if people believe that queer rights would be less important if sexual identities were chosen. Our focus should be on equal rights, acceptance and respect for all people, regardless of one’s sexuality and regardless of whether one’s sexuality is innate, chosen, or a combination of both. So I completely support Nixon’s gay identity and her statements about it.
However, I am troubled by her statement that “nobody likes the bisexuals.” I do not want to label Nixon as “bisexual” if it’s a label that doesn’t feel true or accurate to her. But that particular statement—“nobody likes the bisexuals”—makes me wonder if bisexual is a label to which she feels some connection, but due to stereotypes and prejudices, she feels uncomfortable using it. If someone rejects a label because they feel pressured not to use it, how much of a choice is it really?
The reasons why Nixon identifies as gay are much less interesting to me than the reasons why she does not identify as bi. I completely understand and support her reasons for identifying as gay, and I think it is radical and exciting for her to challenge the “born this way” status quo. But her reasons for choosing gay over bi seem to be about the negative connotations associated with the word “bisexual.” I can’t know that for sure, as I don’t know her personally, but by saying “I don’t pull out the ‘bisexual’ word because nobody likes the bisexuals,” it seems that is what she is implying. And that concerns me.
People should always be free to choose words and labels that fit their experiences and identities. But we need to be aware of the reasons why certain labels are preferred over others. Not every non-monosexual person should feel compelled to identify as bisexual. But in order to make this world a more accepting place for bi people, we have to combat the negative messaging. And the first step towards doing that? Being visible.
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