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Visi(bi)lity: Bi the Way and the Realities of Bisexuality

A green and white highway sign featuring the title "Bi the Way" and the subheading "It's a both/and world." Below the sign is an image of Earth, and the background is black space with white stars. In 2005, Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker took a road trip across the United States and interviewed people about bisexuality. The result of their project was a documentary film: Bi the Way. In order to understand the fictional images of bisexuality that fill our cinema and television screens, it's important to take some time to analyze the ways in which bisexuality is depicted in nonfiction media. Bi the Way is a good starting place, since it's a film that allows its subjects to speak honestly and freely, without an overt agenda from the filmmakers. But is that enough to make it a compelling film that advances realistic bisexual visibility?

The bisexual men and women interviewed by Blockman and Decker speak candidly about their experiences and views. They aren't a terribly diverse group: Tahj, an 18-year-old New Yorker, is the only person of color, and all of them are under 30 years old. Still, their honesty is refreshing. Pam, a 16-year-old from Memphis, echoes La Cage Aux Folles when she proudly declares, "I am who I am, and I'm not going to change that for anybody." David, a 24-year-old actor in Chicago, confesses that "the most dangerous force in my life is censoring myself because I'm afraid people are not gonna take my bisexuality seriously. They're gonna read into me as being gay, or they're gonna read into me as being straight." Taryn, a 27-year-old in Los Angeles, has an open relationship with her boyfriend so that she is able to be with women when she wants. By following real bi folks as they deal with relationship issues, coming out to their families and reconciling their sexual identities internally, viewers can get a glimpse of what it means to be bi and what unique issues bi people deal with.

Bi the Way does not shy away from highlighting biphobia, particularly within the gay community. It is telling that Tahj begins to express internalized biphobia once he starts predominantly dating and socializing with gay men. He eventually states, "Bisexual people are just freaks. They're greedy. They just want their cake and eat it too... Hanging out with Keyon and his gay friends, you know, it really fit me." At the start of the documentary, Tahj struggles with his bisexuality and tries to find a community in which he can belong. Once he meets his boyfriend, Keyon, and spends time with Keyon's gay friends, he finally finds a place where he can fit in—but it's at the cost of preserving his bisexual identity. Tahj's story suggests that the only way for bisexual people to belong in the gay community is to disavow their "greedy" tendencies. And sadly, this negative message isn't contradicted by the experiences of other characters in the film. None of the bi individuals profiled seem at ease in gay or straight worlds, suggesting that bi folks are destined to be outsiders.

Blockman and Decker also interview "experts," including Village Voice columnist Michael Musto and syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage—gay men who, to put it mildly, lack a nuanced understanding of bisexuality. Musto explains that his "take on bisexuality is that I always thought it was baloney. I mean, whenever someone said they were bisexual, I just thought, 'Yeah right, you're a closet gay and you just can't deal with it.'" Savage's comments are similar to Musto's, but he also makes reference to the 2005 Northwestern University study which "proved" that male bisexuality does not exist. (The results of this study have since been proven to be totally bogus.) Says Savage:

"I meet somebody who's 19 years old who tells me he's bisexual and I'm like, 'Yeah, right. I doubt it. Like, I'll come back when you're 29, and we'll see'...I was thrilled when I saw the results of the study at Northwestern on bisexuality because it confirmed a lot of what gays and lesbians have always sort of asserted based on our experience, was that male bisexuality was rare. Most guys we met who said they were bi were closeted or still in the process of coming out."

These comments are disheartening, because they undermine the realities of bisexual lives. Rather than using them as teachable moments to explain why such comments may negatively impact bi individuals, Blockman and Decker present them as valid counterpoints to lived bisexual experience.

This is the trouble with Bi the Way—it is not particularly hard-hitting or challenging. Though it presents biphobic viewpoints, it does not actively critique such viewpoints or discuss the reasons why such views are incredibly harmful to bi folks. While it may be true that some people identify as bi as a stepping stone before coming out as gay, to say that such cases are the majority invalidates the experiences of bisexual people. Additionally, the lack of images of bi people as active participants in the LGBTQ community and the exclusive focus on bisexuality among young people, as if it is a "trendy" phenomenon, reaffirms inaccurate bisexual stereotypes. The images presented in Bi the Way are real, certainly, but they are not necessarily as universal or diverse as the film suggests.

Bi the Way may be a good resource for individuals just learning about bisexuality, as it introduces the concept in straightforward terms. It does not, however, do a lot to advance bisexual visibility and understanding. To do so, it would have to actively challenge stereotypes and present a broader range of bi experiences and identities. I respect what Bi the Way tries to do—I just wish it did it in a more thoughtful and nuanced way.

Related: Isn't He Lovely: Male Bisexuality Doesn't Exist...Oh, Wait, It Does!, Sex-positive documentary report #6: "Bi The Way", Why Bi The Way Really Doesn't Get It (Or, Why This Blog Exists)

Previously: Deconstructing Images of Bisexuality in the Media

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Comments

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can a documentary properly address bisexuality?

great review. it sounds like the answer, in short, is no. maybe a half-decent 101, but it doesn't look like it's more than that...

i think there are more important, and much more interesting conversations about bisexuality and bi visibility happening online. a lot of straight folks i know have been shocked when i talk about the rampant biphobia i've faced from both the queer/lesbian women i want to sleep with, and the gay men i'm friends with. the "humour" around erasing people's identities happens SO much when people call themselves bisexual... i can hardly think of equivalents to "L.U.G." or "hasbian" when it comes to gay and lesbian folks. yes, there are hurtful terms for people of those sexualities, but it's always BECAUSE of their sexuality, not denying it, you know? i don't know, there's just something off there and i don't get why it's okay for people to be so dismissive. i guess i'm just thinking out loud here.

personally, i'm not a huge fan of the term bisexual (largely because it posits gender as a binary, which i'm not into) but i often use it as a shortcut when the person i'm outing myself to has never heard the term queer before. i wouldn't be surprised if the people in the documentary didn't touch on the question of why some people prefer the terms queer or pansexual to bi...

aaaaaand hey, surprise surprise. as if i needed another reason to dislike Dan Savage.

Books everyone should read re: this topic

Sexual Fluidity, by Lisa Diamond
Look Both Ways, by Jennifer Baumgardner

Are probably not the most thorough resources re: bisexuality (a term I don't like, either), but they are a start and really helped me put the topic into a more humanistic perspective.

What we do need to focus on, is in challenging the stigma surrounding bisexuality, particularly within the privileged, assimilated gay/lesbian communities. You know, those people who say they are gay/lesbian but are surrounded by and live in the "straight" world, and whose incomes happen to be in the upper-income brackets that don't seem to have a clue as to what being bisexual, or sexually "fluid" means? It is definitely problematic when high-profile people like Dan Savage, can't deal with it.

RE: Invisibility for bisexual men

It is always interesting to me to consider the default unexamined assumptions assigned to men and women respectively when it comes to bisexuality. A bisexual identity in women is more likely to be shrugged off as GTG (Gay Till Graduation) or some other such phenomenon, whereas when monosexual folks often employ the trope that men who have sex with men are gay, gay, gay, even if they also have sex with women. Sex between women is easy to write off, but sex between men, it would seem, is forever. It seems to present a spectrum in which "sex" is defined by how much cock is present; a patriarchal norm if there ever was one.

Yes that is certainly true. I

Yes that is certainly true. I have been openly bisexual since I was 17. And as many people tell me I have a mix of masculine and femme character qualities, so there is always a debate as to my orientation until I tell them. And upon saying it is met with laughs, ridicule and even harassment mostly from some gay men. The fact is 80% of my sexual life has been with the opposite sex and my sexual desire/attraction and relationship desire has often been more towards women but my same sex relationships erase my opposite sex desire. It is really difficult to be in this position because I emotionally/sexually connect with the opposite sex. Almost all bi men I have talked to have reported fluxuations in their attractions/desires over their life time. Today I mostly date bisexual women and bi transmen. I never felt much apart of the gay male community and actually connected more with open minded straight men over the years. I am in a liberal art world with diverse lifestyles, but even here bisexual people are marginalized, erased, misunderstood and silenced. What really needs to happen is a seperate bisexual movement from gays and lesbians because the orientations are extremely different. The most hurtful aspect of it all is having some of my most passionate and loving relationships with women seen as illegitimate, one lasting over 4 years. And then the fact that there is little support out there is really horrible. Are bi men rare? Well we are rarer than gay men, but I met almost 20 closeted and invisible bisexual men in the art world. The beat way to politicize bisexuality is to have our narratives known. So it is known that we have fallen in love with both men and women and that love is very real.