Visi(bi)lity: John Irving Tackles Biphobia in New Novel
Some of the comments on my post about Savage U last week argued that people like Dan Savage, who work hard to advance LGBT equality and visibility even though their biphobic and transphobic comments sometimes suggest otherwise, should be recognized for the good work that they do. I agree. I think Dan Savage has done some excellent work to advance visibility and acceptance for queer people. That’s why it hurts so much when he says things like, “avoiding bi guys is a good rule of thumb for gay men looking for long-term relationships.” I expect ignorant remarks about bisexuals having difficulty with monogamy from Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum. I shouldn’t have to expect this from Savage, somebody who works hard to advance public acceptance of sexual diversity. But I do have to expect this from him, just like I have to expect a similar attitude from some of the wonderful gay and lesbian people I know. The unfortunate reality is that there is as much biphobia in the gay community as there is in the straight world, and it won’t go away if we continue to ignore it in the campaign for the greater good.
Thankfully, there are media to which we can turn for nuanced, complex looks at biphobia—and it looks like John Irving’s new novel will be one such place. Irving, best known as the author of such classics as The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, addresses bisexuality and biphobia in gay and straight communities in his forthcoming book, In One Person. Yesterday, Towleroad posted a video interview in which Irving discusses the book and its lead character, a bisexual man named Billy Abbott (transcription begins at 1:53):
Most bisexual guys of my generation were hugely distrusted by their gay friends and gay lovers, who all thought that the bisexual was hedging his bets about being gay, was basically a gay guy with one foot in the closet, and would eventually come all the way out. Well, only to discover, as time went on, and those young bisexuals grew older, that some of them really were what they said they were. He [Billy Abbott] is not conflicted about his bisexuality. It’s real and present and will endure.
Billy’s dislike of monogamy is almost as strong and well-supported, well-taken, as his dislike of the convention of a heterosexual life. He puts them to a kind of test. I don’t mean, uh, intentionally, but his very existence as a bisexual man challenges whatever sexual tolerance—tolerance of gender, sexual identities, sexual mutability—these other characters think they have. They don’t really believe he is a bisexual. They don’t really believe there are bisexuals. And among his straight, female friends and women lovers, he’s doubly distrusted. They don’t know whether he’s going to leave them for another woman or for a man.
The fact that Irving is equating bisexuality with non-monogamy is potentially troubling, since not all non-monosexual folks are also non-monogamous, and vice versa. It also doesn’t necessarily help to counter the stereotype, referenced above, that bisexual people have difficulty committing to monogamous relationships. Other than that, though, I like the way that Irving expresses his approach to bisexuality in In One Person. He is taking care to explicitly label his character as bisexual and, consequently, explore the specific ways in which bi people are marginalized by both gay and straight communities. I’m also fascinated by Irving’s decision to focus on a bisexual man rather than a gay man to tell this story. I know that Irving, whom I believe is straight, has written queer characters before (most notably, a trans woman in Garp), though I don’t know much about how successful he is in these depictions. Nevertheless, the fact that he’s chosen a bisexual story in the first place is a bold move on his part, and I can’t wait to see how it will turn out.
In One Person comes out in May, and I already know it will be at the top of my summer reading list. Are any of you looking forward to reading it? What are your favorite novels that address bisexuality and biphobia?
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