In the comments of Wednesday's post, Anita pointed out that Queer As Folk is not the only Showtime program that struggles in its depiction of bisexuality. When discussing depictions of biphobia in the gay community, one can't avoid The L Word. The difference between the shows as I see it, however, is that if Queer As Folk suffers from bi invisibility, The L Word suffers from straight-up bi loathing. Rather than giving you a play-by-play of every epic bi fail (if you're interested in that, After Ellen has a comprehensive list), I want to focus on one particular episode—one that deals with bisexuality and straight privilege.
(Note: This post contains spoilers about Queer As Folk.)
It was the Spring of 2003. My three best friends and I were taking a break from studying for our math final exam and wandering around our local video store, searching for a DVD to watch at my house that night. Midway through the New Releases aisle, we paused. There it was: Season Two of the American Queer As Folk. None of us had ever watched it, but we knew it by reputation from friends who were fans. As active members of our school's Gay-Straight Alliance and avid consumers of queer media, we knew that Queer As Folk was the most overtly gay television show out there, and we couldn't wait to give it a try. We rented the first disc, and all plans of further studying that night were put on hold. Never mind, of course, that we'd never watched Season One—we'd catch up to it later. All we knew was that we had to start watching it immediately.
Nearly a decade later, Queer As Folk has remained one of my all-time favorite television shows; other than Seinfeld, it is the only show of which I've seen every episode more than once. It's flawed in its depictions of diversity, and it's sometimes a bit too goofy for its own good, but the storylines are compelling, the characters are well-developed, and the issues addressed—covering everything from bullying to parenting to addiction to serodiscordant relationships—are handled sensitively and realistically. All of them, that is, except for sexual fluidity.
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 "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.
Throughout this series, I have tried very hard not to write about the gigantic elephant in the room: Dan Savage. He's a controversial figure, particularly when it comes to his statements on bisexuality, and though I quoted him in my post about Bi the Way, I haven't wanted to dwell on him. I find much of his commentary on bisexuality thoughtless and insensitive, but he insists he is not biphobic, and I choose to believe him. I may disagree with a lot of his ideas, but I like some of them, I respect his efforts to campaign against LGBT youth bullying and suicide, and I am not interested in making assumptions about what lies in his heart.
But in discussing bisexuality and the media, mentioning Savage is unavoidable. And since his new MTV show, Savage U, premiered on Tuesday, there's no better time to open this can of worms.
For better or worse, I tend to pay close attention to public figures who come out of the closet. I feel strange about doing so because ultimately, knowing someone's sexual orientation shouldn't change one's perception of them. But instinctually, I find myself drawn to celebrities when they begin publicly identifying as a part of the LGBT community. I believe it's part of human nature to look for images in the media that resemble one's own experience, so that one can feel a sense of belonging that may be lacking in daily life. It's important to be respectful of privacy and individual reasons for choosing not to come out publicly, but I also believe that there's real power in standing up and being counted. I look for images of bisexuality in real life whenever I can, and since most people I know identify as monosexual, I often turn to the media.
So you can imagine my surprise when I was Googling bisexual celebrities yesterday and discovered that, a little more than a year ago, Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard nearly came out as bisexual. I completely missed this news story the first time around, but I'm glad I finally found it, because it counters a concern I've had for a long time: In arenas like politics and religion, many people don't seem to know how to come out as bisexual.
There are few songs I like less than Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl." I dislike most of her music (that skit she did with Elmo, however, is adorable), but "I Kissed A Girl" bothers me most of all. You'd think such a song would be tailor-made for me—after all, I have, in fact, kissed girls and liked it! But it's really not a song for me, or for any other queer woman (even though I know queer women who like the song). It's a song for straight men who have "lesbian" fantasies in which femme women make out with each other but don't present any actual threat to male sexuality and dominance. It's a song for straight women who find the idea of kissing other women to be a "scandalous" and fun way of entertaining men, but who ultimately aren't romantically or sexually attracted to other women. It's a song about false, constructed, performed bisexuality, and it isn't doing anything to help the acceptance of non-monosexual folks.
Throughout this series, we've talked a lot about labels. Identifying as gay or straight can be complicated enough; for those of us somewhere in the middle, it gets even trickier. Discussions over "bi" versus "queer" versus "pansexual" versus "fluid" get very complicated, very quickly. It makes me wonder: Why are we so hung up on labels? Do we even need labels anymore?
Allow me a moment of nostalgia—the late 1990s and early 2000s were excellent eras for teen dramas on network television. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Freaks and Geeks were particular favorites of mine at the time, but most of the teen shows that aired around then—particularly those on the now-defunct WB—had their moments. One show I remember occasionally watching was The O.C., and what I remember most about it was the controversy surrounding a particular story arc—Marissa's bisexuality.
I have noticed that often such stories use sexual fluidity among young women to signify rebellion against hegemonic institutions. In stories ostensibly about conflict between women and their families and women and male lovers, hints of bisexuality are present as indications of the larger ways in which the women in question are opposing oppression.
One could write an entire book about the depictions of queerness in the world of Doctor Who and its spin-off, Torchwood. Sexuality works itself into the mythologies of both shows in complex ways, which is particularly interesting given that Doctor Who is considered a family-oriented show. But since I'm not writing a book, I want to focus today's discussion of Doctor Who and Torchwood specifically on the character who introduced queerness to the modern "Whoniverse": Captain Jack Harkness.