Bisexual: A label with layers


Olympic swimmer Tom Daley, left, sent out this Instagram photo of hiimself with his boyfriend, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
Olympic swimmer Tom Daley, left, sent out this Instagram photo of hiimself with his boyfriend, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

The New York Times

“Of course I still fancy girls.”

Those six little words, tossed off like a request to please hold the mustard, were among the most deconstructed in the YouTube video in which Tom Daley, a 19-year-old British Olympic diver, announced that he was dating a man.

Leaning against Union Jack pillows, he continued, “But, I mean, right now I’m dating a guy, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Daley’s December message was sweet and simple, and gay rights advocates seemed thrilled to welcome an out-and-proud athlete into their ranks. (The cattier comments came later, when the “guy” was reported by numerous tabloids and blogs to be the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who is two decades his senior.)

But the cheers were premature, or at least qualified. Despite the trending Twitter hashtag #TomGayley, Daley never used the word “gay,” and there was the matter of his still fancying girls. While many commenters embraced the ambiguity, others raised eyebrows.

Was it a disclaimer? A cop-out? A ploy to hold on to fans? Was he being greedy, as some joked? Or was he, as the video’s blushing tone suggested, simply caught up in the heady disorientation of first love, a place too intoxicating for labels?

Whatever the answer, Daley’s disclosure reignited a fraught conversation within the LGBT community having to do with its third letter. Bisexuality, like chronic fatigue syndrome, is often assumed to be imaginary by those on the outside. The stereotypes abound: bisexuals are promiscuous, lying or in denial. They are gay men who can’t yet admit they are gay, or “lesbians until graduation.”

“The reactions that you’re seeing are classic in terms of people not believing that bisexuality really exists, feeling that it’s a transitional stage or a form of being in the closet,” said Lisa Diamond, a professor at the University of Utah who studies sexual orientation.

Population-based studies, Diamond said, indicate that bisexuality is in fact more common than exclusively same-sex attraction, and that female libido is particularly open-ended. That may explain why female bisexuality is more conspicuous in popular culture, from Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl to The Kids Are All Right and the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. (That straight men may find it titillating doesn’t hurt.)

In a recent Modern Love essay in The New York Times revealing her relationship with another woman, the actress Maria Bello wrote, “My feelings about attachment and partnership have always been that they are fluid and evolving.” Before marrying Bill de Blasio, Chirlane McCray identified as a lesbian, which has become part of the progressive credentials of New York City’s first family.

Male bisexuality, by contrast, is more vexed, and much of the skepticism comes from gay men.

In the aftermath of Daley’s announcement, Ann Friedman wrote a post for New York Magazine’s The Cut blog predicting that male bisexuality would become more visible as gender mores evolved. “Traditional definitions of masculinity — which tend to go hand in hand with homophobia — are going through a real shake-up,” Friedman wrote. “More hetero men are tentatively admitting that they’re turned on by certain sex acts associated with gay men.”

The gay conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan swiftly countered on his own blog, The Dish: “I suspect …that there will always be far fewer men who transcend traditional sexual categories —because male sexuality is much cruder, simpler and more binary than female.” He called Daley’s claim about liking girls “a classic bridging mechanism to ease the transition to his real sexual identity. I know because I did it, too.”

Plenty of gay men, especially in less tolerant decades, have used bisexuality as a “rest stop on the highway to homo,” to borrow a punch line from Will & Grace. But that characterization has gotten sex columnist Dan Savage, among others, in hot water.

In 2011, the blogger Chris O'Guinn accused Savage of saying “blatantly hurtful, cruel and insulting things about bisexuals,” including his remark in the documentary Bi the Way that “I meet somebody who’s 19 years old who tells me he’s bisexual, and I’m like: ‘Yeah, right, I doubt it. Come back when you’re 29 and we'll see.’ 

Part of what tripped up Savage, he explained, was a 2005 study in which researchers at Northwestern University cast doubt on whether male bisexuality truly exists, after showing subjects erotic imagery while monitoring their genital responses. Six years later, a follow-up study at Northwestern concluded the opposite: male bisexuality is real.

Why the change? Whereas the first study included men who identified as gay, straight or bisexual, the second selected only those who had seriously dated both men and women.

Only a handful of celebrities have embraced the term “bisexual,” and usually with footnotes.

Alan Cumming, who is married to the illustrator Grant Shaffer, recently told Instinct magazine: “I still define myself as a bisexual even though I have chosen to be with Grant. I’m sexually attracted to the female form even though I am with a man, and I just feel that bisexuals have a bad rap.”

Cynthia Nixon, who married a woman after having children with a man, told The Daily Beast in 2012: “I don’t pull out the ‘bisexual’ word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals.”

In Daley’s case, the difference may be generational. People who have grown up in a more assimilated world may not see the value in labels like “gay” or “bisexual,” when the communities they describe are no longer as marginalized.

“Among the younger generation, I’ve seen much more openness about bisexuality in both men and women, and often a rejection of all labels,” researcher Diamond said. “They’re more open to the idea that, ‘Hey, sexuality is complicated, and as long as I know who I want to sleep with it doesn’t matter what I call myself.’ 

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