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When I Call Myself Bisexual

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As part of the new edition of Bi Any Other Name, the classic anthology of bisexual writings that Loraine Hutchins and Lani Ka'ahumanu edited almost 25 years ago, there's a new introduction that looks at where we were around bisexuality when the book was first published in 1991 and where we stand today. For me, their editor, one of the more surprising statistics they cite is the fact that no national LGBT organization has an openly bisexual board member. Finding this difficult to believe, I said, "Surely the Human Rights Campaign or Lambda Legal has bisexual board members." Not one openly bisexual board member, they told me. Yes, there was a bisexual woman they knew of on a national board, but she chose not to come out as such. As much as we know that the closet is a sad place, and while I personally frown on closeted gay people in most instances, I could relate to not wanting to disclose all of who you are, sexually speaking, when you're already dealing with the ongoing, daily hassles around just being gay. Who wants to add another layer to one's outsider status, especially within one's own community? In fact, I found it completely understandable that someone would serve on the board of a national LGBT organization and remain closeted about their bisexuality, because I did it myself.

Until speaking with Loraine and Lani, I hadn't really thought of myself as closeted, since I've never self-identified as bisexual in the first place, even though that's the truest name for what I am. And why would I self-identify as such when, if you lined up all the men I've been with end to end, they would reach to the moon and back, while my experiences with women are so limited that they could be written about on the back of a postcard? Besides, I often have a hard-enough time relating to the priorities of the mainstream gay community that I could only imagine what a bisexual community, for all its own complexities, might look like.

James Baldwin once said, "I've loved a few women, and I've loved a few men." As dubious as his claim sounds, considering the source, I can say that I have indeed loved a few women, but the math around men in his statement would have to be adjusted to account for the fact that there has been some form of a gay bathhouse in almost every city I've lived in or visited for the past 25 years. For me that's the tough part: squaring these numbers and still being able to call myself bisexual. Or as playwright Arthur Laurents once said about Gore Vidal's alleged bisexuality in the face of his self-avowed boy-a-day routine, "The numbers speak for themselves." Numbers, it would appear, do matter and, if nothing else, seem to serve as a reliable indicator of the primary object of one's affections, but is that really the case?

Now, I realize that there are many people in the gay community who subscribe to the Arthur Laurents school of sexual labeling. I too once believed that numbers speak for themselves. But the problem, I've learned, is that numbers alone don't paint a complete picture. In other words, is the number of same-sex partners any of us has had the best measure of our sexual orientation, or is there more at play? This is not an abstract, philosophical question for me; it's what I asked myself once I became romantically involved with a woman 10 years after coming out as gay.

I met her at a dinner party in San Francisco. I don't know that I was aware right away that I was physically attracted to her -- certainly I knew she was beautiful, but I was just as impressed by her intelligence, unbridled humor, and the talent evidenced in the first novel she'd just published. The dinner host, a book reviewer and a lesbian, had invited us because she'd just reviewed both of our new books and wanted to meet. What started out as a kind of Will & Grace coupling over coffee dates and afternoons browsing bookstores soon became more, much to our mutual surprise.

I'd had a couple of girlfriends, briefly, before I came out, so this development didn't come as a total surprise -- to me anyway; to everyone else it seemed the equivalent of discovering I could walk on water. I think "fascination" is the word I'd apply to the rapt attention I received from friends and colleagues who knew me as a gay man with a colorful past. Was I serious? people seemed to wonder. How in the world would I make it work?

You may be wondering how all those men I mentioned, the ones reaching to the moon and back, fit into the equation. So did a lot of people. The most frequent curiosity expressed -- either directly or indirectly, since it wasn't always an easy question to ask or answer -- was how I could go from casual encounters with so many men to a monogamous relationship with a woman. I still don't have an answer for that except to say I was committed to my partner and that our sex life was as good as if not better than most of the sex I'd had with men, so much so that it took about a year before I even started to miss relations with guys, but not enough to seek them out.

My partner and I got engaged, though a wedding date wasn't ever set. We also started planning for a child, something that excited us. But of course I wondered what a kid coming up with a gay father would make of my relationship with his or her mother, or what other children would say if they found out. I didn't have to worry. My partner called off the engagement after some months, feeling it was too soon after her divorce. She'd had no time to process her feelings from that breakup and sometimes brought unresolved issues into our relationship. In fact, she also called off our relationship of two and a half years at the same time for these reasons.

There's a reason I haven't addressed my bisexuality publicly till now. From the time I first came out, the gay community at large hasn't been a place where I felt comfortable or confident expressing who I really am without the risk of being ridiculed or derided. I listened to what gay men and lesbians thought, quite openly, about bisexuals (fence-riders, basically, who enjoy heterosexual privileges while partnering with members of one's own sex). As far as I was concerned, I was a gay man who was attracted to women, but I've seldom come out about that for fear of becoming an outsider among outsiders. I didn't trust that even my gay male friends (or especially my gay male friends) would relate, and most of all, I didn't want any of my women friends -- mostly lesbians -- to ever think my fondness for them was anything but platonic. So what accounts for the difference now?

Thinking about my conversation with Loraine and Lani and what reissuing their book meant to me on a personal level, I started to feel that maybe for the first time I was hiding who and what I am, if only to avoid dealing with people's unpredictable reactions. Then there's the concern over making statements that may upset gay people, such as the fact that, in an unfortunate, backwards way, the horrible and blatantly false statements the right wing makes about us ("He hasn't met the right woman," "Being gay is a choice") for me are accurate to a degree: Until meeting my partner, you could say I really hadn't met the "right" woman, and living an exclusively homosexual romantic life for me really is a choice, one I gladly make.

When I call myself bisexual, I'm opening myself up to other people's interpretations -- favorable or not -- of what that means to them. I don't especially want to seek out a bisexual subculture, because I don't think I'd feel at home there. Nor do I want to take part any longer in self-definitions that limit me as being something that I'm not, namely homosexual. You may ask why that's important to me -- isn't it a fine line in my case anyway? I guess I'd say it's about desire: who and what I desire versus who and what I'm expected to desire. Surely gay people can relate to that: Isn't coming out about declaring who and what we desire in the face of who and what we're expected to desire? Said differently, I'd like to be free to consider myself a gay man who's fundamentally bisexual or a bisexual who's primarily gay. I don't know that it matters which I choose, or if I choose. What matters to me is coming to the most authentic expression of who I truly am and living from that place, openly. Besides, in the end, whatever we call ourselves, isn't it about love anyway?