Editor’s Note: Ann Herendeen is the Harper Collins Publishers author of two books, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, published by H/C in 2008, and the recently published Pride/Prejudice (my review here), released last month. Despite a very busy personal appearance schedule next week to promote Pride/Prejudice, Ann agreed to write a guest post. Her mini-tour schedule of North Carolina bookstores is as follows:
Thursday, May 6, 7:00 p.m.:
Blue Ridge Osondu Books and Cafe, 152 S. Main St., Waynesville.
Friday, May 7, 7:00 p.m.:
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, 55 Haywood St., Asheville.
Saturday, May 8, 7:00 p.m.:
City Lights Bookstore, 3 Jackson St., Sylva.
The Third Perspective
By Ann Herendeen
One of my favorite Pride T-shirt slogans is: “I’m bisexual; you’re confused.”
I think of this a lot because of the confusion my writing engenders. I’ve published two novels now, under my own unmistakably female name, about bisexual men who end up happily married to a wife and a male partner. Because I’m a woman, it somehow seems obvious that if I write a “bisexual” story, even with the modifier m/m/f, it must be about a bisexual woman.
Just as the hetero world has begun to understand the concept of gay and lesbian, and as (some) segments of our society and government have accepted the idea of (some) equal rights for people of same-sex orientations, this “new” category of bisexual is causing misunderstanding and muddled thinking on all sides. Even as the B is being included in LGBT, many people who identify, sort of, kind of, more or less, as “bisexual” are rejecting the term, or rejecting the idea of labeling people at all. Especially among younger people, the idea of a sexual continuum, of “fluidity,” seems a better way to describe the variations in sexual orientation that people experience over a lifetime that can encompass seventy or more years of adult sexuality.
We seem to be moving past the finish line in some ways, even as the race for equality has hardly begun.
Many people in the bisexual community–a fragmented landscape (to use a term from the science of ecology) if ever there was one–aren’t happy with the words “bisexual” or “bi,” with their implication that there are only two sexes and three orientations, and that everybody has to fit into one of these boxes. Many “bisexual” people consider “pansexual” or “omnisexual” a better description. Some are monogamous, others call themselves polyamorous; still others will figure it out when they get there. Some simply dislike having to categorize themselves on the basis of who they’re attracted to. I’ve talked to people, men and women, who think of themselves as “gay” or “lesbian” when in a same-sex relationship and “hetero” when in an opposite-sex one. And I’m sure I’ve only described the tip of this iceberg of possibilities.
Some of the confusion comes from within those other segments of the LGBT world. Mike Szymanski, journalist and co-author of The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe, now describes himself this way in his byline: “Mike Szymanski came out as gay and then found himself sneaking around with a girlfriend for a few years, until he came out for the second time…”
I’ve heard a number of similar stories from young men who first identify as gay, and then have to hide their genuine attraction to women from other gay men. The same problem exists among lesbians and bisexual women.
These days, it’s sometimes easier for some people to inhabit the far edge of exclusively gay or lesbian than to navigate that messy, complicated middle.
But even as the hetero world sees bisexual women as a safe, mildly kinky turn-on, we’re so used to thinking of men with a partner of “each” sex in only one or two stereotyped ways that we can’t imagine an alternative. In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans saw the man who wanted it “both ways” as the stuff of farce. It was a normal masculine desire and the basis for great comedy, as the wife and boyfriend battled it out to win the husband’s favor. In modern times, we assume the husband is “really” a closeted gay man, married for convenience or to disguise his true desires.
One person in this menage is rarely heard from, perhaps because her reaction seems so obvious there’s no need to reiterate it: the wife.
From ancient times to the present, her feelings about her husband’s dual attraction, at least in the popular imagination, have run the very short gamut from jealousy to disgust. For a long time now, our culture has imagined only one possibility for a wife’s view of her husband’s bisexuality: betrayal. The reality has reinforced this view, as husbands have been afraid to be honest with their wives for fear of losing them, leading to the inevitable sense of betrayal–and loss–when the truth is discovered. With the rise of bisexual “social discussion groups,” there has been a push to encourage women to accept their male partner’s bisexuality, to tolerate it even if they can’t celebrate it, but that’s about as far as it goes.
This view is persistent, and seems to be the same for outsiders, for people not directly involved with a bisexual partner, as for those on the inside. Recently, when talking about my books with another author, he referred to my subject matter as a “cheating” husband.
Not all readers are as (perhaps unintentionally) honest as the last line of this two-star customer “review” on amazon.co.uk of my first novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. “There are many many historical inaccuracies too, which – if the theme and subject hadn’t put me off – would have warranted as low a mark as I have given.” But like this reviewer, with her belated mention of “inaccuracies,” the readers who most dislike my work tend to be reacting more to a deep-seated and visceral distaste for the off-putting theme and subject than to the quality of the writing or the manner of my storytelling.
One of the reasons I write what I do is to propose a new way of looking at the situation. To me, it’s about thinking so far outside the box that you can’t even see the box anymore. What if a woman, so far from being put off by a bisexual man, was attracted to him? What if she wanted a bisexual husband, wanted to be part of that special relationship that a man has with another man? Not possible? Or simply not acknowledged? As my LJ friend Gaedhal will attest, the rise in m/m slash fiction, stories of same-sex male relationships written by women, reflects a change in at least some female hearts and minds.
I have no intention of adding another argument to the already hashed-out-to-death discussion of the Lambda Literary Awards and last year’s policy statement to include the author’s sexual orientation among the criteria for judging submissions. Nor is this a plea to allow my work to be nominated for an award. I am bringing it up here because it’s a good practical example of the way the “B” category expands the perspectives on this issue as the other categories (LGTQ and so on) do not.
It makes sense, it seems to me, to expect that a lesbian or gay-male story submitted for an LGBT award would be written by a person who identifies as one of the LGBT categories. One argument for favoring this match-up is the possibility that a lesbian or gay-male story written by a hetero writer might be a form of fetishizing, treating the L or G characters and relationships as the sexy “other,” instead of writing from within the category itself. Of course, there’s no reason to believe that all hetero authors are fetishizing when they write LGBT stories, any more than fiction writers of any kind are up to nefarious purposes when writing about people or situations different from their own reality. It’s why it’s called fiction. But I can understand why a group like the LLF, begun in the early days of gay liberation to empower gay and lesbian writers, might want to draw this line.
What people don’t always remember is that in a story about a bisexual man with a partner of each sex (and please, for the sake of limiting this post to under a million words, let’s agree up front that no, this is not typical of all bisexuals) it seems as if an important perspective has been overlooked: yes, the woman’s. While a gay male romance usually involves two (or more) men, and a lesbian romance two (or more) women, menage stories like mine have three people, not all the same sex: two men and woman. And her perspective, whatever her sexual orientation–even hetero–and as an equal member of the relationship, is as valid as the men’s.
This is the perspective I write from. My theme, as bestselling romance novelist and writing teacher Jennifer Crusie calls it, the topic I keep returning to, is the bisexual married man. I write about it because it appeals to me. Whether I’m happier calling myself bi, fluid, or some kind of Q; whether I’m fetishizing or simply, like most novelists, making stuff up, the reason I write it is that I like it. And my hope is that by presenting this third perspective, I’ll reach those other women who, wherever they place themselves in the continuum, will recognize something of themselves in the story and feel free to admit that they like it too.