bi-erasure & me

A month or so ago, there was an extremely controversial post—which I won’t go into the details of because it has since been removed—about the possibility or otherwise of writing bisexual romance. The original post upset a lot of people because it claimed a lot of things that that, well, this is where it gets complicated as this is now me talking about something somebody else said a while ago and has done their best to unsay and probably didn’t say very clearly at the time.

Basically I think the original post said a number of insensitive things, some of which the poster probably didn’t believe and some of which the poster probably did believe, but in that really problematic unexamined way where you haven’t thought enough about an issue to realise that it is an issue. The kind of mindset that leads to people asking sincerely why there isn’t a White History Month or a Straight Pride Parade to which the sincere answer is “for a lot of reasons it’s not my job to explain to you.”

Anyway, this post isn’t actually about that post. It’s not about whether bisexual romance is “possible”, it certainly isn’t about whether bisexuality is inherently unromantic because Jesus Fucking Christ. It’s about, well, me. Because after the discussion about bisexual romance I started thinking about my own books and the characters in them and I realised that, while I’ve actually written a lot of characters who are, on some level, attracted to both men and women, I’ve managed to completely fail to write a single major viewpoint character who identifies as bisexual.

And part of this is obviously that fictional characters, especially fictional characters who have giant tentacle monsters or crazy killer vampires to worry about, don’t necessarily spend much time expositing their perception of their own sexualities.  And part of it is that several of my books are set in historical periods where the labels we apply to sexuality in the twenty-first century just don’t exist (Dil in Prosperity has no gender-based sexual preferences, but ‘bisexual’ isn’t a word he has access to, even if would choose to use it).  But, thinking about it, several characters in my contemps (both published and forthcoming) do actually talk about their sexualities and do actually explicitly not identify as bisexual, despite being—as it were—entitled to do so.

I think this comes down to my personal preferred ways of thinking about sexuality. Essentially I tend to lump “bi” in with “straight” and “gay” as labels I consider unhelpfully reductive. So if I’m going to write a character who doesn’t identify as straightforwardly gay or straight, I will tend not to have them identify as bi either because I invest strongly in a fluid understanding of sexuality that isn’t really encompassed by any of those terms. But this does mean that I have, purely by accident, managed to avoid writing any actual characters who define as bisexual and I am, on reflection, aware that this is a problem.

And, obviously, there’s a fine line to walk here and you don’t want to treat people like kale, and I’m definitely not going to sit down tomorrow with a big cup of tea and say “Right, now I shall the book with a bisexual protagonist.  It shall be called The Adventures of Billy the Bisexual” because that would be horrible. But I do feel that if you are sincere about taking these sort of issues seriously then you do, on some level, need to consciously address your own thinking. Our minds naturally trap us into patterns behaviour that reinforce themselves. And while it feels disingenuous and faintly patronising to make an effort to do something that should really be baseline we, well, kind of have to. Especially when it comes to words and names and labels because our reactions to these things are so instinctive and visceral that it’s genuinely difficult to imagine other people reacting differently to us. Bisexual as a label doesn’t mean much to me so it’s easy for me to forget that it means a lot to other people.

Unfortunately, books being what they are, and writing being what it is, it’s a problem that I’m not really in any position to fix any time soon, since (spoiler alert) pretty much every book you’ll be seeing from me in the next year or so has basically already been written. I’ve got books lined up with major characters who identify as pansexual, generically queer and Really Not Sure, all of which I feel are valid sexual identities and worth expressing. But I do think I’ve missed a trick by failing to write anybody who is attracted to men and women and uncomplicatedly feels that the word ‘bisexual’ encompasses their sexuality perfectly well thank you very much.

Looking back on this blog post, I honestly find myself wondering whether it’s appropriate to publish it or not. While I think it’s really important to reflect on what you do and how it might be impacting other people, I tend to feel that this sort of thing is best done in private. Because, frankly, otherwise it can look massively self-aggrandising.  Even if the conclusion I come here to is that I’ve slightly messed up and should do better in future, I can completely see that publishing this looks I’m trying to score points about how totally self-aware I’m being.

But I’m doing it anyway because I actually do want to get something on record here. And I’m obviously not setting myself a SMART target (must have written at least 3 bi protagonists by 2018) but I think sometimes saying something in public makes you slightly more inclined to follow through on it.

So watch this space. But, um, not too closely.

musing

34 Responses to bi-erasure & me

  1. jillw says:

    At least you’re honest. 😉

    Even if your post can be seen as self serving, it still positively adds to the conversation. Anyway, sharing growth should never be a bad thing.

  2. I’m interested by this post.

    I’ve written at least a couple bisexual characters who didn’t identity as such, for the same reasons as your Dil–the term just wasn’t part of their lexicon.

    But I’ve written at least one bisexual character who I identified as bisexual, and every time I typed the word I felt–clinical, maybe? Overly technical? I’m not sure. I mean, I think I actually used the phrase “I sleep with both men and women” at least once as a way to avoid using the term bisexual, and I really can’t for the life of me say why. The main plot of the novella was that the character wanted to fall for a certain woman but ended up falling for her brother instead, so the bisexuality was pretty hard to ignore–why did I feel weird using the term?

    I need to think about this. And read comments on this post, I hope!

    • cleo says:

      I identify pretty uncomplicatedly as bi and I don’t like the term bisexual at all and I only like the term bi a little better. Because bisexual is ugly and it includes sex in the word and my identity as bi is about much more than who I have sex with.

      And I’m curious about your book because I lived through a similar situation – only in my case I had a (reciprocated) crush on a bi girl who dated my brother instead. She and I almost got together a few years later, but it was too weird.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I do think that’s really interesting because I think what strikes different people as clinical is very subjective. Part of it maybe is that people very seldom refer to themselves as homosexual or heterosexual (they tend to gay or straight) which obviously puts the ‘sex’ part at a slight remove. But there isn’t a gay/straight equivalent for ‘bisexual’ except ‘bi’ which is just an abbreviation really.

      I think when you’re writing there are something things it’s easier to divorce your personal perceptions from than others. I mean, it’s easy enough to write a character who likes knitting, even if you don’t like knitting, but it’s a lot harder to write a character who strongly identifies with a word that you yourself are not comfortable using.

  3. Iben Mylius says:

    Well, now I want to read about Billy the Bisexual.
    *pouts*

  4. Trio says:

    Ha – I was wondering about the plot of Billy’s book also…

  5. RT Merton says:

    This post has a lot of conceptual links with your earlier one on “preference” vs. “orientation.”

    There are many things at stake in representation of bisexuality in romance, and I’m really grateful to you for articulating your own stance. I feel exactly the same way when it comes to labels and the fluidity of sexuality, but it might be because I’ve been living in Canada for the past twelve years. From my perch up here, I have a different experience of my own pan-sexuality as well as other people’s queerness than someone in the US Bible-belt, which, as you’ve pointed out in the “preference/orientation” post, is the location that drives a lot of the conversations around sexuality these days. More specifically, a lot of the progressive discourse/equitable language seems to be set up against or in response to fundamentalist X-tians.

    On the other hand, a lot of the conversation in the romance community elides exactly what you’ve pointed out at the end of the “preference vs. orientation” post, i.e., that we’re writing complex human beings, not poster-characters for the political hot topic of the moment. I think this is a reductionist view of what writing/literature/books *should* do, namely teach us (the audience) something. I might be in the minority, but I don’t go to read for a didactic experience. Nor do I read fiction to get at an authentic someone’s lived reality.

    And this connects to my third (and, thankfully, final) point: the huge popularity of life writing (memoir, autobiography, confessional) in all forms of contemporary culture has come to dominate how we read everything. Again, I may be in the minority in this observation, but I see a lot of people go “ok, ok, ok, but is this *really* what happened to a *real-live* human being?” It’s been 13 years since the Frey memoir scandal, and we still sometimes demand even of fiction to display a human experience that can be proven authentic (and isn’t authenticity another US obsession if American literature is to be believed?).
    In conclusion, please excuse my logorrheic diatribe, which was meant to say I appreciate your finesse in showing how different our experiences with queerness can be, and how different our battles, depending on our location, be it temporal or geographic.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for this comment.

      As you say, I think it is probably very regional and possibly generational. I think it has a lot of parallels with the word ‘queer’ both as an identity and as a catch-all for people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I think it’s easier for people who move in liberal circles (geographically or otherwise) and who are slightly younger to embrace this word has having been “reclaimed.” Whereas if you grew up somewhere that insisted ‘queer’ was the worst thing you could possibly be, I can see why you wouldn’t find the term particularly comforting. And are probably quite bewildered by the fact that other people find it empowering.

      I think didacticism is really complicated because it’s obviously very subjective. And I think it’s very easy to assume that because you, and hopefully most of the people you know, occupy a particular space along a spectrum of awareness that the rest of the world is in the same place. Which means that what reads as patronisingly over-explained to one person will be genuinely eye-opening and mind-changing to another. And, equally, you get into this wrong-in-every-direction place where, as a marginalised person, you don’t want to feel that your story exists only to education other people about “people like you.” But, at the same time, you don’t want to be told that you story isn’t worth writing or is ramming politics down people’s throats.

      In short: blah. It’s complicated.

  6. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Well, I think it’s quite understandable that you wouldn’t have picked up on this right away, about your own writing, because as you say, it’s not the way you think about sexuality. But now that you have, I do think it was a good thing to publish this. You’re simply saying, here’s something I realized I was doing, or not doing, that I now recognize should have been doing, and intend to do something about rectifying in the future.

    I know what you’re saying about how doing that can look like a way to give yourself points or something. But, where the alternative is to not say anything, I think this is better. I think it’s good, not just because it’s the right thing to acknowledge one’s mistakes or oversights, but also, I would think it’s respectful & sort of validating toward anyone who might have noticed it & felt erased. And also because, as you noted, saying something publicly tends to make us more accountable.

    In any case, I think worrying that the fact some people might think that you’re doing a good thing only because you want to *look* like you’re doing a good thing, somehow makes it *not* a good thing, and therefore *not* doing the good thing might be better than doing it . . . that is getting seriously meta, my friend. And you know I know meta 😉

    So, you know, relax, writing this was a good thing. And I’m sure any points you might have given yourself have already been cancelled out by worrying about them <3

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yeah, I agree that you can get tied up in knots about this kind of thing. And, ultimately, the reason I published this is because I thought it was best to stop second guessing myself. Otherwise it all winds up like that bit in The Princess Bride, where you’re all “aaah, but I know that you know that I know that you know that I know.”

      Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  7. When I’m reading – and its mostly something with romance in there somewhere – its the story I want. The relationships between characters that are the focus, not what sexuality they or others identify them with. However there are books I’ve read that have made me think, made me wonder about my own ideas, made me think “why didn’t I ever realise/think of people who are like that ?” I like books that do that, make me look at myself and my own perceptions – though sometimes its an unpleasant shock what it reveals!
    I guess its mainly that Straight has been seen as “norm” for so long, that society has only just become used the the Gay/Lesbian tag, when really there are so many more sexual identities around. And then I think “is it really important what labels say? Do we really need to define people?” and why?
    I can see that from some points there’s a need, to check for instance whether discrimination is taking place – I’m an amputee and whenever I’m at/in some Gov type function there’s always bits of paper with ” are you disabled?” questions on and I wonder ” does anyone actually read this, or is it just filed and the tick box for quotas filled” After my amputation I joked with my boss “if I was a black lesbian you’d have most of the quota boxes filled, female manager, disabled manager then the other two.” ( I worked as cleaning manager for local authority – they love to be seen as encompassing everyone/ non discriminatory) She didn’t see the joke though, definitely one of those people who think everyone should be “normal”. She’d have preferred me to retire rather than have a disabled manager on staff….Then when the forms are in everyone thinks things are perfect, there’s a form to say they’ve disabled customers. Whether those customers are happy or have issues with building or staff never seems to come on the forms…
    and I’ve kind of rambled here as usual but the gist of what I’m trying to say is, are labels needed if they don’t actually contribute to making anything different? I want a good romance, one with emotions and drama and it doesn’t matter to me what the sexual labels are if it’s a good story.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think the problem with labels is that they’re often hard to disentangle from identities, especially in novels which — after all — a wholly written medium. If you strongly identify with label [x] and you’re looking for fictional characters with whom you can also identify then I can see why it would feel weird for those characters to actively avoid that label.

      For what it’s worth, I think bisexuality is a bit of a special case here because most labels (and, actually, that’s probably a really unhelpful over-generalisation) describe something at least theoretically unambiguous. If you are in a relationship with somebody who is the same sex as you then it doesn’t really matter if you identify as gay or not because society will treat you as if you had that identity (for better or worse). But if you identify as bisexual and are not ragingly promiscuous or in a polyamous relationship then the label becomes very important because it’s pretty much the only way to assert that identity. If you’re bisexual but in a same-sex relationship people will treat you like you’re gay, if you’re a bisexual but in a heterosexual relationship, people will treat you like you’re straight. Pretty much the only way to get the identity that you, well, identify with is to put a label on it.

  8. Laura says:

    I admire your honesty, truly. And I love that you’ve gone and published this, sharing another piece of you with all of us. And I think it’s pretty normal that it’s taken you a while to go back and notice this, because it’s just not the way you understand sexuality. Frankly, I think almost all of us look at sexuality in a different way, and that’s not bad.

    Anyway, I love that you’ve written this, and that you’ve taken the time worrying about this issue, so I don’t think you should really worry about people thinking you’re trying to score points =)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you 🙂

      Of course, you realise that all the prevaricating about not wanting to be seen about scoring points could simply be interpreted as an attempt to score points for not scoring points 😉

  9. EE Ottoman says:

    between the conversation about bisexuality and some other one’s about asexuality I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of naming character’s sexuality somewhere in the book. Obviously there are a lot of types of books where this isn’t possible because the worlds they take place in lack a modern understanding of sexuality. In the case of contemporaries though I do think it is important. During these conversations I’ve seen a lot of authors say “I meant x to be (bi or ace) but I never said it in the book.” I know I’ve definitely done this myself and I do want to think carefully about why that is.

    • cleo says:

      It’s an interesting question. And one that I have different responses to – when I read that JK Rowling meant Dumbledore to be gay but never named it in the book I felt confused and betrayed – because naming Dumbledore as gay in the text could have been so meaningful to so many kids and because I really didn’t see it in the text, so mentioning it outside the text just seemed cowardly.

      But reading that you’ve meant x character to be (bi or ace) but never said it does not elicit the same anger. Probably because I have more trust about your ability to portray queer characters. And at the same time, I do agree with you that right now, when there isn’t much representation of bi or ace people in our culture, specifically naming them is important.

      • EE Ottoman says:

        I think there is totally room for characters who could identify as no or as but don’t use those terms. Just like there is totally room for characters who could identify as trans or nonbinary but don’t. At the same time bi/ace/trans characters are so under represented that there is a real need for characters who do use these terms and also a possibility that not using these terms might add to the eraser

        • cleo says:

          I agree. And as I think about it, I think there’s kind of a circular thing that happens – because BTQIA people are not very visible and because there are fewer models for how to be out/visible, maybe it feels less natural to name a character as being bi or ace when writing, which unfortunately reinforces the status quo.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think this a genuinely difficult one because part of me is concerned that this closes down as many interpretations as it opens up. While I think there definitely is value in characters who concretely and explicitly identify in a particular way (whether that’s characters who explicitly identity as bisexual or characters who explicitly identity as not identifying as bisexual) I also think there’s a value in characters who support multiple readings.

      While I think it’s probably helpful to a reader looking for a character to identify with if that character explicitly identifies the same way as the reader that also closes down any readers who identify differently. If you have a character who could legitimately identify as bisexual, pansexual or sexually fluid and they don’t specifically say which they are then it’s more possible for bisexual, pansexual and sexually fluid readers to identify with that character.

      I think, as with most things, what’s really important is to be aware. Because ultimately there’s a big difference between not doing something because it didn’t occur to you and not doing something because you decided against it.

  10. cleo says:

    This is an interesting question, because I think we’re still at this point where identity and representation matter, even if we want to get to a point where it doesn’t. (If that makes any sense).

    I identify pretty uncomplicated-ly as bi, although I’m realizing that my default setting is “none of your damn business” which means that I’m not very out IRL. So bi erasure is something I’ve been thinking about and struggling with IRL – because I didn’t mean to erase myself but I kind of did and now I’m trying to figure out how to be more out in a way that feels authentic.

    As a reader of queer romance, I am always happy to read about an openly bi character (so selfishly I hope you write one). I’ve also read a fair number of queer romances where one of the MCs read as bi to me, even though they never claimed it. In most cases that didn’t bother me much – although I understand where the concern about bi-erasure comes from. The only time it really, really bothers me is when they seem to be actively trying to deny part of their identity or their reality.

    TL;DR – I’m glad you’re thinking about this complicated and important subject. Carry on.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      As always this is one of those situations were mileage varies massively and I think erasure, like ironically sexuality, is probably something of a spectrum. At one end, you’ve got the situation we had a lot a few years ago and still get to some extent today where actual highly respected LGBTQ+ activists will publicly state that they don’t think bisexuality is a thing. And at the other end you have small missed opportunities like characters in a book who could be read as bi who don’t explicitly identify that way.

      I think basically everyone has a point on the scale where they get annoyed.

      I’m sorry you’re struggling with erasure in your day-to-day life. I think the balance between not wanting to hide your sexuality and thinking your sexuality isn’t anyone’s business is, well, a really tricky one, especially if your identity isn’t particularly visible.

  11. Beverley Jansen says:

    I really like that you have brought this conversation to your blog – and no I don’t think you are courting praise or brownie points for doing so. I often wondered about the importance of actually labelling characters bi in some ways in romance novels – isn’t it fine to just reveal that they are sexually attracted to both sexes in the plot and dialogue? I think the answer for me is that in contemporary stories a character’s bisexuality should be made obvious and mentioned specifically. Simply (or complexly) because issues surrounding identity are important in contemporary life and because Bi people are feeling erased.

    In Prosperity genders and sexualities came under the umbrella of Queer more strongly than most books. The series had a gender and sexual fluidity about it that made me feel so comfortable that felt so natural and just right – I could have read endless novels / novellas in this world – However, I am yet to find a contemporary novel that has given me that reassurance – along with rip-roaring adventures and fun! Of course in Dil’s world and historicals, even fantasy etc the word Bisexual is simply not part of their language.

    For me, Prosperity in some way represents an ideal and illustrates why I use the word Queer to describe myself. It is nobodies business but mine how I identify unless I wish to explain further.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for the kind words about PROSPERITY 🙂

      I think about alternate worlds is that they give you leave to ignore stuff, and that’s both an advantage and a problem. On the one hand you can indulge a fantasy where real world, socially constructed distinctions that don’t work for you simply don’t exist (which is basically what I did in Prosp) but on the other hand that has the potential to be alienating for whom those real world, socially constructed distinctions are an important part of their identity.

  12. Lennan Adams says:

    I am bisexual (or pansexual, I guess) but characters who identify as–or who are portrayed as more fluid resonate with me more than characters who are firmly labeled as …straight, gay, bi, whatever. It makes me feel less like a weirdo when a character is like “IDK but let’s kiss”, haha, than when a character is super sure of themselves. That sometimes makes me feel like I have missed the bus. However, I understand why some people feel more “seen” when a character is firmly labeled and I think it is great that you want to answer that. For what it’s worth, I think that you are already doing well in making everyone feel “seen”, but I will happily read Billy the Bisexual too. :~)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I really like “IDK but let’s kiss” as a sexual identity 🙂 It’s obviously one that works for me, but I don’t want to get so caught up with what works for me that I lose sight of what might work for other people.

      For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’ve missed any buses in feeling more comfortable without a specific label. Feeling free not to have a label is just as important as finding a label that speaks to you.

  13. Shannon McEwan says:

    “Essentially I tend to lump “bi” in with “straight” and “gay” as labels I consider unhelpfully reductive. So if I’m going to write a character who doesn’t identify as straightforwardly gay or straight, I will tend not to have them identify as bi either because I invest strongly in a fluid understanding of sexuality that isn’t really encompassed by any of those terms. But this does mean that I have, purely by accident, managed to avoid writing any actual characters who define as bisexual and I am, on reflection, aware that this is a problem.”

    I immediately started thinking of Max in Glitterland (yes, yes, secondary character) – and I did a search in Glitterland for the word ‘bisexual’ in Glitterland. It turns up twice – first in Niall’s voice ‘Filthy bisexuals’, and second in Ash’s internalisation ‘The bisexuality we must assume was simply a gift from the universe.’

    In Glitterland it’s important for us to know that Max happily sleeps with men and women – this is the point on which Niall focuses his obsession with love-lost. The word ‘bisexual’ however isn’t essential to knowing Max’s sexual preferences (he’s getting married to a woman, and having a stag party with the boys at a gay dance venue…) – rather the word ‘bisexual’ is used to show us something about the main protagonist, and about one of the secondary characters. It’s how these characters use the word bisexual that’s meaningful.

    And my point is… I’m not sure that whether or not you write a main protagonist who is bi hinges on the using/not-using of the word bisexual. The word becomes meaningful when it’s used to show how different characters conceive of bisexuality and the agendas behind those conceptions. I reckon it would be possible to reveal the same information without using the word bisexual. Maybe what you’re trying to say is that exploring those conceptions through a main protagonist (regardless of whether you’re using the word ‘bisexual or not) is a bit close to the bone? (The challenge in that question is not meant to be in any way hurtful – just responding to what you seem to trying to feel your way through.)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I seem to be slightly better with explicitly bisexual-identified secondary characters – there’s a handful of them floating around. And I think you’re right that how characters talk about other character’s sexualities is also an important way of articulating things about the characters doing the talking, the characters being talked about and the relationship between them.

      Honestly, I’m still kind of processing this and working my way through it — I’ll definitely be thinking about what you’ve said here 🙂 (and I didn’t find your comment hurtful!).

  14. Patrick says:

    I’ve been following this conversation, and a memory just resurfaced. In the SF novel Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold, the woman lead is marrying a bisexual man, and this exchange takes place at, I believe, their engagement party, with Vordarian being someone trying to sabotage the relationship.

    ******
    One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.

    Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

    Vordarian choked, sputtering.
    *****

    Bujold has acknowledged that Cordelia’s response conflates sexual orientation with relationship preference, but it was good line and, in the culture of science fiction in 1991, a bold stroke.

  15. Lea says:

    As a bisexual woman who is married to a woman (and therefore seen as being lesbian), I appreciate that you’ve shared your thoughts on using the bisexual label for your characters. Personally, I go back to the writing adage of “show me, don’t tell me” – I don’t need a character to use the label “bisexual,” but it would be awesome to see the character being involved with both men and women. Of course, that puts you in the position of having a polyamorous character, which is perhaps more complicated. Or the character would have to be casually dating men and women throughout the book. I would love to see either one happen in a romance novel.

    I do have to say, though, that as a reader I’m not hung up on how a character identifies their sexuality. Perhaps that’s one of the best things about being bisexual – romance novels work for me whether the couples are same-sex or not. 🙂

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