#13) About the Dreaded B-Word
When I started to delve into this topic, it took me in unexpected directions
This week we’re going to take a slight detour from my dating misadventures to explore Generation X’s struggle with the dreaded b-word: bisexual. Women of Gen X who didn’t identify as heteronormative were confined to four letters, L-G-B-T, and for those who were cisgender, to two choices: gay/lesbian or bisexual. There was a reluctance to identify as bisexual, because of the stigma attached to the label. As with many stories in this project, when I started to delve into this topic, it took me in unexpected directions.
Let’s start with the term itself. Recently, I went on a date with a woman who referred to herself as bisexual, even though she exclusively dated women. She reasoned that since she had been married to a man with whom she co-parents, labeling herself a lesbian would be erasing him. That was a new twist. On the other hand, as I write the stories of my misadventures, which involve women from Generation X and some Millennials, almost all at some point were either married to, engaged to, or in serious relationships with men prior to dating women. Does that make them bisexual too? Or is the determining factor who you are currently dating? I don’t know, and I didn’t write the LGBT handbook!
And there’s more nuance to consider: how about my first grown-up girlfriend Jenny, who had been a lesbian all her life, but slept with men in between serious relationships with women, like sorbet in between courses? Does that render her a bisexual? Or Sylvie from last week who desired both women and men, then after experimenting with women, went back to men? Is she heterosexual or bisexual? So much confusion as I pondered the label, that I found myself writing and rewriting this story!
First off, how can a label be given so much cred when our generation can’t even agree on the basics of what it means? Seems we’ve tasked the word bisexual with the immense and impractical job of holding space for the considerable ambiguity that comes with our generation’s struggles with sexual identity. Perhaps inadvertently, the label has penned us in and divided us. Meanwhile, for Generation Z, the term bisexual is just a waning, clunky vestige that has given way to a litany of words which match the fluidity of the individual. That is progress!
I think about my own experience, which is a fairly common path for Generation X on our journey from straight to gay. I had only been with men until my first time, not even so much as a kiss, until a catalyst relationship with a woman. After that ended, I found myself 41 years-old and single, after 18 years—almost my entire adult life—in two, back to back relationships! For the first time since I was 23, I was back in the dating pool, and navigating not only dating etiquette with women, but also the advent of the internet and online dating. I wasn’t particularly well prepared for, or good at either!
Dating men was familiar territory, and I was good at it: I knew the cues, how to flirt in person, and be just unavailable enough (duh, I was gay) that the guys followed me in droves. Men did most of the initiating, and granted I was much younger when I dated men, but there wasn’t a whole lot of emotional context or work to do with most dating, unless it got more serious.
Dating and relationships with women was entirely new ground. Plus, I am such an in-person kind of person. Online dating? Ferreting out profiles—I’m still mediocre at it twenty years later! Here I was in 2007, single in Westchester County, with a tiny population of LGBT people, figuring out how to meet women, and what I should be looking for.
I avoided women who indicated they were bisexual. If they posted they were open to dating both women and men, I took them completely out of my filters. The mores of the time viewed bisexuals with suspicion and an element of distrust. Around this time, author Amy Bloom, who had been in a significant relationship with a woman after divorcing from a man (gay marriage was not yet legal), ended that relationship, and married another man. Her flip was well publicized, and she became a cautionary tale for the pitfalls of dating bisexual women: they were just stopping by to experiment before returning to the familiarity and then-normalcy of being with men.
In retrospect, my avoiding bisexual women came from a place of insecurity. I reasoned, why put myself in a position to have to compete with both women and men? And I worried that even if I found a bisexual woman who I liked, she would eventually leave me and return to men. Also, and I’m not proud of this, I judged. I wondered what it said about a woman to be so confused that you can’t decide. That was a rigid, uninformed opinion that came from my fear of getting hurt.
As I started dating women, I noticed I was drawn to what we labeled femmes. Recall it was that kiss by Mariel Hemingway in “Personal Best” that was the first time I saw what was possible. Within the pool of feminine women, a good portion dated both women and men, so over time I adjusted my filters, and broadened my search out of practicality. In the coming years, LGBTQ culture evolved too, even adding a Q for questioning, and I gradually stopped letting fear limit the field of women I dated. Soon after, I had my own near brush with bisexuality.
It was in the fall of 2015. My daughter had left for her freshman year of college, and this was before the nightmare of The Weekly List project. I suddenly had free time on my hands, and was feeling anxious and aggravated with the lack of women I was meeting. I, in retrospect foolishly, self-imposed a sense of urgency to just get on with it! and find my life partner—wondering, why isn’t this happening for me NOW? At the suggestion of a friend, I even tried the New York Review of Books, writing a carefully thought out personal ad about my ideal woman. I got seven responses, all from men, including one who when I pointed out I was seeking women, told me no one is perfect. UGH! One night, just for the fun of it, I decided to copy my online dating profile, and check that I was looking for men.