Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Will the Real Bisexual Men Please Stand Up?

At the MIT Rainbow Lounge, we were looking for a good movie on bisexuality to screen for a casual watch-and-eat event over winter break. We chose "Bi the Way," a 2008 documentary in which the filmmakers travel the country to interview bi, queer and straight people about bisexuality and the apparently "trendiness" of identifying as bi (trailer below). It seemed interesting; good fodder for discussion; and hopefully some of the bi students would see some of their own experiences reflected in film (a rare occurrence, sadly).

Yet almost unanimously, the students hated the film. Or perhaps it was more they hated how bisexuality is perceived and expressed by the people in the film...some of the visible cringes came from interviews with an out bi man who is very homophobic, a girl's stepdad who wished he could see his stepdaughter and her girlfriend make out, and a lesbian mocking bisexuals as just gay people with one foot in the closet.

I think part of what the bi students in attendance were reacting to was that they did see some of their experiences reflected in the film...and it hurt. Random American after random American were getting on their soapbox to pass judgment about bi people. It's an open secret that bisexuals have to deal with flak from both the queer and straight community, and it was telling that many of the bi students who attended the film screening had come to few or no other Rainbow Lounge events. Even we in the Lounge were not doing enough to explicitly welcome bi-identified students.

A big piece of our discussion after the screening was about the derth of bisexual men in the film, and the derth of bisexual men in any kind of media in general. One bi woman in the discussion admitted that she even made unconscious judgments about men who identify as bi, assuming that they were really just gay.

Take a nice long look at this cover photo...
All of this makes me desperately want John Irving's new book "In One Person" to be made into a film. Finally, delightfully, there is a bisexual man's voice front and center in the novel, which is all about the narrator Billy's life over the past 70 years and the "crushes on the wrong people" that he has along the way. The book starts a little slow--Billy frequently reminds us of things that we remember, and uses four sentences to explain something when one would have been sufficient--but as he becomes more real and familiar to us throughout the book, he becomes all the more lovable and relatable. And thank the lord--he remains bisexual throughout his entire life. Because, y'know, that happens! It's just no one writes about it. Instead we get books and movies whose narrative arc is about who the bisexual will choose and thus their 'true' sexuality will be confirmed ("Kissing Jessica Stein," "Chasing Amy," "Imagine Me & You," etc.).

Any Irving reader knows that he loves to create transvestite and cross-dressing characters, and this book is chock full of them. (Grandpa Harry and a certain former wrestler [no spoilers here!] are particularly lovely.) My only qualm is that it seems every gay and bi male in the book has their sexuality discovered because at one point or currently they liked to try on women's clothing. While that is true for many gay and bi guys, it diminishes their wholeness as characters because it's such an easy cultural stereotype to fall back on.

But these are small prices to pay to have a mainstream American author create a bi male protagonist who is confident, happy and complex. So John Irving, just let me know when you estimate the theatrical release and I will make sure it makes its way to the MIT Rainbow Lounge.

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