Keep Private Lives Private

“Why label it? Keep private lives private. It’s none of anybody’s business.”

I talk about bisexuality a lot. It’s relevant to my work and current research as well as personally important. It makes my family uncomfortable. Why do I have to bring it up? Why talk about it? Why do we even need the word bisexual, who needs labels, can’t people just live their private lives privately and leave the normal folk out of it?

This argument has lost a great deal of its power against mainstream monogamous gay and lesbian couples. They form meaningful long term relationships, get married, have kids. While homophobia remains pervasive, the particular argument that it doesn’t need to be discussed–keep the x-rated stuff in the bedroom thanks–has been delegitimized. Homosexuality is (again largely, not universally) recognized as a full social experience with the kind of reach that can’t simply be confined to the bedroom. It is just as patently absurd to ask a gay man not to mention his partner in casual conversation as it would be to tell a straight man not to bring up his girlfriend in the same context. Most of the contexts in which we mention partners are not sexual. If they were, no one would ever ever meet their in-laws.

Bisexuality, on the other hand, remains sexualized. Asking us to remain in the closet because private lives should be private is only reasonable given one or more of several false and very offensive assumptions:

1 We do not have the full, rich social experience of relationships such as straight or gay people do. We have only frivolous/deviant sexual ones.

2 If we have a long-term monogamous relationship with a person of another gender, we are heterosexual. If we have a long-term monogamous relationship with a person of our own gender, we are homosexual. If we are polyamorous, it is held up as proof that we can’t commit/are promiscuous.

2a If we end a relationship with a person of one gender, and the next one that develops is with a person of a different gender, we “left him for a woman/left her for a man!” This is said even if months of being single elapse between. Inevitably, people will argue that the former relationship ended because we were “really straight/really gay” all along.

2b If we end a relationship with a person of one gender and the next relationship that develops is with a person who shares that gender, we’re told we’re definitely only interested in that gender.

3 Any casual statement that hints at attraction to a gender other than that of our current partner reveals intent to leave or cheat on that partner. This includes, but is not limited to, such normal everyday activities as referring to exes in conversation, commenting on the attractiveness of actors/actresses, and having an authentic response to the constant barrage of gendered and sexualized messages in advertising, tv and film plots, and pretty much everything else.

Finally, bi people often date straight or gay people. Society assumes people are attracted to only one gender. “Why use a label” means “don’t come out even to your partners.” Keep it in the bedroom, in a locked box under the bed and never, ever share who you are even with those you love.

Eschewing labels is only a useful strategy for people who have no need of labels; that is, about whom incorrect assumptions are not made. If we do not name ourselves, others will not stop pushing these assumptions about our behavior and moral character. The only effect not identifying as bi would have is to prevent us talking about the stigmas we face and the effects they have.

Coming out isn’t making public what should be private. It isn’t sexual at all. Sexuality pervades nearly every aspect of life. Relationships are our conversation, gossip, stress; they’re fundamental to film plots and nearly every song; they significantly impact our social standing. People make assumptions: that whoever they meet is straight, generally, or that they’re monosexually attracted to whatever gender their current partner is. It’s possible to let these assumptions slide, and sometimes safer (I’m not attacking people who choose not to come out; that’s no one’s call but their own). The assumptions aren’t made with intent to harm. There’s no intent to them at all. But they do complicate the landscape that we have to navigate every day. So nah, I’m gonna keep talking about it.

44 thoughts on “Keep Private Lives Private”

  1. This is probably just verbosely agreeing with you 🙂 But in case it helps…

    Almost by definition you don’t need a label if something “does not exist” — or if everyone knows that the label applies to “all” things of that type. The label adds information only if something does exist, but is “not the default”. Conversely the lack of a label is (implicitly) a signal that “you should assume the default”.

    I think in large part the “don’t need a label”/”don’t talk about it” argument has lost much of its power against monogamous gay/lesbian couples because it has been talked about enough to be recognised as “common” — a thing that exists, but is not the (assumed) default. (The “monogamous couples” part probably also helps — it’s “similar, but different”, so a smaller step of “almost the same, but not quite”.)

    There are a bunch of other sexuality-related things which are (currently) not recognised as “common” (for any definition of common), such that people expect a label to be “needed” — but if the true occurrence of them were recognised then the probably would be seen as (somewhat) “common”, and people would expect there to be a label and adjustment of default assumptions. I think “Bisexual” is one of those, and “trans-gender”/”gender non-binary” is another. (“Kink” seems to be getting closer to recognised as “common”, at least as a very broad definition of “kink” — specific ones not so much. “Polyamory”/long-term non-monogamy also seems to be getting closer to being recognised as common — the quibble there seems to be mostly over ethics, and eg, whether it’s just seen as “cheating”.)

    So yes, there is a benefit in talking about it, to the extent that people can. I think ultimately that’s the only way that any recognition that something is “common” will come about, and with it more acceptance. Plus, talking about it means more role models, and thus it is easier for people to see “these are normal people just like me, but for this one small difference”…. which also helps with acceptance. (Baby steps!)


    PS: Yes, ideally people would accept/make space even for things that are not common (“YKINMKBYKIOK”). But that seems a much bigger ask than “recognise this common thing exists and you just haven’t noticed”.

    1. I like being verbosely agreed with!

      There definitely is a default. “relationship” actually means “(stable romantically and sexually exclusive dyadic) relationship.” Most people’s default also includes “heterosexual,” but most people are also pretty quick to and ok with recoding that to “homosexual” if the dyad they meet fits that description. It’s an expectation but extrinsic to the definition of “relationship.” The other modifiers–stable and exclusive–are generally accepted as intrinsic. Therefore if it isn’t stable and exclusive, it cannot be called a relationship. Then most people’s understanding of bisexuality is that it is inherently unstable–it can’t be visualized in a single dyadic pairing (unless someone has a genderfluid partner…) therefore the sexual orientation is definitionally banned from relationships. Therefore bisexuals are either really straight/gay or frivolous cheaters and we don’t get a say about it. It’s insidious and circular and I do not approve.

      And YES we need role models badly. So badly!

      As for your postscript, only works for those willing to engage critical thinking. It would be great if people could evaluate the acceptability or no of things based on principles of autonomy and consent. Most people have feelings and tailor logic to fit emotion rather than accept that they may not always match. Unfortunately.

      1. Speaking of role models, NBC’s Constantine was such a missed opportunity (though “role model” might be questionable). But, instead, more erasure . . .

        For those here who may not know, the character is, at least with most of his writers, explicitly bisexual in the comics.

        1. Yes. It’s still possible for him to be made bi, if it gets picked up for another season. There’s been significant fan outcry on this one, so I have a slight hope. (Only slight,though)

      2. I think “hetrosexual” is part of almost everyone’s default definition of relationship: “gay” or “homosexual” or … are now (or becoming) “types that exist” (ie, if a label is used, it does not seem out of place), but it’s still pretty likely to be rendered as “gay relationship”. So progress, but not complete success yet. (There are sub-groups where this is not true — where “relationship” implicitly means “hetrosexual or homosexual or …” relationship — but they’re the sub groups that tend to have done the most reanalysis of the term anyway.)

        Interestingly I think “stable” is going in the opposite direction. A couple of generations ago “it wasn’t a relationship if it didn’t kill you” (ie, you parted before one of you died). But these days there seems to be much more acceptance of “together for as long as it makes sense”, at least in the form of serial monogamy. Possibly the continuation of that trend will also create some more space for other options, if only by making the definition look less “fixed in stone”.

        As for “deconstruction” (engaging in critical thinking), it’s relatively rare for people to be trained to do it deliberately. And without deliberate training, often the “intuitive” response is accepted by the conscious mind without much question. Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” covers some of the science behind why this happens if you’re curious. I’ve noticed that even people trained to be rational (judges, scientists, etc) are open to having a “gut” analysis of something and then looking for reasons to confirm it, if they aren’t paying attention and being consciously more deliberate about it (“Thinking Fast and Slow” has some examples of that too). Something like science’s approach of disproving a hypothesis is one way to try to get out of that “only finding evidence that validates the theory” trap. But deconstruction goes further than that — it’s “questioning our first principles/default assumptions”.

        So expecting deconstruction-style critical thinking from “the masses” who are not trained to do so is unrealistic. But it’d be nice to gradually walk society along the “if this is okay, this similar thing is probably okay too” path in a series of steps over time.


    1. Labels certainly can be annoying, and imperfect, and it makes complete sense that some people prefer not to use them.

      I just wish that were a choice we were allowed to make for ourselves. Acting as though coming out is some deviant, taboo topic can be more hurtful than people who don’t have to do it know.

  2. Pingback: Elust # 66
  3. Pingback: Wank Of The Day
  4. Pingback: Elust #66
  5. Pingback: e[lust] #66
  6. It’s kinda sad how many people are like, “Yeah, I’m totally pro gay marriage, and I love casual sex. Oh and I believe that bisexual people are lying.”
    ….it’s like………what??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *