Talking Shop: Bisexuality and Reflections in Romance
I read a blog recently about coming out as bisexual, and it got me thinking. I hadn't realized until recently there's such a controversy about bisexuals and their place in the LGBTQ spectrum. We seem to fall between the cracks when it comes to gay issues, maybe because we can "pass" for straight. There are those who feel bisexuals aren't truly BI-sexual, but straight and "confused", or gay and "pretending".
I've been fortunate in that I've never run up against biphobia in my own experience, but it saddens me to see it exists, just as much as any other phobia against the LGBTQ community. And of course, much like the other orientations and gender identifications on the spectrum, bisexuals are greatly under-represented or mis-represented in romantic fiction.
So let's start off by making this clear: I am bisexual. I experience equal attraction and desire to both women and men. Sit me down to watch A History of Violence, I'll tell you I'd fuck Viggo Mortensen or Maria Bello, happily. (Don't ask me why, A History of Violence for some reason really solidified my bisexuality for me. It may have been the close proximity and sexual relationship between two actors I find equally attractive).
I'm not "bi-curious". I'm not curious over anything, I know damn well I like men and women, each for their own reasons. I'm also monogamous and I don't have any sort of increased urge to "cheat". Honestly, do people really equate the capacity for bisexual attraction to a reduced sense of fidelity? As if an "increased pool of potential mates" makes bisexuals less capable of "keeping it in their pants"? That's...oddly paranoid.
I don't think bisexuality (or any orientation, frankly) is really that hard to understand. I experience attraction and desire for both men and women. When selecting a potential romantic partner, I can be equally as interested in a male partner as a female partner. Do bisexuals really need to explain it any further?
Let's take a minute to talk about pansexuals. If you haven't heard that term, a pansexual is an individual who experiences attraction and desire for members of both binary genders and non-binary genders such as intersex, genderqueer, or agender. Sometimes this is described as "attraction regardless of gender".
I like that the pansexual designation highlights the existence of non-binary gender attraction, and introduces the possibility that attraction is not differently aligned based on different gender characteristics. However, while I'm not going to tell anyone what they are or aren't, in terms of how they identify, the definition of bisexual can, in fact, also include non-binary gender attraction. The commonly accepted definition of bisexual is, "attracted to both men and women". However, it's a misconception that this is the only definition. Some bisexuals (myself included) consider ourselves "bi" sexual in the sense of being attracted to either 1) genders different from our own or 2) genders similar to our own. The "bi" in our bisexuality refers to "different vs. similar", not "male vs. female".
Thus, for the purpose of this blog post and my discussion of bisexual characters in romance, I'll be referring back to this "different vs. similar", including the possibility of attraction/involvement with individuals of a non-binary gender. This is not intended to mean pansexuality does not exist. Pansexual relationships encompass different individuals, emotional involvements, attractions, and interests. While I am not pansexual, it's important to recognize that an individual who identifies as such does so because they feel it most accurately reflects their identity.
How does this come into play when it comes to writing romantic and erotic fiction?
As with my post on writing lesbian fiction, I'd like to point out the following are my personal philosophies on writing about bisexual characters. I consider them a good approach, but they may not apply for all writers or all stories.
So how do you know if your character is bisexual?
I find the character usually lets me know where their interests lie. I've written characters whom I intended to pair with an opposite-sex partner, who then deviated completely from my plan and developed a serious chemistry with a same-sex character instead. Certain characters play very well with others, and the more I explore this the more I get a sense where their passions run.
When a character in my work shows a bisexual orientations and interest, I find they tend to develop romances or physical attraction based on character traits or personalities beyond gender at first. Even in cases where the bisexual character isn't seeking a romantic connection but a purely physical engagement, those things which first interest them are not necessarily tied to gender-specific traits. It might be a personality trait like confidence or shyness; it might be a physical characteristic like eye color, smile, or sense of fashion. Usually the gender of the potential romantic interest plays a secondary role, after an initial connection is made.
It's important to know what characteristics appeal to your bisexual character. How do they treat members of the same sex? How do they treat members of the opposite sex? A bisexual character may be interested in different characteristics in women or feminine-identified individuals than men or male-identified individuals. In the same vein they may find different things attractive in feminine men or masculine women. You can't assume they will respond to the same things in each case: if your character is ambivalent or static to the gender characteristics of their potential mate, they may be more pansexual than bisexual, and fall closer to the sense of "attraction regardless of gender".
So far, my bisexual characters tend to fall very evenly on the Kinsey scale of sexuality, being equally attracted to feminine as well as masculine. However, this does not hold true for all bisexual characters. Additionally, contrary to common assumptions, a character can identify as gay or straight and yet find themselves romantically involved in a relationship contrary to that orientation: a self-identified gay man might find himself drawn to one particular woman, likely for very strong emotional reasons, not physical, because she appeals to him on a different emotional level. Sometimes this does not mean the character is bisexual.
Just like real, living people, characters can (and should) develop with a sense of self-awareness and identity. Knowing how the character views himself is important. Example: the leading character in my Books of Blood and Fire, Rhiannon Donovan, identifies as gay. In many previous blog posts or interviews, I've mentioned she has the capacity to be bi-curious, because I recognize the possibility of an opposite-sex match for her in the future. However, I also know Rhiannon would continue to consider herself gay. Forced to designate, I would not call this bisexual, rather, gay with one notable and specific exception.
As I mentioned in my post on writing lesbian fiction, the most important detail in writing bisexual stories--or, quite honestly, any story of an LGBTQ nature--is to remember that it is a story about a love connection above all else. The importance of these stories is the relationship and interactions of two people, who are, at their core, no different than any other people. While their attractions, sexual orientations, gender alignments, and favored characteristics will differ and are important to the identity of the character themselves, the essential core of their needs, desires, and loves are equal in nature, whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, agender, and so on.
While I encourage writers to explore more stories on the LGBTQ spectrum, don't set out to write a story to sensationalize. Inform yourself about the myths and truths of the queer community and queer individuals. Don't jump to stereotypes, but find the genuine truth of your character's motivations. Most importantly, be very careful of exploitative generalizations or over-simplification of LGBTQ issues.
I find bisexual characters exceptionally faceted and fascinating, in the telling of their own stories. I enjoy exploring the varied elements of their sexual identities, which differ from those of a straight or gay character. They open up avenues of new and different experiences to consider, and to write. Ultimately, I feel bisexual characters, just like bisexual individuals, have a specific and legitimate sexual personhood. They are not "confused", and not masquerading. They are bisexual for a reason: because their hearts make them so. Look for the individual first, and then for the orientation, and weave them into the story the way they guide you. They will not lead you astray.