The director of “Speakeasy”, Lissa Moira, and I were conducting another one of our weekly meetings pouring over the script and discussing staging and production issues, when I mused aloud that in many ways “Speakeasy” is an expression of my bisexuality.
“You are bisexual?” Lissa asked.
“I thought you knew”, I responded, dumbfounded.
How could Lissa, who has known me for years, not be aware of that fact about myself? It is not something I try to keep secret. And she’s known me for decades. But that is the problem with bisexuality. It is so easy to keep hidden, even if there is no intention to hide it. Society may not assume someone is heterosexual as categorically as society used to, but monosexuality – hetero or homosexuality – is nowadays still the default assumption.
Or is it? Just these past weeks have seen a slew of studies showing that the upcoming generation of young adults are much more comfortable with sexual fluidity and placing themselves on the bisexual spectrum than older generations (see here and here and here). Charles Blow has written profound editorials about bisexuality in the New York Times. Entertainment websites keep posting lists of celebrity bisexuals (like this one or this one).
Except, those lists of celebrity bisexuals usually feature three women for every one male or must resort to listing men long deceased to beef up the ratio. Out bisexual males are still very rare in our culture. Even Alan Cumming, who so deliciously professed erotic desire for men and women not once but three times while hosting the Tony Awards this year has not embraced the “bisexual” label (as far as I can tell) but is more likely to use the word “pansexual” if he allows any label to define him. And that is his prerogative. Labels are limiting. But the bisexual label seems particularly maligned and avoided, especially for men, at least until now. Perhaps with the millennial generation apparently showing so much more acceptance of sexual fluidity and bisexuality than their elders, this might finally change.
But there is still so far to go. There are still so few works of art about bisexuals, especially bisexual men. I applaud the recent explosion of movies and TV shows centering on or featuring transgender stories. And gay and lesbian characters have been incorporated into mainstream entertainment for some time now (not that we have arrived yet anywhere near full narrative integration). But bisexual characters? Especially bisexual male characters? I have to go back to the 1970s and Sunday Bloody Sunday and Cabaret to find well drawn bisexual male characters. Torch Song Trilogy had one too but also gave sympathetic voice to a lot of biphobic prejudices. Yet that is over 30 years ago. What about in film, TV and Theater nowadays? Crickets.
Well, maybe not as much for bi women (Piper, the lead in Orange is the New Black, is surely bisexual, even though in the first two seasons no one appears to have used that term in reference to her). But what about bi men in movies, TV or theater? Where are they? Plenty of gay men to be found, and of course straight men still dominate our culture like nobody’s business. But bisexual men? Nada. Invisible. Don’t mention it.
There may be hope. That pansexual orgy scene in episode six of the first season of Sense8 surely had me shouting “Hallelujah”! But the fact remains that the characters’ sexual fluidity was achieved through involuntary mind-melding – in their own space each character individually still seems to identify as hetero- or homosexual (at least by the end of Season 1).
I have already written about what motivated me to create “Speakeasy”. Illuminating a little known part of Gay History is a big part of the musical. What I have mostly only hinted at so far is the bisexual perspective threaded into the “Speakeasy” narrative. After all, the two lead characters, John and Jane Allison, start the show by making love to each other, but within 15 minutes are startled by a same sex experience. And then the ball gets really rolling, forcing Jane and John to experience all sorts of Queer goings on that will make them seriously question their identity. It is a very bisexual story for the protagonists. By the end however the question of their ultimate identity is left open. My personal wish as an audience member may be that John and Jane are both bisexual, but as the writer I choose not to be certain. I allow the audience the freedom to draw their own conclusions.
And Lissa Moira and I talked about these themes at length when we discussed “Speakeasy”. How did my personal connection to the musical’s bisexual angle not become part of that discussion the length of a whole year of meetings, especially when I generally am pretty conscious about dropping that fact here or there?
I have striven to be out and forthright about my bisexuality all these years because it has been important for me to affirm my identity, but also because with all the measurable strides for Gay Civil Rights I have witnessed in the past decades, it still seemed that bisexuality, especially male bisexuality, was being kept in the closet, and perhaps even being pushed in all the deeper. So I felt I needed to do my part to keep male bisexuality out in the open. For my own self as much as for social progress.
Naturally then it came as a shock to me that Lissa, who has known me for about 20 years, didn’t know or remember that rather important detail about myself. In all this time she knew my husband Ed and had assumed the obvious, that I am gay. But she also cast me numerous times in queer roles, as Alan Ginsburg, as a gay cabaret singer, as a drag queen, and one would think during rehearsal conversations for any of those plays the fact of my bisexuality would have come up. After all, I have been well aware for years that for anybody to know that part about myself I need to say something. Unless I specify, people will assume I am heterosexual until they meet or hear about Ed, and then people will assume I am homosexual. But no one ever seems to assume by default about anybody that they are bisexual…
So although I tend to try to find ways to slip in my true orientation into any conversation about my personal life early to set the record straight (so to say, or not), in Lissa’s case, in all these years and opportunities, somehow that information didn’t trickle to the surface. In this case I was still cloaked in invisi-BI-lity. Making me wonder how many other friends, relations or colleagues still have a mistaken assumption about my orientation.
People speak about how one is always having to come out again and again as an LGBT person. That goes doubly or triply as a bisexual person, since being seen, say, holding hands with my husband may be a quick way to come out for him (as he is a Kinsey 6 homosexual), but I have still only come out partway.
Yet why should it be so important to me? I am in a happy, fulfilling long term (and hopefully life long) relationship with a wonderful man. Obviously it is OK for me to be known to be in a homosexual relationship. I’m happy to be called gay, as in queer, as in part of the LGBTQ rainbow. But I am not homosexual. In meeting Ed I found my better half, a better half who just happened to be male. I didn’t change my sexual orientation. Being bisexual was not a choice. Neither is remaining bisexual. Making my life with Ed, loving that individual, that was the choice.
Sometimes it feels like I am the only out bisexual male out here. Oh, I know there are plenty of bisexual males. But there are very few who embrace the label, let alone discuss their sexuality openly. Even I, when I first came out publicly in the early 90s, toyed with labels like omnisexual, pansexual or tri-sexual (“I’m trisexual, I’ll try anything”). And those might even be better designators, as one could argue that bisexual leaves out the possibility of attraction to a transgender individual, which is not the impression I would want to give.
But I came to fully embrace the bisexual label when I was cast in a brilliant, experimental theater production of The Scarlet Letter called “A – a Carnival Adulteration of The Scarlet Letter”. The director Tim Maner asked the large cast to each identify our individual Scarlet Letter. I realized quickly that my scarlet letter was “B”, and that it would be the first time I would proclaim myself bisexual in front of a large group of people. This was in the early 1990s. I had known I was bisexual since puberty, but I felt alienated from the Gay Rights movement. The New York City Gay Pride march had at that date still not allowed bisexuals to march under their own banner. When I personally experienced prejudice, more often than not it was directed at my bisexuality rather than my homosexuality, as in the toxically well-meaning doctor who asked about my sexual history and then made a point of telling me I should choose “one or the other” but being bisexual was “not healthy”.
When the time came for each member of the large ensemble cast to proclaim our scarlet letter, I was the only one who used the letter “B” for “Bisexual”. Many used “G” for Gay, “H” for Homo, “F” for Faggot, “L” for Lesbian, “Q” for Queer. Many cast members shared sexual and romantic histories that included men and women, but I was the only one who claimed bisexuality as their orientation. Everyone else ultimately identified monosexually. And over the years I would again and again see friends and colleagues who I knew had a bisexual life history (by which I mean they had had meaningful sexual relationships with men and women) ultimately identify as “one or the other” depending on what gender their life partner was now. That is their prerogative of course. But it also made me feel rather alone.
And perhaps because I declared my sexual orientation publicly at a time when bisexuality was not as accepted as it should have been by the gay and lesbian community; perhaps because I had to again and again defend myself against accusations of “being untrustworthy” in my relationship with Ed, and defending my actual existence against those who didn’t believe there was such a thing as a “bisexual male” (remember all those bogus studies that came out in the 1990s that purportedly showed the non-existence of male bisexuality, all of which were quickly shown to be seriously flawed in their methodology?); perhaps because I was tired of having my authentic feelings denied by gay men who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, when gay men were more likely to first declare themselves bisexual before coming out resolutely as homosexual (just because it was “just a phase” for them doesn’t mean it is “just a phase” for everyone!); perhaps because I have always had a pretty stubborn sense of right and wrong, and knew it would be wrong to deny my orientation even though it would make my life so much simpler (hey, I’m in a long term relationship with a man, just calling myself gay would have saved me so many wretched arguments); perhaps because of all of this I knew I had no choice but to affirm my orientation, claim the bisexual label, and not allow that aspect of myself to slip into a comfy closet.
Anyway, Lissa now knows I am bisexual. Another little moment of visi-BI-lity, and no big deal really, ultimately, for us. We had a bit of a chuckle about it and then got back to work on “Speakeasy”. Someday I may tell her my grandmother was Finnish or my brother is a physicist. Then again, maybe it came up in conversation some time ago and she already knows.