Sunday, February 15, 2009

Editorial re: The Fuss about Ezra

Background: Please see the following link for the story about Newark, Delaware City Councilman Ezra Temko's courageous decision to come out as a bisexual, and to fight for LGBTQ rights, [USA]: Delaware City Councilman Ezra Temko Comes Out as Bi

Out Bi-identified Newark, Delaware City Councilman Ezra Temko and his boyfriend Drew Phillips 2009However, as noted in the Bialogue post, instead of drawing praise for fighting for LGBTQ rights, Mr. Temko has been attacked for being bisexual, sadly from within the LGBTQ community.

This has happened before. For example in 2007 when Micah Kellner, also an out bisexual won a NY State Assembly Seat with the active support of the Victory Fund, read thru the comments that were made to this post in a highly regarded LGBT Blog: JoeMyGod: Bisexual Wins Seat In NY State Assembly.

When during a discussion on Local Bi Group Leaders about Ezra Temko and the biphobic reaction his coming out was drawing from a portion of the greater LGBTQ Community, I made this somewhat jocular post about the naïve comments:
"I loved the comment 'It's funny (well, sad actually) to see all these 'gay men' on here who admit they are attracted to women but won't accept that bisexual men actually exist. Quit worrying about all the biphobes and come out of the closet!'

Jung talks about the shadow, how we hate the most in others what we can't stand in ourselves. The comments say over and over 'just sleeping with women doesn't make you bi.'

Well, if having sex with both men and women doesn't make you bi, what on earth does!?!?!?

Sounds like the classic definition of bisexuality to me :)."
Thomas Leavitt responded with this very thought-provoking essay, cross-posted here with his permission:

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Well, this is a yes and no issue . . . there are plenty of people who legitimately self-identify as gay, lesbian or straight, who have had (even continue to have) same-sex sexual encounters. It's no one's business to tell someone how to identify.

On the other hand, there's a legitimate point to be argued that there are a lot of people out there who seem to be deliberately avoiding the bisexual label, very specifically within the queer community, and not for reasons related to the gender-binary paradigm. That's a separate and distinct issue from the much larger (at least that's my sense) group of folks in the "straight" community who are totally in the closet about their same-sex attractions.

We need to be able to respect where people are at, while working to remove lingering stigmas associated with bisexuality, and making the case without personalizing it that there seem to be an awful lot of folks who've been in relationships whose membership lands all over on the map, gender wise (it's not just a binary, not just a two-dimensional spectrum, but a multi-dimensional array).

We need to create safe spaces for people to come out as "bisexual", and we especially need to create safe and supportive structures for people to "come out" a second time as "bisexual", who've previously identified as "gay" or "lesbian", because that often involves a duplication and reliving of the original traumas and loss of social context and support networks that folks went through the first time around.

We also need to acknowledge that some people (and I don't think we really know how many) come out as "bisexual", on the way to a "gay" or "lesbian" identity, and that this is fine, but isn't representative of the experience of the majority of people who identify as bisexual, and have for many years.

I'm not sure how to phrase this to avoid potentially inducing a defensive reaction among allies . . . but, fundamentally, I don't see that the mainline GL(BT) organizations, or even the reasonably clueful ones (like NGLTF) are ever going to be comfortable arguing that there are people in the GL community who are really bisexual, but in the closet about it, and need support to "come out". . . . and what we really want, anyway, is an organization whose institutional mission is to support the coming out process of both "queer-identified" and "straight-identified" bisexuals.

I can't see a GL(BT) organization really stretching itself to reach out to str8 identified folks and asking them to come out as bisexual or be supportive of them having a straight identity while exercising same-sex attractions, and seeing their mission as serving these folks as well.

If the leadership of these organizations doesn't identify as bisexual, can they really understand what's needed? Can we take folks whose entire identity is built on the group dynamic of exclusion, and expect them to fuzz up those very boundaries?

At an abstract level, you'd think that substantially expanding the queer community's boundaries would be beneficial to the entire GLBT community, and the organizations supported by it, but that's a real leap in a certain way.

I can't help but think that a large portion of the GL community would react violently negatively to the idea that there are even a significant minority of closeted bisexuals in their ranks, would see it as an attack on their integrity and authenticity and an attempt to argue that their identity is invalid, etc.

We don't face that issue with str8 identified bisexuals, just a whole host of other issues that fall under the general rubric of homophobia, and then maybe a smaller set of issues around figuring out where the sexual acts and sexual identities merge and don't merge and how to deal with inherently high levels of fuzziness of identity.

I don't know . . . somehow, we have to get to the point where the level of sensitivity around sexual identity isn't so high, so that it is totally OK to simply be bisexual, or for someone to point out that, hey, maybe you're not straight or not gay, you're bi, without it being such a loaded thing . . .

See, ultimately, I think this is the central, defining rationale for bi-specific organizations.

I think GL(BT) organizations, no matter how hard they try, are just never going to be able to let go of the "us"/"them", black and white, straight and gay binary paradigms. I think there's a lot of research around group dynamics that supports such an expectation . . . . and, unfortunately, that's one of the core issues we face as well: we have a mandate for inclusion and diversity, but the central, defining act of group creation is drawing boundaries and excluding folks.

Thomas

2 comments:

  1. Thomas, thank you very much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking reply. When our very existence is mocked, or self-identifying as bi is held up as being weak or cowardly as in the comments on Towleroad to Ezra, it is hard not to reply in kind in a harsh and hurtful fashion. We know that it actually takes MORE courage to identify as bi than either gay or straight, so the invalidation of those comments is staggering.

    I am a therapist, and I still remember a client in my early days who told me "when you attack my defenses, you make them stronger." When we attack someone's self-identification as straight or gay, we just make them hate us and make the defenses stronger. Bi/pansexuality is the capacity to be sexually aroused by and/or fall in love with any
    gender. We know that; but if someone fits that definition but needs to identify as being not bi/pansexual we can't FORCE them to change
    their minds. Miss Bliss did a wonderful post on her blog as to why it is problematic, which one can click into on the right (Albuquerque).

    Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavior Therapy talks about the first step to change being radical acceptance. Things are the way you
    describe them, but they also need to change (the dialectic). I think a lot of bisexuals who self-describe as gay or Lesbian do so because there is a large gay and Lesbian community that they enjoy being part
    of, which will exclude them if they begin to openly identify as bi. The more we build the bi community, and get the word out that now, for the first time in human history, there IS a bi community, the safer they will feel to
    come out a second time as you said. The more out bi's there are, the more the LGT's will see we exist, and are not like the negative
    stereotypes. And a positive upward spiral will happen ....

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  2. Well, if having sex with both men and women doesn't make you bi, what on earth does!?!?!?

    Maybe it makes you homoflexible...?

    But seriously, Thomas is absolutely right that it's nobody's business to tell anyone how to identify. Still, I can't help agreeing with you, Estraven--if you are having sex with both men and women, and enjoying it, it seems like a gigantic effort of cognitive dissonance to then turn around and claim bisexuality doesn't exist. Thomas does make a good point about why internalized biphobia is so strong among homosexual-identified people who are swinging both ways, however. But the thing is, bisexuality is no more a choice than homosexuality.

    The more we build the bi community, and get the word out that now, for the first time in human history, there IS a bi community, the safer they will feel to come out a second time as you said. The more out bi's there are, the more the LGT's will see we exist, and are not like the negative stereotypes. And a positive upward spiral will happen ....

    Yes, exactly. This is something I've been thinking (and blogging) about quite a bit lately, and the reason why I identify as bisexual even though I dislike the binary connotation and feel "queer" fits me better personally. A shared identity is necessary to create that safe space. I consider being out as "bi" a political act--it's about visibility.

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