Thursday, December 22, 2011

Living Bi, Thoughts on A Year Straight

By Faith Cheltenham

In between the pages of Marie Claire, I found a lovely review of “A Year Straight: Confessions of a Boy-Crazy Lesbian Beauty Queen”.   From the very beginning it seemed like a bisexual story, but the word bisexual was nowhere to be found.  I emailed the agent and the author to request an interview as I just had to know, is this a bisexual person hidden by society or by themselves?  

“It was Shark Week.  We watched episode after episode until sundown, at which point I dragged myself to the subway and made my back to my brother’s house.  
The odds of being attacked by a shark are one in eight million.  What are the odds of meeting that special single someone in a city of eight million?” – A Year Straight

The excerpt of A Year Straight has nearly 400 comments.  It’s in the “Women” section of the website, not the cheery rainbow oriented “Gay Voices” area of HuffPo.  Comments from include readers saying “this is a lot like me” as well “this is just another bisexual”.  There’s also a good amount of “she doesn’t have to use a label if she doesn’t want to”.

In contrast, over at, a Lesbian reviewer is outraged at the book and its lack of the word bisexual. Managing Editor Trish Bendix remarks that “the first problem with this memoir is…that author Elena Azzoni ‘goes straight’.”  The second problem according to Bendix is that “Bisexuality is not once mentioned. The idea of either being a lesbian or being straight is the perpetuation of a terrible stereotype.”  As a bisexual activist I can’t argue with that sentiment, but I find it curious that Bendix goes onto say that “Elena doesn't even consider the fact that her attraction to men could mean she's interested in exploring her sexual fluidity instead of a quarter-life crisis indicating she's meant to be with a guy. “  

Is it just the lack of key terms like bisexual, pansexual, fluid and/or sexual fluidity that leads Bendix to assume the heart of Elena’s matter?  In short, are you bisexual if you don’t use the word bisexual to self-identify?  In my opinion, Bendix incorrectly summarizes the earliest content of the book as it’s overarching theme when she says, "In fact, the whole reason she starts dating guys is because she felt a connection with her yoga instructor. And when she shares her crush with a coworker and gets a Brazilian wax, she decides to keep trying to date men because she didn't want to let all that go to waste."

First of all, Brazilian waxes shouldn’t be so lightly discounted!  It’s a huge investment charmingly well described by Azzoni when she says , “I did not recall feeling that exposed during my last wax job, or during any pap smear for that matter”.  All joking aside, it seems to me that Bendix is indeed well meaning in her assessment of A Year Straight; but her assumptions of bi people get in the way of her intended defense of the fluid community. 
“I didn't want to want men.  I didn’t want to end up like those women I overheard in restaurants and bars, catching wind of phrases like ‘He always’ and ‘He never,’ their martinis teetering on active fault lines.  Many of my friends had nothing but horrible luck with men, and there was no reason to assume I'd be spared. – A Year Straight

In my experience the bisexual process of coming out and accepting yourself goes through several stages.  If I had to distill it down to six steps said to a bisexual self at least once, it would go a little like this:
1)    Oooh he’s hot!  Wow, she’s so cute.  Wait?  What is this?  Am I lesbian?  Am I gay? Am I Straight?  What the heck is going on?!

2)    Hey Angelina Jolie/ Evan Rachel Wood/Alan Cummings have said they’re bisexual?  What is this word bisexual?  How do I split myself in half and like each equally?  Do I do it at the same time?  Shall I be gay and then be straight or vice versa?  How long do I get to make up my mind?

3)    Ok, after talking to friends and telling people I’m bisexual, it’s not really working out.  Gay guys don’t want to date me since they think I’m still in the closet or I’ll leave them for a woman.  My friends insist my relationship history decides my orientation so I’m going to have to be a Lesbian.  I can’t be straight, is there another word I can use that won’t make people think all these horrible stereotypes are about me?  Oh look at that, pansexual!  I like pans, or Pan, or a word that means I can love and/or lust regardless of gender!  Oh what do ya see there, something called Fluid?  That’s also pretty appropriate because I do change over time and can be fluidic in my sexual/romantic attractions.

4)    Ok, now that I’ve been fluid and/or pansexual for some time, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.  I think the word bisexual is more political and we have to band together or else these Lesbian/Gay and Straight people will think they keeping running into the same one of us.  Let’s have Bisexuality as an umbrella term shall we?!

5)    Oh, you don’t want to use the term bisexual because you believe it re-enforces the gender binary?  Don’t you know that’s just internalized monosexuality coming out to bite you?  Ah, you don’t like the term because it means you have to be equally attracted to women and men at the same time?  I see, you have a problem re-claiming a term that was used as a clinical designation?  It’s not cool using a term to self-identify that people have considered a slur in the past?  WELL, YOU’RE JUST NOT BISEXUAL ENOUGH!

6)    I’ve now spent enough time with bi people and with myself to understand one word will never be enough to describe our awesome diversity.  I’m ok calling myself bisexual, and if you want to be pansexual, fluid, queer or labelless, I shall embrace you and call you my brother or sister.  After all, what fits for one person doesn’t fit for another, and what is our orientation if not flexible?  

Prior to interviewing Elena for this article, I sent her “A Guide to Bisexual/Pansexual/Fluid Etiquette” which was co-developed by myself and the amazing Becky Saltzman for the 2011 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force “Creating Change” conference.  The NGLTF was ever so kind to include it in the Creating Change program last year which did much to make bi/pan/fluid and labelless people feel welcome.  During our interview Elena shared her own thoughts on the terminology:
Faith:  How do you feel about the word bisexuality?  Would you use it to describe yourself?
Elena: Well, it’s really interesting you ask that.  I’ve only been really encountering this word in terms of myself, after the book came out.  I identified as lesbian for so long, I was immersed in the lesbian community -- this is home for me.  Now that the book has been out, I have many people who ask me about [bisexuality].  I really enjoyed the “Guide to Bisexual/Pansexual/Fluid Etiquette” because it suits me more than I thought; I had cringed at it for so long because I have my own preconceived notions to what that means.  For me I thought it meant I was equally attracted to men and women at any time of my life.  Bi folks have a bad rap, there tends to be misconception about people.
I think it’s not only about me; it’s about spreading this idea so that other people have that understanding too.  I'm firmly no labels right now.
Faith:  What would you say to a young person reading your book, if you could tell them anything about your journey that might help them?
Elena:  Well, I’ve been noticing they have a lot to teach us.  I’m aging myself with this attachment and identity reconciliation; they're a lot more fluid orientated than we are.  There does seem to be a general trend toward non-labeling, you know so and so hooks up with guys but the gay kids can hang with the straight kids whereas when I was in high school, the gay kids stuck together and weren’t out at that time.  To be true to yourself, it’s the hardest thing to do in this life - we need to support each other’s mission to do that.
If you look at the bisexual orientation as being true to yourself, it need not be an impossible mission.  If you read Elena Azzoni’s book, you’ll find it can be a rather funny experience as well.  That’s the thing I enjoyed most about the book, as it’s rare to find a discussion of sexual fluidity among Bridget Jones style self-immolation and Sex and the City quips.
So much of our dating IQ has to do with our socialization into a culture; it’s either Maxim or Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan or Esquire.  If you were like Elena and were “raised” as a lesbian, dating women would be all you knew from college onwards (if not before).   A Year Straight embraces the hilarity that would ensue should you suddenly find a different dimension to your dating life.  Along with accidental enlightenments regarding lubrication or the just a little too soon phenomenon, A Year Straight packs some poignant punches.
“As I drifted off to sleep, I consoled myself by recalling bits of wisdom imparted by surfing instructor, which I vowed to apply to my love life as well: ‘Always check out the surf break before you paddle out.  Watch which way the current is going so you don’t get swept away.  And don’t be afraid.  When it feels right, you’ll know.’  I held on to his words like a life preserver.  – A Year Straight
Eventually it felt right for Elena, and one of her more important pieces of wisdom is to stop “passing up potentially loving relationships”.  If it feels right, you’ll know.  As a whole bi folk must demand that we are accepted by any name we choose; for what feels right is not universal, it is and should be as different and unique as each of us.   Just because it lacks a label, a story so full of fabulously funny and stunning personal insights has the potential to get lost.  How many people will we find if we open our arms to all of us born without boxes?   Like any bi person who’s still stepping through their personal journey to self-acceptance, we must lift up authors like Elena Azzoni and celebrate their wit and willingness to share the road.

Further reading:
*Thanks to The Bi Resource Center, UC Davis BiVisibility Project, Human Rights Campaign, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Sean Cahill, and Robyn Ochs for source material.