Even the Best Books Aren’t Perfect

Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of about half a dozen “comfort reads” that I return to repeatedly. It’s a sort of prequel to her space opera series, The Vorkosigan Saga. Really two books combined, it details how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met, married, and the events surrounding his conception and birth which heavily influenced who he was in the series. But much as I love Miles, I don’t read it for him. I read it for Cordelia, Miles’ mother. She’s an amazing woman, one of those characters who help me define who I want to be in life. She falls in love with an “enemy”, leaves her planet and family to be with him on his (to her) backward and barbaric planet, and is dropped into the highest levels of politics, civil war, intrigue and assassination. Through it all she maintains an outward calm, and dispenses wisdom, kindness, and common sense to all those around her. All while being completely bad-ass, and without being even a little bit Mary Sueish.

But as much as I love, adore, and continually re-read this book (and many other Bujold books too), there are a couple of problems with it. There are two big ones. The first is a lack of racial diversity, but that’s not really what I want to talk about today (it’s an important point, and worth noting, but not one I usually feel qualified to write about. I’m sure others have written about it somewhere on the web however).

The other problem is also an issue of representation, but it’s an issue of sexuality not race. There’s a scene where a political enemy of Cordelia’s husband Aral is trying to blow up their (very happy) marriage by telling her “scandalous” things about his sexual history. The enemy misjudges his target pretty thoroughly, as what he (and much of the Barrayaran society) considers scandalous, Cordelia considers entirely normal and perfectly logical. Particularly in the realm of sexuality and gender roles. The whole scene is a couple of pages, and it’s generally clever and wonderful and satisfying in that “ha! take THAT you unmitigated ass” sort of way. But right in the middle is this:

He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.
“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

And there’s the problem. Here, written bluntly out in black and white is an incredibly bi-phobic statement, one which is often used by narrow-minded people of all sexualities to justify to themselves why they won’t date/marry/love bisexuals, no matter how delightful the person might be otherwise. They want a monogamous commitment. Bi people aren’t capable of commitment, or we’re greedy, or we’re born cheaters, or whatever.

This is all complete tripe of course. Bisexuals are monogamous, non-monogamous, equally attracted to both sexes, or attracted to a whole range along the gender spectrum, or mostly attracted to one gender with the occasional crush on the other, or sometimes even asexual (though then they’re usually referred to as bi-romantic I believe). We can be bisexual without ever experiencing a relationship or a sexual encounter with one whole gender. There is no one way to be bisexual. But the important point here is, bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. Lemme repeat: Bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. 

Nor is bisexuality something you “used to be.” Bisexuality is not a “phase” we grow out of. This myth stems from the tendency for lesbians and gays to identify as bisexuals on their way to their true sexual identity in an effort to soften the “blow” to those around them. But they’re no more bisexuals than closeted LGBT people are straight. And their misappropriation of the label doesn’t negate the truth of it as an identity for actual bisexuals, and I sure wish people would quit trying to use them as examples to prove it’s all a phase and we’ll grow out of it, one way or another. Thank you, but no I won’t.

One of the things that makes me saddest about this little bit of ignorance (for, given her writing on other topics relating to sexuality I do believe this bi-phobia grows from ignorance on the author’s part, not malice) is what a missed opportunity it is. Here Bujold has set up a major supporting character from a very popular SF series, and he’s bisexual. But also happily married, successful, and his life is not ABOUT bisexuality. It informs his past, which has repercussions on his life during the course of this book. But with this one line, she completely negates all the good that was possible. She blatantly states that his bisexuality was a “phase” and he no longer “counts” as bisexual because he’s monogamously married to a woman. It’s such a tiny mistake to have made, and yet so very damaging to a certain portion of her readers.

This is one of the things that terrifies me so much about writing. If one of my favorite authors — a woman whose writing I admire and wish to emulate and a multi-award winning novelist — can make such an egregious mistake in representation, then what’s to keep me from making one just as bad? I want to write good representation in the characters I create, but I often feel paralyzed by doubt. I read and read and read stories and theory and advice by those whose lived realities I would like to reflect in some way in my fiction. And yet it is still possible, nay even probable, that I’ll make a misstep as grievous as this one, or perhaps even worse.

Writing is a scary business, especially when writing from a perspective not your own.


Invisibly Bi

Evidently today is Bisexuality Awareness Day (also known as Bisexuality Day or Bi Visibility Day). I usually miss these sorts of things, the many days for awareness or remembrance or pride for this or that. They tend to fly by me while I do other things, and I find out the next day or the next week. Or else I learn about them in time, but I just don’t have anything particular to say on the subject. But today is different. I was reminded in time to say something, and more importantly I have something intensely personal and perhaps even important to say on the subject.

You see, I’m a bisexual woman, and as such I am almost entirely invisible. Part of this is because I came to the realization of my own sexuality rather late, after I was already married to a man. Part of my invisibility is my own fault for being rather reserved and private with that part of my life. People presume I’m straight based on my long term, stable heterosexual relationship, and since I’m almost never trying to have sex with them it seems entirely moot to correct the assumption unless they specifically inquire. Hence, very few people know about my true orientation. My husband. My doctor. A few friends with whom the subject has come up.

A significant cause of my late realization (I was 25) is because of the overall invisibility of bisexuals. Bis in hetorsexual relationships are presumed straight and those in homosexual relationships are presumed gay. Meanwhile, many otherwise enlightened people perpetuate the stereotypes of bisexuality. That it’s a myth, and we’re really just partially-closeted homos. That we’re just sex-crazed. That we’re selfish. That we can’t be monogamous. That it’s all just a phase. The myths are pervasive, and even while speaking out against them, I still sort of bought into them on some level. I didn’t know any bisexuals (that I was aware of), and there aren’t a whole lot of them in media either who aren’t raging stereotypes. I had no hard data, just a gut-feeling that bisexuality was too a Real Thing.

Like most teens, my sexuality began to develop and I started to Notice boys. I also started to Notice girls. I even found myself kissing a few, and finding it not unpleasant. But my undeniable attraction to boys cemented my own (and everyone else’s) assumption that I was just straight and it was all just a phase. But the attractions never went away, and eventually I began to develop romantic interest, budding crushes never fully realized, for women. All this was complicated by the loving and increasingly serious relationship with my boyfriend…who I then married.

I finally realized, admitted, and said out loud “I’m bisexual” after several months of marriage. We had begun reading and listening to Dan Savage’s sex advice column. We found it amusing and educational all at once, and it really opened both our eyes about a lot of things. One of the things I  heard consistently were calls from bisexuals. Men, women, experienced and inexperienced, out and closeted. All called or wrote in and asked questions or told Dan their stories. And some of them started to sound awfully familiar. Suddenly, there was a category for me, one that seemed to describe and explain the things I had been feeling for years, in ways the stereotypes never had. I had a sudden Moment of Clarity. I nervously broke the news to my new husband (over Skype, as logistics had decreed we spend a few months apart). He replied “Well, yeah? Uh, so what? You planning to leave for a woman or something?”

The erasure of bisexual experience from our cultural consciousness contributes to the confusion, fear, and distress of bi-teens who have no idea how to explain what our society so frequently claims doesn’t even exist. But today is a day to stand up and be seen, so those around us know we exist.

*Takes a big, deep breath for courage*

I’m a Bisexual woman.

My relationships do not define my sexuality.

I’m Bi, and I will not be erased.