All I’ve wanted to do this past week is take Cynthia Nixon out, buy her a cappuccino and a scone, and spend an hour or so commiserating over how awful people can be.
On January 19, Nixon, best known for playing Miranda on Sex and the City, was quoted in the New York Times saying that, for her, being a lesbian is a choice. “I understand that for many people it’s not,” Nixon went on, “but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.” Immediately — and predictably — certain facets of the LGBT community were furious. How dare she? they wondered. Who the hell is Nixon to say that being gay is a choice? What right does she have to speak with candor about her own experience, if that experience differs from the message mainstream gay rights activists want America to hear?
All of this was painfully familiar to me. In September, I wrote a column for the Atlantic blog in which I talked about my sexual orientation, which is remarkably similar to Nixon’s: I’ve been attracted to both men and women, but for many reasons I choose to identify as gay. The response to that piece of writing frankly astonished me in its vehemence, and in the coverage that has followed Nixon’s remarks it’s impossible to miss the let’s-put-her-in-her-place indignation I grew to know so well. The tone of the commentary tends to be either condescending or rage-filled, often both. I wish I were surprised.
Most of the negative responses to Nixon have converged around one point: She describes herself as gay, not bisexual. In follow-up comments to the Daily Beast, Nixon said she “just [doesn’t] like to pull out” the B-word, implying that she identifies with it, but chooses to call herself “gay” for the sake of argument because it’s simpler. Well, duh, chorus Nixon’s critics. You didn’t choose to be gay; you were simply born bisexual. That explains it.
Except it doesn’t actually explain anything. Simply slapping a label that says “bisexual” onto Nixon — or me, or anyone else who falls outside a clearly delineated gay/ straight dichotomy — and expecting that to be the end of the conversation is reductive, simplistic, and insulting to everyone whose sexuality is somewhere in the gray area.
Let’s talk about me for a moment, both because that’s my favorite thing to do and because I can’t speak to Nixon’s personal feelings and history. For my part, I don’t see how including the word “bisexual” in my story changes anything about who I am and where I’ve ended up. I’ve been attracted to men and women; I’ve had sex with men and women; I’ve been in relationships with men and women, so sure, call me bisexual if you want. I prefer “queer,” for all the reasons typically cited by young, trendy, white, urban queers, but whatever, I’m not going to fight with you over semantics.
But when I read the original sentence by Nixon that prompted this whole firestorm — “I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better” — something in my soul tingles with recognition. I enjoy sex with men, but I enjoy it with women a lot more. The best sex I’ve ever had with a man is filed, in my head, under “almost like doing it with a woman.” The worst sex I’ve ever had with a woman is labeled “too much like doing it with a man.” Someone will argue here that the distinction between what men and women are like in bed is impossible to quantify because of individual differences in preference, style, athleticism, flexibility, chemistry, etc., and so “like a woman” is basically a useless descriptor; I agree. Still, I can’t help but notice that a combination of experience and (perhaps) innate predilection has left me with a strong association between “ladies” and “good sex.”
If it was preordained by my genetics that I would be attracted to people of both genders, so be it, but that’s only part of the story. The other part — the much more important part, to me — is how and why I came to prefer women. Because I absolutely, unmistakably do. Men and women both have the power to make me turn my head on the street, but even if I weren’t marrying my amazing partner in six months, I would have no interest in ever dating a man again. I feel more comfortable, more relaxed, more myself when I’m in a relationship with a woman. I know on some basic, ineffable level that women are where my body and heart are most at home.
And that knowledge is not something I was born with. It’s not even something I realized late in life, with the shock of a revelation, rearranging everything I knew about myself into an order that finally made sense. I know that’s how it happens for a lot of people, but it wasn’t that way for me. I dated men; I was happy dating men; I knew I was also attracted to women, but acting on that attraction was something I figured I could take or leave. My pronounced preference developed over time, as a result of experiences I had and choices I consciously made. If any one of a thousand things in my life had gone differently, I could be engaged to a man today.
So what difference does it make whether or not I call myself bisexual? My story and my life are too complicated to be summed up and dismissed in that one little word. What is crucial to me is that I chose the relationship I’m in today, and I chose to align myself, personally and politically, with the lesbian community. If I’m a bisexual, I’m a bisexual who is only interested in dating or sleeping with women. I’m a bisexual who thinks John Barrowman is insanely beautiful, but has zero interest in putting any part of my body on any part of his body. I’m a bisexual who would rather lick a clitoris than literally any other activity in the world. I’m a bisexual who is practially indistinguishable from a great big lesbian.
I’m not saying that homosexuality is a choice for everyone. Obviously, it isn’t. But for those of us whose sexual attraction is fluid, or shifting, or somewhere in the middle, or directed towards people who are not unambiguously men or women, devoting ourselves exclusively to same-sex partners can be a choice — a choice many of us make joyfully and with our eyes wide open. What’s so scary and infuriating about that?
Proponents of the “born this way” theory often argue that we must be gay from birth, because no one who didn’t have to would ever choose to face the hatred and persecution that LGBT people deal with every day. I believe this argument does a grave disservice to the strength of our community, the support we offer each other, the blissful unconventionality of our relationships, and — yes — the awesomeness of our sex lives, all of which are reasons why homosexuality is my choice. Yes, being gay means receiving a disproportionate share of discrimination and mistreatment, and it is crucial that we talk about that and fight against it with all our strength. But it’s also crucial that we acknowledge the positive side of being gay, and celebrate it. If homosexuality were nothing but shame and sorrow, I would have stuck with men, and I bet Nixon would have too.
Maybe that’s what scares the “it’s not a choice” crowd. I am exactly the sort of person the rabidly homophobic right is worried about their children growing up to be: I am someone who could have been straight, but chose not to. If gay rights and the queer community hadn’t been part of my life, part of my political awareness, from an early age, I might have pursued relationships with men my whole life long and never known what I was missing. The Rick Santorums of the world say, “If we let gay people have rights, then everyone will want to try it,” and I say, “Why not? I did.”
This is one of the reasons mainstream gays and lesbians offer for their fury at stories like Nixon’s and mine: We are fueling the fire. We are offering ammunition to the enemy. We are, personally, just by telling our stories and owning our histories, setting back The Cause. As though, if it weren’t for us, Republicans from sea to shining sea would be lining up to vote in favor of gay marriage. As though as soon as we’ve convinced everyone that we really, really can’t help it, homophobia is going to magically disappear.
The thing about people who hate us, though, is this: They hate us. They are going to hate us no matter what we say. There is no way we can spin ourselves that will convince them that we aren’t dirty, perverse, broken and disgusting. They will fight to the bitter end to deny us any crumb of fair treatment under the law, and it’s not because they care whether we were born this way or not. It’s because they believe that, no matter how we ended up this way, we are fundamentally worth less than them. Their rhetoric makes it clear that they barely see us as human. So why are we letting them dictate the terms of our conversations? They are always going to come after us — and by us I mean the entire LGBT community, but I especially mean those of us who are on the fringes of even that marginalized group: we who are bisexual, who are transgendered, who are gender-queer, who are outsiders; we whom the mainstream gay rights movement will turn its back on in a heartbeat, if it looks like it might help The Cause.
What cause? The cause of being as much like straight people as possible? The cause of never threatening anyone’s preconceived notions of what gender and sexuality mean, or how they function in the world? The cause of winning the approval of people with small minds and stunted souls? That’s not something worth fighting for, to me. If your cause doesn’t have room for fluidity, for idiosyncrasy, for experimentation, for honesty, for quirks, for queerness, for joy, then you and I are not on the same side.
I want to celebrate our experiences in all their glorious specificity. I want to insist on the legitimacy of my own story without someone else telling that I’m undermining theirs. There is no reason why my choice cannot coexist with your knowing since birth. There should be room in the queer community to honor all of our histories, no matter how little they resemble one another. We of all people should know that the most common experience is not the only correct or allowable one. My story may not be typical, but it is mine, just as Cynthia Nixon’s is hers. No, we didn’t choose to be attracted to both men and women — but we chose what to do about it. Calling us “bisexual” doesn’t explain away any part of the thrilling complexity of our lives. It’s the beginning of a conversation, not the end.