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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Coming Out as a Bisexual Woman When You're Dating a Man

I'm certainly not the only person in the world to have thoughts on this problem, but in the spirit of discussing issues that junior faculty face, as well as having a meta-conversation, here goes:   Very few of my colleagues or students know that I'm bisexual.  Is it because I believe in keeping my "private" life "private"?   Not at all.


The problem is that I do reference my personal life in casual conversation, and I have a boyfriend.   As a result, people around me tend to assume that I'm hetero.  As an extension, many tend to assume that I'm straight: not just hetero, but planning to get married, have children, raise them in a particular way, etc.   (For anyone confused by this, I use "queer" to mean those who are nonconformist with respect to the realms of sexual activity, family structure, and gender performance.   I use "straight" to mean those who are conformist in these realms.  Thus, straight/queer does not map precisely onto hetero/lgb.) If I want to disabuse anyone of the notion that I'm hetero, I must, apropos of nothing at all, advertise my sexual orientation, which I am sure most people would deem to be at best self-important and irrelevant, at worst inappropriate and "too personal."


I could avoid mentioning my boyfriend, but that's not only misleading, I think it's the wrong way to treat someone you care for. The option of calling him my "partner" is one I tried briefly, but it grates on me: The gender of my boyfriend isn't universally irrelevant: It's just not a reason to presume I'm hetero. In any case, many people would just assume I am a lesbian, and if they met my boyfriend, revert to assuming I'm hetero. So, I call my boyfriend my boyfriend, and allow others to assume I am hetero, and straight. But given the false distinction between inaction and action, this makes me feel as if I'm closeting myself.


On the other hand, I never feel as if I can be very indignant about this. I chose to date a man, and we are currently monogamous, so at the end of the day, my life is a whole lot easier than it is for many lgb people. Thus, to proactively remind those around me that I'm bi feels, well, a little like posing.


Why does it matter for people to know that I'm bi?  Of course, nobody likes to spend years of their life fighting for queer rights, only to go in the closet. But it's not just personal irritation and vexation at stake. It is clear to me that my colleagues and students care, sometimes, about the facts that I am not white and am a woman. They have the good sense to know that racism, sexism, and even benign cultural differences produce a variety of experiences and perspectives that are often relevant and interesting. They would similarly care to know, I think, that I have been discriminated against and harassed because of my sexual orientation.


Even more importantly, I suspect that if they knew I'm bi, they would also be more likely to entertain the possibility that I'm queer in other ways, too (and that maybe some of the heterosexual people in the room are, too!).   The more we are reminded of the presence of queers in the room, the more likely we are to interrogate the numerous anti-queer assumptions pervading the law, such as the assumption that everyone wants to, or should, ape the model of the nuclear family.   (Bravo to co-bloggers Ethan, Dan, and Jennifer for doing their part.)


So, what are some creative ways, not just for professors, but for professionals more broadly, to negotiate this and other problems of heterosexism? I seem to have found my way, in the form of this post.

Posted by Gowri on April 9, 2006 at 12:38 AM in Deliberation and voices | Permalink


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Posted by: a | Sep 16, 2006 4:45:42 AM

Rather than silently praise the post, I'll comment & praise the post, given some of the rather crass reactions to it.

I would suggest that G.M.'s problem is not unique to straight/queer, and that thinking of it more broadly might be helpful to her.

People tend to either/or thinking. It saves actually having to pay attention. "There are 2 kinds of people: those who think there are 2 kinds of people, and those who don't."

I'm a Democrat in a red state (Miss.), so when I "come out" politically, people assume that they know what I think about abortion, immigration, capital punishment, etc.--often incorrectly.

So maybe it helps not to see it as merely an example of attitudes towards sex, but rather a reflex of our desire to restrict everything to binaries.

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 14, 2006 2:58:31 PM

"I'm not sure how that's a rejoinder to "NotAnybodyYouKnow", since their point (as it seemed to me, at any rate) was why sexuality would be relevant to students in most classes . . ."

Actually I can see why sexuality might be relevant to some students, in the same role-model way that a professor's being a woman or person of color might be relevant to some students. But serving as a role model is not the same as challenging assumptions--or perhaps I am failing to understand what assumptions (or to use kommishonerjenny's term, what stereotypes) would be challenged by knowing that a professor is bisexual. I guess my real point was that maintaining a professional relationship with students can be difficult enough without inviting them to think about their professor's sexual relationships.

Posted by: NotAnybodyYouKnow | Apr 11, 2006 10:41:52 PM

No, I don't think it's an unreasonable assumption. I think it becomes a problem, however, when a person's merits begin to be measured by conformity to the 90% of the world that does things in a particular way. Or when access to what one wants/needs (whether it be health care, marriage, military employment, or feeling free to talk about one's weekend around the water cooler) is curtailed by participation in the other 90%'s activities. I guess I'd rather communicate openly when people make assumptions about the kind of life I have, rather than let the assumption continue into a potentially larger communication problem.
Again, these approaches may be somewhat less useful in a classroom context, though I agree with Gowri's initial point that bringing in the perspectives of people not addressed by traditional legal structures can be relevant and interesting.

Posted by: kommishonerjenny | Apr 11, 2006 12:13:07 PM

we live in a heterosexist society where one is assumed to be straight unless proven somehow otherwiseI'm not sure how that's a rejoinder to "NotAnybodyYouKnow", since their point (as it seemed to me, at any rate) was why sexuality would be relevant to students in most classes; and in any event, in a broader contact, why would it be in any way surprising (or a problem in any event) that one is assumed to be in the demographic group to which the vast, overwhelming majority of Americans belongs to? Somewhere around 90% of the world's computer users use Windows rather than Linux or a Mac; is it an unreasonable assumption that when someone asks you a question about their computer to assume they are talking about Windows unless told otherwise?

Posted by: Simon | Apr 11, 2006 8:55:51 AM

Hi, RA. "Normal" is actually the word juxtaposed to "queer" by queer theorist Michael Warner. I agree that it is more accurate, but I thought conformist had a more neutral valence, and certainly mean nothing pejorative by it. I'm not a relentless Foucauldian, but I do think that coercion is a factor in all we do, so I don't deem conformist/normal choices to be less worthy of respect than nonconformist/abnormal ones. I make lots and lots of them myself.

Posted by: gowriramachandran | Apr 11, 2006 1:37:19 AM

Are you sure that "conformist" is the *mot juste* for people who conform to traditional norms as to marriage and the like?

The word suggests that they do it for reasons of peer pressure rather than their own preference, which is, to say no more, dubious.

One might say "traditional," but there is more to it than tradition.

I am not altogether sure that the word "normal" is not the right one, except that the antonym is usually felt to have pejorative connotations--connotations that some of us (such as "nk," perhaps?) might think not altogether inappropriate.

Posted by: RA | Apr 11, 2006 12:36:13 AM

Well, I learned a new word: "heterosexism". And that law professors feel a need to be ambiguous about their heterosexuality (because that's the political climate if you want a promotion these days Professor Leib?) And that same-sex marriage is too mainstream for some people. And it took me two days to understand the cesspool I was wading in. I am much unkinder here.

Posted by: nk | Apr 10, 2006 10:11:36 PM

Sadly, NotAnybodyYouKnow, we live in a heterosexist society where one is assumed to be straight unless proven somehow otherwise. So, if you consider saying "I'm bisexual" or "My partner is transgendered" to be talking about one's sex life, then no, it's not possible. Also, I've found that speaking personally is helpful to having productive discussions; people are used to having their assumptions challenged theoretically (I might argue to the point of immunity). It's much harder to believe the stereotypes when one is confronted with a real person with real nuances. This may be sort of moot in law school classrooms, since we mostly just interpret cases, so then I guess the onus is on professors to find nuanced plaintiffs/defendants. But I'm not very good at the law school classroom environment yet.

Posted by: kommishonerjenny | Apr 10, 2006 9:52:00 PM

I don't understand why you would want your students thinking about your sex life. Can you not challenge their assumptions without bringng your personal life into the discussion?

Posted by: NotAnybodyYouKnow | Apr 10, 2006 8:37:52 PM

I agree with Dan about the thorough googling. If only I were such a rockstar!

Not that there isn't something to your point, Simon. I just feel the picture you are painting is far too extreme.

Posted by: gowriramachandran | Apr 10, 2006 6:20:39 PM

This is a great discussion, and I only want to add that I have struggled and (continue to struggle with) these issues since college. That struggle is particularly salient to me right now because I'm teaching a seminar comparing the strategies of the black rights, women's rights, and LGBT rights movements in US legal history, at a law school affiliated with a Baptist University. And so part of my goal, of course, is to flesh out identity issues in relation to all of these groups with students who have rarely if ever encountered them before. Frankly, it strikes me that our societal insistence on requiring people to be in one category for each "important" characteristic is the artificial thing, and may be a result of cognitive bias and improper definitions of our categories. And yet, while there are multiple continuums (continua?) of identity, there are real consequences to picking one or having one placed on you. I don't know how to articulate this well, but it seems that the movements need to be focused on the impossiblity or the falseness of being one thing or another, when most of us are both and more in many senses.

Posted by: Marcia McCormick | Apr 10, 2006 5:21:08 PM

Dan - you mean the normative presumption that one's teacher will always be a neutral, disinterested expositor of the facts, who will clearly delineate what is fact and what is presumption, who will always carefully identify their own agenda? ;) I think - or would hope - that ship sailed several years ago.

Posted by: Simon | Apr 10, 2006 4:20:23 PM

Simon, I'm not sure if Gowri's students are as prone to do due diligence on their instructor as you are upon your blogging interlocutor...if they are not, it might affect the outcome you suspect, no?

Posted by: Dan Markel | Apr 10, 2006 3:30:00 PM

I find those comments reassuring to some extent, but I remain a little sceptical about it. It seems fairly obvious to me that someone who "[a]s an undergraduate, she spent most of her time as an LGBT activist both on and off campus in the state of Connecticut" can discuss such issues with almost total immunity from accusations of homophobia. I rather imagine that the author of Transgenders should be recognized by LGB Co-op can challenge the normative view of students sympathetic to transsexuals, in even the most provocative terms, because you are clearly doing so merely to elicit discussion, and it is pretty obvious to which port you will, in the end, return. However, I suspect that, say, Tammy Bruce (disapproves of failure to treat transsexuality as a disease, but none-the-less white lesbian and thus similarly immune from serious accusations of bigotry) would not get so cordial a response, and a fortiori, a middle-aged male with a general disapproval of "alternative lifestyles." It's the same logic by which can Richard Pryor or Chris Rock get away with having some extremely racist material: you are, if you like, "above suspicion." It really isn't that "challenging" when you're fairly obviously not trying to change their minds, rather than strengthen their normative presumption by identifying and answering potential objections. When I try to challenge people's normative assumptions about what the constitution does and doesn't protect, it isn't because I want to strengthen their arguments - it's because I want to convince them. Maybe I don't do a very good job of that, but at the end of the day, I'd say that's a far more direct challenge to someone's normative assumptions, merely by virtue of the fact that I'm actually following through on the challenge, and rejecting their normative viewpoint, while you - to some extent - do not. Doesn't your kind of normative challenge actually turn out to be fairly soft and cosy if there's no actual danger that someone will change their mind?

Posted by: Simon | Apr 10, 2006 3:12:23 PM

I'd have to agree with Gowri. Lefty normative assumptions also get a good whipping without being deemed hate speech.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Apr 10, 2006 2:36:57 PM

At some very general level what you are saying is surely true, Simon, but I think you are being far too pessimistic. Just this semester one of my classes has challenged lots of lefty assumptions, including some of the ones you list. (coeducation being good, same sex marriage being not a big deal and therefore a good idea, and even racial integration in education being good) Nobody accused me of hate speech.

Posted by: gowriramachandran | Apr 10, 2006 1:33:35 PM

Ethan,[P]art of our job to make students uncomfortable with their normative assumptions. That's something we can all do -- as teachers and mentors -- to help the profession generally.Really? Is that an open-ended commitment, or does it depend what the normative assumption is? Presumably, for example, you'd agree that if the student's normative assumption is that gay marriage is a terrible idea, then the job of a teacher and a mentor is to challenge that normative assumption. I think we'd all agree there. Or perhaps if the normative assumption is that homosexuality is a mental disorder, that's something that should be challenged. Who knows, maybe if they've just moved to college and all their lives they've lived in Idaho surrounded by Republicans, so their normative assumptions should be challenged.

I think all that is fine. I agree that education should challenge assumptions. But I have to wonder how far the principle will actually be observed when it comes to normative assumptions that the teacher shares. That is, does that apply the other way? If a student moves from San Francisco to the University of Utah, should their normative assumptions that homoexuality is okay and that voting democratic is perfectly acceptable be challenged routinely? How about the general normative assumptions that underly liberal political views? How about challenging the idea that co-education is the best way forwards? D'you think Alan Dershowitz would have been happy to have William Rehnquist come in and teach a few of his classes, in the name of "challenging [the class's] assumptions"? Should a teacher challenge the normative assumption of a group of UCLA students that gay marriage isn't really that big a deal and that it should be legal? If a teacher started challenging those normative assumptions, how would the faculty (and the student newspaper, for that matter) respond? By celebrating the commitment of the faculty to intellectual diversity and the challenging of assumptions? Or would it be labelled "hate speech" and generate a lynch mob? I have to suspect that it wouldn't be the former.

I applaud the principal of challenging people's normative assumptions, but I have to admit that I think it's very unlikely that it is normative assumptions that are challenged, in the main; it is, I would suggest, more often going to be specifically those normative assumptions with which the mainstream of faculty opinion disagrees.

Posted by: Simon | Apr 10, 2006 11:46:29 AM

It often amazes me how difficult is for people to accept complexity, ambiguity and ambivalence in sexual orientation/"identity." Even a basic knowledge of the literature and thought of a single civilization--the "West" (to say nothing of others) ought to be enough for a reasonably intelligent person to recognize both the very recent and largely constructed nature of the categories "straight" and "queer." Perhaps it is the influence of a decayed and debased Freudianism, which sees in every sexually ambiguous, ambivalent, or complex human connection, repressed "homoeroticism" or perversity. As for the nuclear family being an inevitable default of social organization or--even worse--the proven means of achieving the greatest good of the greatest number, such views suggest the need for much broader reading and erudition about history, sociology, anthropology, for many if not most of the functioning societies known to us have been characterized by familial arrangements not even closely resembling the nuclear family, and which actually varied enormously even within a single civilization or society according to social caste and religious belief. The nuclear family may be more of a fantasy than a stable normative ideal. Certainly, through most of modern western history, its realization in practice was thwarted by the effects of widespread illegitimate reproduction (out of wedlock) and of fatal diseases/epidemics and war, which led to much messiness in actual familial arrangements. For a long time it was possible to believe in the ideal of a family based on an alliance with another person with whom one would be exclusively intimate for 30, 40, 50 years, since so seldom did that happen, given lifespans--disease, war etc. When peace and modern medicine made it possible, we saw how hard it was psychologically to achieve and preserve such a union in reality, and then we had the divorce rates skyrocket. Either we will have to accept divorce as a probability and try and give the kids stable structures beyond the nuclear family (extended family, friends, alternative caregivers) that survive divorce, or we will have to relax our expectation of exclusivity/monogamy in marriage, or we are headed for widespread misery. Even more so, as pharmacology (Viagra, Cialis, and their soon to be marketed female versions) reverses a moderating factor, namely the decline in sexual activity in late middle age among those with merely normal levels of appetite and energy. Or perhaps we will hold on to the nuclear family because as workaholics in a workaholic north american civilization it is presented to us as the easiest way of organizing our too-busy lives, just as grab food at --, knowing it is crap. Then we would back full circle to the family as simply a reflection of the needs of economic rationality, an arrangement of convenience, not a believable ideal of personal fulfillment. There are few reasons, in any case, to be smug or triumphalist about the nuclear family.

Posted by: Rob Howse | Apr 9, 2006 3:42:00 PM

I have a boring and pedestrian explanation for why you may be uncomfortable with the issue of your bisexuality in the context of your relationship with your boyfriend: it puts the spotlight on the permanence of the relationship. Even if this explanation is correct, however, I think you've made it into an extremely useful trope for examining the issue of the politics of self-identification.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Apr 9, 2006 3:04:53 PM

There have been a lot of really great things said here already about the queering of all kinds of social identities, so I think I'll stick with what I know most about:
I'm in a situation which is somewhat comparable to Gowri's in that my partner is transgendered (born female, now male). At my old job I wasn't out about his transness (transitude?) at all, despite the fact that we both identify strongly as queer, in the sense that we don't follow normative gender roles for the sexes we are perceived to be, and we don't want to live in the type of nuclear family unit some couples do. I felt so invisible when I could only refer to myself as having a "boyfriend", without being able to contextualize what that meant, because being read as straight seemed to automatically also mean we wanted marriage, kids, a home, normative gender, etc. When I came to law school I promised myself I was going to be out as much as possible- so I'm active in OutLaw, refer to myself as queer, mention my partner using male pronouns, and (when relevant, which is not the same as appropriate) that he is transgendered. Just mentioning it makes all the difference to me, even if it feels like I'm dropping bombs in conversation by referencing his transsexuality. And I don't think it's "posing" to mention it a lot, even though we're often read as straight and have a modicum of privilege because of it. Fact is, most queer people are read as straight until we mention otherwise, and most straight people are read as normative until they mention otherwise, so how else do any of us honor our own complexities but by putting others on notice?
In response to Corey's mention of trans folks being "queer" by societal standards: that is, in part, true. However, I would argue that there is equal pressure in the trans community, on one hand to conform to normative gender by being and acting "straight" in behavior and lifestyle, or on the other to eschew normative gender and lifestyle ambitions. In that sense, the gay marriage fight, worthy as it is, has not been a universally good thing in the queer community, because it has created pressure for queers to conform to one type of relationship/lifestyle model, without doing much politically to create support for broadening the definition of what viable relationship models can look like.
And nk, I can't help but wonder where the "indisputable" evidence is that you're referencing. Are you arguing that the rest of us ought to be culled from the herd? I think you'll understand if I can't really get behind that.

Posted by: kommishonerjenny | Apr 9, 2006 2:43:05 PM

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