On Thursday, the New York Times Magazine released Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ lengthy exploration of the bisexual movement, for which the author, among other feats of journalistic rigor, wore a “penile-strain gauge” while watching porn in a vinyl armchair at a Northwestern laboratory. The article is funny and fascinating, an incisive dismantlement of myriad pernicious myths about bisexuality. But strangely, Denizet-Lewis fails to address the niggling question at the heart of the modern bisexual movement: What does bisexuality, as an identity, actually mean?
MARK JOSEPH STERN
Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.
In a very basic sense, of course, the definition of bisexuality is obvious: The desire to have sex with both men and women. But scratch at that rudimentary surface and you’ll find a tangle of contradictions. Start with the stereotypes: Bi men are often perceived to be gay men with forays into heterosexuality—yet bi women are frequently painted as straight women with forays into homosexuality. According to general cultural wisdom, then, the bi male baseline starts at gay, while the bi female baseline starts at straight. And no matter how close bi people move toward a Kinsey 3, society will never allow them to completely shake their purported starting point.
Those are only the clichés, of course; within the bisexual movement, the antinomies grow far sharper. Is bisexuality the ability “to fall in love with people regardless of their gender,” as Denizet-Lewis’ bisexual friend states? Or is it, as others insist, the ability to fall in love with both men and women in part because of their genders? Each of these stances is really quite distinct; the former ignores (or transcends) gender, while the latter embraces both genders equally. Yet both of them wind up shoehorned into the umbrella category of “bisexuality.”
Of course, all this questioning is in some ways a political trap—the end-goal of the LGBTQ movement as a whole could be described as a world in which the interrogation of individual (consenting adult) desires is no longer a cultural pastime. That said, as a thought experiment, it’s interesting to consider the black hole at the center of Denizet-Lewis’ piece: Is bisexuality even an identity, in the way that homosexuality is?
The bisexual movement understandably wants us to believe it is, which makes sense; after all, the gay rights movement only found success by painting homosexuality as something you are, not something you do. But isn’t bisexuality, by any of the above definitions, very much something you simply do? Several of Denizet-Lewis’ interviewees seem to suggest so; when musing about their sexual experiences, never does any of them claim that their bisexuality meant anything more than the sum total of their romantic and erotic desire for men and women.
If you believe, I suppose, that homosexuality means nothing more than same-sex desire, then none of that should matter. But if you believe that being gay is an identity, that there is such a thing as gay culture and a shared gay experience beyond the parameters of sex, then these are questions of tantamount importance. Not one of Denizet-Lewis’ interviewees ever says that there’s more to the bisexual identity than its bare, sexual core. That paucity could be a product of the types of questions Denizet-Lewis asked, or it could be that his informants don’t cotton to the idea of bi-as-worldview presented by theorists like Shiri Eisner. But either way, the bisexual community depicted in this story exists primarily to further the visibility of bisexuals.
If you dwell too long on the interviews in Denizet-Lewis’ story, you might come away from it feeling that bisexuality, as an identity, is little more than a useful fiction. Don’t believe it. The problem lies not in bisexuality itself, but in the modern bisexual movement, which has failed to articulate a coherent platform beyond its initial goals of recognition. If bi activists continue to define bisexuality as nothing more than a more imaginative set of erotic and romantic urges, they’ll further forestall the development of a mature bi culture—giving us no more than the completely sex-oriented definition we started out with. Bi people deserve better than that. It’s time for their movement to stop substantiating its own existence and start trying to give that existence the cultural substance it craves.
ISTANBUL, Turkey—At a political rally on a gusty January day, Asya Elmas—a transsexual woman, sex worker, and first-time candidate for city council in Kadiköy, a liberal neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian side—stood front and center with a fellow activist who was holding a large rainbow flag high over her head. She was there to gently remind Sirri Sürreya Önder, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul and the rally’s focal point, of an increasingly vocal constituency: Turkey’s LGBT community.
Elmas, the HDP’s nominee in Kadiköy, is running on a platform of greater rights for LGBT people and sex workers. Both the HDP and its mayoral hopeful advocate for Turkey’s minorities, but at the January rally Önder, who rose to fame after his participation in last summer’s Gezi Park protests, failed to acknowledge the LGBT community. “He was on top of the bus and he mentioned every group but us,” Elmas tells me when we meet a few weeks later in her apartment. “So I yelled, ‘Sirri, LGBT protesters are here, too!’ He didn’t hear, so I yelled again.” She smiles. “Then he mentioned LGBT. It was really nice.”
Elmas is one of 10 LGBT candidates—five of whom represent the HDP—running in Turkey’s local elections on March 30. This robust representation on the ballots of major parties—10 months after LGBT activists positioned themselves on the front lines of the massive anti-government protests that were sparked by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to bulldoze Istanbul’s Gezi Park—is a breakthrough for the movement. “It’s the first time they’re nominated in places where they can be elected,” says Irem Koker, a reporter at Hurriyet Daily News. A decade ago “it was a completely ignored issue,” Koker adds. “By definition everyone thought that everyone else was straight. Now we are talking about the existence of LGBT people in society.”
In recent years Turkey has undergone a series of democratic openings, rooted in Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ambition to join the European Union and the requisite human rights reforms. Some religious and ethnic minorities, like Kurds, have gradually attained greater (although still partial) rights, and as the economy has strengthened and education has improved, Turkish society has opened to the world. The LGBT community had some reason to hope that the AKP’s progressive outlook—whether genuine or opportunistic—would benefit them. Before Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003, he remarked during a televised discussion that “it is essential that LGBT’s human rights be protected before the law.” In 2003, two years after the AKP was founded, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to host a pride parade. By 2011 Istanbul’s parade was the largest in Eastern Europe.
In office, though, Erdoğan has proved unwilling to grant the LGBT community these rights, declaring the Turkish public “not ready.” Abuse and discrimination are common, and there is no protection under the law based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Some provisions within the legal code formalize discrimination in the hands of prosecutors, police, or judges, who can target citizens for violating vaguely stated laws against “public exhibitionism” and “offenses against public morality.”
In 2010, when Selma Aliye Kavaf, then minister of women and family affairs, called homosexuality “a biological disorder, a disease,” the outcry came from the public, not the government. “As a society it’s a fact that we listen to the words of our leaders,” Elmas told me. “And these people’s words about us are hateful and humiliating.”
Any optimism among the LGBT community that progress would come through the AKP quickly dissipated. Activists became self-reliant, and have managed to push for acceptance by making themselves more visible. But without the cooperation of people on an official level, there are limits to what they can achieve.
“The LGBT rights movement has been working hard to introduce anti-discrimination clauses, [but] the government constantly rejected all such proposals,” Volkan Yilmaz, the head of the Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association in Turkey, writes in an email. “Unless the current political composition of the parliament changes, I am not optimistic about the prospect of Turkey recognizing LGBT rights.” In order to push Turkey in the right direction, LGBT activists would have to run for political office. After Gezi, they are seizing the opportunity.
Elmas lives in a mostly featurelessneighborhood on Istanbul’s European side. I visit her on a Friday afternoon, as she and four friends eat a late breakfast of olives, yogurt, and cheese, spread out on a thin, blue cloth on the living room floor. A large flat-screen television dominates the front of the room, and over the threadbare couch Quranic verses are tucked into a framed tapestry portrait of an Alevi mystic. Elmas is not Alevi herself, but she says she and her roommate display the portrait as a show of solidarity with Turkish Alevis, a persecuted religious minority. She is upbeat about her campaign. “It’s going well!” she says cheerily, offering me soft Kurdish cheese wrapped in a hunk of white bread shaped like an elongated football.
While they eat, the group discusses how to use footage from Elmas’ time at the Gezi protests in a new campaign video. A previous video, of Elmas standing on a street in Kadiköy brandishing a piece of garbage while complaining about the neighborhood’s lack of trash cans, did well on Facebook. This installment would be more serious. Since moving to Istanbul more than a decade ago, Elmas has worked as a prostitute. Her political awakening came only last summer in Gezi Park, where she was introduced to other activists. Securing rights and protections for Turkey’s sex workers is part of her core platform, but it’s a difficult one to address. “I define myself as a sex worker who has to be a sex worker,” Elmas tells me. “I’m one of the groups that is the most suppressed, suppressed to the bottom of society.”
In this photo taken Sunday, March 16, 2014, Rev. Christopher Senyonjo, 82, gives a sermon on human sexuality at his makeshift church, the size of a small office, in Kampala, Uganda.
1 day ago By RODNEY MUHUMUZA of Associated Press
Dressed in a purple shirt and white collar that highlight his Anglican faith, Bishop Senyonjo doesn’t organize his Sunday evening prayers for homosexuals only. But his sermons attract many gays who are familiar with his sympathetic views in a country where other Christian preachers have led Uganda’s anti-gay crusade.
For ministering to homosexuals, Senyonjo has become estranged from Uganda’s Anglican church. He was barred from presiding over church events in 2006 when he wouldn’t stop urging his leaders to accept gays. The parish that he once led doesn’t even acknowledge his presence when he attends Sunday services there, underscoring how his career has suffered because of his tolerance for gays in a country where homosexuals —and those who accept them — face discrimination.
“They said I should condemn the homosexuals,” he said, referring to Anglican leaders in Uganda. “I can’t do that, because I was called to serve all people, including the marginalized. But they say I am inhibited until I recant. I am still a member of the Anglican church.”
In a statement earlier this year, the head of the Anglican church in Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, said the church was committed to offering “healing and prayer” for individuals “who are confused about their sexuality or struggling with sexual brokenness.”
Senyonjo disagrees with that stance, arguing that because “in every society there is a small number of people who have homosexual tendencies,” gays can’t be expected to change their sexual orientation.
The short, stocky 82-year-old cleric is a reassuring presence for Ugandan homosexuals pummeled by rampant anti-gay sentiment across the East African country. Many gays in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, have fled their homes to places they deem safer, Senyonjo said on a recent Sunday as he waited for the first congregant to arrive at his makeshift church, the size of a small office. One man quietly took a seat, then two more. In the past, Senyonjo noted, many more people have been in attendance, perhaps indicating that some gays are now too afraid to even attend his service.
Homosexuality was largely an unspoken subject in Uganda before a lawmaker, saying he wanted to protect Ugandan children from wealthy Western homosexuals, introduced a bill in 2009 that originally proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts. The legislation, widely popular in Uganda but condemned abroad as draconian, allows up to life imprisonment for homosexual acts. In signing the bill last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he wanted to deter the West from promoting homosexuality in Africa.
Ugandan homosexuals say the new law was encouraged by some United States evangelicals who wanted to spread their anti-gay agenda in Africa and Senyonjo says that it isn’t a baseless allegation. One day in 2009, he said, he attended a workshop at a Kampala hotel where he heard an American evangelical, Scott Lively, speak strongly against homosexuality. Lively, who has previously told The Associated Press he advised therapy for gays but denies urging severe punishment, has since been sued in federal court under the Alien Tort Statute that allows non-citizens to file suit in the U.S. if there is an alleged violation of international law.
The enactment of Uganda’s new anti-gay law has spread fear among homosexuals, forcing many to flee to so-called “safe houses” where their new neighbors don’t know they are gay. Such houses tend to be single rooms that are more likely to be locked up day and night because of safety concerns. One gay couple, playing cards inside their room, said they fled an angry mob in their former neighborhood. Another couple, bored from spending so much time indoors, plotted how to flee Uganda when their travel documents are ready. Many are jobless and without prospects in the Kampala slum where they live.
Ugandan gay leaders say the anti-gay measure has encouraged public anger against homosexuals. One Ugandan cleric who strongly opposes homosexuality has announced plans to hold a mass rally in Kampala on Monday to thank Uganda’s leaders for passing the anti-gay measure despite Western pressure. The day after the measure was enacted, a Ugandan tabloid printed the names and some photos of people it said were Uganda’s “200 Top Homos.” That list included Senyonjo as an alleged gay “sympathizer,” but he says he wasn’t rattled by the publication and is urging gays not to be “intimidated.”
Senyonjo’s opposition to discrimination against gays has earned him the status of “an elder” in the eyes of the country’s beleaguered gay community, said Pepe Julian Onziema, a prominent gay leader in Uganda who has known Senyonjo for many years. “Our relationship is one of giving support to each other. The backlash that we receive is equally the same,” said Onziema, who added that Senyonjo has taken “a very courageous and brave stand.”
Senyonjo said he lives off “gifts” from his children and friends after his pension was severed as “a kind of punishment” over his pro-gay activities.
“They (church leaders) cut off my pension,” he said. “It is very difficult even for my family. But I know the truth and it has made me free.”
The father of 10 children, Senyonjo sometimes finds it necessary to assert his heterosexuality. A young man recently testified in an Anglican parish that Senyonjo had been a witness to his homosexual past. The man, who now says he is heterosexual, said Senyonjo was part of a group with whom he traveled to neighboring Kenya to attend a workshop on gay rights. That “humiliating” event, Senyonjo recalled, may have led some people to believe he is secretly gay, and the cleric said he was glad his wife wasn’t in church that day.
“I am heterosexual,” he said on the recent Sunday he ministered to three young men.
Senyonjo’s sermon that day focused on what he said was the lack of knowledge about human sexuality. “You counsel them and you find that’s what they really are … homosexuals,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘Don’t be that.’ If someone is an African and you say that they are not African, then you are not doing something right.”
Associated Press journalist Rebecca Vassie in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.
Frank’s essay raises several good questions. Let me try to address them.
1. Procreation. The strongest argument against gay marriage is that no matter how loving and committed a same-sex relationship is, it can’t be a marriage, because marriage has always revolved around the idea of procreation, and same-sex couples can’t produce biological children together. This rule is full of loopholes: infertility or age for opposite-sex couples; adoption, sperm donors, or surrogates for same-sex couples.
Frank says the loopholes discredit the rule. On balance, I agree. I’ve made that argument to opponents of gay marriage. But it’s not a no-brainer. Interrogating every marriage applicant about his or her intention to procreate would be anintrusive nightmare. In contrast, it’s common to ask about the applicant’s sex.
I wouldn’t yield to that rebuttal. I’d argue that if we’re serious about enforcing the procreation rule, age, too, is a relatively simple line to draw. If you apply for a marriage license, we could ask your age just as easily as we ask your sex, and rule you out if you were too old to procreate. But then the other side could protest that we don’t revoke the marriages of people who married young and are now old, so it seems odd to prohibit other old people from marrying.
The exchange would go on and on. And that’s the point. I believe my side has the better arguments. But when we conclude from this that our adversaries are so irrational or bigoted that they can’t be tolerated, we’re pushing the definition of irrationality too far. We’re shutting down the conversation prematurely.
2. Religion. As opponents of gay marriage dwindle to a minority, they increasinglyinvoke religious freedom. Frank notes that this argument is untethered by evidence or logic—it holds that people are simply “entitled to their beliefs”—and therefore, in theory, it would protect the right to discriminate on the basis race as well as sexual orientation. He’s right to raise that concern. We shouldn’t accept such blanket exemptions. People accused of discrimination must produce a rational defense, not a purely religious one.
3. History. Frank refuses to be cowed by the argument that marriage has traditionally been heterosexual. “The fact that something has ‘historically’ been defined in a particular way is not an argument that it should remain that way,” he writes. That’s true. History alone doesn’t prove an institution’s merit. But when we’re talking about reinterpreting an institution to include a new class of relationships, the history of that institution is relevant. In the case of marriage, concerns such as tribalism and property, which used to saturate the institution, have lost some of their power. For that, we should be grateful. But no premise has been more central to marriage than heterosexuality. If we’re going to scrap that premise—and I agree that we should—let’s be honest about what we’re doing. We’re profoundly changing the institution.
4. Discrimination. Frank says court rulings show “there is no rational basis for sexual orientation discrimination—including in marriage.” I’m not so sure that reserving marriage for opposite-sex couples is just another kind of discrimination. Why, for the last 50 years, has it been illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex (under the Civil Rights Act) but perfectly legal to insist that a woman’s spouse has to be a man? The reason seems to be that we treat marriage differently from education and employment. The idea that nondiscrimination in matters of gender ought to extend to marriage is quite recent. Is anyone who hasn’t reached that conclusion in 2014 irrational?
5. Progress. Frank concludes with these thoughts:
Gay marriage is a more recent conceptual possibility because gay identity is a newer development than the construction of race. In a sense, since views on this issue have changed so rapidly, it seems only fair to, as Andrew Sullivan puts it, give people “space” to come along, or even to hold bigoted views in peace. But calling these views today “rational” or “defensible,” or saying they can be “accommodated in a decent society,” as Saletan does, is another matter. Moral positions evolve as new information and possibilities become available. And for all the incessant moralizing of the right wing over the last 50 years, the sin of current opponents of gay marriage is an unwillingness to open their minds to change. There comes a time when there’s only one morally correct answer, and the space for having the wrong answer has dried up. I’d argue that time has come.
This is a beautiful paragraph. I agree with most of it, right up to the point where Frank says opponents of gay marriage haven’t changed. In fact, they’ve changed enormously. On every question, from sodomy laws to job discrimination to marriage, anti-gay politicians and activists have lost public support. The fact that they’re now fighting over same-sex marriage, an idea that was once politically absurd, underscores their retreat. People who would have equated homosexuality with pedophilia 50 years ago have come to accept domestic partnerships or civil unions. Too many gay people have come out. The myths and fears have lost too much credibility. The culture is changing.
We’re not the losers in this fight anymore. We’re the winners. Our task now is to win the right way, not by dismissing our opponents as bigots and haters, but by persuading them that marriage is just as good for gays as it is for straights. We don’t have to shove our answer down their throats. They will come around to it—they’re coming around to it already—because it’s true.
Bisexuality has been the subject of chatter lately, since the New York Times Magazineran a cover story on the quest to prove it exists. There was a time when I used to dread this topic. I’m one of those people who, when pressed, identifies as bi, but far more often says I’m gay. And I’m not alone: When surveyed, a majority of LGB people say they’re “B,” but how many self-identified bisexuals do you know? Most Americans have gay or lesbian friends and associates, but many fewer seem to have bisexual ones that they know of, despite their statistical ubiquity among LGB people.
Why don’t bisexuals like me come out more? Part of it is laziness. But you don’t find many gay or straight people identifying as something other than who they really are just because they’re lazy. Part of it is stigma. As discussed in (and, some say,perpetuated by) the Times Magazine piece, bisexuals get little respect, not only from the world at large, but specifically from gays and lesbians, some of whom have long insisted they don’t exist. There is a widespread belief that those who identify as bi are either in a transitional stage or are lying (to themselves or others)—trying to savor the status of straightitude while enjoying the pleasures of gaydom. And this suspicion of the enduring reality of bisexuality contributes to “bisexual erasure,” which theTimes piece defines as “the idea that bisexuality is systematically minimized and dismissed.”
But stigma doesn’t really explain it either. The brighter line than gay vs. bi is the divide between straight and not, and the ability of so many gay and lesbian people to come out makes it hard to attribute the bi closet, at this point in history, to stigma alone.
There’s something about bisexuality that seems to lend itself to erasure, and not just by an oppressor class but by bisexuals themselves. I think some of the reason is contained in the bright-line distinction mentioned above: Our culture is so infused with assumptions of heterosexuality that crossing that line—between heterosexuality and everything else—becomes a far more meaningful act for many LGB people than where, exactly, we land on the other side.
But the territory on that other side is now taking on new importance in a world where so many gay rights battles are being won. And so it seems an apt time for a closer look at broader questions about the spectrum of sexuality.
A great deal of confusion around bisexuality seems to stem from the crucial but often-misunderstood distinction between identity and behavior. Slate’s Mark Joseph Sterncritiques the Times piece—and bi activists—for insufficiently defining bisexuality as an “identity,” and for leaving the impression that it’s largely “something you simply do” rather than someone you are. If this is true, bisexual erasure is to be expected. Whatever our feelings about monogamy may be, and whatever our success rates in achieving it, most of us, at some point, hunker down with a single partner. If bisexuality is acts-based, it can seem largely irrelevant to say you like both sexes when you’re partnered with one.
On the surface, there’s something perfectly reasonable about defining bisexuality as acts-based. That’s what we do with other identities. Bakers are bakers because they bake. Firemen fight fires. Criminals commit crimes. So bisexuals sleep with both genders, right? But from this simplistic understanding, sloppy stereotypes too easily emerge: Bisexuals must desire both genders equally or they’re not really bi; and if they desire both genders equally, they’ll never be satisfied with monogamy, because they must sleep with someone of each gender consistently to be identifying as bi. Openness to both genders gets redefined as needing both genders. And having a range of desires—which, as Freud pointed out, is the most obvious way to characterize all humans—is reconverted back into the binary our culture just can’t shake: You can like one sex or you can like two equally, but none of this weird spectrum crap.
This is silly. Some feelings and beliefs, as opposed to acts, are considered so profound and enduring that people identify around them regardless of how they behave. Romantic desire may be one of these things. You’re straight or gay even if you’re a virgin. So why not bisexual? Faith is another source of enduring identity, and many religions have their own internal debate about this. Some people don’t consider you a Christian if you don’t, as an act of will, believe in Jesus. Yet I’m a Jew no matter what I do.
I’m also bisexual, no matter what I do—and I don’t have to renew my bi card by sleeping with a woman every 10 years. I don’t scream it out, but I refuse to exorcize that part of myself when the question comes up. I suppose my bisexuality is not as politically or socially useful as my gay identity, accounting for the difference in how I bother to identify publicly. But it’s there nonetheless.
To the extent that I care about bisexual identity, it’s obviously on me that, by too often failing to identify as bi, I’ve contributed to bisexual erasure. And there are some good reasons to care. As Zack Ford points out over at ThinkProgress, “affirming bisexuality is a public health concern,” since bi-identified people face disproportionate mental and physical health challenges, including greater partner violence and harassment.
This is an obvious concern. At a personal level, however, my concern is simpler: I don’t want my feelings negated. It’s not that I need to let it all hang out and be affirmed; I just don’t like people telling me that I don’t (or didn’t) feel what I feel. Especially not if it’s because they have too limited a view of how the world works—there is a narcissistic aspect to the belief that others must have the same sexuality as you do, an inability to step outside of the self to contemplate genuine difference.
What’s it like to have feelings for both sexes? In high school, I was uninitiated and inexperienced in the ways of love. I had crushes on straight boys that went nowhere and did nothing to help deepen my understanding of how to navigate a viable relationship. But I also had sustained crushes on girls. I figured one day I’d have a wife, and I didn’t often stop to contemplate whether that would mean forgoing the kind of sex that excited me even more than the kind you could have with girls.
Had this been as far as I went with women—that is, not far at all—I may never have bothered to identify as bisexual then or since. But it wasn’t. In college and throughout my 20s, I pursued relationships with women (along with more furtive ones with men). A few became serious, lasting on and off for years. We had romantic dinners, long talks, and extremely satisfying sex. Some aspects of those relationships I’ve never matched since. They were deep, intimate, sexual, and satisfying. No matter how you look at them, they were real.
Still, they ultimately didn’t satisfy me enough. I longed for both the male body and connection with what I once described to a therapist as a man’s “himness.” And when it came to sex with women, I was a bit icked out by some sex acts—not really so different from other folks who are icked out by this or that form of sex. A rather analytic person, I agonized for years over what it was about men that I really pined for, something a wiser me later came to appreciate as a mystery better left unsolved.
What’s most notable to me about these experiences is how similar they are to those of non-bi people, even as our culture insists that sexual identity, but not other identities, conform to limiting binaries. Tons of people have relationships with someone who isn’t ultimately right for them, and we don’t say they were faking it for selfish gain. A guy whose strongest attractions were always for leggy blondes could fall for a short brunette, only to leave her for someone more to type. A Jewish girl committed to marrying another Jew could find herself deeply in love with a non-Jew and struggle through a relationship that brings great joy but is ultimately not satisfying (or is). Were these relationships fake, or built on lies?
I’m more drawn to men then women. But the more-than-platonic feelings I had for women (and could let myself have again if I weren’t happily engaged) were real. Gay men don’t have these feelings, so in that one, wholly neutral, and not very interesting way, I am different from gay men. I’m bi. That’s part of my past and, therefore, part of who I am.
I must say, I can’t blame people who worry about dating bisexuals. Given the pressure to be straight that still lingers in our culture, it seems quite reasonable to wonder if a bisexual person of the opposite sex is with you in an effort to be straight, and if you’re dating a bisexual of the same sex, it’s reasonable to wonder if that pressure will eventually get the better of him or her. That’s why our task in life involves knowing ourselves and seeing each other for who we are. And working to avoid the perpetration of unnecessary stigma, which exacerbates this problem. If more of us would focus on those things and less on boxing each other in, we’d all be a bit better off.
Edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon, Gay Propaganda gathers personal testimonies of ordinary LGBT Russians living in Russia and in exile. It is an intentionally provocative riposte to Russia’s recently passed and ill-defined ban on “homosexual propaganda.” The stories gathered in the book offer an intimate window into the hardships faced by Russians on the receiving end of state-sanctioned homophobia, as well as the humor, passion, and resilience people show in the face of adversity.
MARINA & ELENA
When they come home from their office jobs to a small two-room apartment in a tiny town outside of Moscow, Marina and Elena change into almost-matching pajamas with cat-and-paw-print patterns. They are both 28, and they have been living together for less than a year.
Their story began in preschool, when Marina was in love with a boy named Kolya. They were so taken with each other that their parents ended up becoming good friends, staying in touch even after Marina and Kolya’s romance faded.
Marina and Kolya grew up and both married different people when theywere 20—no younger than most Russians. Marina had a son. Nine monthslater, Kolya’s wife, Elena, was due to give birth to a daughter. Kolya suggestedthey go see Marina, whom he hadn’t seen in years. His parents had told himthat she had a new baby with her husband, Vitya. They could go see what areal one looked like.
They went to visit, and the next day Elena had her baby.
At first we didn’t spend all that much time together. Then, as the kids got bigger, we’d take them to places in town. My husband, Vitya, didn’t like to go anywhere. So, often, it would be just the three of us, Elena, Kolya, me, and the kids. Then we started talking to each other online.
We were chatting on Skype, and just talking a lot. Marina has a complicated relationship with her parents and she was having a hard time with it. And things with Vitya weren’t so good. So often she’d come over and cry and just need to talk about it. Do you remember why we started kissing?
I think I was hysterical.
That’s right, she was hysterical. She’d had a fight with her mother and her mother had said a bunch of mean things to her, so Marina was saying, “I’m worthless, no one wants me.” And I was like, “Don’t worry, you are not worthless, somebody wants you.” And I was also like, “Why don’t you have an affair with some other guy?” And then we just started kissing.
I’d had relationships with girls before. It was never an issue for me. But I was Marina’s first woman. So the next day I decided we should have a talk. You know, because she had kissed a girl for the first time and it must be traumatic for her.
So she came over all serious, to have this talk.
And we talked, and Marina was like, “Let’s give it a shot.” And I was like, “Alright, but we are not going to sleep together right away. We’ll take it slow.” Marina had only ever been with Vitya before me. We slept together half an hour later.
I had no issue with the fact that she was a woman. I’d been thinking of having an affair. And I was actually thinking it should be with a woman. Because … I don’t know.
You can’t get pregnant.
That’s one consideration. I have a lot of friends who are lesbians—I met most of them through an online Anne Rice community, so it’s never seemed like a big deal to me.
And then—the thing is, we had no plans to live together, or to build some sort of relationship.
But we told people. You told Kolya almost right away.
By that time, Kolya already had Olya. Even before anything had happened with Marina, he had come to me and said, “Elena, I have fallen in love with a girl on Twitter.” And I was like, “On Twitter?” And he said, “We started corresponding on Twitter and I fell in love.” And I was like, “Kolya, I understand how you can fall in love. But on Twitter?” And he said, “You just don’t understand.” So I said, “Well, alright, you want to love somebody on Twitter, that’s fine, go ahead.” By that time we were really living together as friends, and I thought, if he’s fallen in love, why should I stand in his way? So we decided we’d keep living together for a while, at least until our daughter started school, and then we’d see how it goes.
Plus, his girlfriend was living in a different city and it wasn’t clear when she’d come here or if she’d come at all. And then I got involved with Marina and I thought, what a good thing that he’s got someone else. For the May Day holidays, he finally went to meet her, and it was hilarious: Marina was ironing his shirts and we were sending him off to see his girlfriend.
I took half the clothes out of his suitcase and had to explain to him that these were not the sorts of things he should wear on a date.
Yes, she tells him, “This underwear is faded. You don’t want to be wearing this when she undresses you.” And Kolya was like, “Do you think we’ll be taking our clothes off?” And I was like, “I’m sure of it.”
We got involved in March. In June, the two of us went to Bulgaria with the kids for a month.
Kolya came for a week. He’d take the kids out for walks and then he’d come back and knock for a really long time to make sure he didn’t walk in on anything.
After we came back from Bulgaria, I told Vitya. Elena and Kolya both tried to talk me out of it. They were saying, “Don’t do it, he’ll tell your mother!” But I told him, and he said, “I had a suspicion. All right, if you two are not planning on getting divorces, I guess this is all right. Have a good time.”
Both our husbands had the same reaction: they suggested giving us sex toys as gifts. And I was like, “What do we need those for?” And they were like, “But how do you do it?” Kolya was always nagging me to tell him the details, because he thought it was very exciting that his wife had a girlfriend. But I told him we hadn’t had sex yet and were still in the hand-holding stage.
Vitya would even walk me over to Elena’s house in the evenings.
Vitya is very immature. And he quickly found that this is a very convenient set-up for him, because he didn’t have to take care of Marina emotionally anymore: it was my job now. He’d call me up and say, “Marina is not feeling well. Come over.”
I started spending the night at Elena’s once in a while. My parents noticed and weren’t happy about it. They told my son that I shouldn’t be sleeping over at a friend’s house.
We were trying to take it slow. I mean, we had children and all that and we didn’t plan to live together. Or maybe we did, but abstractly, in some distant future.
But it was hard.
It ended up that we were both living in two places at the same time.
We would do the food shopping for one home, cook together, then go together to the other home and do the same thing. Same thing with the cleaning.
And Vitya started pissing me off, just the fact that he was around Marina all the time. Anyway, it got complicated. And then, in March, their lease was up and the landlord wanted them out. And I said, “Why don’t you move in with me? We’ll see if we can make a go of it together. If it doesn’t work out, so be it.” And she decided to tell her parents.
I was saying, “Why do you need to do it?” And she kept saying, “I want to be honest.”
I thought my mother would take it worse, so I asked my father out to a café and told him, “I’m involved with Elena.” And he was like, “I had a feeling. But you should make a sacrifice for your child. If you don’t like men, you don’t have to sleep with them, but you still should live with your husband for the sake of the child.” Then the mayhem began. First my parents tried to send me to Cyprus to live for a year so I could get my head together. I said I wasn’t going anywhere. Then they said they’d take my son away. They said all anyone had to say was that we were lesbians and we’d lose our children. And Vitya and Kolya should of course take the children away from us.
And then they kidnapped my son for the first time. He was spending the night at their house and they were supposed to take him to preschool in the morning. But they didn’t, saying something about one of them not feeling well. I called in the evening to arrange a time to come pick him up, and my mother said, “We’re going to the dacha and you are not getting him back.” I rushed over, but by the time I got to their apartment, there was nobody home. I went to the police, and the police were like, “But they are his grandparents, what are you so upset about?” But I insisted and they called my parents. My mother immediately explained to them that I am a lesbian and they are saving the child. So the police were like, “Young woman, you know perfectly well why they took your son.”
I told my parents that if my son wasn’t home by Sunday, I would find a way to get the police after them. They did return him on Sunday, but they brought him to Vitya’s house, not to us. And then Vitya brought him here. I didn’t speak to my parents for a month after that. Then they called and suggested a reconciliation. I started visiting them once a week, with my son: we’d come over, sit there, and leave. Then they demanded I see a psychologist. They found one who told me that Elena and I had been unlucky in men and that was the source of our problems. I left. I mean, I’d only gone in the hopes of fixing the relationship with my parents.
Marina is always feeling bad for everybody. She felt bad for her parents— because, you know, they’re her parents. And she felt bad for Vitya, because he is Vitya and none of this was his fault. And she was really hoping to fix the relationship and to be understood, at least a little bit.
Also, my son loves them. And I thought I should try, because they are family. Then I found a counselor myself and we all started going together. That lasted a month or a month and a half.
She would come home from these counseling sessions a total wreck. Because her family would say all these horrible things about how she’s lost and I’m using her and how tragic this is and how she is killing her mother and I am using her.
The sessions ended with the counselor saying, “Just leave your daughter alone. Your problem is not that she is a lesbian; your problem is that you’ve realized you can no longer control her and you are trying to regain control. You should not be doing this.” I guess that’s when my parents decided that this was war.
That was also the point when we moved out of Kolya’s apartment into a rental, which is smaller. And they were like, “The children are going to share a room! That shouldn’t be allowed—they are a boy and a girl!” And we were like, “They are six!” And they were like, “But you sleep in the same bed!” And we were like, “So?”
Yes, and the kids climb into bed with us.
The day before both children were supposed to start first grade, Vitya failed tobring Marina’s son home from a visit. It turned out the boy was at Marina’sparents’ house, and this time they had no intention of giving him back. Theyhad even already taken his file from the school he had been scheduled toattend, and enrolled him in a different one, near their house.
Four days later, Marina and two friends forcibly removed the boy fromhis grandparents’ house; the police would not help them. Marina and Vityaboth filed for divorce, and Vitya was now demanding custody. With Marina’sparents in his corner, he came armed with psychologists who were willing totestify that the women’s lesbian relationship would harm the child. Socialservices were also on Vitya’s side: their position was that while the women’sliving situation was physically suitable for the children, being raised by twowomen would harm the boy.
The day Vitya filed for divorce was the same day a member of the rulingUnited Russia party filed a bill in parliament mandating the removal of children from parents suspected of being gay or lesbian. Clearly, social services were eager to start enforcing this provision. But until the bill became law, social services couldn’t take the kids; they could only help a father like Vitya fight for custody. And Marina’s parents didn’t have standing to file for custody, which is why they had been working on Vitya all summer, so Marina started negotiating with him. After a nerve-wracking five weeks, Vitya relented. They signed a separation agreement giving Marina physical custody, and the court dismissed the case.
We weren’t sure it was going to work out. I’m really difficult to get along with, and Marina is no angel either. When we moved in together, we were like, “Well, we’ll give it a shot but we are not sure.” Plus, the two children. I don’t really like children. And then all this. Of course, they thought I’d bail, that this whole mess would begin and I’d leave her because it’s not like I really need her.
And then I’d have nowhere to go.
My mother said that if this is a genuine relationship then all their efforts will just make it stronger. She said they’d be smarter to wait and see if we wouldn’t just break up on our own. As it is, they did everything to bring us closer together.
Other than that, we’re not romantic. Not at all. Not like Kolya and Olya, who celebrated the anniversary of their first kiss.
And the anniversary of their first almost-kiss! It was very touching. You and I should at least figure out on what date we got involved.
I found a notation in my calendar: “Must talk to Marina. This is fucked up.” I think that would be our anniversary. So we’re not romantic and we don’t have much of a love story to tell. Though now, when I look back, I realize I was in love with Marina for a long time. I’d get jealous of Vitya. Whereas that one, she didn’t care.
I was looking at her and thinking, She would never be interested in me in that way.
We’d see each other and as soon as we parted we would call each other and spend the rest of the day on the phone. And if we weren’t on the phone, we were chatting on Skype. Kolya said to me once, “I have this sense that you have someone else. I even have an idea of who it is.” And I was like, “Who?” And he said, “Marina.”
Last week, administrators at Arkansas’ Sheridan High School censored a yearbook profile of Taylor Ellis simply because Ellis, an openly gay junior, had discussed his coming out story. (Sheridan’s superintendent insisted that the piece was not “consistent with the mission of our school.”) But Taylor and his profiler fought back against the school’s censorship, leading to nationalmedia attention and a publicity disaster for Sheridan. Within days, the Human Rights Campaign also got involved,petitioning the school to reinsert the profile and turning Ellis’ fight into a rallying cry for gay high schoolers across America.
After extensive negotiations with Ellis’ admirably protective mother— “they pissed the wrong momma bear off,” she told me—I spoke with Ellis on Wednesday about the media circus, the high school’s reaction, and the struggle of being a young gay high schooler in Arkansas.
What inspired you to submit your coming out story to the yearbook?
It wasn’t even my idea. My friend Hannah wanted to do a profile on how it’s been since I came out [last year]. I was willing to let her do it because I’m glad someone was interested in my story and about me. I don’t get that very much. I don’t get as much attention as everybody else. So it surprised me that somebody wanted to hear about me.
Hannah was the one who pushed it; it was her thing. But she never asked me anything too personal. She was really nice about it.
How did the press first learn about the story?
Hannah posted it on the Student Press Law Center at the beginning of 7th period—that’s at 1:25. When class got out at 3:05, Channel 4 News was waiting outside for me. I didn’t even know that Hannah was putting it out there. She didn’t tell me. But it’s not like it bothered me that she put it up.
At first, I didn’t see how important it was to her. But when she learned that it’s not going in [to the yearbook], it really upset her. And that upset me. It’s a big deal now.
What has school been like since the story broke?
Horrible. Today was my first day back [after a school trip]. People were talking about it while we were on our trip, texting all of us, making comments. I was about to lose it…
At first, everybody kept quiet. I’m in choir—that’s a good group. All the guys were nice. People were telling me I’m doing a good thing. My teacher said if I had any problems in any other classes I could just come back and sit in her room. … Geometry was fine, too. The teacher was fine with it; she understood and talked to me a little bit. She told me, “it’ll all pass, it’ll all be fine.” She’s a really good teacher. I don’t think she said anything negative to me.
[By] fifth period I was ready for the day to be over. All these people were negative, quiet—just weird. I was ready to be home, just trying to get away from everything. Then I got in the Instagram page someone made that said “Sheridan School = No Gays.” I was looking at all the people [at Sheridan] who liked it and who followed it—people I don’t need to talk to. Three of them were in that class, sitting right across from the room from me. One of them was like, “I have the same lotion you have.” My friend wanted me to flip her off. But I’m not that kind of person.
Did anyone confront you about the story?
One girl started going on this rant that I did not want to hear. I didn’t ask her to tell me what she thought about it. She’s sitting here telling me I’m giving the school a bad name and I’m blowing the school out of proportion. But I don’t even like seeing myself on the news! I don’t like being on TV. I just like posting pictures. I thought this would be fun. But it’s not…
I asked [a few other students] why they were following this hate page [on Instagram]. And my teacher said, you don’t need to be talking about that in class. You need to go sit down. You have assignments to do. This teacher has never gotten onto me, never had a problem with me. But now she just kept saying stuff and I was just sitting there, shaking and crying. That’s what I do when I get mad—I shake and cry.
I just sat there waiting for the bell to ring. Then after class I stopped in my old Spanish teacher’s room. She helped me with everything last year. She does this year, too. But I haven’t had as many problems this year. I’m out and everything’s good. She hugged me and we prayed together. When you hug people, you cry, you know?
Then my teacher said, “we’re going to the counselor’s office because this is bullying and they don’t need to be doing this.” So I sat with the counselor and talked for thirty minutes about everything and about how there are really dumb people in the world. And they’re going to have to accept you whether they support you or not. We’re in America. This is where you express yourself. You don’t hide who you are.
Then I needed to get back to class.
What would you say to other students in your situation?
I’d say it’s OK to be gay. If you ever have any problems, resolve them and don’t give up. If you feel defeated, do not give up. Because I feel defeated right now. But I know I’m not. It’s not done. I know it’s not over. I’m not giving up.