The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

IME

As I have been saying to pretty much everyone I know in every format I can (yes, oral transmission of links is somewhat tricky) please go and read this. I’ll wait here til you get back.

Okay. I’m working on a column on the bisexual-specific aspects of that for Public Address, but there was too much to unpack for just one piece. What I want to talk about here is the tension between theory and personal experience.

Ironically, to explain my attitude to theory, I have to talk a little about my personal experience. I grew up in a poor working-class family in a state-housing neighbourhood and went to what was then a working-class school. Yet my family’s values were very middle-class.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. Others had done tertiary vocational training (teachers’ or technical colleges), but I was the first to get an expensive education without specific purpose. Now, I was already pretty used to being a social chameleon, but boy was uni a squishy comfy couch of unconscious middle-class privilege.

At high school, I’d automatically considered myself a feminist. Who wouldn’t, it was just common sense. At uni, I stopped. And it was because, at base, the theory I saw there didn’t accommodate my experience. Now I’ll admit that I made assumptions. That, for instance, if you were yelling at men for holding doors open for you, you were probably one of those comfortable white straight middle-class girls I was flatting with whose life experience had left them short of actual significant things to complain about. Nevertheless, when I listened to these women talk, there was no sign that socially, romantically or especially sexually, I existed. And there was an awful lot of “women don’t” that quite specifically erased me. So I shut up about my experience, and I walked away.

Now, over the intervening couple of decades, my “experience trumps theory” attitude has somewhat softened. I will still immediately shut down if someone uses the phrase “false consciousness”. I still believe that if your theory is in conflict with the experiences of a bunch of people, then your theory needs amending to have validity and you need to listen and acknowledge that. Theory that is entirely removed from the real world seems to me to be utterly pointless.

But. One of the things I really like about that Huffpo column is the way Emily Dievendorf marries her experience with broader theory, with stats that unite the experiences of large numbers of bisexuals. Detail and big picture. Lots of people have told me how shocked they are by this:

Bisexuals have higher incidences of depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor physical health in general than their heterosexual, gay and lesbian counterparts…  Bisexual women with monosexual partners have an increased rate of domestic violence compared to every other female demographic. Compared to lesbians, bisexual women are twice as likely to live in poverty… While lesbians earn 2.7% less than straight men, bisexual women earn nearly 11% less.

Yes, because they’re surprised, but also because they’re responding to an abstract ‘big picture’. For me, what resonates is this:

I’m currently dating a man. I refuse to hide him because being in a relationship with him is part of who I am. If asked about my sexuality I would expect him to answer without pause that I identify as bi. Still…  I feel like a traitor, I feel like I took the easy way out, I feel like I’m not relating and might, therefore, not be able to represent the queer community.

A couple of years ago I was at my book launch in Auckland, and a woman came up to me. She explained that she was related to a friend of mine, and then she said, “I hear you’re Family.”

After the minute I spent working out that she didn’t mean biological family, I said, remembering experiences with ‘LGBT’ community at uni, “Well, I’m bisexual.”

She made a sort of dismissive snorting noise and said, “You’re Family.” I nearly bloody cried. (Yes, of course I had been drinking.)

The thing with the abstract, the stats, is that they can seem so big and so overwhelming they make us feel helpless. Yes, I can make people more aware that actually, the mental picture people have of happy extroverted sexually-voracious bisexuals isn’t accurate, I can do Awareness. But each and every one of us can change the balance of a person’s individual experience. Listening, genuinely listening, to people whose experience contradicts our theory is a great place to start.

11 responses to “IME

  1. Moz March 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I’m not really seeing the link between theory and practice in either article. It reads more like “I struggle with the label. Here are some stats. I have a boyfriend”. Are you making the link between “privileged person whining about trivia” and her “I’m not comfortable identifying as bisexual because I have a male partner/am monogamous” when there are real problems? Which again, IME, are real.

    Also, Shona Laing “white colonial middle-class anarchist”. Doesn’t seem to be online, but well worth listening to.

    I decided a while ago that my identification is always prefixed by “cheap fake imitation”. That was in response to the “real Australian” nonsense being peddled over here, but it works just as well for sexuality and anything else. “cheap fake imitation ambisexual” (I have ambitions of being sexual :))

    • Emma March 27, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      As far in a nutshell as I can get it, it’s here:

      There is an acute stress that comes from feeling like you are not a legitimate member of a community.

      So she gives examples of her personal experience and feelings of being excluded, and moves to what, she theorises, are the mental health consequences of those exclusions.

      I am just starting to run across the “true X” designations in BDSM theory discussions, and man are they funny. But then of course I’m coming at this from the point of view of a Smart-Arse Masochist who’s too lippy and wriggly and not 24/7 enough to be a Real sub, so I would think that, wouldn’t I…

      • Moz March 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm

        Ah, ok, I missed that because I read this stuff through a “I’m not accepted as oppressed” filter. I’m straight, white, rich, educated and male so I just don’t ever expect to be accepted in any discussion of oppression or marginalisation.

        There’s also the fuzzy boundary between “lesbians who have sex with men” and “bisexuals” where the former are often much more accepted than the latter.

        “twue …” in any context is a strong signifier that bullshit follows.

        Also, there’s a term for that sort of sub… bratty. I accuse my girlfriend of that from time to time just to watch her completely derail into denial. But only when it’s funny.

  2. annanonymous March 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I really like both the original article and your response. Something similar is playing out with the Germaine Greer vs the transgender community situation – the sometimes very vitriolic rejection of people who don’t occupy a ‘legitimate’ category. Germaine seems worried that feminism has had so much trouble establishing ‘women’ as actual human beings, and now women without uteruses are now turning up and trying to spoil it all for us. Is the invisibility of bisexual people something to do with the fact it’s take so long to get recognition and respect for the categories gay and lesbian? It runs counter to the acceptance of diversity that has been so important to the LGBT movement, which is kind of ironic.

    • Emma March 27, 2012 at 2:26 pm

      I think it really is. And the idea that, if bisexuals exist, then sexuality is more fluid, ergo perhaps you can just ‘stop being gay’. Live as straight, like the fundamentalists want you to. Which… from my point of view, seems a lot like buying into the idea of sexuality as performative, that it’s something you do rather than something you are.

      i think there’s also quite a persistent idea that bis have the ‘best of both worlds’: that they get the ‘specialness’ of being LGBT without the down sides, because they can ‘pass’. I’m acutely aware, for instance, that if I’d happened to settle down with a woman rather than a man, having the children I wanted would have been far, far more complicated.

  3. Deborah March 27, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    I still believe that if your theory is in conflict with the experiences of a bunch of people, then your theory needs amending to have validity and you need to listen and acknowledge that.

    Quite so.

    “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

    Which is not say that theory isn’t useful, especially for helping to systematize experience, for pulling anecdote together with anecdote together with anecdote…. This was so important in some of the 70s feminism, with women realising that they were not alone in their experiences. But the rush to systematisation should not be smothering.

    • Emma March 28, 2012 at 12:57 pm

      Yes, this. As I’ve said elsewhere talking about this:

      I’m prone to theorising myself, I like making patterns, but I start with experiences, mine or other people’s.

      And as you get more data points, you adapt or sometimes even abandon your theory. And that’s why, I guess, I personally find it so important to keep doing 101, to keep scraping all the way back to our base assumptions.

  4. MissGee March 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    i think there’s also quite a persistent idea that bis have the ‘best of both worlds’: that they get the ‘specialness’ of being LGBT without the down sides, because they can ‘pass’.
    …and ‘passing’ is part of what makes us invisible. mea culpa.

  5. Matthew Proctor April 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    After the minute I spent working out that she didn’t mean biological family, I said, remembering experiences with ‘LGBT’ community at uni, “Well, I’m bisexual.”

    She made a sort of dismissive snorting noise and said, “You’re Family.” I nearly bloody cried.

    I wasn’t there of course, but I just want to say that one possible reading of that is exactly what you’re looking for? “You’re bisexual? Of COURSE you’re Family! What do you think LGBT means, silly?”

    I recognise that’s probably not how the story is intended, but I like it better that way. 😀

    • Emma April 2, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      Matthew: sorry, obviously that hasn’t come across very clearly. That _was_ what she meant. And I was so touched, because it contrasted so strongly with my previous uni-years feelings of utter exclusion.

      The next day an awesome lesbian couple buttonholed me in Unity Books to exclaim over the wonderfulness of my Firefly t-shirt. I forgave Auckland everything on that trip.

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