[Image: A person stands on a street in a parade, holding a large circular red sign reading “I’m Bi!” in white letters.]
The other day I was listening to a work by the late great Leonard Bernstein (Mass, for the record*), and I started perusing his Wikipedia page. I learned that there is debate over his sexual orientation. It’s pretty clear he wasn’t straight, but some, including his ex-wife and a friend, have said he was gay, while others claim he was bisexual.
As a Wikipedia editor on the LGBT Studies task force, I know the importance of self-identification for sexual orientation (as well as gender identity). For living people, the standards are clear: We do not label them as being anything other than straight unless there is documented evidence in reliable publications that they self-identify otherwise. For historical figures, it can be a bit more difficult.
Wikipedia currently categorizes Bernstein under bisexual men and bisexual musicians. I admit that this makes me happy as a former bisexual (I now identify as queer) who is very mindful of bi erasure. I’ve known a lot of bisexuals in opposite-sex marriages and long-term relationships who were presumed to be straight, myself included (before my transition), and some in same-sex relationships who were presumed to be gay. Some did not mind this, as they were not publicly out as bi, which is their right of course.
But for myself, I felt I had to make a point that I was bi, or have my identity erased. This was even more challenging for monogamous bisexuals, who also did not like the assumption that bisexuals all sleep with “anything that moves.” While I and many of my bi friends are polyamorous, being poly is no more inherent to bisexuality than to monosexuality.
So when I was active in the bisexual community, I encouraged people who I thought were bi to come out as such. I didn’t think there was anything weird or shameful about being bi, since so many of my friends were. I thought it was just obvious that most people were somewhere in the middle of the Kinsey scale rather than completely hetero or homosexual, and that we should all embrace our bisexual potential instead of being forced to choose sides.
Since learning more about gender and sex in the course of my transition, I’ve realized the error of my ways. Sexuality is much more complicated than the Kinsey scale implies. I cannot and should not assume anyone’s sexual identity from their behavior or even stated preferences, nor should I pressure anyone to “come out” or identify with any particular label. How a person labels their sexual orientation is for them and them alone to determine. No one else.
I still feel that bi erasure is a big problem, however. I was literally yelling at the screen while watching the first season of Orange is the New Black, as it seemed obvious to me that the central character was bi, yet the writers refused to use the word. The woman whose memoir the series was based on, Piper Kerman, has clearly self-identified as bisexual, so the description of her as an “ex-lesbian” without acknowledging her bisexuality was infuriating to me. (Of course, the series is hardly a realistic depiction of prison life either, as many critics have noted.)
I’ll close by re-iterating that we shouldn’t just throw out all the labels. Labels are useful to help us understand our sexualities better, and find mutual support. But they must be self-chosen.
* Despite being an atheist, or perhaps because of it, I find myself drawn to musicals with Judeo-Christian religious themes. Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are some of my favorites.