Notes & Queeries: The Trouble with “Bisexual”

Notes & Queeries is a monthly column that focuses on the personal side of pop culture for lesbians and bisexual women.

In the midst of the mini brouhaha that erupted after actor Clementine Ford (The L Word, The Young & The Restless) came out, denied coming out, and then came out again (officially), the one fact that jumped out at me was this: Ford was married for four years to a man.

I’m not trying to deny that she came out. Ford told The Advocate, “Look, I am gay, and I just wanted there not to be this big emphasis on it.”

It just struck me that there’s another term for someone who was once in a long-term relationship with a man before identifying as gay: bisexual.

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford

From the little that Ford has said publicly about her sexual orientation, she doesn’t appear to identify as bisexual, and that’s fine. There are probably plenty of reasons for that, and none of them are my business. But her former marriage does make the ambiguity of her statements to Diva and TV Guide make a little more sense — at least to me, because I, too was in a long-term relationship with a man before I identified as a lesbian.

For several years after that relationship ended (well into my late 20s), I was also reluctant to put a label on myself. Whenever anyone asked me about my own sexual orientation, I often gave them answers just as cryptic as those that Ford gave to Diva — and I wasn’t a public figure like she is.

This was partly because I wasn’t ready to be a lesbian, which carries its own set of rights and responsibilities. Nor did I want to align myself with all the stereotypes that fall under the term bisexual. So how could I explain that I had once had a happy relationship with a man for almost five years, and yet was attracted to women?

If only — and I never thought I’d write this — if only I had seen that Oprah episode about sexual fluidity back then.

Though the episode (which originally aired on March 25) and the April 2009 O Magazine article that inspired it were both dressed up with salacious titles (“Women Leaving Men for Other Women”), the episode and the article explored the spectrum of sexual orientation with more complexity than I’ve seen in the mainstream media in a long time.

On Oprah and in the article, Dr. Lisa Diamond, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, explained that the concept of sexual fluidity — which she and other researchers argue explains the experiences of women like Cynthia Nixon — is not actually about being bisexual. Diamond told O Magazine:

People always ask me if this research means everyone is bisexual. No, it doesn’t. … Fluidity represents a capacity to respond erotically in unexpected ways due to particular situations or relationships. It doesn’t appear to be something a woman can control.

Dr. Lisa DiamondThough I’m sure that Dr. Diamond was doing her best to present the concept as clearly as possible, I’m sure that many will find it difficult to wrap their minds around the idea of sexual fluidity. Even Oprah Winfrey admitted she has always thought that people are born gay or straight, and they mostly stay that way their entire lives.

The women on her show, as well as many of my friends’ experiences, seem to prove the opposite. And I’m pretty sure that my singular heterosexual relationship belongs in this category, too.

Because of that relationship, I think of my own coming-out story as somewhat convoluted, but in reality it’s probably no more complicated than anyone else’s.

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