Visibility Matters is a monthly column by AfterEllen.com Founder Sarah Warn about larger trends affecting lesbian/bi women in entertainment and the media.
The story I’m about to tell you is a complicated entanglement of half-truths, homophobia, and capitalism. It’s also about the larger pattern of straight women exploiting bisexuality out of carelessness or greed.
But in its simplest form, this is a story about someone making a mistake and blaming someone else for it, or trying to have their cake and eat it, too.
In either scenario, AfterEllen.com and the LGBT community are paying the price.
The story starts all the way back in 2003, when I read and wrote a positive review of NY Times best-selling novelist Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s The Dirty Girls Social Club, which included a lesbian Latina character among its main characters. Five years later, when a sequel to the book was released last summer, I assigned one of my freelance writers, Teresa Ortega, to request an interview with Valdes-Rodriguez about the LGBT characters in her books. She agreed, and the interview was conducted over email on September 9, 2008.
To our surprise, Valdes-Rodriguez volunteered in the answer to our very first question (about why she included the lesbian character in her Dirty Girls books) that she herself was bisexual:
As a bisexual woman (who, as it happens, is faithfully married to a man and therefore living a “straight” life) I feel it is important to include homosexual or bisexual characters in my work. I am living proof that such things are not “choices,” but innate.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I once did a story on “coming out” in traditional Latino societies, and I was shocked by some of the stories I heard. Horror stories. A man being thrown through a plate-glass window by his own father; a woman beaten by her relatives.
Luckily, I never faced that in my own family ― well, my mom did tell me she had hoped to have “normal” kids, but she was the non-Latino parent. I should say I never faced it with my dad, who, when I told him what I was, hugged me and said, “the greatest secret in humanity is that inside every person is a gay person.”
We were so surprised by this revelation that Teresa sent a follow-up email on September 11, 2008 to make sure she was understanding Alisa correctly:
Teresa: Thank you for the answers you sent me for the AfterEllen.com interview. I have a few more questions to ask you as background information for my intro. First, I must ask you to pardon my ignorance about your being out as a bisexual. I did not realize this or I would have phrased some of my questions a bit differently. I did read numerous articles about you and none of them mentioned that you were bisexual, so I was wondering if you could tell me whether you have discussed your bisexuality in the media before, and if so, when and where?
Alisa: No one has ever asked about it. I have posted about it several times
on my blog over the years, but as for other press — you will be
breaking “news”. That said, on the Kinsey Scale, I would say I’m
somewhere between a 1 and a 2.
In preparing the introduction to the interview, Teresa and I briefly discussed whether she should mention Valdes-Rodriguez’s controversial departure from The L.A. Times in 2000, but decided not to because it had no specific bearing on the interview, and we didn’t think it was fair to introduce potentially prejudicial information into the interview when it wasn’t directly relevant to the topic at hand. (And as a general rule, I don’t believe in sensationalizing articles and interviews on AfterEllen.com just to get more readers.)
So on Sept. 25, 2008, we published her responses to our interview questions exactly as they were written, with just a short introduction.
Valdes-Rodriguez’s revelation that she was bisexual was indeed "news," as she predicted, and the interview was picked up by several other online news outlets because she "came out" as bisexual in it.
Fast-forward six months, and it turns out that Valdes-Rodriguez stated on her own website shortly after we published the interview that she was not bisexual, and in December, made multiple statements on Wikipedia, and in emails from her official website to Wikipedia editor David Shankbone, claiming that we misinterpreted and/or made up the quotes about her being bisexual.
In response to Shankbone’s question on Wikipedia as to whether Valdes-Rodriguez was claiming the quotes about her bisexuality in our interview were "made up," she responded, "Yes. This is Alisa. I’m not bisexual. Stop posting this garbage unless you wish to see me in court."
Further attempts by Shankbone to clarify the obvious discrepancies on this issue and others resulted in David receiving increasingly inflammatory denials from Valdes-Rodriguez, which he chronicled this week on his blog.
She never made any attempt to contact Teresa or me to retract or update her comments.
Learning just this weekend of Valdes-Rodriguez’s claims on her website and on Wikipedia that we fabricated answers to her questions, I contacted her immediately asking for clarification, pointing out that while misinterpretations do sometimes happen in phone or in-person interviews, there was no room for misinterpretation here since we copied her answers directly from her emails verbatim, and asking why she did not contact us after the interview was published to correct the information.
In our subsequent email exchange, she did not deny making these statements on her website or Wikipedia, and continued to refuse to take responsibility for her statements to us, saying she thought she was bisexual at one time, but not anymore:
I am sorry you and Teresa interpreted my emails as me saying I am bisexual now, because I’m not and did not intend my words to be interpreted that way. I did not amend the misstatement or request clarification for several reasons. One, I figured After Ellen had cherry-picked my words to make me seem more palatable to your readership — ie ignoring my Kinsey Scale statement, or my statement that I was a straight woman married for twelve years to a man, in favor of taking the bisexual statement out of context. Two, I did not want to seem like someone who was offended by being called gay. But when someone started changing my wikipedia page as a result, saying I was gay, and I started getting email from readers asking if it was true, I had to address it.
This answer does not make any sense, since it would be easy for her to verify the fact that we did not, in fact, cherry-pick her words, since she had copies of the emails she sent us. And her Wikipedia page was changed to say she was bisexual, not gay (a distinction she fails to make in her email to me), which would make sense according to Wikipedia’s guidelines because she very clearly identified as a bisexual woman in our interview.
Also, the whole point of the Kinsey scale is that sexuality and bisexuality in particular is part of a continuum,
and stating that you’re between one and two on the Kinsey scale isn’t proof that you’re not bisexual, especially when you’ve already clearly identified yourself to be bisexual.