14 December 2010

Everything They Say We Are

I want to have adventures and take enormous risks and be everything they say we are.

--Dorothy Allison
That quote comes from a post at Shiri Eisner's Bi Radical blog called "The myth of myth-busting: normalcy discourse and bisexual politics", a post I discovered via a friend's link on Facebook. The post questions and challenges the assumptions of another blogger's post called "Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, or: 'how I came to stop worrying and like the word bisexual’, Part 2", which sought to counter some "myths" about bisexuality, namely:

  • Existence. Yes – we do.
  • Monogamy. Yes – we can.
  • Fidelity. Yes – we can. And – we do.
  • HIV & AIDS. No – it’s not all our fault.
  • Confusion. No – we’re really not.
  • Indecision. No – that’s not what fluidity means.
  • Greed. Yes, we can have just one piece of cake.
  • Pants. Yes – we’re as capable as anyone else of keeping our various bits in them.
  • Choice. No – we cannot choose to be straight; we cannot choose to be gay; we did not choose our sexual orientation in some thoughtlessly frivolous moment of rapacious abandon. Who does?

Eisner summarized this as:
No, we’re not promiscuous. No, we don’t sleep around. No, we’re not infectious. No, we don’t choose to be the way we are (SRSLY, why would anyone choose that?). Yes, we’re normal. No, we don’t threaten your sexual identification. Yes, we are just like you. No, you are not in danger of being like us. No, we don’t threaten your beliefs, your society or your safety.

Needless to say, all this is aimed towards the ubiquitous (all-existing, all-domineering) Straight White Middle Class. The one we don’t threaten, yes?
She then offered a point-by-point exploration/rebuttal. And now a complex discussion has begun in the comments section of the post, at the moment focusing on the last part of that summary (the "ubiquitous [all-existing, all-domineering] Straight White Middle Class").

In the comments, the original blogger, TSB, has, it seems to me, a moment of missing the point, or at least missing the point about the power of the word "normal" and the work it does to create unmarked and marked categories (for more, see this PDF). "I guess, my point," she says, "is you posit a monolithic concept ('normalcy') and spread it far & thin ('in our society') and give it a great deal of unshiftable power ('forever') that I do not agree it has." I'd agree that the word "forever" suggests an immutability that it's probably best to reject, but otherwise the commenter here is actually making Eisner's point for her. This is, in fact, the trouble with "normal". While certainly there are variations on what in any region, city, town, neighborhood, street, house, family is accepted or not as "normal", that doesn't mean we can't speak generally of what is and isn't unmarked. The desire to be normal is the desire to be unmarked, to be the default. What is unmarked is what is, sometimes, most common; as often, it is what is most powerful: it is what is able to shape and construct perceptions of the norm.

Once "normal" gets tinged with morality, it becomes a weapon of power: normal equals good and desirable and is opposed to abnormal, which is bad and should be eradicated.

The discourse of normality often pops up, as here, with anti-choice, biological-determinist discourse. "Choice" is entirely the wrong word to use, because the folks who hate queers don't care if choice is involved. (A terminal disease is not a choice, either.) If your sexual identity is not a choice, then it's something that could be cured, perhaps, or segregated from normal society, or at least pitied as an affliction. If it is a choice, then it's a bad one. Damned if you choose, damned if you don't.

Much of the original list is aimed at a certain type of traditionalist morality, a morality that sees monogamy, fidelity, and abstention as inherently good. It sees any behavior other than monogamy, fidelity, and abstention as not only abnormal, but shameful. It is suspicious of experimentation and ephemerality (it would certainly never want something to be "a phase", even though all of life, against the fact of nonexistence, is just a phase). If "Yes -- we can" then "we" must try, must put forth effort, must aspire. We are able, we are capable. We can be normal. We can be good.

Dorothy Allison's essay "A Question of Class" is a worthwhile follow-up to this discussion. As is Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.


  1. Thanks for the post.

    Your point about "choice" is well taken. I agree that the nature vs. nurture debate is highly simplistic - particularly in a way which erases power structures and oppression, and which certainly needs to be problematized. However, I also wanted to make a point about the fabulous allure that bisexual and queer lives carry, which is rarely mentioned within this debate.

    Regarding the word "forever" - I was all too aware of the suggestion of immutability while choosing it. I decided to write it with a grain of salt - as a postmodern anarchafeminist bisexual, "forever" is a concept I hardly view as viable. It works well as a metaphor, though, and so creative license won out ;)

  2. I thought you might be up to something with "forever"! Thanks for clarifying. The thing about any dominant discourse is that it contains a feeling of rightness and inevitability, and so "forever" is inherent within it -- the metaphor part. Nothing's forever, of course, since one day the sun will explode...

    And I'm totally with you on the allure of bi/queer life. I'm all for it, which is one reason why the "It's not a choice!" reaction so annoys me, I suppose, even though it derives from a well-intended purpose: asserting the importance, equality, and non-triviality of an identity. That's all coupled with a discourse of authenticity -- the desire for one's identity to be true and real, not a phase, not a choice, not a mask, but something transcendent and coherent and at the core of a soul. ("This is who I really am.") I understand the desire, I suppose, but I really like masks and performances and the frisson of possibility, so I'm always prejudiced in that direction -- the direction of radical, serious and unserious, joyful play. (I'm not sure that's so much a response to my post or your comment as it is just somewhere the sentences led me...)

  3. I read The Suburban Bi's post that was criticized by The Radical Bi, and I read The Radical Bi's shrill outcry against it. The reaction is very confusing. What's wrong with knocking the wind out of the sails of some tired old stereotypes?

    Matthew, you claim that TSB's original post implies that polyamory behavior is "abnormal and shameful," but that is not what TSB said at all. Did you even read her entire post? Saying that bisexuals are capable of monogamy is not saying that anything other than monogamy is "abnormal or shameful." TSB said that faithful, monogamous bisexuals exist. She didn't say that there was a problem with polyamory behavior, only that the notion that bisexuals are incapable of fidelity was a myth.

    TSB's original blog post does not contain the words "normal" or "normalcy," yet you claim that TSB "missed the point" about these things. You attribute a quotation to TSB that does not appear in the blog post, and link to a pdf that doesn't exist on the web. Why are you railing against something that was never said? You are putting words in her mouth that simply never existed. Why?

    You claim that TSB's "original list" (of myths that she intended to shatter" are "aimed at a certain type of traditionalist morality." Those are ... the myths she was shattering. It is society's list, not TSB's. Again, this was addressed in the body of the blog post.

    I don't understand the reaction that TSB's post is getting... and I am further confused by the false quotes and mistaken assumptions that are being spread around.

  4. Actually, my response was more to her comment at The Radical Bi's post (that's the missing the point part, and that's where she uses the term normalcy), as I thought was pretty clear, but may not have been. (Here's one quote: "I don’t think it’s helpful even to presume one brand of ‘normalcy’ even for the USA, where large subcultures can dominate a discourse with their own brand of ‘normalcy’ in relation to LFBT people.")

    Sorry the PDF didn't work -- Blogger has been putting some weird code into posts recently. I'll go fix it now. It will be useful reading. Here's the raw link: http://bruceowen.com/introcultural/a203-10s-13-NaturalizingInequality.pdf

    I'm afraid the other points you raise are ones that seem as much like misreadings to me as what I said seems like misreading to you, so I doubt we'll come to any agreement about them.