On “Bisexual” – by Cecilia Tan

So it’s Queer Romance Month. I figure this is a good time to express myself on a topic that is near to my heart: bisexuality. And in particular the word “bisexual.”

I’ve identified as bisexual since I was ten or eleven years old, when I first heard the word on a television newscast that mentioned David Bowie and thought, “oh, that’s what I am.” I had only figured out what “gay” was the year before, when an episode of the primetime TV drama “Family” featured a gay character. My family did not watch “Family” but the fact that a one-time character (only there for the “issue” episode) was going to “come out” created enough of a buzz in the media that even in that very narrow 1976 media world I lived in as a fourth-grader I heard just enough of it to have a revelation. “Oh. OH. So that’s what the word ‘gay’ actually means.”

This was the point in my life when we were living in suburban New Jersey, in an all-white town (except for my dad, who is Chinese, and me and my brother, who are half) only 40 minutes from New York City. That’s a story for another day, but suffice to say I lived in a world where identity politics was complicated and ruled by things unspoken. I also had an openly lesbian aunt–a pioneer in lesbian feminist publishing, in fact, Maureen Brady–but the way my family did things, it was very rare for someone to sit me down and give me a life lesson about anything. This might have stemmed from the fact that the one time my mother sat me down for the birds-and-bees talk when I was about six (and she was pregnant), I immediately went and told all my friends. (My mother was then the recipient of some angry phone calls of the “I wasn’t ready for my child to know that yet” variety.)

More likely it was the fact that my parents figured I’d ask about anything I was ready to hear about. But I didn’t usually ask. I was a smart kid (“gifted” was the word they used in those days–maybe they still do) and I was used to figuring things out for myself. So I’d never “asked” about Maureen and her partner. It never occurred to me there was something to ask about.

That is until the “aha” moment when I realized there was a WORD for what my aunt and her girlfriend were. Not only was there a word, it was a word I’d even HEARD but not realized that was what people meant by it. I think it was a promo for the upcoming newscast where they said something about a controversial television episode and they used the word “gay” and it was suddenly obvious they meant something other than “happy.” That was tricky, I thought, that they used a word that had another meaning for this. Obviously it was a clever ploy to keep kids like me in the dark. And it had WORKED. Adults are sneaky.

Fast forward about a year. We’d moved from that town to another. I was failing to fit in at my new school. And again, the TV news. This would have been 1977. David Bowie’s “revelation” about his bisexuality had first come in a 1972 Melody Maker interview, and then in a September 1976 interview in Playboy he had famously affirmed, “It’s true–I am a bisexual.” Thus by ’77, in the United States, you would have thought it was part of his name–“bisexual rocker David Bowie”–which fact caused Bowie to later declare that saying he was bi was the biggest mistake of his career. He hadn’t realized that in the US that would mean he would be tagged and labeled with the word forever.

But that word. I don’t even think the news report I saw was about Bowie’s bisexuality. I think it was about an upcoming appearance or something, but still, they used that word. That one word, that one use, was all it took to make my brain sit up and say “Hey!”

So, I thought at the time, maybe it isn’t that I’m against labels, maybe it’s that I just hadn’t found a label that remotely seemed to fit me until then. I was a mixed-race child with mild gender dysphoria–I hated being called a “girl” and was against anything feminine but I didn’t like “tomboy” either. I was most comfortable when I was being mistaken for a boy. I also loved science fiction and fantasy and the characters I always identified with were the non-human ones. Vulcans, elves, hawk-people, cat-people, etc.

So, the thing about taking on the label “bisexual” is that it turns out that word means different things to different people. This means almost any time I used it I then had to explain what I meant by it, which sort of defeats the purpose of having a label, doesn’t it? Why not just give the explanation, then?

Well, what is that explanation? Mine was this: Being bisexual means that I can fall in love with anyone. I can’t say for sure it’ll be a boy, or a girl. It’ll totally depend on the person.

That should be pretty simple, right? But there doesn’t seem to be a good, easy vernacular idiom for “gender isn’t part of my love equation.” Bisexual is the closest word we’ve got. Which doesn’t mean I haven’t had an on-again, off-again relationship with the word ever since that day in 1977. These days the word is going through a spate of criticism as if the “bi” part of it implies that there are only two genders, thereby erasing the multiplicity of gender variation. Um, no. The “bi” is there because the two main gender categories are imposed on us, not because we agree with them, and the creation and use of the word bisexual means we’re DODGING the two boxes, not that we support the existence of the two boxes.

It’s been mostly on. I joined my university’s “LGSA” (Lesbian Gay Student Alliance) in 1985, before there was an acknowledgement of bisexual existence in their name. (After I graduated they were renamed the LGBA.) At the time, I figured the best thing I could do for bisexual visibility was just keep showing up to LGSA meetings, even after I dated a guy.

The same has been true throughout a lot of my life. Sometimes the best thing I can do is just be myself without compromise. Visibility counts for a lot.

The same is true, I think, in my writing. Yes, I do write some characters who appear to be specifically gay or lesbian or straight. But I feel, deep down, that ANY of them could fall in love with someone of the same, or opposite, gender if the right person were to come along. This is why I say all my characters are bisexual unless proven otherwise.

And this is where romance comes in. Isn’t the whole magic of the genre that no matter how complicated or broken or difficult or wounded we make our heroes and heroines, they always find that one special person who fits them and makes them whole?

In the case of some characters, the search for that person may have taken them through multiple partners of varying genders in the past. I don’t always state this explicitly in a book or story. Because bisexuality is invisible until we declare it, but because that declaration leads to the label being indelibly applied as it was to Bowie, some of my characters are invisible. James in the Struck by Lightning series is one of these. Well, all right, you might argue that I haven’t done a very good job of “hiding” the bisexuality of a main character who is so patently Bowie-like. (As a reader Tweeted at me recently, “Holy crap! Each chapter title is a Bowie lyric. #mindblown”) It’s true. I haven’t hidden it at all. It’s in plain sight. More than once we also hear James or other characters refer to some of James’s youthful indiscretions and ex-lovers, but without giving the gender of those lovers.

I feel a bit like I should have worked the actual word “bisexual” into the books somewhere. But I had the same dilemma as Bowie himself. Once there’s a declaration of bisexuality, everything becomes about that. And Slow Surrender and its sequels have other issues that come first, issues about consent and female agency and representation of BDSM in relationships, and I didn’t want those issues–which are the true purpose and heart of the book–to be obscured by a declaration of bisexuality.

It’s not as if I haven’t written books before where a declaration of bisexuality isn’t just included, it’s necessary. In fact, just like in real life, that declaration has to be made over and over for Kyle, the hero of the Magic University books. As it turns out, if one wants to major in sex magic, there’s a bisexuality prerequisite. But Kyle’s declarations eventually move beyond the paperwork and placement tests when he falls in love with someone who isn’t the expected gender. Someone who at first refuses to believe that Kyle could really love them because of what they think Kyle’s sexual orientation is.

But that’s the whole thing, isn’t it? It isn’t about “orientation.” It isn’t just north or south, east or west. Gender isn’t part of Kyle’s love equation: his compass spins and the needle could land anywhere, depending on the person. This is why, ultimately, it’s been hard to market the Magic University books. They are definitely “LGBT new adult.” Like the term “bisexual,” that prompts the “but what do you mean by that?” reaction. My answer is ultimately the same: love isn’t defined by gender. Not in my world, anyway. And the books are for those who will enjoy Kyle’s quest for love, even though his partners vary in gender.

So here’s to Queer Romance Month. There’s another of those words: queer. I should tell you about how, in 1990, I joined not only the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network, but Queer Nation, and about how hard we had to fight to get the word “queer” some measure of acceptance as the coalition term. Nowadays you see “QUILTBAG” a lot. But the power in words is partly in the meaning they carry to those who aren’t already in the know. To that tomboy trapped in suburbia who suddenly has a lightbulb go on in her head. Maybe these days, thanks to the Internet, the flow of information and terminology is so much freer that we are free from using words that carry the baggage of oppression with them and can invent new terms at will. (I’m not sure. Does the eleven-year-old today who hears QUILTBAG feel validated by hearing the term? Perhaps?) We championed “queer” in 1990 because there needed to be a word that could encompass men and women, gay, lesbian, bisexual, gender-variant, and so on. All these people who needed to be fighting for our rights as a coalition, but who had to overcome the separatism in our own ranks to do that. Among the problems we had were things like radical feminist lesbians who refused to be in the same room (literally) as butch lesbians, because butches upheld the patriarchy. “Queer” was the word that our enemies, who saw us as a common scourge even if we couldn’t see ourselves as a common cause, used. So we grabbed that word and ran with it.

Like “gay,” it was a tricky adult word that had more than one meaning. An old word, a simple word, a powerful word. It stuck. The fight was relatively quick, in my memory. Not long after, one began to see “Queer Studies” legitimately spoken of in academia. And nowadays we can call this Queer Romance Month without either irony or apology. I like this future we live in!

I like this future where it seems that more and more readers are learning they can enjoy romance novels regardless of the gender of the main characters. That’s a little tiny bit like being bisexual. Bilectoral, perhaps? Something tells me that word won’t catch on, but that doesn’t mean the preference won’t.

About Cecilia Tan

Cecilia Tan is the award winning author of romance and fantasy whom Susie Bright calls “simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature.” Her BDSM novel Slow Surrender won the RT Reviewers Choice Award and the Maggie Award for Excellence. Her most recent release is a new edition of The Siren and the Sword, the first book of the Magic University series, newly republished by Riverdale Avenue Books.

Website: http://www.ceciliatan.com/

Twitter: @ceciliatan


About The Siren and the Sword


Kyle Wadsworth arrives at Harvard eager to start his new life as a college student away from the cold and distant great-aunt who has raised him. But he walks into a building that only magical people can see, confusing both himself and the administrators of Veritas, the secret magical university hidden inside Harvard. There he first sees a beautiful girl who seems magical to him in every way.

Soon Jess Torralva is tutoring Kyle in the ways of magic, sex, and love. But trouble is afoot at Veritas. Rumors abound that a siren is haunting the library, and when Kyle’s best friend is attacked, Kyle is determined to use his newly learned skills in erotic magic to catch the culprit. But which is more important, his quest for justice or his search for true love?


9 CommentsLeave a comment

  • My uncle, the late great “Sylvia Sidney,” dean of Boston’s drag queens for, what, fifty? years, used to insist “I’m not gay. I’m QUEER.” Now, in fact he at other times claimed to be what we’d call bi (a 5 or maybe even a 4 on the Kinsey scale), but if you heard him say that, you knew it was entirely about language and labels. When it came to being who you were without apology, he was very ahead of his time.

  • I just wish the bisexual it was included. You say gay in a book it’s not all about the gay. because it’s accepted now. So if you don’t help make the word bisexual acceptable you will have to keep dancing around it. Forever. It doesn’t make me feel very supported or represented when a character who is clearly bisexual is called everything else but that. We just can’t seem to get but a handful of celebs and writers to just say the word. It’s not hard. Really.

    • Well, I also support the right of people to self-label however they choose. Some of my friends prefer pansexual and that’s their right. Some of them prefer gay, even though they have partners of opposite gender, because that’s where they fit culturally or for whatever reason they choose. I prefer the word bisexual myself, as the essay states, because I imprinted on it so long ago, but no one should be forced to label themselves.

  • Great post and one that I resonate with as a bi woman. The first time I remember paying attention to the word was when a high school friend of mine casually mentioned that’d she’d worked through her issues and was finally able to accept homosexuals but still had trouble with bisexuals. This was in the mid 80s. At the time, I wasn’t consciously aware of being bi – but the fact that I still clearly remember this almost 20 years later tells me that at least part of me knew she was talking about me and my tribe.

    When I finally put it all together and came out in college, I remember complaining to a friend that the only bi role models I knew of were David Bowie and Virginia Wolf and neither were very appealing to me.

    And quick fan girl squee – I love Magic University (book 4 is one of my comfort rereads) and the new cover is great!

    • I know! And I didn’t even know about Virginia Woolf until I was in my 20s. My fixation on Bowie as role model only increased when I was about 16 or 17 and came home from a high school party one night, flipped on cable TV, and they were showing The Hunger with him, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon in a vampire threesome. (I was already a goth by then, too…)

      I’m so glad you love Magic University! I can’t wait until we get the whole series back with new covers. It’s going to take a couple of months because the artist needs time to do the paintings. But I <3 what she's doing so so so much. Worth the wait!

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