Where are all the bisexuals? Understanding the gray areas of LGBTQ representation
Right now is a monumental and historic time for the LGBTQ community, as America becomes more tolerant of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender individuals throughout the country. This is now true both legally, with the case of the recent SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage, and culturally, as more and more LGTBQ characters are appearing on television, in movies, and, of course, onstage. However, this is not the full story. There is a major group of people that is being left out of the conversation, a group that still continues to be both misunderstood and misrepresented. As a theater artist who identifies as a part of this group, I found myself wondering where my story was, and when I could be proud of my identity. With all of the acceptance and tolerance going around these days, I ask the question: Where are all the bisexuals?
As a dramaturg who identifies as bisexual, I want to see more stories of people like me on stage.
I recently read Entertainment Weekly’s special “LGBT Edition” issue, which featured eloquent and informed trans icon Laverne Cox, of Orange is the New Black, on its cover. At first I was excited to read it, hoping that there would be some reference to the “best” —or at least most famous—bisexual characters of film and television, but I soon was disappointed. This issue may as well have been called the “LGT” edition, because there was scant reference to any bisexual character as being prevalent in the media. In fact, on Entertainment Weekly’s list of its “25 Favorite Fictional LGBT Characters,” only one out of those twenty-five characters is bisexual, while twenty-four of those characters are lesbian, gay, or transgender. This is troubling, given that according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, 3.1 percent of Americans identify as bisexual, while 2.5 percent of Americans identify as gay or lesbian. See anything problematic with these ratios?
The numbers are troubling enough, but what is even more troubling—and telling—about this list is that the one bisexual character listed is Catherine Tramell, played by Sharon Stone, in the movie Basic Instinct. Tramell is a hypersexual serial killer who has short and empty love affairs with men and women, which end when Tramell murders her lover. The “hypersexual bisexual” or the “confused but actually lesbian or gay” characters are basically the only tropes through which bisexual characters are seen on television, in movies, and, yes, in the theatre.
One would think that with the theatre’s groundbreaking strides for gay, lesbian, and transgender representation in the public eye (e.g.: The Normal Heart, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Fun Home), that theatre would also be paving the way for bisexual representation in society. However, there is really only one well-known and popular play that prominently features bisexual characters: Diana Son’s Stop Kiss. This play doesn’t even use the word “bisexual” once, and the main characters, Callie and Sara, can easily fall into the “confused but actually lesbian” trope in the eyes of many readers and audience members. One can argue that these characters are actually bisexual, as these women have both dated men, and are now in love with each other, but it is never clearly stated how these women choose to identify themselves—which is one of the truly poignant aspects of the play.
A large part of this lack of representation is the misunderstanding about bisexuality within the LGBTQ community itself. There are three main opinions about bisexuals held by society—both LGBTQ and those who don’t identify within that group—that cause bisexuals to lack support from the LGBTQ community: bisexual men are actually gay but in denial, because they have dated men; bisexual women are actually straight but in denial, because they have dated men; and bisexual men and women really just want to participate in threesomes. While these opinions may be true for some people, they are not true for the majority of the bisexual population. Most bisexual people identify themselves on a sexuality spectrum, or outside the heterosexual/homosexual sexuality binary, similar to how many gender queer people see themselves on a gender spectrum, or outside the male/female gender binary. Bisexuality also does not necessarily imply polyamorous or hypersexual behavior. Most people who identify as bisexual just want to love and be loved by another person. Sound familiar?
As a dramaturg who identifies as bisexual, I want to see more stories of people like me on stage. I first voiced my question “Where are all the bisexuals?” at the 2015 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in New York City this past June 25-27, at the panel on “LGBTQ Stories on Stage.” Running short on time and answers, I found my question left unanswered by other dramaturgs and by myself. Answering this question has now become my personal dramaturgical mission. I’m not sure we’ll find the answer anytime soon, but if the history of gay, lesbian, and transgender theatre is at all telling, portrayal on stage can lead to portrayal in film and television, which, eventually, can lead to acceptance. Right now, we as theatre artists are on the cusp of a time of radical change and experimentation with non-traditional structure, plots, themes, styles, and characters in our works of art. I think it’s high time we started to bring awareness to the reality of bisexual life on stage.