In 2005, Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker took a road trip across the United States and interviewed people about bisexuality. The result of their project was a documentary film: Bi the Way. In order to understand the fictional images of bisexuality that fill our cinema and television screens, it’s important to take some time to analyze the ways in which bisexuality is depicted in nonfiction media. Bi the Way is a good starting place, since it’s a film that allows its subjects to speak honestly and freely, without an overt agenda from the filmmakers. But is that enough to make it a compelling film that advances realistic bisexual visibility?
The bisexual men and women interviewed by Blockman and Decker speak candidly about their experiences and views. They aren’t a terribly diverse group: Tahj, an 18-year-old New Yorker, is the only person of color, and all of them are under 30 years old. Still, their honesty is refreshing. Pam, a 16-year-old from Memphis, echoes La Cage Aux Folles when she proudly declares, “I am who I am, and I’m not going to change that for anybody.” David, a 24-year-old actor in Chicago, confesses that “the most dangerous force in my life is censoring myself because I’m afraid people are not gonna take my bisexuality seriously. They’re gonna read into me as being gay, or they’re gonna read into me as being straight.” Taryn, a 27-year-old in Los Angeles, has an open relationship with her boyfriend so that she is able to be with women when she wants. By following real bi folks as they deal with relationship issues, coming out to their families and reconciling their sexual identities internally, viewers can get a glimpse of what it means to be bi and what unique issues bi people deal with.
Bi the Way does not shy away from highlighting biphobia, particularly within the gay community. It is telling that Tahj begins to express internalized biphobia once he starts predominantly dating and socializing with gay men. He eventually states, “Bisexual people are just freaks. They’re greedy. They just want their cake and eat it too… Hanging out with Keyon and his gay friends, you know, it really fit me.” At the start of the documentary, Tahj struggles with his bisexuality and tries to find a community in which he can belong. Once he meets his boyfriend, Keyon, and spends time with Keyon’s gay friends, he finally finds a place where he can fit in—but it’s at the cost of preserving his bisexual identity. Tahj’s story suggests that the only way for bisexual people to belong in the gay community is to disavow their “greedy” tendencies. And sadly, this negative message isn’t contradicted by the experiences of other characters in the film. None of the bi individuals profiled seem at ease in gay or straight worlds, suggesting that bi folks are destined to be outsiders.
Blockman and Decker also interview “experts,” including Village Voice columnist Michael Musto and syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage—gay men who, to put it mildly, lack a nuanced understanding of bisexuality. Musto explains that his “take on bisexuality is that I always thought it was baloney. I mean, whenever someone said they were bisexual, I just thought, ‘Yeah right, you’re a closet gay and you just can’t deal with it.’” Savage’s comments are similar to Musto’s, but he also makes reference to the 2005 Northwestern University study which “proved” that male bisexuality does not exist. (The results of this study have since been proven to be totally bogus.) Says Savage:
“I meet somebody who’s 19 years old who tells me he’s bisexual and I’m like, ‘Yeah, right. I doubt it. Like, I’ll come back when you’re 29, and we’ll see’…I was thrilled when I saw the results of the study at Northwestern on bisexuality because it confirmed a lot of what gays and lesbians have always sort of asserted based on our experience, was that male bisexuality was rare. Most guys we met who said they were bi were closeted or still in the process of coming out.”
These comments are disheartening, because they undermine the realities of bisexual lives. Rather than using them as teachable moments to explain why such comments may negatively impact bi individuals, Blockman and Decker present them as valid counterpoints to lived bisexual experience.
This is the trouble with Bi the Way—it is not particularly hard-hitting or challenging. Though it presents biphobic viewpoints, it does not actively critique such viewpoints or discuss the reasons why such views are incredibly harmful to bi folks. While it may be true that some people identify as bi as a stepping stone before coming out as gay, to say that such cases are the majority invalidates the experiences of bisexual people. Additionally, the lack of images of bi people as active participants in the LGBTQ community and the exclusive focus on bisexuality among young people, as if it is a “trendy” phenomenon, reaffirms inaccurate bisexual stereotypes. The images presented in Bi the Way are real, certainly, but they are not necessarily as universal or diverse as the film suggests.
Bi the Way may be a good resource for individuals just learning about bisexuality, as it introduces the concept in straightforward terms. It does not, however, do a lot to advance bisexual visibility and understanding. To do so, it would have to actively challenge stereotypes and present a broader range of bi experiences and identities. I respect what Bi the Way tries to do—I just wish it did it in a more thoughtful and nuanced way.