For better or worse, I tend to pay close attention to public figures who come out of the closet. I feel strange about doing so because ultimately, knowing someone’s sexual orientation shouldn’t change one’s perception of them. But instinctually, I find myself drawn to celebrities when they begin publicly identifying as a part of the LGBT community. I believe it’s part of human nature to look for images in the media that resemble one’s own experience, so that one can feel a sense of belonging that may be lacking in daily life. It’s important to be respectful of privacy and individual reasons for choosing not to come out publicly, but I also believe that there’s real power in standing up and being counted. I look for images of bisexuality in real life whenever I can, and since most people I know identify as monosexual, I often turn to the media.
So you can imagine my surprise when I was Googling bisexual celebrities yesterday and discovered that, a little more than a year ago, Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard nearly came out as bisexual. I completely missed this news story the first time around, but I’m glad I finally found it, because it counters a concern I’ve had for a long time: In arenas like politics and religion, many people don’t seem to know how to come out as bisexual.
Now, as anyone who followed this story initially will be quick to point out, Haggard didn’t exactly come out as bisexual. But in an interview with GQ last year, he did admit that, were he young today, he just might:
“Here’s where I really am on this issue,” [Haggard] half whispers. “I think that probably, if I were 21 in this society, I would identify myself as a bisexual.” After a weekend of Ted trying to convince me of his unambiguous devotion to his wife and kids, I’m at first too surprised to say anything.
“So why not now?” I ask finally.
“Because, Kevin, I’m 54, with children, with a belief system, and I can have enforced boundaries in my life. Just like you’re a heterosexual but you don’t have sex with every woman that you’re attracted to, so I can be who I am and exclusively have sex with my wife and be perfectly satisfied.”
Certainly, Haggard admitting that, in different circumstances, he "would identify myself as a bisexual" doesn't change the fact that he has actively campaigned against issues like marriage equality, and I won't hold my breath while I wait for him to march in a Pride parade. But what he's saying here, though it should be common sense, is actually fairly progressive: that it's entirely possible to be non-monosexual and committed to a single partner. Given his infamous affair with another man that led to his dismissal from Colorado Springs' New Life Church, his statement about exclusively sleeping with his wife sounds a tad disingenuous. Nevertheless, it's rare enough to hear people discuss bisexuality and fidelity positively in the media that hearing such a statement from such an unexpected source is oddly refreshing.
Haggard is a terrible role model for bisexual youth. But by acknowledging that we exist, and placing himself within the spectrum of non-monosexuality, he is doing a lot more than many in his position. There are a lot of politicians and public figures who espouse homophobia while simultaneously engaging in gay activity. There's also speculation about the identities of people who fall outside of traditional gender presentations, like Marcus Bachmann. All of these men are criticized by the LGBT community for their homophobic views and actions, and rightly so. However, when these men, like Haggard, make comments about loving their wives, people mock them for living in denial. The critique is not only that these men are adulterers; the critique is also that they are closeted gay men. And to me, the latter critique is precisely the problem. When heterosexuality and homosexuality are presented as the only options, people who don’t fit neatly into those categories, who lack the means to express themselves authentically, act in destructive ways. By not acknowledging the possibility of bisexuality, the likelihood that people who genuinely love their opposite-sex spouses—but still find themselves attracted to other genders—will come out as non-monosexual is minimal.
I want to make it clear that this is not an excuse for the harm people like Haggard have done to the LGBT community. There is no excuse for those actions. But I wonder: If people felt more able to identify as bisexual, would their internal struggles that no doubt drive their destructive actions be lessened? It troubles me that, when issues of gender and sexuality are debated in the culture wars, the assumption is automatically that people like Haggard are gay. That prescriptivism adds to the problem. When people feel like they aren’t able to own their own identities, they pick the alternative that seems best, even when it doesn’t work in the long term. This doesn’t give people like Haggard a free pass, but I am glad he finally feels comfortable owning this part of himself. In a small way, he’s positioning himself as part of the larger LGBT community, and there’s value in that. Because maybe—just maybe—his visibility might make a difference for someone else.