Visi(bi)lity: John Irving Tackles Biphobia in New Novel

Carrie Nelson
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Carrie is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in NYC.

Black-and-white photo of a woman unhooking her bra. Only her muscular back and hands are visible. Across her shoulder-blades reads, in white text, Some of the comments on my post about Savage U last week argued that people like Dan Savage, who work hard to advance LGBT equality and visibility even though their biphobic and transphobic comments sometimes suggest otherwise, should be recognized for the good work that they do. I agree. I think Dan Savage has done some excellent work to advance visibility and acceptance for queer people. That’s why it hurts so much when he says things like, “avoiding bi guys is a good rule of thumb for gay men looking for long-term relationships.” I expect ignorant remarks about bisexuals having difficulty with monogamy from Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum. I shouldn’t have to expect this from Savage, somebody who works hard to advance public acceptance of sexual diversity. But I do have to expect this from him, just like I have to expect a similar attitude from some of the wonderful gay and lesbian people I know. The unfortunate reality is that there is as much biphobia in the gay community as there is in the straight world, and it won’t go away if we continue to ignore it in the campaign for the greater good.

Thankfully, there are media to which we can turn for nuanced, complex looks at biphobia—and it looks like John Irving’s new novel will be one such place. Irving, best known as the author of such classics as The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, addresses bisexuality and biphobia in gay and straight communities in his forthcoming book, In One Person. Yesterday, Towleroad posted a video interview in which Irving discusses the book and its lead character, a bisexual man named Billy Abbott (transcription begins at 1:53):

Most bisexual guys of my generation were hugely distrusted by their gay friends and gay lovers, who all thought that the bisexual was hedging his bets about being gay, was basically a gay guy with one foot in the closet, and would eventually come all the way out. Well, only to discover, as time went on, and those young bisexuals grew older, that some of them really were what they said they were. He [Billy Abbott] is not conflicted about his bisexuality. It’s real and present and will endure.

Billy’s dislike of monogamy is almost as strong and well-supported, well-taken, as his dislike of the convention of a heterosexual life. He puts them to a kind of test. I don’t mean, uh, intentionally, but his very existence as a bisexual man challenges whatever sexual tolerance—tolerance of gender, sexual identities, sexual mutability—these other characters think they have. They don’t really believe he is a bisexual. They don’t really believe there are bisexuals. And among his straight, female friends and women lovers, he’s doubly distrusted. They don’t know whether he’s going to leave them for another woman or for a man.

The fact that Irving is equating bisexuality with non-monogamy is potentially troubling, since not all non-monosexual folks are also non-monogamous, and vice versa. It also doesn’t necessarily help to counter the stereotype, referenced above, that bisexual people have difficulty committing to monogamous relationships. Other than that, though, I like the way that Irving expresses his approach to bisexuality in In One Person. He is taking care to explicitly label his character as bisexual and, consequently, explore the specific ways in which bi people are marginalized by both gay and straight communities. I’m also fascinated by Irving’s decision to focus on a bisexual man rather than a gay man to tell this story. I know that Irving, whom I believe is straight, has written queer characters before (most notably, a trans woman in Garp), though I don’t know much about how successful he is in these depictions. Nevertheless, the fact that he’s chosen a bisexual story in the first place is a bold move on his part, and I can’t wait to see how it will turn out.

In One Person comes out in May, and I already know it will be at the top of my summer reading list. Are any of you looking forward to reading it? What are your favorite novels that address bisexuality and biphobia?

Previously: How the Savage U Premiere Barely Exceeded My Extremely Low Expectations, Invisi(bi)lity in the Culture Wars

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

I find the comment by Dan

I find the comment by Dan Savage to be quite interesting: "avoiding bi guys is a good rule of thumb for gay men looking for long-term relationships"... Isn't Dan Savage in a non-monogamous relationship with his husband?? Also, those who are non-monogamous are just as capable of maintaining long-term relationships as those who are monogamous. We have to separate 'long-term' from 'monogamy' because they don't have to go together. I myself identify as bisexual and although I have come to identify as "monogamish" rather than monogamous, my preference is to find someone I can be in a happy long-term relationship with, even if sexual exclusivity isn't part of it all the time. I find the notion that bisexual people are less capable of being in long-term relationships ridiculous especially since people of all sexual orientations seem to be moving towards a "serial monogamy" pattern of relationships.

If I recall, the specific

If I recall, the specific comment you are referencing was said several years ago, I think in 2008 or 2009. Here's my take on Dan Savage:

His biphobia bothered me. A lot. Unfortunately, I discovered Dan Savage at the same time my husband of (at that time) 9 years "came out" to me as bisexual. I looked online for info, and a lot of the stuff I found basically said, "Bi guys are gay guys in the closet," or variations thereof. Dan Savage was one of those biphobic columnists, a particularly painful situation for me because I found Dan otherwise pretty helpful. For instance, reading his columns helped me realize that being okay with/ accepting of polyamory as a viable relationship model for other people is not necessarily the same thing as being okay with/ accepting of polyamory in my own life. His advice helped me come to terms with my own sexual needs/ desires in my relationship, and how I could better express them.

Because I otherwise found his advice helpful, it was all the more painful/ confusing to read his strong assertions that bisexual men are heartbreakers/ cannot be faithful/ will always cheat/ are not real/ have one foot in the closet. It was very confusing to me, because on the one hand, my heart and mind and personal experience all testified to the fact that my bisexual husband was very much devoted and attracted to me. But at the same time, all my (internet) research was insisting my personal experiences were a lie. I won't go into my long personal history on why I so easily doubt the evidence of my personal experience, but believe me when I say it's a long-running psychological issue ingrained in me since childhood.

Anyway, I'd go through this cycle -- convince myself I knew my husband better than any online advice columnist, then read something biphobic by Dan Savage, start fretting/ thinking about what I read, fight with my husband, realize I overreacted, apologize, rinse, repeat. After doing this a few times, I realized that the catalyst to all our fights about my husbands bisexuality was because I was reading biphobic stuff and fretting over it. So I stopped reading Dan Savage, which was pretty much the only consistently biphobic place I frequented.

A year or so passed. My husband and I worked out our issues and now have a strong, happy marriage. I liked Dan Savage, other than his biphobia. His "It Gets Better" campaign hit the news, and I went back and browsed his site. I found a few letters dealing with bisexuality that were surprisingly (for him) accepting in tone. And then I found a letter or column -- I can't remember the date -- that said (paraphrasing): I've received enough letters and talked to enough people to be convinced that bisexuality is real, and I've been a real jerk by excluding bisexuals.

I personally think this is what has happened with Dan Savage: He WAS biphobic. But people change their views according to information and experience, and that's what I believe has happened with Dan Savage.

Unfortunately for Dan Savage, the majority of his biphobic remarks will live on in infamy on the internet, and he'll never quite live down his biphobic past. Perhaps this is an eloquent lesson in moderating one's speech when making judgmental, 'othering' statements online?

Do you have any examples of

Do you have any examples of Dan Savage's biphobia that aren't almost 13 years old? It looks like he wrote that column in 1999.

Does it matter

Does it matter that much that he wrote it in 1999? The message Savage clearly sends is that bisexual men can't be trusted, that their bisexuality is inherently imbued with dishonesty. In the clip analyzed last week, he flippantly tells a woman that the man she was dating isn't bisexual. I'm sure it was edited down and might have been a more complex answer, but the facts are that Savage IS dismissive of bi-identified people before knowing their stories. Put yourself in the shoes of the young bi man in 1999 whose girlfriend wrote that letter to Dan. Do you think it was a pleasant experience for him to have his own personal sexuality trodden on by a man who never met him and didn't know a thing about him other than the fact that he expressed his bisexuality. How many relationships did he have to suffer through with people who didn't trust him simply because of this stereotype of bi-folk? Gay men and Lesbians are too quick to write bisexuals off as an aberrance or on the way out of the closet (and we all know how fun it is when someone tells us being gay is just a phase). If Savage really has changed his view from 1999, we should demand that he respond to the criticism. He can do a lot of good by acknowledging that he was too quick to judge. Showing growth and learning is not just for kids.

As should not be surprising

As should not be surprising to anyone who actually pays attention to what Dan Savage has to say -- including in the very post to which this post links -- the "rule of thumb" (which by definition is just a default guide, not an unbreakable command) of not looking for commitment with bi guys has nothing to do with any supposed inability to be monogamous. It's about societal pressures to be closeted in various aspects of life and bisexual men's greater ability to "choose" or otherwise buy into that side of things. He's also drawing on the collected experiences of his submissions.

While there definitely are big issues with biphobia out there, I'd caution against criticizing people for beliefs they don't even hold.

Editor, I swear this is on-topic...

The notion that bisexuals are unreliable partners is one that we frequently encounter--whether that notion was made in jest or was meant to be taken lightly. And I've heard gay and lesbian justifications of their biphobia over and over again-- "all of the bisexuals I know/knew were/are that way," "bisexuals spread sexually-transmitted diseases so it's only natural that we're nervous of them," 'bisexuals are confused and don't know who they are," "bisexuals eventually gravitate toward straight relationships since heterosexuality is the norm." It doesn't matter if these comments were made twenty years ago or last week (in fact, I've encountered some recently). These generalizations are still prevalent, and they are still damaging. And like many stereotypes, they are ideas that came from a personal experience. I can understand why these comments were made. The problem is, I've been hearing these justifications ad nauseam. We're all human and we all have baggage.

I'm looking forward to this novel. I honestly don't care if the protagonist embodies some stereotypes, provided that it is still an honest portrayal. Has anyone read "A Chronology of Water"? It is a beautifully-written memoir by a bisexual woman--though it may be triggering, as it deals with abuse.

Keeping on track...

Hey everyone,

Thanks for your comments! I just wanted to step in and remind you that this post is about John Irving's new novel, not Dan Savage—please stay on topic.

Thanks again!

I'd be interested to read the

I'd be interested to read the book, actually -- I've read Owen Meany and also A Widow for One Year, and in Widow particularly I thought he did a great job with the feminist issues in the text. I think he's a very sensitive author who takes on nuanced topics because he genuinely finds them interesting.


I have been waiting to hear positive commentary on bisexuals for a very long time. Being bisexual has been quite exhausting over the years, always hearing the same are confused, promiscuous, experimental, etc. Sexuality is fluid, and most of us land somewhere on the line in between homo and heterosexual, in addition to asexuality. Who you are is what matters and labels are tiring. I just say I am human. I would like to read this book. But I would really like to see more bisexual representation that does not fit into the negative stereotypes. It only feeds into those that continue to marginalize a large group of otherwise innocent people. Even Bi the Way, the documentary on bisexuality was misleading. There was also a time when I was happy just watching a lesbian film that didn't end with a tragedy. But that is a whole other story... I think we still have a very long way to go before we see consistently real representations of the LGBT community.

I realized I was bi at 14. My

I realized I was bi at 14. My crushes and sexual fantasies were mostly on girls and then I would have boy crushes too. From what I have seen over the last 20 years bisexual men do largely enter into opposite sex relationships. I know of only 3 in same sex relationships. Often bi guys are very romantic and extremely dedicated to their opposite sex partners to a fault. They are "very sensitive" men and do not play the hetero-normative gender role of "the man". But there are really horrid biphobic things that have happened. For example a bi girlfriend who want to get back involved with was told by her gay therapist that if I am bisexual I am really "gay and in the closet" and she should "stop messing around with women and go get married, but not to me." Or being harassed at school or at work for an identity without people knowing anything about me. Ironically I have dated mostly women and the accusations that I am "gay and in denial" not only diminish my feelings but also my past loving passionate sexual relationships. So the effect of biphobia is MOST bisexual men who very fluid STAY IN THE CLOSET and end up saying they are "straight". What is really sick about biphobia is the bisexual men I have known over the years were some of the most loving men to their women, and most have little problem being faithful. However if they have never expressed their bisexuality and they are married this may become a nagging fantasy.

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