Recently, I was reading the gay British magazine, Attitude, where I saw an interview with UK Celebrity Big Brother winner Courtney Act. For those of you who don't know, Courtney Act, whose real name is Shane Jenek, is an Australian drag queen and singer who made a name for himself as a contestant on season 6 of RuPaul's Drag Race.
He used his platform on the show for good — in one viral clip, he explained the difference between transgender and drag queen.
Courtney identifies as pansexual, one of the many labels that fits under the bi+ umbrella. He explains to Attitude,
The reason I identify as pansexual is not because I wander around the street looking at women thinking I wanna bang 'em, it's because I've had sexual and emotional experiences with women, and I don't count that out as being a possibility. [The last time was in 2016] I had a threesome with two lesbians.
I just love this. I love the bi+ visibility and the reasoning why Shane has embraced the pan label. Subtly, he illustrates that there are different types of attraction. One doesn't need to be both sexually and physically attracted to men and women to be bi. Neither does one need to be attracted to men, women, and all other genders to the same degree.
There are different types of bi and pansexuality. I, for instance, do see people of all genders walking down the street and think to myself, "I wanna bang 'em." But that's one of the many differences between my bisexuality and Shane's. Additionally, even though I'm attracted to all genders too, I identify as bi, as opposed to pansexual. I do this because I view bisexuality as more of an umbrella term. One that, despite the misconception, doesn't reinforce gender as a binary.
Shane's explanation also reveals that he is open to the possibility of a relationship with individuals who don't identify as men/male down the line. All too often, people define bisexuality by one's past. When in actuality, bisexuality is defined by the present and future.
It's not about who you've dated, loved, or banged. It's about if you're approaching the world with the lens of: I could see myself having some form of attraction to people of various genders now and/or down the line.
Now, while all of this is fine and dandy, the goal of this column wasn't simply to praise Courtney Act. There was one section in the interview that got me thinking. Shane talked about a man he dated for 6 months who, prior to dating Shane, had never dated/slept with a man.
"We met, I was in drag, we had a sexual encounter," Courtney explains. "I got out of drag, we continued the sexual encounter and we ended up dating. He was from Dayton, Ohio, and an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog model, and then when we broke up he went back to dating girls."
The man said to Shane, "I was just attracted to you, I'm not attracted to other men."
This story reminded me of one of my best friends in college. Prior to meeting her girlfriend (of now six years), she had always dated men. She always said that if she and her girlfriend ever broke up, she would go back to dating men.
When people were confused by her attractions, asking her if she's "now a lesbian", she would explain, "Have you ever had that girl or boy crush, maybe it was a celebrity — maybe it was someone else — where you thought to yourself I would totally 'go gay' for them. I just happened to meet my one in a million, and we fell in love."
I remember at the time, she wasn't quite sure how to identify. Lesbian didn't feel right, she explained. She wasn't even sure if bi was appropriate. She felt as if she was coopting an identity that really wasn't hers. And since nearly everyone has that "one-in-a-million" person they'd "go gay for", that would mean that nearly every person is bi, which didn't seem correct. She was just incredibly lucky not only to meet that one person, but for that one person to love her back.
I remember her telling me this when I was 19 and confused about my own sexuality. I think the advice I gave her was, "Don't worry about labeling it. Do what makes you happy", (which is the same advice everyone had been giving me my whole life).
Now, of course, I would tell her she can absolutely embrace the bi label, if she feels it suits her. She doesn't need to "prove" her bisexuality to anyone.
Her situation, however, does create an interesting question. What if that woman she liked, her one-in-a-million, didn't like her back and she spent the rest of her life solely dating, attracted to, and pursuing men? Similarly, what about the man Courtney dated for six months? If he and Courtney had never met, he believes he would have spent his life solely attracted to women.
Can they call themselves bi?
In general, my answer to this question is "Yes, if you feel the label suits you, and it makes you feel better about yourself, your relationships, and your identity." And that is how I would respond in these scenarios as well.
I also think, in these situations, there is a tendency for people (although not everyone!) to say they'd be bi for one person when in actuality, they'd be bi for a lot more. I thought that I would be bi for one person when I was in high school: Jake Gyllenhaal. (Something about his eyes I find mesmerizing.) Then there was a guy in college I thought I would be bi for... his name was Greg. Before I knew it there were a lot of people I would be bi for... and then I realized I was just bi.
I don't think this is the case for everyone, and I'm not attempting to project my own experience onto others. And god knows, it's really, really annoying when someone questions my bisexuality, so I wouldn't want to question anyone else's sexual identity. But at the same time, I do wonder if people who claim the "one-in-a-million" statement are struggling to accept other parts of their sexual identity.
Nevertheless, and this is where other bi activists and I have butt heads in the past (so feel free to respectfully disagree), I'm all for expanding what we think of as being heterosexual.
As Courtney sums up perfectly in her interview, "It's important to acknowledge bisexual [and] pansexual, [but] we have such a rigid idea of what heterosexuality is and that's problematic."
For example, a man drunkenly kisses another man once, and he's labeled gay. I find this ridiculous.
Let me set a scenario here: So you're dancing with another guy, and you're straight while you're dancing. Then he leans in a little bit. You're still straight. Now your lips are a centimeter from another — still heterosexual — but then they gently graze one another in a gentle kiss. GAY! NOW YOU'RE GAY AND FOREVER WILL BE GAY!
This makes no sense to me, whatsoever. Behavior is different than attraction in how they both contribute to sexual orientation. If this man was attracted to that man, then oh yeah, he's definitely not straight. But a kiss, in and of itself, doesn't speak to a person's sexual identity.
I think a good example of this is my acapella group in college. We played spin the bottle at all of our parties (please don't judge us too hard), and it was mandatory for everyone to kiss, no matter one's gender or sexual orientation. So there were plenty of cis/straight men in the group who made out with other men. No one in my acapella group ever considered these men gay or bi. Similarly, no one ever considered the openly gay men in the group who made out with women to be straight or bi.
I think, however, like Courtney said, society has rigid rules surrounding what it means to be straight. These rules include never expressing platonic love for a male friend (so many straight men have to say "no-homo" after saying, "I love you" to a male friend or even after giving their best friend a hug). These rules contribute to homophobia and intimacy issues among straight men. Straight men are so afraid to reveal their emotions to another man, for fear of appearing "gay". They're afraid to have meaningful connections with men because if they do, they're immediately considered gay. This is partly why straight men engage in acts of toxic masculinity and are often terrible with their emotions. I also, indirectly, see how this could contribute to sexist beliefs. You feel the need to "prove" your straightness by "sexually conquering" or degrading women.
I think if we could allow for sexual curiosity and same-sex platonic intimacy, straight men would be healthier. There would also be less homophobia and sexism in the world.
Now before you attack me with pitchforks, let me clarify: I'm not trying to turn anyone straight. I'm not encouraging people to live in denial of their sexuality, simply because they find the bi label too daunting. God no! I'm simply saying that sometimes, in rare situations like the ones described above, there might be alternative labels to bi, that make people feel more comfortable with who they are. If they decide they want to embrace another label as opposed to bi, they should be permitted to do so. But if they want to embrace the bi label (which I would usually encourage them to do), God knows it's there for them, and it always will be!