As far as the internet is concerned, there are only two current topics of conversation; coronavirus and Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. America can’t get enough of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, an eccentric roadside zoo owner and proud gay, polyamorous, gun-toting, tiger breeder. Not classically charming, but with a certain je ne sais quoi, the blond, mullet-sporting, sequin-wearing Oklahoman is captivating. Partially because he bucks so many stereotypes about what a gay man in America is supposed to be; but also, because he had not one, but two husbands. At the same time.
His two (now ex) husbands, John Finlay and Travis Michael Maldonado, were enamored with the 57-year-old personality, so much so that they all got married as a throuple (a portmanteau of the words “three” and “couple”). At least that’s the simple version presented at the beginning of the series.
By the end of the documentary, it’s made clear that their decision to wed Joe was far more insidious. Both men met Joe as teenagers, at age 19, when he was at least two decades older. These young men, who seemingly didn’t come from much, were lured in by his endless trough of expensive gifts, abundant supply of drugs, larger-than-life persona, and, of course, an extensive collection of tigers. As the documentarians point out repeatedly, big cats have a magnetic, ineffable pull over a select group of animal fanatics. But so do drugs. With this heady combination, Joe controlled these men, forcing dependence by limiting their freedoms and exacerbating their addictions. He loved them in the same way that he loved his big cats — when they did as they were told.
The documentary makes it clear that John and Travis were the ones being taken advantage of, but falls short of naming the more complicated truth — that these two straight-identified men engaged in transactional sex. As a society, we refuse to admit that this happens all the time. There are plenty of straight-identified men and women who engage in sexual activities with people of the same sex for a myriad of reasons; protection, money, novelty, intimacy, validation, or a sense of belonging. While we often think of transactional sex as being exclusive to sex work, its reach is far more ubiquitous.
Through depicting only a predatory relationship between a gay man and two straight men, Tiger King plays into a dangerous stereotype held by many Americans; that all gay men are sexually exploitative. That any relationship between a straight-identifying man and a gay man is not fully consensual. In fact, the converse can also be true; straight men can use transactional sex to take financial and emotional advantage of gay men.
What made Joe’s relationship with John and Travis wrong was not that it was transactional, but that the transaction existed across a clear power differential, and consisted of controlling abusive behavior. He owned these men like he did the 200-plus animals in his zoo, evident in John Finlay’s three tattoos dedicated to Joe. One of which was above his crotch and it read, “Privately Owned By Joe Exotic” before John had it covered up. Travis, too, before accidentally shooting himself, mentioned that he felt like a prisoner living with Joe, since he couldn’t leave the zoo grounds or get a job.
In addition to reifying stale tropes about sexually predatory gay men, the documentary also glosses over a larger (and desperately necessary) conversation about the spectrum of male sexuality and desire.
Unlike Joe, who identifies as gay, Tiger King makes it clear that there’s some confusion surrounding his now ex-husbands’ sexuality. John, who was with Joe for over a decade, identifies as straight. After divorcing Joe, John married a woman. Travis passed away before he could be interviewed, so it’s unclear how he would have sexually identified today. Nevertheless, the zookeeping staff, Joe’s presidential campaign manager Joshua Dial, and producer Rick Kirkham all believed Travis was straight. Even Joe, himself, acknowledged this, saying on camera that he had fallen in love with two “straight men”.
But how do men who identify as straight come to marry not one, but two men? As a bisexual guy who's spent a large part of my career writing about male sexuality and the bi community, my gut response is to say that they may fall under the bi umbrella and could be in some denial about their same-sex attractions. Having received hundreds of emails from young, confused bi men, this is frequently the case. These men often need to be told that male bisexuality is real, manifests in different ways, and is normal, even if their family or community doesn’t accept them.
However, when I look deeper into the dynamics of Joe and his ex-husbands, I don’t think it’s a simple case of internalized biphobia. Men with internalized biphobia typically hide their same-sex attractions. They wouldn’t marry a man, let alone two men.
There’s the potential that Joe and Travis have either sexual or romantic attractions to Joe, but not both. The two types of attractions are now recognized as distinct entities. A man can be physically attracted to other men but not emotionally attracted to them, meaning he’s down to fool around sexually with other guys but has no desire to seriously date or build a life with them. Or it could be the opposite. Say, Travis or John felt romantically connected to Joe, loving him as more than a friend, but they weren’t sexually attracted to their older husband. While that could partially explain the intricacies of their relationships, I don’t think it does it complete justice.
These men might not even have fully understood what bisexuality is. Travis was 19 when he met Joe, and Joe was able to seemingly convince the young man that he wasn’t completely straight since he preferred to watch straight porn with well-endowed men. While a faulty premise, how quickly Travis believed Joe illustrates that Travis didn’t have a comprehensive understanding of sexuality at large.
In my opinion, Travis and John may belong to the overlooked group of men Ritch Savin-Williams, professor emeritus of development psychology at Cornell University, describes as “the mostly straight man” — not fully bisexual, but something like bisexual-adjacent. “The mostly straight man belongs to a growing trend of young men who are secure in their heterosexuality yet remain aware of their potential to experience far more,” Savin-Williams wrote in Time Magazine. (I consider these men to be under the bi umbrella, even if Savin-Williams does not.) He referenced a 2011–2013 U.S. government poll which found that among 18 to 24-year-old men, 6% marked their sexual attractions as “mostly opposite sex”.
Compare this to the popular notion of the “mostly straight woman”. Society has deemed it acceptable for women to have same-sex sexual experiences, like kissing another girl at a bar. Nevertheless, these women are usually considered straight whereas a man who engages in any sexual activity with another man is considered gay, even if he’s loved, dated, and slept with a thousand other women.
Frankly, I’m not sure exactly how to describe Travis’ and John’s sexuality. Were they seeking love, stability, family, sex, or drugs? Maybe all of it. Even if I did think I know, I don’t think it’s my place to label others’ sexuality. Still, by brushing off their polyamorous marriage to Joe Exotic as easily explained by the fact that they were both “actually straight”, Tiger King does a disservice to both the bi community and the public at large. The show could have explored these men’s sexuality, whatever the answer actually is. And at least in the beginning of their relationships, these men seemed happy and fulfilled. They felt like they belonged to a family and felt protected by a powerful man.
In reality, many relationships contain multitudes. We can marry someone in part because we’ve been manipulated, and in part because we have some sort of attraction. In a world that forces men to choose between being either “completely straight” or “completely gay”, Tiger King’s failure to entertain the possibility that these men fall under the bi umbrella reinforces the popular notion that male bisexuality doesn’t exist. This was something I thought we moved past following 20BiTeen, but apparently, we still have a long way to go.