As I have been saying to pretty much everyone I know in every format I can (yes, oral transmission of links is somewhat tricky) please go and read this. I’ll wait here til you get back.
Okay. I’m working on a column on the bisexual-specific aspects of that for Public Address, but there was too much to unpack for just one piece. What I want to talk about here is the tension between theory and personal experience.
Ironically, to explain my attitude to theory, I have to talk a little about my personal experience. I grew up in a poor working-class family in a state-housing neighbourhood and went to what was then a working-class school. Yet my family’s values were very middle-class.
I was the first person in my family to go to university. Others had done tertiary vocational training (teachers’ or technical colleges), but I was the first to get an expensive education without specific purpose. Now, I was already pretty used to being a social chameleon, but boy was uni a squishy comfy couch of unconscious middle-class privilege.
At high school, I’d automatically considered myself a feminist. Who wouldn’t, it was just common sense. At uni, I stopped. And it was because, at base, the theory I saw there didn’t accommodate my experience. Now I’ll admit that I made assumptions. That, for instance, if you were yelling at men for holding doors open for you, you were probably one of those comfortable white straight middle-class girls I was flatting with whose life experience had left them short of actual significant things to complain about. Nevertheless, when I listened to these women talk, there was no sign that socially, romantically or especially sexually, I existed. And there was an awful lot of “women don’t” that quite specifically erased me. So I shut up about my experience, and I walked away.
Now, over the intervening couple of decades, my “experience trumps theory” attitude has somewhat softened. I will still immediately shut down if someone uses the phrase “false consciousness”. I still believe that if your theory is in conflict with the experiences of a bunch of people, then your theory needs amending to have validity and you need to listen and acknowledge that. Theory that is entirely removed from the real world seems to me to be utterly pointless.
But. One of the things I really like about that Huffpo column is the way Emily Dievendorf marries her experience with broader theory, with stats that unite the experiences of large numbers of bisexuals. Detail and big picture. Lots of people have told me how shocked they are by this:
Bisexuals have higher incidences of depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor physical health in general than their heterosexual, gay and lesbian counterparts… Bisexual women with monosexual partners have an increased rate of domestic violence compared to every other female demographic. Compared to lesbians, bisexual women are twice as likely to live in poverty… While lesbians earn 2.7% less than straight men, bisexual women earn nearly 11% less.
Yes, because they’re surprised, but also because they’re responding to an abstract ‘big picture’. For me, what resonates is this:
I’m currently dating a man. I refuse to hide him because being in a relationship with him is part of who I am. If asked about my sexuality I would expect him to answer without pause that I identify as bi. Still… I feel like a traitor, I feel like I took the easy way out, I feel like I’m not relating and might, therefore, not be able to represent the queer community.
A couple of years ago I was at my book launch in Auckland, and a woman came up to me. She explained that she was related to a friend of mine, and then she said, “I hear you’re Family.”
After the minute I spent working out that she didn’t mean biological family, I said, remembering experiences with ‘LGBT’ community at uni, “Well, I’m bisexual.”
She made a sort of dismissive snorting noise and said, “You’re Family.” I nearly bloody cried. (Yes, of course I had been drinking.)
The thing with the abstract, the stats, is that they can seem so big and so overwhelming they make us feel helpless. Yes, I can make people more aware that actually, the mental picture people have of happy extroverted sexually-voracious bisexuals isn’t accurate, I can do Awareness. But each and every one of us can change the balance of a person’s individual experience. Listening, genuinely listening, to people whose experience contradicts our theory is a great place to start.