It’s Bi Visibility Day. Pop culture shapes a lot of my thoughts and feelings, and common points of reference make this easier to write. We say that representation matters, but it can be hard to illustrate why. Here we go: a play in three acts. Three cultural events in the past year and what they meant to me.
Act 1: Fusion on Steven Universe
TV and movie romances rarely appeal to me. It’s hard to explain why – I’m attracted to individual characters, but the style of relationships we see rarely have much appeal.
Warning: Many Steven Universe Spoilers Follow
That’s why fusion was such a revelation. The idea of dancing with Garnet or being Rose and becoming part of a living paragon of understanding and mental connection that also happened to be a giant woman? That was instantly appealing.
Not every act of fusion is a metaphor for romance – Steven and Amethyst’s fusion was all about empathy and personal connection – but fusion’s immediate appeal to me absolutely incorporated romantic implications. There are some interesting gender ideas in play as well – Rebecca Sugar has said that gems are not women, they’re genderless aliens who present as women and use female pronouns… which is kind of how I feel about myself most of the time. Even if they aren’t human women, Gems and fusion had me daydreaming about romantic interactions with someone who looked like a girl.
That’s the thing about representation: I see thousands of depictions of straight romance on TV, and less than five percent of it appeals to me personally. If I’d only seen a handful of boy/girl relationships on TV and none of them appealed to me, I might have assumed I didn’t like boys.
It’s easy to dismiss feelings when they seem to be outliers. As a kid my group of friends selected Sailor Scouts to represent ourselves. I was Sailor Neptune – Michiru Kaioh. That character is in a relationship with Sailor Uranus – Haruka Tenoh. Michiru and Haruka belong together, and I thought they had a better relationship than Tuxedo Mask and Sailor Moon. They probably have the best relationship in all of Anime. The thing is, half the ostensibly straight girls on Sailor Moon had crushes on Haruka at some point. It’s easy to round down to straight, and there’s a lot of pressure to do so until you see multiple examples that you can relate to. Steven Universe showed me a wide range of girls who I wanted to be or to fuse with.
Act 2: Rhea Butcher’s Comedy
I watch and listen to a lot of stand-up comedy. One day I had a Youtube recommendation list of comedians running in the background. Someone caught my eye as they took the stage.
“Who’s that?” I thought.
“Hey guys, my name’s Rhea Butcher” she said.
The vast majority of my teen crushes were on comedians. Sketch or standup, mostly. I got Comedy Central and immediately became smitten with Dave Foley. A significant component of that crush was based on how comfortable he seemed in dresses – I’ve always liked playing with gender and it’s rare you see a guy who is comfortable doing the same. This is also probably why I like girls like Haruka and Rhea – but how often do you see girls like that on TV?
My comedian crushes are all about the jokes, and Rhea had the best first set I’d heard in a long time. Her final joke wasn’t the one in her Conan set (it’s the Colt45 bit on her new album, if you’re curious), and when she finished telling it I laughed for ten straight seconds and felt myself blushing.
This is not an uncommon reaction for me. I love comedy and comedians show a lot of their heart and struggle in their art. Plus you get to look at their faces, while a prose writer you love could be two hundred years old and/or dead. Comedians let you see at least a curated public garden part of their soul.
I’m never attracted to anyone until I have some sense of their inner life. Media often assumes that visual appeal and traditional femininity makes women attractive – we can maybe learn about their inner lives once we’re already smitten with their looks. I work the other way and conventional femininity isn’t my personal type. This was the first time I’d heard hilarious and deeply personal comedy from a butch lesbian, and the impact was immediate and amazing.
Act 3: The Country Song “Girl Crush” Is Bad and Confusing
Last February I was watching the Grammys for the same reason as everyone I knew.
Raise your hand if 99% of why you're watching #TheGrammys is for Hamilton
— Gillian Berry (@mizgillianberry) February 16, 2016
While I was waiting, a country band I’d never heard of came on and started playing a song I knew only well enough to switch radio stations every time it came on. Now they had a captive audience, and I listened to the lyrics for the first time. My brain started to hurt. I went on Twitter to see if anyone could explain what was happening to me, to us all.
WHTA IS HAPPENING pic.twitter.com/ErRXxnIMwj
— Noelle Stevenson (@Gingerhazing) February 16, 2016
i have a crush on a giiiiiirl cuz i liiiike her booooyfriend probably??? i wanna kisssss her no homoooo, i am in denial
— Noelle Stevenson (@Gingerhazing) February 16, 2016
@Gingerhazing As a girl who often dates boys and occasionally crushes on girls, that song fills me with confusion and rage.
— Leah Miller (@CulturalGeek) February 16, 2016
What purports to be a song about a girl crush is actually a song about being jealous of a girl who is dating the guy you like. Here’s the thing: I’m fine with songs about being jealous of someone dating the person you like. When I listen to Wicked, “I’m Not That Girl” makes me cry. But this song was titled “Girl Crush” and then made interest in a girl about secretly being obsessed with a guy, which is wrong on so many levels.
It’s frustrating when someone tries to make art about a thing you’ve experienced and they get it so, so wrong. This was tighten up the graphics on level 3 bad.
I was irritated and annoyed, but so was everyone else on twitter who had ever legitimately had a crush on a girl. We were frustrated as a community. I felt like I belonged.
The first time I ever said I was Bi, I was 21 and spending a year in Tokyo. I had Haruka and Michiru figures on my desk and Ani DiFranco on my iPod. One night I went out with a couple of friends, with the plan of helping our Gay friend safely explore the Gay District of Shinjuku. We ended up in a tiny karaoke bar in a high rise in ni-chome. My Japanese wasn’t great but it was better than anyone else, so I was half-translating, shrugging and smiling apologetically when I didn’t understand. The bar owner made fun of me for my overly formal desu/masu speech patterns. Eventually the topic of sexuality came up, as it would during a night of drinking and cultural exchange. My Gay friend said he was Gay, my Bi friend said she was Bi, and when he turned to me I knew I couldn’t translate the complexity of how I interacted with gender or the world, so I just said that I was Bi. The conversation moved on and soon he was showing us his wedding pictures. It was incredibly cool.
Heading home at the end of the night, my friend who was much more conventionally Bisexual looked at me and said “Oh, you’re Bi now?” I laughed and shrugged sheepishly. I’d probably overstepped or overstated. “I’m not sure” I said. She rolled her eyes. I went home and didn’t talk about it much after that, though Michiru and Haruka stayed on my desk.
That sheepishness has followed me ever since. Every time I like a girl I think: “is this enough? Have I reached critical mass? Does this count?”
I often get crushes on podcasters based on their online personas. Sometimes the voice in my headphones makes my heart leap – just enough to remind me that I’m still capable of being surprised by feelings. A few years ago I was listening to Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, back when Jay used the name Rachel and presented as female. To paraphrase They Might be Giants, “a woman’s voice on a podcast can convince you you’re in love.” It was one of the strongest podcast crushes I’d had in ages, and the first big crush I’d had on a girl. Jay is non-binary and uses neutral or male pronouns these days, so I hesitated to mention them in this essay. Jay is also a private person, and I worried that talking about having a crush on them in public might be weird.
(Side note: I consciously mirrored the way Jay talks about their past presentation, and then emailed them the previous paragraph to make sure this was acceptable. Jay speaks publicly about their past name and presentation, which is somewhat uncommon. You should never assume it’s all right to reference those things, but I was aware from Jay’s writing that they talk about their past in this way. Even then, I made sure to get explicit approval.)
If you have mild social anxiety, try emailing someone you respect to say “Hello can I make a reference your gender identity in an essay? Also I had a crush on you and that is part of the essay.” It’s a good way to just drive your awkwardness paranoia off the scale. Luckily for me, Jay was very nice about the whole thing. They gave me permission to quote part of their response:
“Re: public crushes, I’m hesitant to generalize, because it’s so individual-specific. Something that would have been entirely fine to read or hear from you–someone I’ve had positive interactions with before, and who seems to have a good sense of personal boundaries–could feel really inappropriate and invasive from a stranger or someone who didn’t understand the difference between acknowledging a crush and, say, pushing for reciprocity. Likewise, I’m a lot leerier of men expressing that stuff out of nowhere, because there’s a power differential and a cultural history that make it a fundamentally more threatening move, if that makes sense: I’ve never had to physically flee from a woman or NB person who wouldn’t take ‘thanks, but no thanks’ at face value.”
This is something I’m very conscious of whenever I talk about crushes. Fictional characters are almost completely safe, so that’s where most of my references come from. Celebrities are the next tier of safety. This makes representation matter even more: if the kind of people and relationships you find intriguing aren’t represented in media or high-profile celebrities, it can be difficult to talk about it at all. I’d rather keep things to myself than ruin someone’s day by being creepy or intrusive.
I took the risk of dying from embarrassment because we rarely talk about how non-binary people fit into the public narrative about sexuality that focuses heavily on the gender binary. I’m nonbinary myself, though I use female pronouns and the word “girl”. This complicates everything, especially because I’ve always sought out relationships that don’t precisely conform to gender norms. Is someone who is primarily interested in men and nonbinary people Bi, or do they have to explicitly be interested in gender-conforming women too? Society and the media blur those lines a lot. When I liked butch women or nonbinary people, I’d assume it was because they reminded me of androgynous men. That’s why the Buzzfeed video where Rhea Butcher says “I’m a beautiful woman” was such a revelation. She is, and I like her because she’s a beautiful woman.
These complexities are why I’ve avoided writing publicly for so long. I flirt with people I am attracted to. When I get a crush on a celebrity I talk about it. People will notice that sometimes I’m talking about girls or nonbinary people. Isn’t that enough?
Probably not. For a long time I didn’t think I was Bi because none of the Bi narratives I saw were written from the perspective of someone like me. People described seeing hot girls on the street and wanting to make out with them; that’s not how I work, with guys or girls. I’m more likely to develop a crush based on a voice, or an idea, or a late-night conversation.
I know Bi and Pansexual people who are like that, but they often describe themselves as not taking gender into consideration at all, and that isn’t accurate for me either. I’m much more likely to pick up attraction-related signals from guys and friendship-related ones from girls. It’s part social conditioning and part statistics – a guy I’m talking with is more likely to be flirting with me. So I chose not to speak when my experience didn’t match the dominant narrative of a group. I didn’t want to steal focus or dilute the narrative. I didn’t want to be a bad example.
I was afraid.
I’ve got a lot of privilege, and the fact that people assuming I’m straight doesn’t really negatively affect me is part of that. I’ve also had bad experiences talking about my gender before, and I don’t want a repeat of that when it comes to sexuality. But I can also afford to talk about it, so here I am.
I’m still not sure what identity I’m going to end up most comfortable with – am I Bisexual or Biromantic or something else we don’t have a word for yet? At the end of the day, I like boys, girls, and nonbinary people. Bi Visibility day seems like the time to write about that.