My Latest Writing Adventure

In this post, J discusses the creation of a new series of independently published novels exploring Queerness in south, and the attempt to create the stories people in marginalized groups too often only get to wish we could have read about our own lives. 

I have been a devoted reader and fan of Toni Morrison for as long as I can remember. For me, the many ways she has found to capture the raw, passionate realities of the world, the good the bad and everything in between, and the complexities and nuances of racial, gendered, classed, sexual, and regional experiences are beyond comparison.  Her work is both an inspiration and a level I cannot even imagine myself or anyone else actually reaching.  I almost never write anything without thinking about one or another of her works, and I regularly re-read works of hers between my own fictional and non-fictional writing bursts.

After publishing my first novel about Queer coming of age in the south based on a combination of personal experiences and hundreds of informal and formal interviews with Queer people in the south over the past 20 years, I found myself continually thinking about one of the many brilliant things she has said and written in her life: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Without thinking about it consciously, I have been following this advice throughout my career.  As a researcher and teacher, most of my work to date involves incorporating Queer, Bi+, Trans, Non-binary, Poly, and Agnostic experiences and perspectives into existing scientific theory, research, and education as well as directing students to vibrant LGBTQIAP, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Cisgender Women’s literatures, sciences, histories, and arts.  Though I never thought of it in such terms until reading this quote a couple years ago, in all such cases, I have sought to write and teach things missing from my own upbringing and education that, after finding them on my own and with the help of wonderful mentors, I think should be more well known, recognized, and represented in scientific and educational settings and contexts.  While I spent much time with these thoughts a couple years ago, they really came back to me in an even more personal way as I began to craft fiction for the first time since failed attempts in my twenties, and only intensified when I published my first novel.

I kept remembering the younger version of me searching for myself and the other Queer people I knew/found in the south in media, in literature, in music, hell anywhere.  I (much faster than I would have guessed) received a couple emails from other young people who felt the same way, and appreciated finding my novel.  I spoke with other Bi+, Trans, Non-binary, Poly, and otherwise Queer authors about the limited media, literature, and other representative options even now, and with people in these groups who wished for these stories though they themselves were not in the process of writing them as they felt called to other types of work.  I spoke with Lesbian, Gay, Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim, and Cisgender Women friends and colleagues who experienced similar feelings growing up, who were seeking to create more representations of their lives in science and art, and who wanted such things whether or not they had any intention of creating them.  From the moment I delivered my manuscript to a couple months after its release, I kept having these conversations and thinking about my own feelings back then and now.

And, I kept returning to Morrison’s words: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

I looked at the novels I had completed, edited, and put together.  I kept digging through them as I prepared the novel for release without even thinking about it, and kept doing so after the release wondering what to do (if anything) with them.  Some of them were already in various stages of review and consideration at traditional publishing outlets, but others were unconventional in some way – in length, style, or other facets – and I wasn’t sure what to do with them.  I remembered the many paperbacks and zines I read when I was younger by Lesbian Women and Black people that self-published their work to get it out to others.  I thought about the number of people I’d met of various backgrounds who were self-publishing novels, comics, video series, music, and other things even more easily due to the available platforms today.  I collected every bit of information I could on all the platforms and options, and gathered incredibly useful positive, negative, and everywhere in between advice from colleagues and friends.  After thinking through every possible positive and negative, I decided to create a series of self-published works alongside my more traditional scholarly and fictional publishing.

This series of events led to the announcement on my social media accounts last week that I will be launching my own self-published series of fictional works entitled the Queering Dixie Series.  Each of these novels will explore some aspect of Bi+, Trans, Non-binary, Lesbian, Gay, Intersex, Asexual, Poly, Aromantic, or otherwise Queer experience that I have seen, experienced or learned about from others in the south over the past 20 years.  Each work will focus on different characters and stories, but there will often be overlap between the stories as they all take place within the same fictional world that I created based on my experiences growing up, working, and living in the south throughout my life to date.  While they will all be entirely fictional stories, each one will offer snapshots of real experiences various types of Queer people have had in the south over time, and issues Queer people in the south faced and / or still face in the process.

Like Cigarettes & Wine, these stories and all my other novels seek to shed light on the diversity and complexity of southern Queer experience by exploring the good, the bad, and everything in between as well as the multiple ways people create and sustain Queer lives in a regional context often at the forefront of opposition to Queer existence, rights, and well-being.  In so doing, I hope that I’ll join with so many other artists and scientists to do my small part in increasing the chance that when others go looking for our stories and our lives, they may have a better chance of finding them.

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Creating Cigarettes & Wine – a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on the process of outlining, composing, and publishing Cigarettes & Wine, a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s and based on zir experiences as a bisexual non-binary person and researcher collecting stories of other sexual and gender minorities over the past couple decades. 

Yesterday, my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – was officially released.  The novel is a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s based on hundreds of formal and informal interviews with sexual and gender minorities throughout the southeast I’ve collected over the past couple decades as, first, a curious bisexual and non-binary kid and later, as a researcher focused on sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities.  In this post, I elaborate on the background and creation of the novel after many colleagues and friends have asked about its origins over the past few months.  For more information about the novel or to purchase it, see here.

Background

I was sitting in a hotel lobby with a colleague I deeply admire and appreciate.  We were talking about all kinds of things related to life, relationships, research, activism, teaching, and the world, and my colleague asked a question about the novels I completed in the preceding months.  The topic was especially relevant at the time since I had just submitted my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – for consideration for the Social Fictions book series, and since my colleague had done me the favor of being the first person outside my little chosen family / inner circle to read the drafts of the first two novels I had composed.  My colleague’s interest and support and feedback on Cigarettes & Wine at the time was and remains invaluable, but I also enjoyed just how hard I laughed when my colleague asked, “So, this was so real, I gotta know, is this you, your life, it is, isn’t it?”

I laughed because though I had not thought much about it at the time, I understood the question.  The narrator of the novel is a non-binary, bisexual raised in a small town in South Carolina.  So am I.  The novel is set in the same geographic area where I grew up, and in a fictional town similar to the one that I grew up in.  The events in the novel are all things that – both from my personal experiences, from interviews I’ve done over the years, and from a lot of the people who read drafts along the way – have happened to people and / or are familiar to people, and thus, they are real events.  The novel is also written in first person more like a diary of sorts.  I laughed because it was a reasonable conclusion that I could understand, but not one I thought much about while writing the book.  I laughed because my colleague was incorrect, but not entirely incorrect.

My colleague was incorrect because the novel is entirely fictional – none of the characters in the novel are actual people and none of them are me.  Each one of them are composites of many people I have met, observed, interviewed, had relationships with, and otherwise encountered throughout my life.  Desperate for information on and experiences of bisexual (across the spectrum), transgender (across the spectrum), and poly (across the spectrum) people like me, and for even more information on lesbian, gay, asexual, intersex, kink, aromantic, and otherwise Queer people I admired, I began collecting the stories of everyone I could meet when I was a teenager.  Like the narrator, I would fill up journals with fictional versions of my own life (i.e., how it might be in other contexts) and fill journals up even further with all these stories of sexual and gender diverse experience, lives, and realities that were hidden just out of sight all around me.  Later in life, this actually ended up being incredibly useful training for life as an ethnographic, autoethnographic, content analysis, and interview-based researcher, and to this day, twenty years later, I still collect these stories every chance I get though now I do it both professionally and in my personal time.  My colleague was incorrect because the novel is not a retelling of my own story on its own, but rather, it’s more like a mix tape created by integrating the stories of hundreds of sexual and gender diverse / Queer people I have been lucky enough to meet, learn from, and become inspired by over the years.

At the same time, my colleague was not entirely incorrect.  While I do not exist in full in any of the characters or events, some of the events in the book are ones that I experienced as well.  Similarly, I remember very well living two distinct, separate lives as a younger person wherein almost all my straight friends and most of my family had no clue (to my knowledge, though I learned last year I was wrong in at least one case) about half of my life, and wherein my Queer friends knew more about the rest of my life but were never part of interactions I had with the straight, cis, mono world at the time (except secretly on rare occasions).  Further, there are little pieces of my personality, experience, and feelings as a teenager scattered throughout the book (i.e., a joke I like here, a place I hung out there, a conversation I had with someone here, emotions I felt in a tough or wonderful moment there, etc.), and in each of the main characters in the novel.  As someone very close to me put it after reading an early draft of the novel, “You’re everywhere and nowhere in this story.”  Put another way, the story is a mix tape of so many people’s stories, lives, experiences, and emotions, but I show up along the way as the curator of the collection hidden or embedded in this or that character or moment.

All these thoughts went running through my head as I sat in the hotel lobby with my colleague.  When I finished laughing, I simply said, “No, it’s not my story or the story of me, but it is one of what are likely millions of possible stories of people like me or like us.”  My colleague smiled, and asked what I meant.  I said, “Well, I basically took all the stories of people like us – mine and yours included – and put them together the best I could into a collective narrative illustrated through the lives of a group of kids in the 1990’s.”  My colleague laughed, and simply said, “How did you do that?”

Data and Methods

Integrating a wide variety of experiences is not easy, but luckily, it is what I do for a living as a researcher collecting and analyzing data sets of various sizes.  I began writing the stories that would become Cigarettes & Wine in my twenties, but I failed over and over again to accomplish whatever I wanted at the time (I’m still not sure).  I tried to write my own story, but I was never as good at that since I found other people more fascinating.  I tried to write it as a mix tape like I finally did last year, but I don’t think I had the skill set for that kind of writing before years of doing research for a living.  I tried to write it as a collection of disconnected journal entries from various people across the south, but it never seemed to work or flow well.  I gave up on it and pushed it aside when I got the chance to go to graduate school and try to develop a career as a scholar, researcher, activist, and teacher.  For eight years, while I published research, it sat there, a forgotten dream in the back of my mind.

When I decided to try it again last year with the support and encouragement of my life partner and best friend and after so many students suggested I should write a novel about all the stories I’d collected over the years, I approached the book as a research study and the stories I collected over the years – as well as my own experiences – as data for analysis.  Though I was only beginning to learn about it at the time, this approach is actually a rather common one in arts based research movements and traditions.  Despite the fact that, like the narrator in the story, I generally destroy my journals when I’m done with them because for some reason that feels good to me and they’re all made up fictional versions of life anyhow, I kept so many of the stories I collected from other people over the years and so I began to start reading back through them and thinking about remembering other ones and thinking about and making notes on my own experiences and those of other people.  Like I do with research papers, I began looking for patterns in the stories, and setting aside things that multiple people had experienced, dealt with, witnessed, or otherwise felt or known as part of their lives.  From this approach, I came up with a list of common events and experiences that appeared repeatedly in stories from people of varied sexualities, genders, locations in the south, religious backgrounds, family backgrounds, races, and other social characteristics.

Armed with these events as an outline for a narrative, I began creating characters based on integrating aspects of real people (say five or ten different people) into one whole character with thoughts, hopes, loves, fears, dreams, and personality quirks.  Although they changed a lot by the end of the composition process, these character profiles allowed me to start narrating the events that were common in the stories.  I initially tried telling the story from two other characters’ points of view before I finally got it to work with the narrator in the published version.  I also initially started telling a story that spanned from the 1990’s to now, but this proved to be way too much ground to cover so instead I broke it up into two and then three outlined novels (the second is now composed and the third is in progress of composition at present).  Once I had these raw materials (as I call them when I write research papers), I was ready to write the first rough draft of the story.

In the end, I wanted to accomplish three things with Cigarettes & Wine.  First, I wanted a bisexual and non-binary focused story after spending so many years wishing I could find one – much less one set in the world I grew up in – as a kid.  Second, I wanted a story where almost all of the character were Queer in one way or another and in different ways to illustrate the diversity of the amazing people I’ve met over the years who identify and live in so many different ways within the various umbrella terms we use.  Third and finally, I wanted a real story that captured experiences of Queerness in the south, and as a result, I only used events in the novel that showed up in multiple people’s lives over the years and explicitly sought to capture beautiful and ugly, wonderful and terrible things that Queer people experience in our world.

Results

Whether I’m thinking about my journalism, my blogging, my research publications, my short stories, or any other kinds of writing I have done over the years, I tend to agree with the perspective that only audiences can judge the results of a given work.  Personally, I feel like I accomplished the three things I set out to do with this novel, but now that it’s out, I believe that it will be up to readers to figure such things out.

Thinking about the responses and feedback of the people who were kind enough to do me the priceless favor of reading drafts of this work before now, I feel happy with the novel and I look forward to whatever comes next.  There were some that fully praised the work, and others who did not like it much at all.  There were some who thought it was too positive considering LGBTQIAP politics in America at present, and others who thought it was too negative in relation to the same.  There were some who thought the novel should have ended five chapters or so earlier, and others who thought it should have gone on for a few more chapters to offer more detail, resolution, or other bits of wrapping up.  For me, the fact that the reactions have spanned a diversity of opinions even among the relatively small pool of readers thus far suggests I may have got what I wanted – a real, complex portrait of the good, bad, and everywhere in between Queer people in the south experience.  I don’t know if this is correct or how others will interpret the work, but I’m happy with it and that counts for something in my mind.

Instead of trying to ascertain any concrete result or metric, when I think about Cigarettes & Wine as a now published work available for purchase by anyone, I think about the stories that have and continue to inspire me, that others have kindly shared with me so many times over the past couple decades, that resonate with me in cases of both similarity and difference, and that speak to a much wider, more complex, and more varied Queer existence then I can usually find in academic or mainstream media portraits and publications.

I think about talking with people in different states about things like burner phones, secret notes and mixtapes, and stolen kisses in the shadows where no one would see alongside so many other ways people found / find to live their Queerness in spaces that try to erase it from possible options.  I think about laughing with people of different races, ages, sexualities, and genders about awkward and sweet and sometimes scary moments when we first learned this term, that sexual practice, this type of toy or other material, or that type of intimacy.  I think about listening to stories about first loves who are still together – sometimes openly now and sometimes still secretive for many reasons – 30 years later, first loves that died way too soon, first loves that fizzled for any of a million reasons, first loves who were “such a mistake” and others who were “exactly what I needed.”  I think about violence that was explicitly directed at people for being sexual or gender diverse / Queer, violence that was simply tied to living in the south where guns and fights and poverty are often so visible and normal, violence that people heard about that shifted the ways they lived or felt in the moment, and violence that people were grateful for avoiding even when some felt guilty that they avoided it when others could not.  I think about discussions of accidents related to coming out or being outed by others, related to four wheelers, related to the friend who died when a gun went off or when the three wheeler flipped in the field, related to cars on highways and alcohol from plastic cups, related to lack of sexual education, and all kinds of other accidents that occurred as people tried to figure out who they were and tried to figure out how to manage rural and small town cultures.  I think about the conversations about the beauty of religion alongside the horror of religion alongside the fear and shame of religion alongside the liberation of religion depending on what religion, what location, and whether or not one’s Queerness was known to the religious.  I think about the conversations about hateful families alongside the conversations about supportive families alongside the conversations about chosen families.  I think about the conversations with so many more people who are out and open and relatively safe nowadays alongside the conversations with so many more who are still in hiding for one of a million understandable reasons who may or may not ever want to or be able to come out and live openly.

I think about all these stories and so many more, and for me, that’s what the book is about.  For me, Cigarettes & Wine is simply the first of a series of novels I am writing seeking to honor, celebrate, mourn, and embrace all the different forms and experiences of sexual and gender Queerness I’ve seen in my travels throughout the south.  For me, it is an attempt to share the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, and in short, the complex wonder of the many different ways sexual and gender diversity play out and survive and even thrive even in places – like the Deep South – where we don’t often expect it or see it as openly displayed.  For me, it is also an attempt to say to Queer people in the south – and especially the bi and trans and poly folk like me who rarely see ourselves in even LGBT academic and mainstream media coverage – that you are not alone, that there is at least as much beauty as however much pain you might be facing, that the pain you may face is real and not your fault, that the beauty and wonder you find in you and your friends and lovers is also real and worth celebrating and fighting for, and that in the both the best and worst moments of your life you are part of a much larger population, story, and tradition that has and will continue to survive and fight with and for you.

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Creating Queer Kinship in “Straight” Spaces

In this post, Xan Nowakowski explores the importance of Queering Heterosexuality and “straight” as a heteroqueer (i.e., someone who identifies as primarily heterosexual and also Queer in other respects related to sexualities (i.e., kink, poly, mixed orientation relationships, etc.) and / or gender (i.e., trans, non-binary, genderqueer, agender, etc.) person existing between static notions of cisgender-monosexual-heterosexuality on the one hand and Queerness on the other.  Specifically, as an agender person primarily attracted to different sexes, they discuss using access to “straight” spaces to Queer such spaces and advocate for Queer Kinship and Justice in daily life.  

When I was in high school, my best friends and I were members of one of many “gay-straight alliance” groups formed throughout the US in the 1990s.  I always found the group’s name sort of odd, because it reduced sexuality to a binary and suggested that people of different sexualities supporting each other was a matter of formal “alliance” rather than basic human decency.  These days, I certainly feel glad to live in a society that is increasingly using inclusive language to craft and narrate queer spaces.  But I also realize the wisdom—if inadvertent at the time—in a name that illustrates the possibility of complex interplay between queer and straight identities.

Referring to myself as “straight” was also something I avoided before I could really give voice to why it made me so uncomfortable.  I was one of those kids who discovered at a pretty early age that they were interested in people with genitals different from their own.  But even though I never felt attracted to people with similar anatomy to my own, I never ruled out the possibility of that happening in the future either, nor did I feel any anxiety about that possibility.  I was fortunate to grow up in a home where my parents made clear that I would be loved equitably whether I were interested in males, females, intersex people, or all or none of the above.  Over time, the painful realization set in that many of my peers did not have that freedom.

I feel some of this pain now as I reflect on high school—a time I very much enjoyed that made me feel free to be myself both in the classroom and outside of it.  I did not realize at the time just how privileged I was.  I also had the wonderful privilege of a close friendship with an out gay male, and although I cringed at how he had been non-consensually outed by someone who was angry at him the previous year, I celebrated his self-assurance in enjoying an openly out life, as well as the degree to which the school community seemed to embrace him as a gay man.  It was only later, as my partners in more mature relationships gained a higher level of knowledge of their own sexuality and its social consequences, that I began to wonder if many of my peers had just ignored my friend, accepting him while at the same time erasing the core of who he was.

For reasons I have never really tried to unpack, I have generally felt most comfortable and happy in relationships with males who experience at least some degree of attraction to other male-looking people, even though I myself have never experienced attraction to a female-looking person.  And in terms of gender presentation, my partners have run the gamut from very rugged-looking to very delicate-looking, but all have embraced at least some degree of fluidity in relation to established gender norms.  Yet many did not understand what it meant to me to be agender, something I have known about myself with stunning clarity since long before I knew the technical term for it.  This growing sense of alienation made me reflect anew on my experiences in high school, and how differently I probably experienced the social environment surrounding my friend’s openness about his sexuality than he did.

I came to the uncomfortable and inexorable conclusion that although my high school was queer-friendly in many ways, it was fundamentally a straight space.  I would see this time and again in stories other friends told me about their own coming out—friends who had been so deeply closeted that not so much as a single rumor circulated about their sexuality when we were all in high school together.  These stories drove home just how much we were *not* “all in it together”, because togetherness and feelings of such were a privileged space for students whose sexuality did not deviate from those deeply entrenched norms.  Nobody questioned me for saying I did not feel threatened by the idea of one day being attracted to another female, because I was frequently seen in the company of males and it was well known that I had a history with several male students.  I rejected the term “straight” pretty vocally, but was that really enough?  Despite my openness about my gender identity, I also never considered the idea that I might myself be queer—that queer was more than just a double-edged term for “gay”.

In fact, the idea that I might be queer—and indeed, the very meaning of that term—did not register until I met my partner, the person I married just a few months ago.  In zer wedding vows, ze spoke softly about how I always *saw* who ze really was, in a world that often ignores zer entirely.  I could see my partner quite clearly—a bisexual, genderfluid person to whom I felt a pull like no other.  I celebrated zer sexuality and gender identity and thought about how nice it was to be with someone who really *got* it about my experience as an agender person, even though ze was not agender zerself.  But at the same time, I worried about not being “queer enough” to provide the kind of safe spaces that would truly nurture my partner.  This was a source of constant anxiety for me and frustration for my partner until one day, ze looked me in the eye and said, “Xan, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you all along.  You’re queer too.  You just don’t see it because you’ve always been embraced in straight spaces as well as queer ones.”

That got my attention.  I was still living with DID at the time, and looking back I wonder if this discussion might have been one of the events that led to my reintegration a few months later.  I learned that I was something called “heteroqueer”—a person who is attracted only to members of other sex groups, but feels comfortable with the possibility they might one day feel attracted to members of their own sex group.  Many heteroqueer people also queer gender and sexuality norms in other ways.  For example, I have experienced attraction to transmasculine people after they have achieved their physical transition goals.  I also queer gender every moment of every day by reminding people that there is no empirical relationship between what my body looks like, how I dress, how I behave, and whom I choose to invite into the most intimate spaces of my world.

Yet this was the first time I had ever come close to an integrated concept of what it meant to be both a “heterosexual” person and an agender person, or to prioritize spending my time in and enriching spaces for openly queer people, or to feel more fulfilled in relationships with bisexual partners, or any of those other things my high school activism had not remotely prepared me to address.  I just knew that I was “doing me”, whatever that meant, and that I felt a constant sense of anger and frustration that was starting to boil over.  Every time someone would use “straight” language or norms to describe my relationship with my partner, I would cringe and then start to go on the offensive.  And when people asked me stupid questions about my relationship with J, I fought to hold on to my composure.

My favorite of these ridiculous questions was “So J is bi…does that mean you’re bi now too?”  Yes, and being with a person who has a penis means that I have also magically grown a penis.  No, I am not bi.  As far as I know—and I have a fair amount of data to back up my suspicions at this point—I will never be bi.  And that is incredibly important, because the very fact that I exist—and that in so doing I make people acknowledge the heretofore unexamined reality that people like my partner exist—is still, even in today’s world, an affront to heteronormative thinking about relationships.  I have learned, with progressively greater degrees of discomfort and anger, that “straight” people are not supposed to want to date bisexual people, let alone marry them.  We are supposed to feel threatened and overwhelmed by their rampant, teeming, uncontrollable sexuality.  We are supposed to expect them to fuck anything that moves.  We are supposed to expect them never to feel fully satisfied by us.

Of course, those of us who *do* have bisexual partners know none of that has anything to do with bisexuality.  Nymphomania, hypersexuality, infidelity, ennui…these things all exist as well, and are worthy of attention.  But what emerges from daring to love a bisexual person in a straight world is a deep and nuanced knowledge of what “queer kinship” really means—and the responsibility I have in creating it.  I probably did some of these things unconsciously back in high school by affirming my friend and never erasing parts of his experience that broader norms and narratives could not seem to find spaces for—an example being the little-known attractions he had also experienced toward females, but generally those who exhibited aggressive and traditionally masculine behavior.  I saw my friend back then the same way I see my partner now, but I could not give voice to that sight even with him, let alone with anyone else.

Those of us who identify as heteroqueer have a unique opportunity to create queer kinship in places where it is not usually found—and indeed, where such kinship can make a profound impact.  We have a privilege reserved for few in our society, one that simultaneously grants us affirmation in both straight and queer spaces.  We speak both languages, as it were, but often spend so long battling norms that suggest we need to “pick a side” that we become exhausted and tapped out.  It is only since building a life with my partner that I have realized how much more freedom I have now, as an openly heteroqueer person whose partner and other loved ones see me and embrace me exactly as I am.  I feel like a complete person for the first time in my life, and it makes me ache for all those who cannot experience that fulfillment because there are no safe spaces in which to do so outside of intentional ones that only other queer people can access.

For those of us who constantly straddle the boundaries between queer and straight spaces, queer kinship is a precious responsibility that too often goes unmet.  We need to be more than allies who demur with phrases like “I’m not *really* queer”.  We are absolutely queer, and we absolutely need to be here.  But we also need to be *there*.  We need to keep spending time in the straight spaces where we are privileged to be welcome, and we need to keep breaking down the walls that keep our fellow queer people out—or as is more often the case, electrocute them if they attempt to enter.  In having the ear of both queer and straight communities simultaneously, we can challenge destructive norms about sexuality and gender and still escape to fight another day.  The scars we receive in these battles are worth every knotted inch of flesh, every jagged piece of skin.  We drink deeply from the nourishing well of queer kinship every day while also enjoying the continued embrace of our straight peers.  We must now build those wells for others in places where they can be accessed safely, without navigating pit traps or minefields.

Heteroqueer identity is an important cornerstone of queer kinship because it dismantles the idea that queer kinship cannot exist and thrive within straight spaces.  Embracing this identity, and taking the time to educate others about how queerness and straightness can intersect without destroying one another, offers more than just a means of liberating ourselves.  Rather, this work is profoundly essential for the overall goal of queer liberation.  Cultivating and nurturing queer kinship in straight spaces is worth doing at every opportunity, and at any cost.  When we do so together, we build a world in which everyone can truly “do them” instead of parroting this empty mantra to avoid working for real change.  Queer kinship is the path to a world in which closets exist only to hold clothing—a world in which every space is a safe one.

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Why and how I started writing social science based novels

In this post, J Sumerau reflects on the processes and experiences that led zir to begin writing sociological based novels alongside their academic research and blogging endeavors (more information about the novel will be posted as it nears release).

The other day I posted about a dream come true on my Facebook page.  As far back as I can remember, I always dreamed of writing and publishing a novel, and earlier this week I signed the contract for my first novel to be published as part of the Social Fictions Series edited by Dr. Patricia Leavy.  Built upon the combination of my own experiences as a bisexual, genderqueer person and my research into the intersection of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the historical and interpersonal lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities, the novel is a bisexual and transgender coming of age story set in the southeastern United States in the 1990’s.  Since my hope is that the work will aid ongoing efforts to educate people about bi and trans experiences and we often use this blog as a way to reflect on academic, teaching, and activist experiences with writing, publishing, and teaching about personal and emotional elements of scholarship, I thought I would use this post to reflect on the experiences that led to the creation of the novel from ongoing academic and creative efforts to write where it hurts.

Like much of my work, the novel began accidentally in an inductive fashion.  I was driving through Georgia on my way back home one day when I found myself playing the same song over and over again on repeat in my car.  Every time the song played, I basically screamed – rather than singing – along to the words and felt a bit overwhelmed in the process.  These actions surprised me both because I had listened to the song many times – it was already one of my favorites – and I didn’t understand why I was having such an emotional reaction to the song at the time.  Seeking to figure it out, I stopped at a truck stop in a rural area, and spent about an hour pacing the mostly empty parking lot thinking about the song, what I was feeling, and my life in general.

When I was younger, I used to write letters to my past and future selves in some of the journals I kept as an exercise in self reflection.  Something about imagining a future and comparing the current me at a given time to the past versions of me that once existed was comforting, and often helped me process emotions, challenges, and writing ideas in productive ways.  As I paced the parking lot, I realized two things.  First, I had not written one of those letters to myself in a long time.  Second, the song I kept playing on repeat and screaming along to felt like one of those letters.  Somehow, when I sung / screamed along to the song I felt like I was singing to an earlier version of myself, and in so doing, I felt very emotional and kept thinking about the things that change and the things that stay the same over time.  I got back in the car, turned the song back on again, and restarted my drive home.

As I drove that day, I kept returning to the ways things change and the ways they stay the same over time.  It seemed like a powerful theme in my own life at the time, and I had been feeling caught between these two poles all year at that point.  On the one hand, I had somehow established a life partnership, close friendships, and a professional career that all were far more positive, satisfying, and fulfilling than I’d ever allowed myself to expect to obtain.  I felt more excited about my own life than I ever had, and I actually looked forward to (still do) time with my life partner, a close network of supportive friends and colleagues, my research and other writing, and my students.  I didn’t know what to make of this because I kept waiting on something to go wrong like it always had in the past.  These aspects of my life were so different from previous experience that I was constantly trying to make sense of my newfound luck.

On the other hand, however, many other things remained the same.  I still heard at least a handful of students every semester repeat the same questions I asked about a decade ago in college (for example, “why don’t scientists seem to know about, write about, or ever mention bi and trans people” or “how can I take these surveys seriously if they only include cis and mono people”).  I still got randomly accosted in bathrooms – the latest time being earlier in the drive through Georgia – because my embodiment in a given moment terrified some cis person.  I had just had my latest dust up with a colleague who was unfamiliar with bi and trans (and to an extent lesbian and gay) histories, terminology, experience, etc because cis, mono and hetero people are not required to learn about us in this world they control.  I had just met with another college student – this one from the area where I was raised who found me through my online blogging – who felt isolated and terrified living in a small southern town.  I still spent everyday in scientific and broader public settings where cis and mono normativities operate as dominant religions most Americans seek to enforce on everyone else, and met people – even many scientists and other well educated folks – who were unfamiliar with and / or actively denied the existence of bi, trans, poly, and some other types of people in our world.  These aspects of my life were so similar to decades past that I wondered if they would ever change.

With these things in mind, I finished my trip back home without ever changing the song playing from the speakers.  I’ve often come up with some of my best ideas – as a writer, a teacher, an activist, a researcher and a person – as a result of this or that song leading me to consider certain feelings, thoughts, or memories.  Aware of this pattern, I began randomly listening to the song and journaling about whatever thoughts and feelings arose over the next few weeks.  At the same time, I began digging through currently in use and old data sets I have of interviews, field notes and historical documents as well as old journal entries, memories, informal interviews I do with people for fun and to learn more about things for my own interests, and notes I kept about research and creative projects that never came to fruition.  In so doing, I found myself looking over notes I had for two novels I tried and failed to write while I was in college.  Back then, I never planned on being a college professor, a researcher, or a teacher, but rather, I had no clue what I would do for a living while dreaming of someday writing and publishing a novel (a dream I carried with me from my earliest memories).  Not for the first time, I realized that my mind was again leading me back to this original dream, and spent some time thinking about how the current version of me might tell the stories I began years ago.

I also spent some time with my life partner talking about all these issues over the next couple weeks.  My life partner pointed out that (a) I’d already accomplished the writing goal I set for myself after graduate school (i.e., I wanted 30 academic publications by the time I retired and I was past that arbitrary number now) in my four years post PhD, and (b) the security I managed to acquire with them and other aspects of my life gave me more flexibility about what I did with my time.  With these things in mind, they suggested maybe it was time to chase the original dream, and that even if I – as I hypothesized I would – failed it wouldn’t matter because I already had a career I loved and did well at so this could just be a hobby on the side.  Finally, my life partner asked me what novels about bi, trans, and poly experience might have meant to me as a kid, and what it might be like to have that resource for kids now, for colleagues still trying to make sense of these aspects of society, and for use in classrooms.  We kept talking about these things for a few weeks, and I kept going over all my notes, data sources, collections of published research, and story ideas.  In the end, I decided to give it a try almost entirely because they believed I could do it, and they convinced me that such stories might be at least half as useful to others now as they would have been for younger versions of me.

Fairly certain it would become yet another unfinished attempt (sometimes its nice to be wrong I guess), I began digging through all the research, narratives, interviews, and other materials I had as well as many of my own experiences over the years the same way I do with my non-fiction, research and advocacy writing projects.  As if I was outlining another analysis for a journal article, I looked for common experiences, feelings, and events throughout the sources to develop a cohesive plot for the novel.  Once I had this outline in hand, I began writing a bisexual and transgender coming of age story that – to my surprise – will be published as my first sociological novel as part of the Social Fictions Series in the near future.  I will post more in the coming times as the release nears, and in the end, my hope is that the novel may be useful both for bi and trans people looking for examples of the complexity and multiple forms of our lives in the world today, and for educators seeking to make sense of and teach about the rest of the world that exists beyond mono and cis normative assumptions.  While I’m still surprised I actually finished (much less found a way to publish) a novel after all the years of thinking “someday I’ll do that,” I look forward to what may come from incorporating my artistic interests into my existing scientific writing endeavors, and hope the work will be useful in a world where constantly explaining bi and trans existence (much less experience) remains a daily requirement for so many people who don’t fit the binary expectations of the broader society.

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Have you seen me lately? A reflection on Queer Kinship

In this week’s post, the first in our Queer Kinship series, J reflects on the meaning of Queer Kinship in their life.

Earlier this year, a student of mine interested in content analysis and the structure of science sought to do an independent research study. I had recently been asked an interesting question at a conference, and so I selected twenty-five years of publications by five prominent sociology journals and had my student use these journals to try to answer the question. The question was simple – how often does sociology include the study of Bi and Trans people? While there are more details in the work in progress stemming from the analysis, the simple answer to the question was that between the late 1980’s and 2013 sociology, rather than the study of society as a whole, was almost entirely monosexual and cisgender based in these five prominent publication outlets. Even counting articles that only mentioned BT existence, there was only about 1 piece per year on average throughout the time period and within the vast majority of pieces published focused on mostly heterosexual and cisgender populations.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the aforementioned project fits in well with my experiences as a bisexual (on the pansexual end of the spectrum) and transgender (formerly transsexual, currently genderqueer/non-binary/crossdresser identified as I continue considering transition) person in sociology as well as academia more broadly. Even though I have been lucky enough to land a stable position in a department full of (often impressively) supportive, accepting, and accountable colleagues, and to develop a network of fellow BTLG scholars at other places over the years, I generally experience an occupational world wherein people like me don’t exist in the assumptions of the monosexual (mostly on the heterosexual side of this binary) and cisgender people who dominate the field or in their published works. Most surveys, as colleagues and I have noted elsewhere, provide the bulk of generalized information from the field, and yet they rarely have any way to admit the existence – much less capture the experiences – of people like me. As noted by other BT writers, this is part of long term patterns of BT erasure within and beyond academic settings.

At the same time my student was analyzing sociological literature, I was analyzing daily life – my own especially but other BT peoples as well – as part of another project. In so doing, I was cataloguing the multitude of times and ways people like me – wholly or in part – are cisgendered or monosexualized by others in their everyday lives (i.e., assumed to fit binary notions of gender and sexuality predicated upon binary notions of biological sex as a determining force in the composition of human desire and self identification). I catalogued disparities in public when I did or did not wear skirts with a visible beard, the vastly different ways people acted in monosexual minority (i.e., lesbian and gay) spaces when I said ‘I like men’ versus when I said ‘I’m bi’ and when I said ‘I’m into drag’ versus when I said ‘I’m trans,” and the countless ways monosexual and cisgender people misgender and missexualize myself and others based on their own assumptions and stereotypes both when they expressed support for BT others and when they did not. Similar to the analysis of sociological literature and previous observations about academic life, the message was the same – the existence of people like me was at best problematic or confusing for most monosexual and cisgender people I encountered regardless of their personal positions within these binaries.

I could give many more examples like the ones above from my own life, from interviews – formal and personal – with other BT people, and from our-storical records related to BT existence and experience. Instead of seeking to catalogue such a list, I use the aforementioned examples to explain what Queer Kinship means to me.

In its simplest formulation, I see Queer Kinship as the relationships wherein I am allowed and even encouraged to exist and be seen by others. For me, Queer Kinship means places and groups and relationships where people like me are not unexpected or problematic. Queer Kinship, for me, refers to the very few spaces, relationships, and situations wherein people move past monosexist and cissexist assumptions and norms to not only accept or tolerate BT people of varied types, forms and experiences, but actively embrace, expect, and look for us in their daily engagement with the world. Queer Kinship, again for me, refers to the efforts some people make to learn about and support BT people of varied types and experiences before they are forced to by activism, tragedies that actually get some news coverage, or an awkward encounter demonstrating our existence in their world. Queer Kinship refers to the interactions with others where I don’t have to wonder if they see me or if they will cause me harm because they actually see me. In my own experience, and that of many other BT people (as well as many of our lesbian, gay, asexual, and otherwise Queer cousins), such spaces and audiences are incredibly rare, precious, and necessary for well being in a monosexist (as well as heterosexist), cissexist (as well as patriarchal) society.

For me, Queer Kinship and the visibility and break from the rest of society it gives me shows itself in differential reactions to the same stimuli. I think about the store clerk who spots me in the makeup aisle and proceeds to stare at me, follow me, and even ask if I’m in the right place as a result versus my life partner seeing me in the same place on another night and offering to get me some new eyeliner. I think about people looking at the fact that I’m in a committed relationship and asking if I’m heterosexual, monogamous or done with the “gender stuff” now versus my life partner and I talking about men we both find cute over drinks; about the ways we decide as a unit how monogamous, polyamorous or anywhere in between we decide to be at a given time; and about plans and details we would need to work out together if I do transition later in life. I think about people awkwardly shifting between cisgender pronouns and terms depending on how I appear in a given moment versus my best friends and life partner treating me equally well no matter how I’m dressed or appearing in a given moment. Because I’m lucky enough to have a kinship group that I can rely on and be there for every day, I can actually come up with far more examples of such discrepancies than I have room for here. In fact, I was actually saddened when I was working on this piece by how easy it was to make a list of such examples that was far too long for comfort.

In the end, for me, Queer Kinship matters because the people closest to me provide me with most of (and some weeks the only) times when I know I’m seen without it hurting in some way. In my profession, the literature my profession creates, and my daily life, I get by like so many others worried about any time my differences are noticed while also wishing I could be seen in a safe manner by the rest of the world. But in the eyes, arms, and moments spent with my own little Queer family and network, I get to be seen and I get to experience this without the fear of danger that accompanies such visibility in other spaces. That, for me, is the importance of Queer Kinship in the forms that show up in my own life, and the forms that show up in other ways for many other people I have come across over the years.

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What’s in a Name: On Bi and Pan Sexualities

A few weeks ago, I posted two pieces on Conditionally Accepted (see here and here) and one here on Write Where It Hurts exploring bisexuality in varied contexts and defined in varied ways. At the same time, Lain Mathers posted a piece here on Write Where It Hurts examining the ways these meanings and conflicts around bisexuality play out in lesbian/gay and heterosexual spaces. In this post, I want to reflect upon a question that regularly emerged in response to these posts – the relationship between bisexuality and pansexuality.

As I noted in the midst of some of the productive conversations that emerged in comment threads, the term pansexuality or pansexual (like bisexual, bisexuality and other fluid identity terms) is often rife with conflict. In my experience, this conflict arises as a result of the use of the term in three distinct ways by varied individuals and groups.

Before discussing these uses and the conflicts they contain, however, a little her-his-our-story may be useful. Initially, pansexuality was not coined as an identity term (i.e., like bi, homo, and hetero sexualities), but rather as a statement (often attributed to Freud and others at the time) on the presumed innate sexual desire of all humans. This elaboration is automatically problematic because it erases asexual existence and experience, but thankfully, this is not how the term is generally used at present. Rather, these days pansexuality is generally used as a form of sexual identification that dates back (at least) 3 or 4 decades. In this elaboration, it was initially established as a type or form of bisexuality wherein the person in question did not factor genital possession in the establishment of sexual desire and practice. In fact, many bisexual people I have known (myself included) use this term interchangeably with bisexual, fluid, and Queer among others to denote experience and identification with this end (i.e., lack of concern for genitals in matters of attraction and / or sexual activity and / or romance) of the bisexual spectrum (i.e., I may say I’m bi, pan, fluid, and Queer within a few breaths of the same conversation since for me (and historically) this is like saying I like guitars, fender guitars, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, and bass guitars = I like guitars and here are certain types of guitars that especially fit my needs).

When this identification practice emerged, bisexuality (even in general use) typically referred to those people attracted to their own body and / or genital type and the bodies and genital types of others who were not the same as their own (i.e., these were people who engaged in both homo and hetero sexualities, therefore bisexual). Within this umbrella definition, some bisexuals were (1) attracted to more than one type of genital set or sex, some bisexuals were (2) attracted to more than one type of physical form (i.e., size, shape, race, sex, gender presentation, etc), some bisexuals (like me) were (3) attracted to all types of bodies (i.e., like mine and not like mine) whether or not they looked like their own body type, and some bisexuals (4) fluctuated along varied points of this spectrum throughout their lives. Within this spectrum of possibilities between self (1) and other (2) body types (i.e., bisexuality) and between homo (1) and hetero (2) sexualities, pansexual referred to the third type noted above (as did ambisexual, polysexual, and other terms).

In fact, this spectrum still finds voice within bisexual communities and umbrella designations, and remains the most common definition of bisexuality I have seen among bisexual identified people. Other terms, such as fluid (noted as number 4 above), have even been established to make sense of bisexual people’s locations within this spectrum / umbrella. However, the last few decades witnessed systematic erasure and marginalization of bisexuality within lesbian/gay and heterosexual communities predicated upon transforming the word “bi” from an expression of two ends of a complex spectrum of human engagement and desire preference into a simplified binary articulation of the male/female genital binary homo and hetero sex norms are built upon. Instead of bisexual referring to both homo and hetero sexualities, people began linking it to sex / gender binaries to essentialize homo and hetero sexuality. To put this into perspective, imagine if we began saying homo and hetero sexual meant one sex only instead of preferences for a type of sexual engagement – you would have the same thing that has been done to bisexuality over the past few decades, and it would likely sound as silly to homo and hetero sexual folks as it does to most bisexual folks aware of this history. In the process of this extermination of bisexual complexity in the hetero-homo imagination, some people (not surprisingly) began to identify as pansexual in order to avoid biphobia and monosexism within lesbian/gay/straight communities.

It is within this context that (at least) three uses of pansexuality have emerged as regular components of normative or mainstream sexual politics. In the first case, people adopt a more traditional interpretation of pansexuality as a type of bisexuality that refers to sexual attraction and / or engagement regardless of genital consideration. In such cases, pansexuals stand along side other bisexual people against monosexism and biphobia (and in many cases hetero and cis sexism), sometimes refer to themselves as bi-pansexuals or pan-bisexuals though just as often simply say they are pansexual and / or bisexual (or any other terms within the bi spectrum) in varied contexts and with varied others, and often find comfort and security in larger bi communities while working to provide the same for other bi people in lesbian/gay/straight communities. In such cases, pansexuality is not problematic at all – it is simply someone exercising their self and bodily autonomy to identity in the way that best fits their experiences and desires. They are harming no one, and often, as members of larger bi communities, helping others. In such cases, their identification efforts are similar to working class people who prefer homosexual or heterosexual when identifying themselves, but do not have issues with or fight against middle class people who prefer to use the terms gay or lesbian or straight to identify themselves – they are merely identifying as they see fit within a larger umbrella of binary sexual (homo and / or hetero) others who they support and embrace.

The second most common way I see pansexuality used, however, is deeply problematic. In this case, people identify as pansexual to distance themselves from bisexual communities and avoid the marginalization of these communities within lesbian/gay/straight (i.e., binary sexual) communities. In such cases, these people will call themselves pansexual in a positive way, but then repeat biphobic notions of binary bisexualities used to marginalize bisexuality (however termed) within gay/lesbian/straight spaces. In so doing, they will generally receive affirmation and better treatment from binary sexual communities (lesbian/gay or straight identified) in exchange for supporting monosexism (i.e., sexual binaries) – a process referred to as trading power for patronage in inequality studies (i.e., the process wherein a subordinate accepts subordination on certain terms to gain a more comfortable location within a given matrix of inequality). In such cases, pansexuality is incredibly problematic because it is used as a form of sexual inequality reproduction that further marginalizes other forms of bisexuality and non-binary existence. In such cases, pansexual identification efforts are similar to some working class people who prefer homosexual or heterosexual to identify themselves, and then say those using the terms like gay or lesbian or straight are misguided or wrong or not “really” authentic and / or middle class and above people who prefer the terms like gay and lesbian and straight, and then say those using homosexual or other terms are misguided or wrong or automatically hurting them or not “really” authentic – they are using their own preferred terminology as a mechanism for demonizing people who prefer other terms for describing similar (in many cases the exact same) sexual desires and identities.

Within the aforementioned uses of pansexuality, there lies another common use that actually demonstrates the importance of the first two patterns. In this case, people grow up in spaces and communities devoid of bisexual our-his-her-story and understanding, and as a result, learn binary sexual (lesbian/gay/straight) perspectives of the world only. In such cases, they are taught horror stories and insults and jokes about bisexuality that reproduce monosexism and biphobia, and then adopt pansexuality as a term for themselves because they don’t look like or want to be like the negative depictions they are taught by those who benefit from monosexism. In such cases, they rarely know that pansexuality emerged as a form of bisexual identification, or the patterns of ongoing bi-erasure, marginalization, and just plain fear embedded within many contemporary binary sexual (lesbian/gay and straight) communities. Without access to this backstory, they simply identify in the way that appears “acceptable” to the people around them and embrace the biphobia promoted in the same circles. In such cases, pansexuality is once again problematic for the same reasons noted above, but it is nuanced because some of these people will change their behaviors and / or identities and / or politics when they meet bisexual communities, learn about bi-pan-Queer-fluid backstories, and / or continue to encounter marginalization (though often in a more polite form) within lesbian/gay/straight circles due to their non-binary sexual desires and practices. Others, however, will have grown accustomed to the comfort achieved by contributing to bi oppression, and thus slide into pattern two noted above over time. Finally, still more may never become acquainted with bi-pan-Queer-fluid backstories, perspectives, and / or communities, and remain ignorant of these dynamics or the ways their own self presentation and politics speak to these long term patterns. In such cases, pansexual identification efforts are similar to people who only grow up hearing heterosexual perspectives on the world, and internalize these depictions of dangerous or scary gay/lesbian/homosexual people and wrestle with these depictions whether or not they ever encounter gay/lesbian/homosexual backstories, perspectives, or communities in their own lives – they adopt terminology (i.e., I do this, but I’m not gay/lesbian/homosexual/bisexual/pansexual/etc) due to the fear, guilt and shame they were taught by others seeking to preserve their own position within binary sexual politics and power structures.

With these patterns in mind, I return to the conflicted positions of contemporary pansexual identification. As suggested in my use of gay/lesbian/homosexual conflicts I’ve observed over the years, the use of pansexuality as an identification term is complicated, nuanced, and not a new issue for sexual minority communities (i.e., one only needs to look back at previous conflicts between homophile and gay identifications or conflicts over lesbian and gay woman to see the exact same patterns play out in binary sexual minority (i.e., lesbian/gay) communities in the past). As a result, I tend to interpret these conflicts in much the same way I do in relation to the gay/lesbian/homosexual conflicts noted above.  As Queer scholars have long suggested, I focus on the actions tied to the label instead of obsessing over whether or not someone identifies in a “specific” way (i.e., I focus on sexual justice instead of identity politics).

As such, if someone identifies as pansexual while embracing and working for other types of bisexual people, then I see no problem, welcome them to the club, and stand beside them in any way I can. This is the same way I approach bisexual, lesbian/gay, heterosexual, or asexual people – if they identify as their chosen term while embracing equality for all beings of varied sexual identifications and working for such equality, I want to support them in all ways I can.

If, on the other hand, someone identifies as pansexual while demonizing and working against (intentionally or otherwise) other types of bisexual people, then I see a problem, oppose them in any way I can, and call them out on their biphobia, monosexism, and / or heterosexism. This is the same way I approach bisexual, lesbian/gay, heterosexual or asexual people – if they identify as their chosen term while demonizing other beings of one or more sexual identifications and working against such people, they are facilitators the pain of many other people, and I oppose them in all the ways I can.

I take a similar approach – no matter someone’s sexual identification – in relation to cissexism, racism, sexism, ablism, classism, colorism, nationalism, religious oppression (maybe religism?), and other forms of inequality. If the person in question is working to oppose these systems that cause so many people so much pain, then I stand with them whether our identities match or not and / or whether or not I agree with their chosen identification terms, but if they (intentionally or otherwise) feed these systems I stand against them, do my best to call them out, monitor myself to make sure I don’t slip into such practice or catch any practices like this in my own activities I’m not aware of yet, and otherwise seek to end (in any way I can with my one life) these systems and their power.

As a result, my ultimate suggestion in regards to differential sexual identification terms is to focus on equality and justice for all beings regardless of sexual identification. Do you identify and act in ways that support the equality of others? Do you identify and act against monosexism, heterosexism, biphobia, homophobia, and other forms of sexual violence and marginalization? Do you identify and act in ways that support the right of other people to exercise autonomy in self identification and activity even when such autonomy leads them to prefer different identifications and practices than your own? Do you identify and act in ways that support consent, bodily autonomy for all, sexual freedom for all, and the dignity and respect of all people who embrace and support these ideals? For me, these are the important questions regardless of the term one prefers to use to describe their own sexual practices and desires.

J. Sumerau

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What “team”? Some thoughts on navigating monosexism

In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences navigating monosexism in contemporary society.  Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts, this is zir first blog.

Earlier this week, Dr. J Sumerau posted on Conditionally Accepted and this blog about the disjuncture between lived experiences and academic definitions of bisexuality. Specifically, ze wrote about how the definitions generated by academics, often with little or no experience interacting with bisexual people (that they know of) or living bisexual lives, are then used to enforce and regulate what is “really” considered bisexual. In this post, I am going to reflect on what it is like for me to move through the monosexual world (i.e., a world defined by sexual binaries) as a bisexual person and bourgeoning sexualities scholar.

Some of my earliest memories about bisexuality came from high school. I often heard my classmates joking about bisexuality (or “bicuriosity” as it was often reduced to). In the hallways, at the lunch tables, in the parking lot after school, such pejorative comments ended up reducing bisexuality to some “true” gay or lesbian “nature” (often in far less neutral language) and were always followed by hysterical laughter. In addition to these comments, my male heterosexual peers often leered at groups of teenage girls, audibly fantasizing about how “hot” it would be if one of them were bisexual so that she would presumably engage in a threesome with one of them and another “hot chick”.

I observed this trope of the “hot bisexual girl” (never a “hot bisexual woman,” only ever a “hot bisexual girl,” reducing adult bisexual women to an infantilized position) expand into my college years, as many of the teenage and young adult heterosexual men I met mused over the possibilities of finding the “right bisexual girl” that would be “down” for a threesome with him and another woman. At one point, I witnessed one of my female college peers follow up this statement with the question, “Well, why don’t you engage in a threesome with a bisexual guy? Maybe your girlfriend would prefer that!” This particular guy responded with, “Fuck no. I’m not having sex with a homo.” Following his blatantly homophobic, biphobic, and monosexist remark I asked, “Would you ever want to date a bisexual girl that you theoretically would have this threesome with?” He paused for a second, “Nah, I don’t date sluts.”

It was at this point that the messages about bisexuality I heard up to that point (from heterosexual people) congealed into a clear dichotomy – the hot, sexually available bisexual girl that you only have threesomes with, but never date contrasted with the always-already “truly homosexual” male who can never actually be bisexual because of the “one act rule” that is particularly pervasive in dominant heterosexual paranoia around males who sleep with other males. I even remember this theme coming up in interactions with some of my early heterosexually-identified boyfriends when they begged me to watch “bisexual girl porn” with them to “get in the mood”. This always made me uncomfortable, a feeling I attributed at the time solely to my discomfort with the sexist objectification in much of mainstream porn. While this was surely a large component of the equation, the fact that I also experienced bisexual desires (that I had yet to acknowledge) was likely another.

Despite the overwhelmingly derogatory lens through which I learned to view bisexuality from my heterosexual peers, I began to openly identify as bisexual during my last year of college. During this time, I did a great deal of research on the Internet and managed to find more positive messages about bisexuality in the form of online conversations among self-identified bisexuals. Additionally, after the negative experiences I had talking to heterosexual people about bisexuality in the past, I was encouraged by the presence of what I understood to be a fairly radical scene of activists and lesbian, gay, and “queer” individuals in the community where I resided at the time. I eagerly hoped that shifting my peer circle from a predominantly heterosexual and sexist scene to a supposedly “queer” scene would be a refreshing start to fully embracing my bisexuality in a positive and supportive environment.

You can imagine the disappointment, then, when a conversation like the following ensued:

At a coffee shop I frequented, some people that I knew were discussing the Occupy movement (this was in the early days of its existence, and many of the activists and “queers” in the place where I lived were planning a similar demonstration locally). The issue of sexuality came up and the conversation slowly veered away from Occupy and towards a conversation of sexual politics. At one point in the conversation I identified myself as bisexual, still a relatively new phenomenon for me, so much so that speaking it out loud felt disingenuous even though it wasn’t. The conversation lulled, some people’s lips pursed, one person pulled out his phone, another took a deep inhale of their cigarette. Finally, the quiet broke when one of the women sitting near me who I was accustomed to seeing rotating in this circle took a large gulp of coffee and then ardently informed me that:

“It’s actually pretty offensive that you use that language. After all, you’re limiting the existence of everyone to either men or women and there’s a lot more gender identities that exist beyond that. Just, like, politically try to be more aware.”

I was stunned, particularly because (unbeknownst to her) I was also reconciling my own non-binary gender queer existence at the time and did not at all see my bisexuality as an invalidating force in that regard. I was perplexed at how she arrived at the conclusion that the “bi” in “bisexuality” only meant “men and women.” From the hours of research that I did on the Internet, on bisexual community pages and Facebook groups, this was not at all the consensus. In fact, I read through a multitude of conversations of self-identified bisexual people reflecting on the beautifully multifaceted fact that “bisexual” can mean one’s own sex and other sexes, men and women, cisgender and transgender, intersex and non-intersex, or no preference for bodies and/or gender identities whatsoever!

I was beside myself trying to sort out why a college-educated supposedly “radical lesbian queer” individual would assert such a myopic view on the meaning of bisexuality. Yet, this was a circle I was fairly new to, so I did my best to disappear from the rest of the conversation (unsuccessfully based on the condescending looks of disapproval directed at me for the next half hour, what are also referred to as “microaggressions”).

In the midst of all this, I could not shake the questions running through my head: if the implication of bisexual attraction and desire supposedly means that I am saying only “men and women” exist, then why is it that no one interrupted the self identified gay male to my left when he discussed his sexuality? Wasn’t he suggesting that only men existed and that there was some “essential” type of being called “man”? Why was bisexuality the sexual identity and set of (extremely diverse) practices solely responsible for reinforcing the problematic and essentialist gender binary? Also, how did these people, a group of supposedly “radical activists, and members of a lesbian, gay, and queer community” not see that they were engaging in a kind of erasure that was not so dissimilar than what they experienced from heterosexuals? I was crushed and disappointed to learn that not only did I not belong in this space either, but also that my existence was offensive.

Be “hot” or be “offensive.” As a bisexual, what I first learned from heterosexual and lesbian/gay people was that I could not be considered fully human with ideas and desires of my own.

A few months after this interaction, I moved to a large city for school and hoped that I would find a more welcoming space for bisexuals in a big city (unlike where I previously lived). I started going on dates, primarily with self-identified lesbian women, in hopes of getting a chance to meaningfully engage this component of my desire and attractions (and also because I had no clue where to find other bisexuals). After the interaction I had with the woman at the coffee shop, I was apprehensive to disclose my bisexuality to anyone – straight, lesbian, or gay – and attempted to avoid talking about my sexual desires other than the ones that would be immediately relevant in that situation (while, ironically, cultivating an interest in studying sexualities). On these dates, I became acutely aware that not only was I offensive (as the woman at the coffee shop had informed me), but that I was also not to be trusted, since, as one woman put it, “bisexual girls can’t make up their minds,” (here, again, bisexual girls can’t make up their minds, reducing bisexuality to childhood not unlike the heterosexual males at my high school).

Eventually, I began to meet other bisexuals and became entirely frustrated with the notion that I was just not “gay” enough, and I began openly identifying as bisexual again (sometimes). Yet even when I did this, I found myself sitting around tables and making sure that those near me knew the story that I fashioned to shield myself from any potential judgment – that I was “like 85-90% gay, though,” generally followed by a laugh and a sip of whatever I was drinking at the time with the hope of concealing my profound discomfort and disdain for this practice of “quantifying” just how bisexual I really was just to avoid negativity from straight, but predominantly gay and lesbian people. In time this did not prove to be much better of an approach than entirely obscuring my desires altogether.

This dissonance was buttressed by the fact that, despite the multitude of ways I tried to present myself while navigating the changes in/with/to my gender, others most commonly read me as a lesbian woman. This was most clearly relayed to me in an interaction I had with a man one day while purchasing a pack of cigarettes at a corner store in the city.

“Congratulations!” The man behind the counter exclaimed as I walked through the door.

I looked around, unsure of whether he was addressing me, or someone familiar that he knew who happened to enter right behind me. I quickly realized there was no one else in the store and since all I had done that morning was get out of bed and walk to the corner, I inquired about the reason for his congratulations.

“Oh, well now you can get married!”

Setting aside the reality that I did not, in fact, have a partner at this time, I quickly realized that, in this man’s eyes, I was a lesbian woman and the day before our interaction the former governor of our state signed gay marriage into law in the state where we lived. Not only was I apparently a lesbian woman, but one who would, of course, automatically want to marry. His assumptions not only erased the fact that I, actually, could have been married to some of my partners long before this date, but that perhaps marriage was not something I had any intention of engaging in regardless of my partner choice. Alas, this man not only reflected his limited familiarity with only the most “respectable” of “LGbt” issues for many straight people, but also the erasure of bisexuality completely from potential “intelligible” forms of existence.

All of these encounters are just a sampler of my experiences navigating bisexuality in a monosexual/monosexist social world. In my adolescence and college years I primarily confronted the dynamics of heteronormativity (and still do). Yet, heteronormative regulations are only one side of a monosexist coin, the other side of which involves navigating the imperatives of homonormativity. For many bisexuals this is a phenomenon all too familiar. We are either too straight, or not straight enough. We are not gay enough either, or we’re really just gay and waiting to “pick a side already.” We’re hot, offensive, untrustworthy, a specter of danger, and volatile. Yes, we are destabilizing for homo and hetero normative assumptions in the most fluid of ways. This is a reality I continually have to work to embrace while navigating hostility from lesbian, gay, and straight others.

While I have often heard – from straight, gay, and lesbian people alike – that bisexuals have it easier because we can “just choose to be closeted” I want to stop and interrogate this assumption –especially since recent reports reveal that bisexuals suffer from more severe health complications than straight, lesbian, or gay people, and because the same assertion was made against lesbian and gay people not so long ago. Additionally, one of the most cited difficulties that bisexuals report is lack of community support. Monosexism is not just inconvenient for bisexual people, it is a form of violence, and it is quite real in its consequences, particularly for bisexual people who already occupy other marginalized structural positions.

My hope in sharing this information is to continue dialogue concerning how we define “bisexuality” in our own communities compared to the academy. I am hoping that perhaps we might opt to challenge where we see monosexism in our own classrooms, writing and research agendas, and community engagement projects.

Lain Mathers

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Writing about Bisexuality

This week, Conditionally Accepted will post my two-part essay on bisexual marginalization in the academy. In this post, I reflect on the experience composing these essays to offer some other things for people to consider when engaging with sexual fluidity in our world.

When a colleague I admire (Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman) asked me to consider writing about being bisexual in the academy, I began wonder what I would say. On the one hand, talking about my sexuality and sexual experiences is something I have a lot of experience with and generally feel very comfortable doing (in large part thanks to a very supportive network of loved ones of varied sexualities I can turn to for support when I need it).  On the other hand, bisexuality is a such a wide and varied experience that I was uncertain what aspects I should focus on in the post.

As I often do when confronted by such questions, I conducted an informal poll of sorts.  I reached out to a lot of sexually fluid people I know within and beyond the academy (most identify as bisexual, but others self identity as polysexual, pansexual, trysexual, fluid, and / or Queer), and asked them “If you were granted a platform to talk about bisexual experience that might be read by many binary sexual folk (i.e., heterosexual and lesbian/gay people), what would you want to discuss most.”  I was lucky enough to get a lot of responses, and I began to synthesize them along the lines of how we are typically defined by others in the academy and then symbolically assaulted by the same others using the definitions they came up with in the first place.  I then turned my attention to binary allies (i.e., lesbian/gay and heterosexual folk who are supportive of fluid people, communities, and issues), and asked them roughly the same question.  Again, I got many useful responses, and they ultimately spoke to the definitional question and attempts to “make y’all fit into our binaries” as one said.  As a result, I focused the Conditionally Accepted essay on definitions of bisexuality (part one) and strategies for combatting biphobia based on such definitions (part two – coming soon) and I encourage everyone to check out these posts (as well as this one by Dr. Julia Serano) and hope they may be helpful to people regardless of their sexual identities and preferences.

By the end of the experience, however, I realized there were at least two more important components that I should at least raise for further commentary. First, I would like to share some other common issues raised in my informal poll that we might want to consider in relation to sexual fluidity within and beyond the academy. Then, I would like to share some definitional issues I accidentally ran into in relation to talking about binary sexual people in hopes of helping other fluid folks avoid the same pitfalls with binary sexual colleagues and audiences.

In the first case, alongside concerns about how fluid people are defined in the academy, the three most common questions raised in my informal poll included (in no particular order) the following:

  1. Why doesn’t there ever seem to be much conversation about monosexism (i.e., the elevation of beliefs that one is naturally only attracted to one sex) in the academy despite rising recognition of systems (like heterosexism, homonormativity, and cisnormativity) that are often built upon this ideology?
  2. How do binary sexual people (generally lesbian and gay people and seemingly more and more popular recently) reconcile calling themselves Queer (i.e., a label initial conceptualized via the rejection and opposition to binary categories) and also mobilizing “born this way” or “binary lesbian and gay” claims? How do they make sense of this contradiction?
  3. Since studies show bisexuals are viewed less favorably and sometimes experience even more marginalization than binary sexual minorities (i.e., lesbian and gay people), where are the massive calls for action on behalf of bisexual communities that we see so often from and for gay and lesbian communities?

I can’t pretend I have answers to these questions, but I do wonder what binary sexual people would say in response.

In the second case, one thing this experience taught me is that some of the terms I use for binary sexual people (and hear used regularly by other fluid sexual folk) may be problematic when seeking to develop fluid-binary conversations. As a result, I thought I would mention this aspect in hopes of helping such conversational efforts since (best I can tell) we all have more in common (especially binary and fluid sexual minorities) than we are often taught. To this end, I want to share a handful of terms I use to refer to gay/lesbian and heterosexual people regularly in practice that do not seem to raise any issue for fluid sexual folk, but might for binary sexual folk.

I have used these terms (and was taught them – sometimes by gay/lesbian and heterosexual people) interchangeably because from a fluid perspective they all basically mean the same thing (i.e., the same way that in practice bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, trysexual, and fluid tend to all mean the same thing in practice among the vast majority of people I’ve met). While these are all the same from my perspective, I regularly learn that they can mean different things to binary sexual people, and I think it is important to be aware of such variation in order to avoid (likely unintentionally) hurting people who see certain terms in certain ways.

When talking about sexual binary folk, I tend to use the following terms as similes that all convey “this person identifies within homo/hetero sexual binary categories,” but here I’ve noted observations about how binary sexual folks respond in varied ways to these terms and / or how I’ve seen them used:

  1. Binary Sexual – I have only heard bisexual / fluid people, bisexual / fluid allies, gay/lesbian/straight folk who don’t agree with the “born this way” rhetoric, and / or gay/lesbian/straight people who identify as politically Queer and /or somewhat fluid or fluid capable use this terminology to date.  I admit, this is my preference simply because it focuses attention on monosexism and the sexual binary.
  2. Gay / Lesbian / Straight – I have yet to find any negative reactions to these terms in the academy, but some homosexual people without access to college education do not like the terms gay and lesbian and prefer homosexual or same-gender-loving.
  3. Homosexual / Heterosexual – Some gay/lesbian people in the academy don’t like homosexual and some straight people don’t like heterosexual – they offer too many different reasons in my experience for me to effectively summarize them here.
  4. Homophile / Heterophile – I’ve only heard this used by gay/lesbian elders and by elder straight allies to gay/lesbian communities. I don’t actually know what younger gay/lesbian/straight folks think of these terms, but I would like to learn.
  5. Same / Separate Genital Loving – I’ve only heard this term used politically by bisexual, intersex, asexual and transgender people seeking to (a) decouple sex and gender, (b) Queer assumptions of romance tied to genital appearance and use, (c) not erase same-gender (i.e., same gender identity and / or presentation) heterosexual, asexual, bisexual, and other relationships, and / or (d) oppose “born this way” or “genitals determine selfhood” rhetorics.

Once again, I have only learned what some sexual binary people think of these terms by engaging them in conversation. In much the same way I suggest in this weeks essays at Conditionally Accepted, I think the way forward is to have such conversations no matter how difficult in hopes of embracing the possibility of full sexual equality for all.

Finally, I should note that for many wonderful sexual binary people and sexually fluid people I have met, none of what I’ve written here will be new or original, and I appreciate such people everyday since they ease the experience of living in a primarily-binary-defined world. To those who this may be new information, however, I hope it is helpful to you in engaging with sexual fluidity or binaries in your own world, and building healthy and mutually respectful connections between sexually binary and fluid people.

I have been lucky enough to meet people who cannot imagine sexual or romantic attraction and activity with anyone that doesn’t have the same or different genitals.  I have also been lucky enough to meet people (like me) who cannot imagine genitals having anything at all to do with sexual or romantic attraction and activity.  I have also been lucky enough to meet people who exist in a wide variety of areas between these parameters and / or bounce around between these parameters in daily life and / or in relation to certain potential lovers.  In all such cases, I long for the day when members of each of these behavior and desire groups stand together equally recognized, celebrated and affirmed in their consensual sexual and romantic endeavors.

J. Sumerau

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