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Bisexual Woe Part Gazillion

The other day, my best friend forever for life (or BFFFL, as the kids don’t say) asked me a soul-searching question.

We have been best friends forever for life from the time we were chubby bullied smart-ass kids until today, when we have blossomed into beautiful ballerina swans bound for lives of adventure and happiness, so suck on that second grade bully Tim Trainer.

It’s real friendship: BFFL read my middle school diary without asking which was a dick move, I was in love with her high school boyfriend, we both did our makeup every morning in Mrs. Wood’s tenth grade English class, and — perhaps her biggest act of grace — when I said I was in tragic, horny love with drama class hottie Anna our freshman year, she didn’t even ask me if I was a lesbian. She accepted that as a consummate weirdo, I would probably have crushes on girls. 

That’s why the question struck me as a well-meaning opportunity for reflection. 

“Do you think you’re more attracted to women because you politically like the idea of it?” she asked.

Now. The question rests on shaky assumptions (what is attraction, dear friends, if not a trick of the brain), and were it any other human I would have said something sassy, moonwalked away from the conversation, or begun leading her through a series of exercises to uncover our latent gender ideologies. But it was not any other person. 

It is also a question which I have been hearing, in some form or another, a lot lately.

“You seem to be dating men,” my mother stated/asked lately, with less reticence than I deemed proper. I emitted a garbled “glwahslkfjononeofyourbusiness” and slunk away rather than addressing my discomfort, because I am a weenie.

“What about women?” my aunt asked pointedly as I was showing her how to use Tinder. It was the mirror-opposite of the question she asked me despairingly last summer (“What about men!??”) when she was convinced I was sleeping with my college roommate, because — and I sympathize with her on this one — lesbian friendships are the ultimate game of “besties or dating?” 

“Doesn’t she want to go somewhere less gay?” a friend of my friend asked the group about me a few weeks ago when we went out for Pride. I gagged on my beer and then yes, in this case I started yelling.

“Did you seriously just assume I was heterosexual??” I spat, drunkish and lipstick-smeary, beer coming out of my noseholes. “Why?? Because I am a femme sporting a perfect cat eye??? That rests on very bullshit assumptions about queer female identity.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I mean —  yeah.

But I had been dreading the comment before he even said it: What if all the gay dudes think I’m straight on Pride?

Oh, straight passing. It is a thing, and much of the time it is damn lucky. Unless I am literally with a girlfriend (or around anyone who has ever Facebook-met me), I walk through the world like a secret agent whose tux has gotten her into a foreign diplomat’s party — evading street hate and subway stares; unremarked upon in job interviews; a great candidate to meet your homophobic parents. In Delhi, where public life is more segregated by gender presentation, I can ride the subway in the ladies’ car — unlike my masculine-presenting friends — and actually find solace from the constant gropings of the crowd. Passing is a freedom of mobility, a kind of dual citizenship that comes with real benefits.

It’s also kind of a mindfuck.

I, like many an angsty bisexual, used to play a game. I will call this game Train Counting, since “Trainspotting” is still on my Netflix queue.

The rules of Train Counting are very simple and do not involve counting trains, rather people in trains, and hopefully without them knowing because that is creepy.

It started in late high school. When I was seventeen and eighteen, just old enough to articulate all the angsty-high-school-straight-girl-crushes, at least in my head, as “bisexuality,” I struck myself a deal: It was okay to be bisexual, I thought, if I could only remain straight enough. If only I could prove once and for all that I was mostly into dudes and crushes on women were strictly poetic and occasional, I could save myself from sinking further down into the bleak realms of queer exile.

So I started counting. It was a literal, mathematic logic: Tally up all the people on subway cars who I find attractive, and hope it is less women than men. This involved a number of fine distinctions (dad vibe or hot dad vibe?) and a lot of cooking the scores (no, silly, you don’t like her; you just think her lipstick is cute and want to ask her on a date and maybe are feeling a little nervous tingle ohmygodimgay).

But no matter how much I fiddled with the tally — adding and subtracting subway twinges in an obsessive mental game — the fact was undeniable: I was a big ol’ queer.

Over the years, periodically, I played the game still. But the rules changed with my politics. During the couple years when I totally didn’t sleep with boys because Catherine MacKinnon and also I just discovered orgasms, the aim was different: Eliminate men. (This is also the tag line of my misandrist cult film; please contact my agent for inquiries.)

But of course, every inane calculation of attraction didn’t work — whatever my neurotic rule, whether attempting to preserve the privileges of my straighthood or my well-deserved rep as a Prominent Lesbian About Town With A Vagina of Ice that Melts For No Man, I was thwarted. Oh elusive motions of the heart and pussy! Oh bisexual woe part gazillion!

So the answer to my bestie’s question was, to my consternation, the opposite of what she implied: Actually, every time I tried to clamp my sexuality down — even with a soft-butch pixie cut — it squirmed, like some weird sex worm, away from me.

What is the message of this story, besides that it is creepy to stare at people on trains?

Message one: The heart and genitals are fickle organs and you do not owe anyone an explanation. So love yourself as you are, you multisexual weirdo, and stop demanding weird shit from your sexuality.

Message two: How do we conceptualize identity and oppression when so much of queerness is a dance between stability and instability, when it rests in both the thorny and mysterious lands of desire and the material violence of the world?

How do we understand queerness and oppression taking into account the privileges of passing and the brutality of failing to pass, the pressing reality that some of us are at the crosshairs of many kinds of physical and psychic violence— but also understanding that one’s presentation does not make one more or less queer?

I think sometimes when we talk about queerness in an identity framework — one that seeks to value the experiences of people and groups who live marginality — we can veer instead into a rhetoric of authenticity. That is: The political project of queer community isn’t demanding a certain kind or form of sex or self-presentation as really queer. It is, instead, a form of collectivity in which every human being counts; in which fighting systems that oppress some of us, even if they benefit others, is a victory for us all.

If I hadn’t spent all that time counting people in subway cars, which is a ridiculous occupation that involves more staring than is polite in public, I could have devoted my energy to being a decent, kick-ass political person. Free from insecurity, I could have stopped worrying so goddamn much about myself.

That’s the paradox between passing and not passing, between wanting to be visible and wanting to disappear into the crowd. The longing to end oppression, the longing to live in a queer world, is a longing for the freedom to be fully ourselves. It is also the longing to float away from ourselves. The luxury of inattention. The luxury of walking down a street lost in thought and unmolested. The freedom to be but a daydreamer on a train. 

Cover image credit: Michael Osmenda

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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