Willow Rosenberg and the Gold Star

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This actually started as a post on tumblr attached to a casually biphobic video by YouTuber Arielle Scarcella. I posted it, walked away, got in the shower, and basically panicked about it being on the internet. I came back and ripped it down, feeling 75% better, and consequently very ashamed. I normally write non-fiction through the lens of pop-culture in order to provide the proper objective point of view and distance, as well as give readers a common ground from which we can all hopefully draw examples. I blog about pop-culture because I think it is ridiculously important and often ignored. But I don’t have a way to come at this through pop-culture. I’ve been working on this post for the better part of four months trying to find a way to talk about it, and I have not come up with a way. There’s a reason. There’s no popular media or sci-fi go-to person for bisexuality. As important as Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire slayer is to me personally, she never identifies as bisexual, in fact, despite the very familiar terms she uses to describe her attraction; “And it wasn’t women, it was woman. Just one.” (episode: “The Killer In Me”) and her late revelation about her sexuality, the depth and intensity of her relationship with Oz, the whole question is settled early and firmly with “I’m gay now.” Willow is in fact one of the most visible television lesbians still, and she could very well be a lesbian with a dating history that includes men. That on its own would be wonderful, but as it stands either way she does nothing for bisexual visibility or bisexual representation, and finding anyone, male or female who explicitly uses the word bisexual in reference to themselves in television or movies is discouragingly difficult considering the long and rich history of the term.

Lost-Girl-trio

The reason I know that representation matters is personal experience. The invisibility of my sexuality in popular media made it that much easier to accept it when people said it wasn’t real, that it was a train stop on the way to something else, that if I was queer at all, I would just know. Media infested with ex-lesbians and girls kissing “for attention” and experimentation made it easy to dismiss my own truth with common sentiments like, “well, all girls like girls a little bit, everyone’s a little gay, who doesn’t get excited by lesbian porn?” Like Kennedy, all the queer women I knew knew they liked girls by early adolescence if not earlier. One of my friends in technical theater told me she knew when she was five and gave me the weirdest look when I said, “I would kill to be that certain.” So I moved in hetero space, I stayed out of the queer spaces where I felt more comfortable because I also felt like an impostor. I still have that impostor feeling.

I am often vague about my sexuality, I let people assume my gayness or my straightness based on the situation, I get labeled lesbian in queer spaces and sometimes I don’t quibble. I drop “my girlfriend” into the conversation and then don’t go any further. If I were an ally, I would consider myself a truly terrible ally- but something occurred to me very recently that hadn’t before: I’m not an ally. I’m not vacationing in queer space as a stealth man-loving woman, I’m not letting people assume my heterosexuality to enjoy the “privilege” of invisibility as opposed to letting people assume my heterosexuality because it’s safer given the situation. I’m in the middle of this problem, and while as an ally I would expect myself to be vocal in public and to defend myself against erasure and micro-aggressions, I’m not an impostor here.

alexpiperspooning

When I first came out, someone told me that the LGBT (at the time it was still usually GLBT) acronym was a hierarchy, and I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time. Today, it’s the reason I remain very uncomfortable with the acronym, it’s the reason I’m so fond of the word “queer.” I love the idea that we can all be one giant intersectional umbrella of marginalized sexualities and gender identities including people who hardly ever make it into the acronym; including people who I’m already too old and stuffy to be educated about yet, but we have some stuff to figure out with each other before that’s really the reality we’re living in. I continue to use “queer” because I live in hope.

Maybe Willow Rosenberg isn’t bisexual, but she’s also not what the lesbian community calls a “gold star” lesbian. This gets really technical, but when you get right down to it, to be “gold star” you mustn’t have been penetrated by a penis. Obviously that’s a ridiculously transphobic definition, so some will scale it back to “never had sex with a man or male-identified person,” but if you talk to people who make the “gold star” distinction, it reduces to one of two things pretty quickly, straight up misogyny or biphobia. The misogyny comes from the idea that a vagina that has never been penetrated by a penis is somehow more pure or eternally virginal, the weird misconception that sex with guys invariably leads to a “loose” vagina, and the idea that someone sleeping with a woman has some sort of discretion over that woman’s sexual history, a pretty direct brand of slut-shaming. The biphobia comes from the idea that there exists some sort of hierarchy of being attracted to women and women who have never had sex with a man (totally erasing the existence of women who were coerced or molested) are somehow more gay and deserving of praise, and/or inherently more dateable or sexually desirable. The “gold star” idea is just one ugly way that some lesbians will continue to marginalize and erase bisexual women, and I’ve heard it more than once used as one of many legitimately held reasons to not date bisexual women. All this is to say that lesbian space is not generally safe space for bisexual women.

When I was younger, one of my favorite movies was Chasing Amy, one of the “Clerks” spinoffs directed by Kevin Smith. I love it for its sexual exploration, its down-to-earth romance and its flawed characters, but the press on the movie largely described it as, “man falls in love with lesbian; turns her straight.” The above scene is one in which the main character Alyssa tells her presumably and implied lesbian friends that she’s in love with a man. I have always and only seen a bisexual woman coming out at long last to her friends. The reception is chilly as you’d expect, and the scene ends with one of her friends saying; “another one bites the dust,” as if Alyssa is succumbing to some heteronormative pressure rather than following her heart after much painful soul searching and deliberation. Her friends give her no benefit of the doubt, and that scene stuck with me and continued to echo my own experiences with coming out. It’s not “easier” to come out as bisexual. You have to REMIND people that you have already told that you are bisexual, you have to CONVINCE people that you exist, you have to DEFEND your right to not be called either gay or straight or confused. If you think that Katy Perry’s “I kissed a girl” was bad for lesbians it was 20 times worse for bisexual girls, because it reinforced slutty bisexual stereotypes, the stereotype that we’re all lying or confused or experimenting, and the non-monogamous bisexual (from which folks can say they wouldn’t date a bisexual girl because they would be worried about her cheating as if we’re ALL THE SAME.) What little representation I can come up with in media portrayals of bisexual characters mostly reflected that handful of negative stereotypes, and only one out of the thirteen I could come up with actually used the word “bisexual” at any juncture.

Everyone should watch Orphan Black, just, everyone.

Everyone should watch Orphan Black, just, everyone.

Even though I was incredibly fortunate to grown up in a time in a metropolitan area where homophobia was at least socially frowned upon in public, it took me YEARS to understand and come to terms with my own bisexuality, because I spent that entire time questioning and interrogating and doubting my own feelings. I still struggle with feeling like an impostor, I still sometimes feel like my experiences don’t count as authority. But nobody hated this label more than I did, and now that I have it, you can’t take it away and I won’t shut up about it.

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2 thoughts on “Willow Rosenberg and the Gold Star

  1. Thank you for writing this! It makes me feel less alone to know that I’m not the only one feeling like an impostor. People assume I’m straight and, since I come from a Catholic family and am an ethnic minority, sometimes even assume I might be homophobic. Even when I’m very vocally pro-gay rights and worked against Proposition 8 in California, I ended up facing a lot of racism after the election from people who were angry at minorities. Those kind of experiences make me not want to seek out LGBT social groups. I’m only out to one person (my boyfriend) because I’m scared to tell anyone else and have them think I’m trying to be interesting. I’m even afraid to tell people I’m out to my boyfriend, because I don’t want people to think I’m doing it to be a flirty tease (because, you know, threesomes… NOPE). I also don’t want to be put in the position where I have to CONVINCE people that I’m bi because they won’t believe me. God, it’s lonely.

  2. Thanks, Melissa, for saying so because I think the best thing we can do in the face of that loneliness and isolation is to communicate with each other. It took me reading the narratives of a lot of different bisexual men and women in order to realize that so much of what I’d experienced along the way and still experience wasn’t deviant at all.

    One of my favorites is “Notes from a Unicorn” by Seth Fischer-
    http://therumpus.net/2012/02/notes-from-a-unicorn/

    The queer community has some serious problems we need to address, and I’m sorry you are ending up at an intersection of a few of them. Nobody wants to talk about how biphobic, racist, transphobic and misogynist the movement has become except for the people subject to that discrimination. I’ve personally received the fiercest and harshest pushback from other queer people, and often get called homophobic by lesbians for implying that bisexual oppression and gay monosexual oppression might present in different ways.

    I want to make sure I tell you what it took me a lot of conversations with other people to realize: you have no obligation to be out to anyone if you aren’t comfortable with that. Your identity isn’t a political bargaining chip and staying in the bisexual closet because it’s safer is not you indulging in a privilege, it is a product of biphobia. I don’t have to tell you how violent that erasure of your identity is because you are experiencing the fallout of being cut off from YOUR community every day.

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