Ana's Note: This is a repost of a Slacktiverse Special.
Sometime between my first marriage and my second marriage, I realized that I am bisexual.
I have never acted on this knowledge. At the time of my realization, I was quietly musing on how to proceed with altering my online dating profile to include "seeking women" while still being upfront that this was new territory for me, when (quite unexpectedly) my second Husband fell into my romantic lap. For my part, I was open with him about the fact that if we did not work out, I was going to start dating women; but as it turned out, we managed to be surprisingly compatible together and sailed off into the sunset, married and determined to live Happily Ever After.
Since that time, I struggle with how to classify myself in public. If anyone were to ask -- and they never do -- I would say that I'm a Kinsey Scale 2: predominantly heterosexual but more than incidentally homosexual. Or I might say, as above, that I am bisexual. Both terms seem accurate to my identity. However, I worry about identifying as a bisexual. I recognize that, as a woman in a different-sex marriage, I retain all the rights and privileges that come with being (or presenting as) straight. I also recognize that, as a woman with little* personal sexual experience with other women, an open identification as bisexual may imply more about my personal past than would be strictly accurate. I understand the pitfalls of misrepresentation and appropriation, and I additionally recognize that there is good ally work that I can do from the Presumed Straight side of the fence.
Because of all this, and because it isn't something that comes up in frequent conversation (despite what television would have us believe), and additionally because I live and work in environments where conversations about Bisexual Women / Lesbian Women tend to lead to hurr hurr sexy porn hurr comments which would make me uncomfortable, I basically don't talk about my sexual orientation.
But lately I've been thinking that maybe I should.
A few weeks ago, my Young Niece tentatively came out as either a bisexual or a lesbian (she says she isn't sure which yet) after having been secretly dating another girl for two months. Her mother -- my sister -- has been less than supportive because Sister-Mother thinks homosexuality is a sin. My Older Niece pointed out to her mother that both Sister-Mother and Older Niece are currently living out-of-wedlock with men, and Older Niece has recently just had a baby out-of-wedlock with her man, to the ample rejoicing of almost everyone in the family. Older Niece argued to Sister-Mother that surely homosexuality can't be a worse sin than heterosexual shacking up, so what's the problem?
But a problem there is, as far as Sister-Mother is concerned. And stuck in the middle of all this is Young Niece, who didn't choose her orientation and now has to hear about what a dreadful, awful, deadly sin it is to be a girl who likes girls. It's all very heart-breaking and infuriating, and it's not something that is going to be solved in a 30-minute Very Special Episode in which Sister-Mother learns a Very Important Lesson, much as we would all like it to be. Beyond anything else, there are serious complications (that can't really be gotten into here) revolving around finances and disabilities and a myriad of other things which add up to mean that Young Niece and Sister-Mother are effectively stuck with each other for a long while to come.
Enter me, stage left.
I'm not the best aunt in the world. I only really see my nieces about two or three times a year, and then only for a few hours at a visit. I vaguely keep up on their life events through Facebook and conversations with my mother (their grandmother), but we're not bosom-buddies. I'm the cool aunt who got an engineering degree and has two cats and doesn't go to church and votes for Obama, but that's about the extent of our relationship. And most of what I know about my nieces comes second-hand over the family gossip-vine, including this latest news about Young Niece coming out, which means that I can't directly insert myself without it being made clear that (a) someone tattled, and (b) that Young Niece's orientation is something being gossiped about in general. The former will get me in trouble with my mother; the latter will probably hurt Young Niece's feelings. Most people don't like to be gossiped about, after all.
All week long, I have wracked my brain for ways to offer support to my niece without starting up an email conversation that outright says, "So I hear you like girls?" I don't want to make my niece feel cornered or put on the spot. I don't want her to feel like she has to talk to me, especially not when so many other people are banging down her door demanding that she let them vocalize their opinions. But at the same time, I want her to know that there's nothing wrong with liking girls. I want her to see that there are good, wonderful, interesting, lively, incredible, awesome women out there who also just happen to like girls. I want liking girls to be presented to her as normal, as something that isn't odd or unusual or marks her as bad or wrong or different.
In the end, my plan revolved around reading. I continue to be, in that regard, a one-trick pony.
For Christmas this year, Young Niece will receive a Kindle e-reader from me. There will be a number of books pre-loaded to that e-reader, as well as a gift card so that she can buy more of her choosing. The books I will buy for her will have normal plots, perfectly benign in their commonness. A fairy tale retelling. An epic fantasy adventure. A paranormal vampire romance. A futuristic dystopia. The sorts of things that parents so frequently aren't interested in, the kinds of books that can be summed up in a few simple sentences. Books with innocuous covers that won't be seen anyway because they'll be on an e-reader.
But every single one of these books will feature a QUILTBAG person (preferably a bisexual woman or lesbian woman) somewhere in the cast, living and existing and being without it being a big issue-y deal.
This plan, quickly dreamed up on a lazy Saturday morning, hasn't come easily to fruition. Less than one percent of all YA novels traditionally published in the USA within the last ten years have any QUILTBAG characters at all, even minor supporting ones. QUILTBAG protagonists are even harder to find. Those books that are published are frequently either "blink and miss it" references or outright "issue books" where the whole story is about being QUILTBAG. (Those aren't bad novels to have by any means, but they're not what I need for my stealthy support approach.)
In the end, these are the novels that I ended up with (courtesy of a number of online links and references but most especially this one from Dangerous Jam).
- Above by Leah Bobet. A futuristic dystopia which features issues of disability as well as lesbian supporting characters.
- Adaptation by Malinda Lo. Science fiction with a female bisexual protagonist and a bisexual love triangle.
- Ash by Malinda Lo. A fairy tale retelling in which the princess protagonist falls for the king's Huntress instead of the Prince.
- Cursebusters! by Julie Smith. A lesbian paranormal adventure with cat burglars and time travel.
- Fire by Kristen Cashore. Fantasy world with a "beauty curse" and a bisexual protagonist.
- Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins. A supernatural boarding school with a lesbian support character.
- Libyrinth by Pearl North. Post-apocalyptic world with talking books and a lesbian protagonist.
- Marked by P.C. Cast. A vampire academy-esque book (yes, that's a genre now) with gay support characters and a female protagonist.
- Tithe by Holly Black. An urban fantasy with lesbian and bisexual supporting characters.
- When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen. Dark fantasy with bisexual support characters and a poly love triangle.
- Wolfcry by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Epic fantasy (and the fourth in a series) in which the princess protagonist is a lesbian.
Eleven books. Eleven books with plots that can be described without reference to QUILTBAG issues, were the reader so inclined to not get into a fraught conversation about what they are reading. Eleven books with lesbian, bisexual, or gay characters -- many of which aren't protagonists and some of which are "blink and miss it" references. Eleven books that (based on my research) handle QUILTBAG issues at a YA level without diving deeply into explicit sex scenes that (I think) would make Young Niece potentially uncomfortable**.
Eleven books isn't bad for a Christmas present. Not all of the above are $10 a pop (some are significantly cheaper, in fact), but let us pretend that they come out to about $100 total. It's a good Christmas when I acquire $100 worth of new books from my relatives. Eleven books is nothing to sneer at.
But it's eleven books that were selected after literally hours of research and looking. If I say to myself, "Self, I want a paranormal romance with a straight female protagonist," I can find a 5-star book to suit my needs within minutes. If I change that "straight" to "lesbian" or "bisexual", I can expect to spend hours searching for something that meets my needs. And what I find will more likely than not be 3-stars or less, leading me to eye the 1-star, one-sentence, "I DIDN'T LIKE IT" reviews with suspicion and wonder fruitlessly if their vague and laconic hatred came from something genuinely wrong with the book, or from the protagonist being Not Straight. I guess you'll get to buy the book and find out, won't you!
It's eleven books that, after Young Niece has finished reading them, I don't know what she can follow up with. That Dangerous Jam list has (at time of typing) only fifty-four novels on the list. Fifty-four novels to cover all eight letters of the Q-U-I-L-T-B-A-G alphabet, and over a dozen or more genres, many of which may not be a given reader's particular cup of tea. Fifty-four novels where the entrance criteria is simply to have a major character -- somewhere, anywhere -- in the novel identified as a QUILTBAG person. That makes me sad. It makes me wish that there was more out there to be had and read. Books where QUILTBAG people are just plain people, doing people-y things, and existing in the genres that I read and loved as a kid. Sort of a We're here, we're queer, we're going to drop that fucking ring into Mount Doom and knock off for elvish pastries. I want that. My niece, and other girls like her, deserve that.
From now on, as an author and a blogger and as a person in face-space, I am going to identify openly as a bisexual. Not because I want special liberal creds for having another marginalization mark on my liberal library card. Not because I feel like my Presumed Straight privilege doesn't exist or that I don't enjoy significant social privileged because of it. But because I live in a family where my youngest niece is experiencing prejudice for liking girls, and because I want her to know that she's not alone. And because I want to be part of a market growth that acknowledges that people like she and I exist, and that we want to see ourselves in the literature we consume.
At least occasionally, and at least more than fifty-four times in ten years.
* "Little" because that is more accurate than "no", but I also recognize that this word choice seems to conflict with other things stated in this post. I will just say that It's Complicated and leave it at that, as my sexual history is not the point of this post.
** I have never cared for explicit sex scenes in my casual reading, and Young Niece has said things that lead me to believe that she feels similarly. However, the possibility for projection on my part is high in this regard.