Ben and Bisexuality

bi erasure

I get emails. I am mostly getting emails from readers of HONESTLY BEN right now, but this one comes from the UK, from someone who is currently reading OPENLY STRAIGHT still.

Nonetheless, it brings up an interesting issue: bisexual erasure. I’ll let the writer speak for themselves, and after, I’ll make a few remarks.

Hey,

So I’m still reading ‘Openly Straight’ (on page 254), and decided to google about Ben and bisexuality and found this blog post.

(I realise this is pretty late, seeing as the other comments are from 2014, but I hope this is read by somebody and isn’t just me talking to the void–although that’s fun too, sometimes.)

With how far I’ve read so far, I think Ben is a great example of someone who’s discovering/exploring their bisexuality. The book talks, in passing, about heteronormativity which is something bi people go through too but, I suppose, in a slightly different way. There’s a lot of different circumstances, and bi people too get that assumed straight unless out (and then sometimes still assumed straight because what, bisexuality isn’t a thing?! You’re just confused/experimenting or really just gay and not all the way there yet.)

But with Ben I feel like he’s always thought he’s straight because that’s been the only option he’s felt he’s had. Like, he doesn’t feel like he’s gay, because he’s never had that connection with guys before (or maybe he has and just ignored them/written them off as intense bromances) and because the view tends to be “you’re either straight or gay” being bi was never given as an option.

Here we come onto labels! Sure, it’s fine not to label yourself, or feel like you’re just queer, or don’t really care, or are just open to whatever. That’s great, each to their own, if someone feels this is best for them then why argue? Sometimes people do get too caught up with labels…

…but not really so when that label is bisexuality.

Like it’s cool if someone who experiences multiple gender attraction says that they don’t do labels. What I find less cool, and I know it’s something other bi people feel too, is that the no labels, um, label is always given to the character who would otherwise define themselves as bi. (Getting back onto books, fiction and media here.)

Like, if you could name 10 openly bi characters in TV shows, books, other media, where they 1) openly say they’re bi 2) shut down people/show irritation when they’re told it’s just a phase bla bla bla, then please send me the list because I need to get on that.

If you’re having trouble to immediately think of something, I hope that my point is made for when it comes to labels and bi people.

You see, I like the label of being bi. Like Ben, I had a journey too of discovering my sexuality. Not straight. Not gay. But something else. Bi. When I started identifying as bi, and I think labels are useful to help with self identification, a whole new world was opened up to me. I’m not saying it wasn’t there all along whether or not I used the label, but I am saying that the label of being bi helped me belong.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the whole book explores whether labels are needed or not and what happens to people, sometimes, when they’ve been assigned/taken a label. Should Ben be labelled as something? Do we have the right to label him as anything? Well, seeing as there is a lack of well developed bi characters in YA books I guess it would be nice for a character to come out as bisexual, and saying so, at some point in the story.

It would be nice to be represented, and have our stories shown, and told that we matter in literature too, instead of always being told that labels don’t matter, why are you getting so hung up on it?

Labels matter to those who identify with them. It’s an equally as important way to feel, and it’s a way that’s not really represented for bi characters in anything.

To bring this comment to a close, and it went on longer than I meant it to, Ben is bi to me. I see myself in Ben. I understand that struggle of not feeling one or the other, and then not knowing that there’s an entirely different way that he could be. That being bi isn’t being half straight and half gay but it’s own identity.

It’s amazing how often people seem to forget what the B in LGBT stands for.

Ben is bi, and I’ve got to be honest (lol) I’m going to be disappointed if he doesn’t identify that way at the end of the book. Even though I already know he won’t, because no character ever does even when they experience things that link so closely to what a bi person’s coming out journey could be.

So yeah TL;TR labels are important to bi people because bi erasure is a thing and we hardly ever get a character who goes on a journey that’s similar to our own and then identifies as bi.

Brought to you by your not-so-local bitter bisexual who wants a list of 10 YA books where a character comes out as bi and sticks to that label.

Cheers.

Okay. So first of all, I want to acknowledge that this writer brings up a completely legitimate topic, one worthy of conversation.

But before I do, I want to say that even if you’re angry and writing an email, please afford the person you are writing to a name or a title! Generally speaking, I don’t like getting emails that address me as “hey.” Dear Bill, or Dear Mr. Konigsberg would be preferable. But this is a small point at a time like this.

I am with you. There are not enough books about characters who identify as bisexual. Nor movies, nor TV shows. And that sucks. Every person deserves a mirror, and I relate to your anger at not finding a mirror in Ben, at least up to that point in the book.

(Spoiler alert: Ben does not identify as bisexual in Openly Straight. Further spoiler alert: he does not consider himself bisexual in Honestly Ben, either.)

I thought a lot about this when I was writing both books. I am aware of the issue. The reason that I chose to allow Ben to identify as straight, or, later, as straight but gay-for-one person, is that it is authentic to him. This is how he feels about himself. This is what he believes to be true.

You mention in your note that Ben may not have the understanding of what bisexuality is. But actually, his uncle was bi. You may not have gotten to that part yet. But yes, he does understand what that is.

One thing readers sometimes don’t understand about the writing process is that authors don’t necessarily have an agenda. Or, they have an agenda, but that agenda isn’t necessarily the one you want them to have. My agenda in writing these books was to say that labels are a problematic-but-necessary part of our world. Without labels, how do we describe people? And yet, people are so much more than a label. Furthermore, we don’t have to live our lives according to the labels put on us by others. Everyone wants Ben to pick a team. Bisexual certainly might fit. Gay might fit. Straight might fit. Ben, not me, is dealing with a world in which everyone wants to put him in a box, and he’s saying, “Wait. Those boxes don’t feel right to me.”

I get asked a lot if Ben is bi, or gay, or straight. As if I, the author, know the answer, and Ben just doesn’t know as much as I do. That’s actually not how it works. Ben has as much information about how he feels on the inside as I do. I don’t have a better, more correct answer, and if I did, it would go against the nature of the book. This is Ben, to the best of his ability, describing where he fits on the spectrum of sexual orientation. Aside from Rafe, he has never had more than a fleeting feeling about guys. For him, that means he is straight, except for Rafe.

Is he right? Is he wrong? Who is to say? And your email response makes me smile because this is what I want! Conversation. About bisexual erasure. About the meaning and nature of labels. Keep on having it!

I wish that I could fix what’s wrong with the world. And bisexual erasure is a problem. And I could fix it to some degree by having a character who labels themselves as bi. But that’s not this book. Maybe in a future book I will do so, but to me, a book can only be what it is.

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9 Responses to Ben and Bisexuality

  1. Carolyn says:

    I don’t have coherent thoughts to share at this moment, but I enjoyed reading the post. I hope it’s okay to share a link for the UK reader: https://lgbtqreads.com/young-adult/ (I promise there are at least 10 explicitly bisexual characters to be found, and if you look in the new adult and romance sections on the site, there are even more. Good luck on your hunt, and it definitely should be easier for all of us to find ourselves represented in media!)

  2. McMann, Matt says:

    Really great response to a very interesting and honest email. You’re so good at that! I recently attended an event with One Community AZ that was designed to help the attender understand the struggles that people who are gay / lesbian / trans go through and it was extremely moving and powerful. I felt like I have a deeper emotional understanding of that struggle vs. a more intellectual one. I hear some of that same struggle in the person who emailed you. Thanks for being a voice for people who need one Bill. What you’re doing with your writing and speaking out, both in content and tone, is helping so many people have a deeper understanding of and appreciation for those we share the planet with, myself included. Thanks for helping me to continually stretch and grow. I feel incredibly fortunate to call you my friend. Matt

    From: Bill Konigsberg Online <comment-reply@wordpress.com>
    Reply-To: Bill Konigsberg Online <comment+_iuaq1-pokqjfqq4a2mj9b4@comment.wordpress.com>
    Date: Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 7:48 AM
    To: Matt McMann <MattMcMann@ccv.church>
    Subject: [New post] Ben and Bisexuality

    bkonigsberg posted: ” I get emails. I am mostly getting emails from readers of HONESTLY BEN right now, but this one comes from the UK, from someone who is currently reading OPENLY STRAIGHT still. Nonetheless, it brings up an interesting issue: bisexual erasure. I’ll let the”

  3. veronica says:

    Thank you thank you thank you. I really think it’s important in books dealing with sexuality to allow for a character to decide what feels right for them. Often in books dealing with sexuality, when they realize they have feelings for the same sex they’re like “well guess I’m [specific sexuality] now”, but that’s just not how it works. Sexuality is as you said on a spectrum, Ben can be completely in love with Rafe and not feel any sexual attraction to other guys. And whatever he decides to label himself as, if he decides to at all, should be completely okay. Only Ben knows what he is feeling inside and those feelings should be as respected and appreciated as everybody else hopes to be.

  4. dirennn says:

    I finished Honestly, Ben two days ago and I remember being so angry for more than half of the book because I had the impression that Ben was in denial and it was starting to get ridiculous. But then I reached a point where I finally understood him and then I had so much respect for his feelings and thoughts regarding his own sexuality. It can be frustrating at times, there were scenes where I wanted to scream at him “No, shut up. You’re obviously bi.” but then, I don’t know, later in the novel I realised how wrong it was of me to assume that I knew better and kind of invalidate him when he said he still felt straight and only gay for Rafe. Your novel was so eye-opening on that matter and I am truly so grateful for that. (spoiler?) Later, when Rafe made a joke about Ben being in denial I was so mad at him, when I had literally been thinking the same a few chapters ago. All the love :), Diren.

  5. megancollene says:

    Respectfully, I’d refute your claim that Ben understands what bisexuality is. You say that because he has an uncle who came out as bisexual, he somehow understands. Such a claim is problematic. First, your book details how Ben and his uncle had little to no communication after this declaration, so how many heart-to-hearts did Ben really have on the topic? Additionally, knowing a bisexual person does not equate to understanding bisexuality; this fallacy gets called out frequently with the “I have a (gay/black/poor/disabled) friend,” and your use of it isn’t any better.

    The biggest indicator that Ben doesn’t understand bisexuality, though, is his belief that “bi meant equally attracted to boys and girls” (p. 233). This is completely wrong. As the author of the letter says, “being bi isn’t being half straight and half gay but it’s [sic] own identity.” This is my major concern with both the book and your response to the letter. There are myths about the bisexual community that people are fighting to eliminate, and Honestly Ben actually perpetuates many of the myths.

    I have so much more I could say. I really want to rail against the last three paragraphs of your response because WHAT. But I’m not sure it’s going to do any good. So I’ll end with a link.

    For a fuller description of the myths and where Honestly Ben portrays them: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1955429245?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

  6. I think both points here are valid. Personally, though, I am loving Ben not having to go with a label. At a ménage à trois of my school’s GSA, the theory that sexuality is fluid was brought up. I think that this fluidity, never quite being all something, or changing with times theory might be right, or might be wrong. I’m not sure yet. But it does kind of go with the ‘we do not need labels to define us’ argument. It can be hard to define yourself with a label, and it is entirely up to the person to go with a label or not. Personally, I identify as asexual. There was a lot of contemplation, confusion and questioning on my part in order to come to this conclusion about myself. And maybe it is not a conclusion, maybe sexuality really is fluid, and I don’t need a label for myself. But right now, I feel like I am being exactly who I am when I say I am asexual. I think this must be what Ben feels too, going without labels. It’s just him. I see the emailer’s argument in that bisexual people aren’t represented enough, but really, neither are people who go without labels- in my eyes anyway. I think reading or seeing someone else go without labels could make a lot of people who feel this way too feel much better about themselves, and where they at. I know sometimes I felt like just giving up and trying to define myself and going label-less too (I do feel right in my label now though, but realize this would not be the case with all people). I think it is great that Ben has been shown in this way, and that you, Bill, have done a great job. Also, thank you for having an asexual character. As an asexual person it is very frustrating to have very, very little asexual representation. In most things, it is like we don’t even exist! I relate to the emailer in that people can think your sexuality is not real, and that is very frustrating. The thing I was probably most scared of coming out was that people would think I was making my sexual orientation up, just trying to be a special snowflake. With pretty much no asexual representation, a lot of people have never even heard of asexuality, so this kind of fuelled my fears. I would love more asexual representation! I think we need more representation in all the little shown sexual and gender orientations. I was very happy to see that Toby is genderfluid, as it is something I have never read about in a book before, and one of the fellow more-representation-needed orientations! So thank you (I am loving Honestly Ben very much, in case you hadn’t noticed!), and it is good that you have shown someone going without labels, but I agree that more representation is needed, too.

    • Damn you, chrome extension which I forgot to turn off. MEETING of my school’s GSA, MEETING. (This is very embarrassing haha, what a mess. If there is any other weird words in there it will be that too. I’ll just be hiding over here in the corner, filled with shame.)

  7. Pingback: Honestly Ben – Sarah K's Book Blog

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