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Cynthia Nixon and Bisexual Choice

Cynthia Nixon and Bisexual Choice
Shiri Eisner

Cynthia Nixon’s recent comments about homosexuality and bisexuality created a full-on outburst within LGBT communities in the US and around the world. How dare this woman, asked the opposers, claim that being LGBT can be a choice? The audacity! It seems that Nixon’s words shocked the community so immensely that Nixon herself was obliged to “clarify” her remarks, saying that most people “Cannot and do not choose the gender of the persons with whom they seek to have intimate relationships.”

For the sake of putting things in order, I would like to start with a few quotes by Nixon, just so we know what it is exactly that she said. The original quote which caused this scandal was: “I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.” (Oh, the horror!). Later on, while clarifying her statement, Nixon said: “For me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate.” Among other things, Nixon was forced to “admit”, that even though she does not identify as such, “The technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have ‘chosen’ is to be in a gay relationship.”

So what happened here?

First of all, this is the case of a woman who opened her mouth and spoke out the unpopular opinion. As we well know, when women – even the strongest, whitest and most famous ones in the world – express their opinions, they need to be silenced right away. The unprecedented and international criticism against Nixon should first and foremost be understood in its gendered context. In our patriarchal world, if you’re a woman who dares to step away from the mainstream, you must and will be punished.

Secondly, this case concerns internalized LGBT-phobia of the worst kind. The sheer volume of rage expressed at a sentence such as “gay is better” only emphasizes this further: How dare she insinuate that being LGBT can actually be a positive thing? For shame! The original argument, which Nixon dared to counter, is: “Being LGBT is not a choice, because if it was then obviously we would all choose to be straight.” This kind of argument presumes that straightness and heteronormativity are the only options for leading a good and happy life. In addition, as Nixon insinuates, it also reassures the conservative LGBT-phobes – and heterosexuals in general – that the standards that they set for us are well and good, and that being queer or trans really does suck, just as they say.

The third – and perhaps the most important – component here is biphobia: negative views or treatment of bisexual people and bisexuality as an identity. Indeed, in one of the interviews which followed her comments, Nixon said: “I don’t pull out the ‘bisexual’ word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals.” In fact, when one of my Facebook friends put up the link about Nixon, already the second reply was “Or maybe she’s just a bisexual that needs to calm down” (a comment which also got ‘Liked’ by 4 people).

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  1. Kate

    Beautiful! Thank you for articulating this so very well. It’s something that I (who identifies as pansexual, bisexual or queer) wish more people understood and affirmed. Right on!

    • Shiri Eisner

      Thank you ^_^

  2. One of my favourite writers, writing on one of my favourite sites!

    I love this article. Putting this in the context of misogyny is so important. And I think, with your description here of “bisexual choice”, maybe I understand one more part of monosexism: “But you could choose to be straight–” (funny here how ‘choosing to be straight’ isn’t a choice worthy of criticism) “– and yet you’re still saying you’re bi”. Does that sound about right?

    Anyway, I’m really glad you’ve written about this.

    • Shiri Eisner

      Thank you! :)

      Though I must admit I don’t quite follow your question. Could you clarify?

      • Asking the question a different way: “Is part of monosexism straight people’s dislike of bi people because they could possibly pretend to be straight but don’t?”

        • Shiri Eisner

          That is fucking brilliant. I’ve never thought about it before, but I think that’s a really good point. I think I’ll want to use it from now on. Thank you ^_^

          • *laughs* It was you who gave me the idea.

            • Shiri Eisner

              It was you who came up with it :p

  3. Oh dear.

    Not in any way remarking on any other merits of the piece, but you do realize that the Entire Problem was that Cynthia Nixon was, is and shall always be bisexual BUT she was In The Closet since bisexual is an unpopular self-identification in the crowd she, her wife and children hang around with. And furthermore, everyone was aware of it. It’s one of those privately out publicly closeted things.

    To be blunt, she was simply lying.

    She was no more trying to articulate any great truth about sexual orientations or identity than ex-Senator Larry (toe-tapping) Craig was about gay men having a right to public sex in bathrooms or Ted Haggard was about the right of bisexual men to visit escorts and use drugs. She was just trapped, scared and making things up somewhat frantically to avoid admitting what everyone around her already knew was true (she was bisexual) and were just snobbish and mean to her about.

    When people use This Particular Person as an example of some sort of “right” to be closeted or call themselves a flower-pot or a giraffe or whatever else should strike their fancy (which I agree people have a right to do . . even if at times it’s a bit silly . . . but people have an absolute right to be silly) what they are missing is that in This Particular Case is that they are talking about a person who was somewhat coerced into the closet by both her local lesbian/gay establishment as well as their “progressive” friends and hangers-on.

    In This Particular Case this was done by using both the Stick of biphobia: she (and her wife and even worse their children) would at best be snickered at & gossiped about and at worse be shunned and refused invitations and admittance to ordinary social events in their set if she “pulled out the ‘bisexual’ word”.

    And in This Particular Case, it was also done by using the Carrot of public strokes and praise for lying: she got a Cover of the June 2010 “Pride” edition of the important Advocate magazine for Not saying Bisexual (she was she insisted Gay! Gay! Gay! . .. for “political reasons” . . .. didn’t THAT go out by the end of the 1970’s?). And she also got a prestigious award from GLAAD, again for being the perfect example of a good and dutiful upper-class lesbian power-couple wife, who never, never, never told the truth and instead only said what was”proper” and what was “expected of her”.

    While you can say that it is terrible that times are such that people cannot be honest about who they really are and you can have great sympathy for theses poor (if not too bright) people who get themselves caught up in these messes, just please understand that none of them, not ex-Senator Larry Craig, not ex-New Life Church leader Pastor Ted Haggard and not a frightened, stammering actress named Cynthia Nixon were ever being heroes of the Queer Revolution and speaking some sort of reveled truth.

    They were not speaking truth to power. They were closeted. They were caught. And they tried to lie there way out until it all fell apart. That is all that happened.

    • Shiri Eisner

      Thanks for replying.

      I think Nixon spoke couragously and intelligently, and that she managed to put forth an all-too necessary criticism of the way that the assimilationist gay movement speaks about homosexuality.

      In addition, I think that everyone have the right to identify they way they prefer and I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole someone who identifies as gay into another identity (as is so often done to me as a bisexual).

      It’s also a bit troubling to see you write so diminutively about her. She’s a strong and intelligent woman who knows what she’s talking about. Any attempt to present it otherwise seems a bit suspicious, aimed more at her opinions than her actual character.

  4. Perhaps you could instead use a (somewhat eccentric) queer-liberation person who actually on purpose tried to talk about some of this within the LGBTQ+ Movement, so can I suggest you might do better with Stephen Donaldson?

    Who started articulating some of this back in 1966.

    • Shiri Eisner

      Thanks. I appreciate Donaldson a lot and recognze his importance as a bi activist. However, I wanted to specifically address Cynthia Nixon and support the things she said.

  5. Aly Jiselle

    This is precisely why I shy away from telling people I’m bisexual. Even on a radio interview I did last weekend, I referred to my sexuality as “non-heterosexual” because I try to avoid negative backlash about my bisexuality at all costs. Generally speaking, people just don’t get it, and rather than simply admitting that they don’t understand (and leaving it at that), they condemn it.

    The best way I can explain what it’s like for me to be a bisexual is to ask a straight or gay person what they think it would be like to spend the rest of their lives never being able to be with the gender they are attracted to. Ever. Well, if you can imagine how hard that would be, consider that for a bisexual like me, making the CHOICE–for those who think sexuality is a choice– to be with one person means feeling that same overwhelming sense of loss, deprivation, and insatiable longing that a gay or straight person would feel if they were forced to spend a lifetime void of emotional and physical intimacy with their gender preference.

    In other words, while being with a man might indeed fulfill me in many aspects, the sense of loss, deprivation, and insatiable longing I would feel without a woman in my life, would inevitably leave me feeling empty and ultimately unsatisfied and unhappy. Given the overall duality of my personality, tendencies, and sexuality, I could only be about 50% fulfilled in a monogamous relationship with a man and 50% fulfilled in a monogamous relationship with a woman… yet I, myself, crave monogamy– and therein lies the complexity of MY bisexuality.

    So I resent the notion that we can choose which team to play for because I know I can’t. I genuinely want to be with BOTH, and the inability to “just pick one” is why I sometimes loathe my bisexuality– and NO, the answer isn’t “Why don’t you just date a transsexual?” (If I hear that again, I’ll scream!). I can’t speak for all bisexuals, but I know for me, it isn’t easy, and there’s no “solution” to it (because sexual orientation isn’t a problem to be solved). I’ve accepted the fact that if I want to be in a monogamous relationship with anyone– male or female– I’ll have to live with some unfulfillment, which is a dilemma few gay or straight people will ever be able to relate to because they’re only attracted to one gender. In a nutshell, being with one person for me is the equivalent to a gay or straight person being single, yet desperately wishing they weren’t. So the only choice that I’m making is the choice to live without something I really want… and even that isn’t a choice for me, rather it’s a painful reality.

    If you ask me, biphobia is the result of a gross lack of empathy for just how hard it really is for some of us to NOT be able to choose, ’cause I would give ANYTHING to be gay or straight– but try as I might– I’m bisexual.

    Deal with it!

    • Shiri Eisner

      Thanks for replying.

      I don’t think that it’s hard to be bisexual because there’s something inherently hard about it. I think it’s hard to be bisexual because there is systematic and material oppression at work against bisexual people – monosexism. (Also see: The Bi Invisibility Report and the Monosexual Privilege Checklist:

      Regarding choice or lack thereof, I think that’s the wrong question altogether. Instead of clinging to the idea of no choice as the one way into mainstream social acceptance, I would much rather see the standards of mainstream society questioned and subverted. The same standards that require us to speak in the language of “born this way, can’t help it” and to articulate our own identities on the terms of the (heterosexist and monosexist) system.

      Regarding your comment about trans people – it needs to be said that trans people are not “male and female in one person” as you seem to insinuate, nor are they sexual props to be fetishized, chosen or dismissed according to one’s sexual needs. Trans people are people and should not be reduced to their (imagined) bodies. Further, trans men are men and experience themselves as such; and trans women are women and experience themselves as such. And whereas non-binary trans people might sometimes consider themselves as both masculine and feminine, I nontheless know of no trans person who conceives on themselves on the terms of this particular cultural characterization.

      There’s also something to be said about attraction to cisgender people only: society constructs cisgender people and their bodies as the standard for sexualization, in a way that makes trans people and their bodies incoherent and unintelligible to the (cisgender) system. I think that people who only feel attracted to cisgender people would be benefitted in questioning how and why their desires conform with cissexism. (More on that:

      • Aly Jiselle Lajune

        “I” am not insinuating that trans people are “male and female in one person,” rather the people who suggest I date a trans person are guilty of making that ignorant assumption, which is largely why it bothers me whenever I’m given that advice. So, I appreciate your mini-course on the gender identity of trans people, but the people you should be educating are the ones who foolishly believe that bisexuality is a problem that can be remedied by dating a transsexual. They’re the ones who don’t get it, not me.

        • Shiri Eisner

          Thanks for clarifying. From the way it was originally written, it read as though you agreed with the sentiment, even if not the advice.

          • Aly Jiselle Lajune

            Oh, not at all! And I think what really upsets me is that that advice ALWAYS comes from gay people. I’ve learned the hard way that, in regards to the LGBTQ community, not all Ls and Gs understand or embrace the Bs, Ts, and Qs… yet many of them expect, if not demand, that everyone else understands and embraces them. The education and respect should go both ways.

    • Shiri Eisner

      As an after-though: have you considered polyfidelity or gender-monogamy? Polyfidelity is a multiple-party relationship (say, a threesome) who are sexually and emotionally fidelitous to each other. Gender-monogamy is a relationship in which one is able to have one partner of each gender they like (for example, one male partner and one female partner).

      Perhaps one of these arrangements might work for you?

      • Aly Jiselle Lajune

        Thanks, but as I stated in my original post, I crave a monogamous relationship. I have no interest whatsoever in being with more than one person, or with my partner being with someone other than me. This is just something I need to work through over time. Luckily, I’m very content being single right now (in fact, I kinda need to be!), so it’s not an urgent matter. If I meet someone who wants something serious, I’ll have to decide whether/how to proceed.

  6. ditchhook

    First, Your analysis is insightful and informative.
    Second, I agree with your recognition of “the subversive force of bisexuality.” But I would contend that a feminist identity subverts masculinity’s dominance, and that gay/lesbian identity subverts heterosexism, and while the bisexuality may well subvert ‘assimilationist’ GLBT identity. But the bisexual identity isn’t the end of that process– isn’t the final truth about identity– and that Ms. Nixon is taking the first steps in subverting that identity. I wish her well in that endeavor. The search for that final truth of identity– within oneself or in others– is a fool’s errand.

    • Shiri Eisner

      Thank for replying.

      I’m a little confounded at your comment, however, since you seem to be setting a straw figure (the final truth of identity) to then tear it down. If I understand correctly, you claim that the end-identity for subversion of patriarchy is feminism and that the end-identity for subversion of heterosexism is a gay or lesbian identity, then you argue that bisexuality fails to par with this standard. Then, however, you seem to swich back and claim that any search for a end-of-subversion identity is moot.

      If this is indeed what you meant, then I would contend that the standards that you set for subversive identities are ones that structurally bar bisexuality’s entrance. There is a multitude of ways in which bisexuality subverts patriarchy, heterosexism, heteronormativity, monosexism or even cissexism. I find that bisexuality is in general a useful tool of subverting many binary structures, starting from sex, gender and sexuality and ending at race, class and government (in a way not dissimilar to that of radical queer politics). It’s all a matter of how you employ it as a tool.

      In addition, and as you write yourself – there is no ‘ultimate truth’ or an ‘ultimate subversion’, certainly not in terms of identity. No identity is immune to being oppressive itself or of perpetuating the system that it purpots to subvert. This includes, of course, feminism as well as gay and lesbian identities, which many times, and in many ways, can function as axes of oppressiveness (for example, of bi people, trans people, people of color, disabled people, etc. etc.) rather than of liberation. Pointing this argument only towards bisexuality seems to miss the point of internal reflection and self-awareness.

      I think the one “real” problem with bisexuality’s perceived “lack of subversiveness” is not in bisexuality itself, but rather in the way that it’s imagined in culture and in LGBT+ communities. Simply put, bisexuality is never considered “worthy enough” (on many levels, not just subversiveness but also oppression as well as other things) because this is the way in which it’s painted by community discourses and not because it “really” is so. The way I see it, part of my activist work – here and elsewhere – is to change these discourses and to point out to how bisexuality can be used as a subversive tool.

      • ditchhook

        I didn’t inted to set up a straw man, but to respond indirectly to another poster, who wrote ” the Entire Problem was that Cynthia Nixon was, is and shall always be bisexual BUT she was In The Closet since bisexual is an unpopular self-identification” The poster claimed to know a truth about Nixon that Nixon herself was ignorant of. And I’ve heard similar arguments accusing Nixon of being a ‘confused bisexual’ from other sources as well. I don’t believe in an ‘end identity’, but rather identities being alway contingent, cultural, and provisional: we adopt one temporarily as a tactic to counter an oppressive social condition, but toss it out for another when the social setting changes. Identities are just words that (inadequately) try to get some point across, and depending on who you are conversing with, one word can work better than another. I agree with you that ‘bisexuality’ can be subversive, and I agree that subversive is good. But I also believe the more we use the term, the more the folks and ideas we hope to subvert will adapt and the less powerful it will become. Thanks for carefully reading and responding to my post!

        • Shiri Eisner

          Oops! Sorry for the misunderstanding, and thank you for the clarification :)

          I also find the “Nixon is actually bisexual” argument problematic, since as you state very accurately, identities do not point out to any “truth” but rather to a cultutal and political message that one is trying to put through. In either case, I find that whether or not Nixon identifies “in secret” as bisexual is completely irrelevant. What she said is the message that she’s putting out there, and trying to “uncover” a “hidden truth” about her sexuality has only one purpose: perpetuating the “born this way” argument. Looking at it this way, it seems clear to me that this backlash is at large a response to the subversive power of bisexuality as I described it above.

          Regarding the limited extent of subversive identities, I again have to wonder why you point this out regarding bisexuality in particular, since this is a problem that is common to any and all identities in general. In fact, on the scale of co-optation by the mainstream, I think bisexuality stands quite well, as this co-optation has not (yet?) happened to it. Certainly bisexuality is far better situated here than gay or lesbian identities, which have been extensively co-opted by the capitalist and cultural mainstream in ways which might make it harder for gay and lesbian people to use their identities in subersive ways.

          • ditchhook

            “I again have to wonder why you point this out regarding bisexuality in particular…” I want to point out that Ms. Nixon’s articulation of her feelings on this subject are actually subversive of a ‘bisexual’ identity (in a good way). I believe she is expresses well and with a different perspective how assigning identities to each other and ourselves is deceptive (and manipulative). She articulates well how the use of identities not only fail in capturing the unique ‘essence’ of idividuals, but how they undermine our ability to grow and change. To say “I am bisexual” (or any other identity) often carries with it the implication of “I will always be bisexual” and “I alway was bisexual (but didn’t know it).” I think Ms. Nixon undermines a bisexual identity (in that sense) by articulating how her understanding of herself grows and changes– and which, we assume– will continue to change. I would contend Ms. Nixon’s views are not anachronistic ‘throwbacks’ as some would contend, but cutting edge in this regard.

  7. Frankie

    I would and did “choose it.” Like Cynthia, I am a bisexual woman who spent most of my life in relationships with men but also had girlfriends during my teens and twenties. Not a “phase.” They just didn’t turn into long-term relationships. Then I was married to a man for 15 years. That marriage ended and I fell in love with a woman, with whom I’ve been in a committed partnership (registered Domestic Partners) for almost three years.
    I chose all my relationships. I choose to be in the lesbian relationship on which I am now (and hope to be for the rest of my life). It is “better.” Thanks for Cynthia (with whom I’m actually, casually acquainted, ‘though not close friends) for daring to say it in just that way!

  8. anonymous

    thank you! why is it so difficult for people to realize most people feeling they have no “choice” in their sexuality does not instantly validate “born this way” arguments! social pressure and the unforgiving demand to be either A or B absolutely robs us of choice! and i would much rather spend my time trying to change social patterns based on arguments that ADDRESS SOCIALIZATION ISSUES WE CAN CHANGE, rather than pouring all this energy into “science” that ultimately boils down to blood-right arguments. fuck madonna’s “born this way.”

    • Shiri Eisner

      Thanks! But I think you mean Lady Gaga? ;)

      • anonymous

        haha, yes, i get those two confused all the time – they both have the same libertarian LGBT agenda…

  9. Sabina

    Thank you for this article but I have to admit that I had to read it over a few times (plus the comments) to understand that you were actually supporting Ms. Nixon and not vilifying her. Be that as it may, to me, sexual orientation has never been a choice, it’s how you act upon it, is the choice. Yes, I’m bisexual and have always known that I was “different” from about the age of 8. But personal circumstances, opportunities and yes, choice shaped my primary relationships as heterosexual ones.
    Am I out? Depends on your definition of out. My LGBT friends know; some close straight friends know. Two of my children know.
    My orientation does not solely define the person I am. Am a mother, I’m a nurse, I’m of mixed heritage. I’m bisexual. Put it all together, add a few more quirks and you get me.
    I’ve been “bi” since birth due to my heritage and bisexual since that part of my brain turned on. It is my choice on how I lead my love life.
    My personal mantra: Love is NOT Gender Specific!
    Again, thank you for this article and I hope you and Ms. Nixon continue to speak out for the Bi (and LBGT community.)
    We’re not confused, we just love our options!

  10. THANK YOU for your article, Shiri. LBGTQIAetc people are “taught” that we’re bad or broken, and thus we cannot possibly have a “good” life. This “toilet” mentality plays out in a variety of ways throughout our lives. I’ve certainly had this conversation before, but it’s refreshing to hear it called out publicly.
    –heteroqueer trans guy

  11. glad to have found this place, will be rss-ing for sure.
    as to bi-sexual choice…
    for me, a genderqueer cis-woman who is way more attracted to females but who can love beyond gender barriers on occasion, it isn’t so much a choice of gay or straight. i am queer, by which i mean to say, nothing defines me. not even my preference for women.
    have been rejected by lesbians for admitting to being bi
    have been lewdly approached by straight men who think it means a two-girl threesome for him.
    have had straight girls avoid me, in fear i might want them.
    have had dykes call me a tool of the patriarchy, for not rejecting men altogether.
    have had gay men deem me a fag hag for not being ‘coupled off’ with a woman.
    seems to me that both the b and t parts of the lgbt acronym have the people of the straight world as well as some folk within our own community dump on them.

    • Aly Jiselle Lajune

      I can totally relate to every scenario you listed. I feel like my only chance at love with a man or a woman is with a fellow bisexual or pansexual. *sigh*

  12. Fantastic article, articulates a lot of very agreeable ideas brilliantly! Always been concerned that the “born this way” concept renders some queer and polysexual identities as ‘lesser’, glad somebody has brought this to the attention of others!
    Thanks Shiri! xx

  13. Matthew

    What I think needs to be understood is that “gay” and “lesbian” are in fact socially constructed realities. Meaning ideas like “top” “bottom” butch, bear twink, etc. as well as gay and lesbian dating rituals, homophile societies, the ethics of coming out and staying closeted all of this has been constructed over the last one hundred years (and keeps changing). Bisexual people often have messy complicated lives as many bi people will find themselves dating across the gender and orientation spectrum. Bisexuality is not well constructed in a mass social way. We are inventing it as we go through life. I have dated bi and gay men, and straight and bi women. I am now in an open non-committed relationship with a bi woman. We are inventing our lives as we go. And we learn from others.

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