by Justina Ireland
The first time I kissed a girl I was fifteen. It was at one of those awkward boy/girl house parties where everyone wants something (beer, weed, sex) but the parents are too near to properly get at it. We played spin the bottle, since this was before the Internet and that’s what we did for fun in the old days, and mine happened to land on a girl I barely knew. For a moment we hesitated, while everyone in the room collectively held their breath. Then I shrugged. “We don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Secretly, I wanted to.
She shrugged as well. “I don’t care.”
“Do it!” some guy said, while a few others chimed in.
So we did.
It should’ve been completely unremarkable, the kind of kiss that happens and you instantly forget, like kissing your grandma. But it wasn’t. And I found myself spending the rest of the night hoping the Heinz ketchup bottle would land on her again.
Days later I was still thinking about it.
When I told a friend of mine she laughed. “Maybe you’re a lesbian.” But I wasn’t a lesbian. I had a sorta boyfriend, and I liked kissing him, too. Plus, in my mind all lesbians were super butch, like the girls who wore Doc Martens and flannel and shaved their heads and listened to Faith No More. Again, this was the old days, before Pearl Jam became classic rock (sob). Anyway, lesbians. They were cute, but they made me a little nervous, and I knew I wasn’t like them. Well, at least I was pretty sure I wasn’t like them. Because I liked boys, and everyone knew lesbians don’t like boys.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized that you could like boys and girls, that you weren’t confused or just easy. But it would be even longer before I read Far From You by Tess Sharpe, the first book I’d ever read with a bisexual protagonist, one who wasn’t portrayed as sexually available or a confused lesbian or a bored straight girl.
That is too long to wait.
One of the challenges with bisexuality is that society works harder to erase it than being gay or a lesbian, and this is obvious in the dearth of bisexual books in YA. When bisexuals do appear on the page in YA it’s usually just to add tension, their (temporary) identity a plot point, before they move on to the inevitable choosing of a boy or girl. Even as people are rushing to write the next gay boy or lesbian girl (but rarely butch lesbians, only the girliest lesbians in traditionally published YA) bisexual characters are still as hard to find as ever.
Part of this is the way people think of bisexuality. It is an easily erasable identity, a stepping stone to somewhere else or just fun experimentation before you settle down. As soon as you choose a partner (assuming monogamy is your thing) you are defined by your choice. If you even get to wait that long. Most of the time bisexual boys are portrayed as just being confused, closeted gay men, while bisexual girls are sexually adventurous at best, promiscuous at worse.
And yet, none of that is true. I’ve been married for a while to a dude, but I am just as likely to watch a cute girl walk by as I am a guy. Being married hasn’t changed what I find attractive. Not one bit.
But I also don’t talk about it. Because being bisexual feels like another burden to shoulder, another cause to fight. Bi-visibility is a real issue, both in books and society, and I am unfortunately part of the problem.
I spend a lot of time talking about diversity and representation, but I don’t talk about my bisexual identity nearly as much as I talk about being black. It’s because when you meet me you can tell that I’m brown, that facet of my identity is written in my features, but my bisexual identity is something people won’t know unless I tell them. I’m forced to confront my blackness on a daily basis, not so much my admiration for both male and female forms. And even now it feels like an uneasy thing to be. There are people on either side of the sexual orientation aisle, both hetero and homosexual, that find bisexuals to just be flighty and immoral.
Not exactly a team anyone is rushing to join.
This is why bisexual visibility, and GOOD bisexual visibility, is so important. Especially in YA, where everyone is trying on identities and seeing what fits. We need more bisexuals whose orientation isn’t illustrated by them being the point in a sexual triangle (as fun as that is, it indirectly reinforces the “slut” label). We need more bisexual characters, characters that are unapologetic for being who they are. Because somewhere out there is a teen playing spin the bottle who would be just as equally happy to land on a boy or a girl, and I’d like to think that maybe reading a book with a character like them will make them feel less afraid to admit who they really are.