The party, a swanky roof-top affair in New York City, was called “On Top.” I was feeling even more on-top than most, considering the 9-inch, Jeffery Campbell heels I was wearing. I also had on my one-of-a-kind black sequin jacket—the one that, when the designer said, “It’s vintage,” I said, “Say no more.”
My face was painted club-kid chic, and, despite my broad shoulders, I moved around with a certain sassy elegance: All-in-all, I was definitely serving some femme realness. Alone, I blended in quite nicely with the queer mosaic of the crowd. However, I was with my ex-girlfriend, and as we passionately made our bodies and lips into one on the dancefloor, it wasn’t my look that was turning people’s heads. It was the juxtaposition of my femme presentation with the clear fact that I was getting hot and heavy with a woman.
I’m bisexual, and though I’ve never once identified as gay (not even when I came out as a teenager 10 years ago), that label is an assumption I face regularly—especially from those who’ve known me when I’ve been dating men. That I don’t mind playing up my femme side from time to time doesn’t help either. Suffice it to say, the looks of confusion my ex and I were greeted with that night were not the first I’ve received.
Here’s the trouble: While femininity can be dangerous for gay men, it is somewhat expected of them—a form of behavior or mode of self-presentation they are “allowed.” For bi guys like me, even a little femininity threatens to erase our entire identity.
Just being bi is already hard enough. Both the straight and LGBTQ community regularly speculate on the veracity of my sexuality. I am told I don’t exist or that I’m going through a phase. Or I just get placed in the gay or straight box against my will. Dating can be especially difficult. I once had a gay guy tell me, during a night out, that I had “vagina cooties”—there wasn’t a second date. This sort of creepy scrutiny is one of the most annoying parts of being bi. But the invalidation of our sexualities only grows when bisexual individuals don’t express their gender identities in conventional ways.
There are spaces for gay men, lesbian women, bisexual women, and trans women to express femininity. There are few, if any, arenas in which bisexual men, queer in our own right, have the space to express femininity without fear of our sexuality being nullified. There is a deeply ingrained misconception that a man can’t be romantically involved with another man and still be interested in women as well. That is because masculinity, or at least the most basic stereotype of it, is meant to be dominant and to attract femininity. Femininity, on the other hand, is weak and attracts masculinity. Male bisexuality, even when it is embodied in a traditionally masculine person, already blurs the lines between those outdated and severely limiting misconceptions. Add femme behavior, and you’ve really got a problem.
To be clear, these gender misconceptions hurt gays and lesbians, too. Many people automatically assume butch women are lesbians because of their masculinity, and those same people show surprise when feminine women identify as lesbian. For gay men, any expression of femininity can lead to regressive associations with sexual preferences (a more masculine guy is presumed to be a “top,” while a more feminine guy gets cast as the “bottom”). In these ways and many others, gender stereotypes hamper everyone in the queer community—but there are some distinct ways in which they hurt bisexual men.
While part of me wants to identify proudly as femme, I’m wary of doing so, because I know it will only cause me grief. To be sure, I am generally more feminine than stereotypical masculinity allows—but my gender expression varies. Sometimes I present more masculine—working outside in a fitted cap and basketball shorts. Other times I’m more feminine: I’ve been known to go out in crop tops and metallic eye shadow. I always present and identify as a man; it’s just that, sometimes I’m a man who acts more feminine. Still, I don’t often self-describe as “femme,” because it hasn’t worked out well in the past. Aside from confusing people with regard to my sexuality, it also hurts my chances with straight women.
In my freshmen year of college, a girl I was seeing for a few months ended the relationship because of my femininity. “Do you doubt my attraction to you?” I asked her when she broke the news of our breakup. “No. Not at all,” she responded. (If anything, our relationship was far more physical than anything else.) “Then what’s the deal?” I asked, knowing her answer before she even said it. “My friends tease me for having a ‘gay boyfriend.’ ”
Despite my very clear attraction to my ex-girlfriend, she, like many straight women, allowed gender stereotypes to end our relationship. I guess I could butch it up to keep the speculations at bay and land more straight women. But that would be denying parts of myself instead of celebrating all of my identity. Clearly, these gender ideas are an impediment to the diversity of the rainbow community. They say that a man has to act and present a certain way in order to date another man or another woman. But we know better than that: We should all be validated and allowed to live the truth of our own experiences.
That’s why I believe femme bisexual men can be revolutionary. We can push back against those normative boxes, creating space for a more complex understanding of sexuality and gender expression. Our femininity explodes the idea that a gender expression, or gender identity, must be intrinsically tied to a certain sexuality. Femme bi men have the power to redefine manhood in ways that aren’t rooted in archaic heterosexual ideals. We can help create a society in which a bisexual man in a crop top can be seen holding hands with a girl and turn heads—but only for being one half of a hot couple.