I was behind on my TV watching this weekend. I got sucked into gaping maw of Gilmore Girls on Netflix and chased it with some Parenthood binging so, despite being laid up with the flu for an entire week this month I had a bunch of shows to catch up on. Because it's Halloween season, I spent most of my time in front of the TV working on one costume or another, mostly paying attention but not entirely because the cost of keeping my eyes on the TV was gluing my fingers together or drawing blood. Neither of which I was all that interested in.
But something caught my attention and I ended up sort of fixated on it the past few days. Two major new shows with decent sized audiences confronted a question of closeted bisexuality in very similar ways in the past few weeks, and it left me feeling sort of battered by the implications.
In the last few episodes of Gotham, it was finally confirmed that Jim Gordon's inexplicably wealthy fiancée Barbara had been in a same sex relationship with Major Crimes' Detective Renee Montoya at some point in the past.* And, because this is a drama on TV and it's hard to have a drama without some actual drama, Gordon found out.
It's is a complicated situation, from a plot perspective; there are a lot of overlapping power dynamics and apparently some sort of issue with addiction or alcoholism plays a role. But from a meta-commentary perspective, it's pretty simple: a man discovered that his fiancée was once in a relationship with a woman and he got angry. Jim Gordon's anger was, as I think is true to the comic book version of the character, fairly quiet. He asked questions and did some brooding. Barbara did a lot of the heavy lifting in their conversations.
Similarly on How to Get Away with Murder, shooting star Michaela discovered that her fiancé Aiden once had some sort of sexual relationship with another man, Michaela's classmate/competition Connor.
Michaela's anger, in contrast to Gordon's, was explosive. She went on a strange rant about her wedding dress, which made me dislike her even more than I already did, and asked Aiden if he was gay, thus revealing the final nail in the coffin of "I hope she has a terrible life because she's a terrible person."
For all that their reactions were outwardly fairly different, Gordon and Michaela both responded to their respective partners with a sense of betrayal. They both said that they'd been lied to. Without any indication that they'd asked the simple question "have you ever been in a same sex relationship?", both Gordon and Michaela decided that they were the aggrieved party, not their fiancé, who was outed without permission. Because yeah, that happened, in case we all forget. Aiden and Barbara are both exposed by their former lovers, robbed of their dignity and agency. But Gordon and Michaela get to be upset and believe in the fairy tale of their victimhood, and their bisexual partner is left to apologize for...what? Their past? Their sexuality?
This is what I got fixated on. The thought that both of these characters, highly intelligent in different ways, believed that by not knowing of a previous same sex relationship they'd been lied to and wronged by their partners. An active decision to deceive, even just by omission. Where did that reaction come from?
I wonder if that would be the accusation leveled if the previous relationship was heterosexual? If Michaela discovered that Aiden had been with Laurel instead of Connor, would she have gone off the rails and found an opportunity to bring up her bespoke Vera Wang gown like that? If Gordon found out that it was Montoya's partner Crispus Allen who'd dated Barbara, would his reaction be because of Allen's level of power in comparison to his? Or is it, as Barbara asks him "because [Montoya's] a woman?"
Both of these confrontations are extra awkward because the former same sex romantic partner is of a different race than the accused liar, while the engagements are between partners of the same race. I'm sure that it was not the intention of either writing teams to call attention to this, to make the audience wonder if this was "just a phase" and now both Aiden and Barbara are now "where they belong": in a heterosexual relationship with someone of their own race. But that is a serious risk, and not one that I think got the attention it deserved in either show.
Aiden most certainly got the short end of the stick in this situation. He was accused not only of lying about his history, but also about his sexuality. Same sex attraction in men is still classified as an either/or dichotomy by most popular culture, even while more and more people accept not only that there are queer people in the world but also that female sexuality is more fluid than male in many cases. For the mistakes he makes, Gordon never asks Barbara if she's a lesbian.
And this is a very real danger for some people. Listen to a few episodes of Dan Savage's podcast, read screeds like It Happened to Me: My Husband Told Me He Was Gay on xoJane. The fear that a husband is a secret gay is very real for many women, and they're convinced that even the smallest homoerotic contact results in a sudden realization (or worse, transformation) to full fledged gay, despite all evidence to the contrary. And while common knowledge claims that most men will respond to the revelation that their girlfriend is bisexual will result only in "that's hot" and dreams of threesomes, casual perusal of advice columns, forums, and blogs will show that when actually confronted with the reality of their partner's attraction and desires, respond with some combination of jealousy, rejection, and violence.
A hint of bisexuality, real bisexuality rather than the pornographic fantasy that has been concocted, makes people uncomfortable. Sure, they're stereotypes, but there's some nugget of truth in jokes about gay men and lesbians refusing to date bi people because they're "not really queer." The idea that bisexuality is just a phase that people go through in college or high school, as Glee's Kurt so succinctly put it: "bisexual is a term that gay guys in high school use when they want to hold hands with girls and feel normal for a change." Bisexual people are erased from the rest of the LGBTQ community with alarming regularity, and while they certainly do not face the level of violence that trans people face, there are days where I wonder if they're just different sides of the same coin, different kinds of violence done to silence people. But is bisexual Barbara getting accused of lying really that much better? Is watching a woman ask her fiancé if he's gay because a guy touched his dick when he was a teenager really preferable? And how much does this "bisexuality as promiscuous lie" trope contribute the fact that most bisexual people stay in the closet, despite making up the majority of the LGBTQ community?
We live in a world where characters understood to be bisexual are frequently "straightwashed" along with other gay and lesbian identities. For all that David Goyer admits that Constantine slept with both men and women at some point, I have little hope that he'll be portrayed as bi on screen. But I'm not sure I'd even want that, if Gotham and How to Get Away with Murder are portends of things to come. Aiden claims that whatever happened between him and Connor was stupid, that they were just kids at an all boys school in the middle of nowhere. That it doesn't count. Meannwhile, Connor's glee at being able to out Adien (in order to hurt Michaela), especially when combined with his promiscuity, set him up to be the bad guy in Michaela's victim fairytale. And Barbara's past with Montoya is framed as a big secret, one that involves drug use that Jim doesn't know about, and some kind of abuse. Because bisexuality is something to be kept secret, and framing a lesbian of color as not only an addict but also abusive doesn't come with a lot of it's own baggage.** It certainly doesn't help that, while the audience and Barbara are trying to figure out if Gordon's panic is because of Montoya's gender or her job, the Gotham writers decided now was a great time for Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney to force two young, white, heterosexual women to "seduce her" and then cat fight over a job. So now two of the three women of color on the show are queer (or potentially so) and abusive or exploitative of waifish white women.
I'm all for increased diversity in television. I will continue to vote with my wallet and demand entertainment that actually reflects the world around me. I'm so glad we've moved past the time when being gay on TV meant you were either a Will or a Jack. I'm glad we have more representation of people of color and queer people than in a long time. But every time bisexuality comes up it's for titillation or to demonstrate and police "slutty" behavior. I'm far from the first person to bring this subject up, but look at the way Larry panicked when he found out that Alex and Piper are in the same prison on Orange is the New Black. Nolan on Revenge really only seems to have sexuality at all when he's being manipulated (or doing the manipulating himself). Even the much nerd-beloved Captain Jack Harkness of Doctor Who fame only really has a stable relationship that isn't a punchline on the less famous spin off Torchwood; on Doctor Who itself his sexuality is mined mostly for his desire to flirt with everything that moves. And at every turn someone seems to be trying to define bisexual characters by the parameters of their current relationship, calling the rest of their desires and identities a lie. Calling them liars. Setting up their partners as the wronged and betrayed parties.
So yeah...forgive me if I'm not super excited for the prospect of more bisexual characters on TV. Maybe in a couple weeks Gotham or How to Get Away with Murder will surprise me. In the mean time, intentional or not, the writers have done an immense disservice to a entire population by equating an identity, a sexuality, as inherently full of untruth.
*The comics fangirl in me mourns the lost opportunity for Kate Kane, but the fan of diversity in me is so freaking happy she's telling the fangirl to shut the hell up. Plus apparently Bette's making an appearance later, so I can hope for both some Nightwing bootie and some Batwoman. Don't kill my dreams.