Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Black History Month

Right on the very last day, here’s my teensy contribution to Britain’s Black history month. (Do people have it elsewhere? No idea.) Anyway, here are two Black bisexual people that you probably haven’t heard of unless, like me, you particularly like the music of the 1920s and 30s.

So, in chronological order, here’s… Ma Rainey.

Ma – so called as her husband was Pa, and they had a double act, but whose real name was Gertrude - was born in 1886 and was one of the earliest Blues singers. Rainey, in fact, claimed that she had invented the term “Blues” – but that seems unlikely. Anyway, she appeared on stage from the age of 14, and sang the Blues right through the 20s, when she recorded 50 songs in five years.

Among my albums of the 70s, currently in storage, is one called Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues. (If only that were true. But anyway….) And one of the tracks on that amazing collection of feministy, ass-kicking (not a term I normally use, but spot-on here) music is by Ma Rainey. The most famous section goes:

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must have been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan, Talk to gals just like any old man
'Cause they say I do it, ain't nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me.
Ma Rainey, Prove It On Me

Certainly into the girls then – though what she thought of old “Pa” is not known. By me, anyway.

She retired in 1933 – six years before her premature death in 1939 – having done pretty well for herself.

You can buy an album of hers here and if you search around, there are plenty of others too.


A few of the blogs I read have signed up to Elegantly Dressed Wednesday – where bloggers post pictures of gorgeously attired individuals (not usually themselves). I certainly think Hutch qualifies.

Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, born in Grenada in 1900, spent much of his working life as a cabaret singer in the UK. After a short stay in Harlem, and a brief period in Paris, where he was Cole Porter’s lover, he came to London in 1926. Allegedly the lover of a whole loaf’s worth of the upper crust – from Edwina Mountbatten to Noel Coward – he was enormously popular with “Society” as well as “ordinary people”, singing on the radio a great deal. His voice was soft, sweet and gentle, and he tended to sing romantic ballads…. But he was “tormented” and spent his last years in poverty. What a waste.

There’s not a great deal about him on the internet - wikipedia has a “stub” – but there’s an interesting-sounding biography of him, on sale here.

His music is a bit harder to track down – he has the odd track in plenty of period dance band compilations – but here’s an album which they are practically giving away….

To find out more
Information about bi people is often hard to track down; good stuff – as distinct from racist nonsense - about Black bisexual women or men is even harder. But if you are interested in finding out more about Black British LGBT stuff, rukus promotes events and is organising an archive.
The main Black History Month site is here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Boys keep swinging

A long, long time ago (when the world was new, and the internet not even a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye) I had an experimenting- bi-curious- questioning boyfriend. He hadn’t done anything with any men at that point, but oh his books… Perhaps they could best be defined as literary gay S/M – Jean Genet, Mishima, and other writers I can’t remember. They had been read, and re-read, and read again. I read them myself, and my mind boggled. Still, I was but a young thing. Innocent, in that eager for life kind of way.
Anyway, he spent a lot of time flirting with my gay male friends. A lot. And we used to go to gay clubs with them, which was quite unusual in those days. There was one guy in particular where you could hardly breathe for the sexual tension in the air between them. After a few months, they snogged at a party – quite publically so that everyone gawped. Soon after they slept together – but after that they hardly spoke, let alone did it again. But why? Had all their sexual tension simply vanished? Or did they just feel awkward? We never really discussed it, so I just don’t know.
Times being as they were, our relationship was very ‘open’ – no one called themselves polyamorous in those days – and he spent a year or so pursuing various people.
Then, suddenly, it all stopped. As far as I know he got married, went to live in the country, and never touched a man again. He seemed to confine his same-sex feelings to the past. It wasn’t as if he was a monogamous bisexual. No, he had “turned straight”. He “didn’t know what I was talking about” when I asked him if he was still into men.
I often think about him and wonder… so was his curiosity satiated? Can you have a “been there, done that” feeling about sexuality? Perhaps you can.

An update
I’ve been wondering a lot about what I posted above, and whether I was right to do it. Was I being ethical? Had I taken someone’s life and just used it for my own purposes? Of course, there is nothing in it that would specifically identify him. The people who were at that party might remember the event as it caused a bit of a stir – after all, he was going out with a girl (me) – but other than that perhaps not even he would recognise this pen-portrait. And while everything I wrote above is true, there are lies by omission: when this was, for instance.
Lifestyle journalists are always slotting their “friends” into their stories: my friend Frances, and her difficult kids; my other friend Maureen and her career failures – but I never believe in them. They are probably the easiest but least rewarding sort of friends: fictional.
But the man above is real. Do I have the right to talk about him behind his back, as it were? Am I exploiting him? Or am I just over-reacting by thinking this is something to worry about?
I have written about him because I think his story raises interesting questions. But I wouldn’t want to hurt him in any way, Above all, he was (and probably still is) a lovely man, and I wish him well.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I’m bi and I fancy a straight girl

One of the women who found my blog recently has found herself in just such a pickle.

So should she do something about it?

No - don’t, please don’t. Although it’s fashionable to think that “all women are bi” I really don’t believe it. In any case, when they (whoever they are) say “all women are bi” they actually mean “will have some kind of same-sex under some circumstances, probably when they are paralytically drunk”. Like Jen Sincero, from A Straight Girl’s Guide to Sleeping with Chicks, who thinks that all women have sleeping with women on their “to do list”.

But if you are sexually and emotionally bisexual, not just “curious”, what you don’t want is to have your feelings trashed by someone who is not sure whether to freak out or not.

I believe that people should experiment (if they want, and as long as they take the feelings of pre-existing significant others into account) but they should always, only, experiment with someone of a similar sort of sexuality to them. So people who are basically straight, or bi-curious, should go for other basically straight or bi-curious or experimenting people. If you are positive that you are really bisexual, then go for someone who’s serious about it too.

The six pint rule
There’s this cute little axiom – all wo/men are gay after six pints, which for a woman would be practically unconscious anyway, surely – and I have met women who have said that they have had plenty of fun seducing “straight” women. Well, that depends what you mean by “straight” (see definitions of bi, above). But, if you are really attracted to someone, do you want them to freak out the next day, acting all disgusted, or start laughing at what you have done together? Mortifying.

Or – worst of all, you are a bit more sober, when you “confess” your feelings and have them say: “I can’t really deal with this right now” and run away, never to come near you again. Or treat you like an object lesson in assertiveness training (very popular in the 80s. but do they exist now?) As in: “I need to make myself clear. I am not interested in you in that way. I really need to be sure you’ve understood that.” Not good. And these are just two of the ways I have been let down ungently. Of course, this can happen whatever your sexuality but there’s nothing like going for someone who really doesn’t fancy women to make you feel crushingly in the wrong.

You might be able to persuade a straight woman to sleep with you, but you can’t make her want to do it again, or fall in love with you. If that’s all you want, then fine. But I think my respondent is more than a bit interested in her “straight girl” and isn’t just up for making a conquest.

So my personal rule of thumb is as follows. Never, ever make a move on someone who hasn’t either got a proven interest in someone the same sex as you, or has loudly and publically declared that they are seriously interested in having that experience. If you are serious about being bisexual, don’t go anywhere near someone who isn’t.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bisexuals a bit less jolly today

I don’t think it’s just my age that makes me feel decidedly underwhelmed that Angelina Jolie is perhaps, maybe, just possibly, not actively bisexual any more.
According to Nicole Kristal, on the website After Ellen, the undoubtedly pulchritudinous Ms Jolie has consigned her bisexuality to the past. And Ms Kristal is bereft.
I’m not. I’m sure I’ve written before about my ambivalent feelings towards bisexual (female) celebrities, or rather, as Kristal’s piece rightly has it The Pop-Tart Publicity Whore Bisexual. You can’t trust celebrities, “bi” or otherwise. And I’m not sure they are doing real bisexual people any favours.
Celebrities aren’t real. They have publicists who decide which bits of the person we can see, where they can go, what they can do, the public words that come out of their mouths. Including the B one. And whether or not they should be pawing other celebrities.
Of course, when you’re young, and alone, you need role models. You need people who are successfully doing what you’d like to. Obviously, in a way, celebrities are the best people to do this – after all, they are in the public eye. You can see what they’re doing. But we can’t rely on them to act consistently, or do something if their PR people tell them it might involve the loss of money/status/fill in gap here.
Angelina Jolie is a celebrity, the daughter of celebrities, the wife of another. That is her job, not being an actress, mother, goodwill ambassador for the UN or anything like that. She doesn’t operate under the same rules as the rest of the world. She lives in celebrityland, an other-worldly place built on money, whose inhabitants can do whatever they like as long as they realise that they cannot be themselves. (This, of course, exacts its price – Britney Spears, another possible bi gal, is currently paying it.)
So who knows what Jolie’s real motives are in anything at all? At the moment, she seems to exist to be a larger than life character whose current role is as the 21st century’s answer to Mia Farrow: earth mother extraordinaire. There’s not much space for bisexuality – or any sexuality – in that.

And another one

I feel a bit the same (yawnsome) about Ani DiFranco – who was interviewed in the Guardian yesterday without “bisexual” being mentioned once. Strange, when according to Jennifer Baumgardner, whose book I mentioned in a post not so long ago, Ani DiFranco was almost single-handedly responsible for the increase in young American women’s bisexuality in the mid 90s. But that can’t be true, surely? Were there no other social factors involved? Even David Bowie – who really did encourage a whole lot of young men to “try it out” – was part of a glamrock movement and a culture that was challenging how men and women dressed and behaved.
Angelina Jolie may or may not still be bisexual. The same goes for any other bi celebrity – past or present. But if we rely on them – rather than less celestial beings - to show us the way, then we really are sunk.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Shock news: men and women not from different planets

For the past three days, the Guardian has been running some very interesting excerpts here here and here from the new book by Oxford language professor Deborah Cameron.

In this book, The Myth of Mars and Venus, she is looking at how women and men do and don't communicate, and has discovered that really we are not so very different. But "men and women pretty much the same really" doesn't, as she rightly points out, sell books and get their authors on lucrative book tours and chat shows. She particularly has it in for the grand-daddy of the genre: Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, by John Gray, which I won't link to because far too many people have copies already.

There are plenty more though: for instance, the fragrant Allan and Barbara Pease "internationally renowned experts in human relations and body language" have a whole slew of books with nonsense titles like Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps. Mr Pease gained this expertise as the youngest person in Australia to sell $1m of life assurance and Mrs Pease by modelling and selling advertising. Real experts, then.

How I hate these books. With their glib little catch-phrases, their wacky cartoons, and their ability to over-simplify the most complex arguments, they are an insult to the intelligence, and it always surprises me that people who seem to have triple-figure IQs believe them. “Men want power, achievement and sex. Women want relationships, stability and love,” they say. What all of them? Always?

Not, sadly, that all of those people talking about men and women being "hard-wired" are dimwits. In the first excerpt from her book, she discusses some who aren't. But they are still mistaken - perhaps in a similar way to Simon LeVay who, when looking for the "gay brain", was mistaken not least because he knowingly and deliberately ignored the fact that some men are bisexual. His initial hypothesis - men are gay or straight - was wrong.

Cameron has a political explanation as to why so many people are keen on these differences being "natural". As she says, people have never been less at the mercy of biology, or men and women less different from each other. However, much of this simplistic writing implies that - because differences are "natural" - we'd all be happier and less frustrated if we reverted to the way things used to be.
But things in the western world have changed so much in the past 100 years: even in the past 20, which they couldn't have done if the previous way of being was wholly natural. Men and women relate differently from when I was a young woman; expectations of how we should live our lives are radically different. Anyone with any sense of history or geography knows that gender expectations vary from from place and time. But those changes that do still exist seem more stubborn.

I think people like these pat explanations because they are easy. Because they don't have to struggle with their partners, because they don't have to make any changes; they don't have to think or challenge anything. Society, in the abstract, doesn't have to transform itself to take these changes into account. We can all go round complaining and tutting about the "opposite sex" as per usual.

Personally, I have also never bought into these man = A, woman = B divisions myself - I can read maps pretty well and have lived with men who iron far more than I do. I hate spending long periods of time chatting on the phone, and I am extremely self-sufficient. No doubt, to some people, I have a male brain. How would that tie in with my interest in the domestic arts, I wonder?

But if you like women, how can you like men?

So what has this to do with bisexuality? Several things in particular. If men and women are so very very different, then other people will perhaps find it impossible that one could be sexually or romantically attracted to both. (Although of course, the difference is precisely what some people like about being bisexual!)

Of course, there is also the all women are bi, no men are bi nonsense which I have written about before. That has a societal explanation too, but again, the "we are hard-wired to X" pops up again and again.

In sexual behaviour, the idea that men and women are very different dies hard. But in my 18 years' experience of interviewing many women about sexuality, and now interviewing men too, I would say that there are far greater differences within any group of women than between men and women. Some people need lots of sex with lots of different people lots of the time. Others are more or less celibate for ever. You can say that men or women tend to do something, but that's it.

These people who simplify sexual differences are likely to have similar views on homosexuality: the Peases, for instance. Headings in their books such as “Why gays and lesbians seem obsessed with sex” give a hint of their agenda. The answer to that question, in case you needed to know, is because men are men and lesbians have higher testosterone levels, making lesbians’ sex drive higher. But is it? Is it really? How do they know - have they done tests themselves? Has anyone ever done any research? I think not. And clearly they have never heard of lesbian bed death either.
So where does bisexuality fit into their world view? Apparently, the “mating centre” in the hypothalamus decides which sex we will be attracted to. In males it needs dosing in male hormones so they will be attracted to women; if insufficient, there will be a greater or lesser (bisexuals, I presume?) attraction to other men.

Hm. Twaddle. Who do you believe - an Oxford professor of language or a salesman and model? Complicated things made not too simple. Differences not so very different after all.