Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector


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Navigating life as a Jew-bi

It’s been a busy year since I last posted around Bi Visibility Day last year, and it feels right to pause and take stock on a year of activism in the bi community and reflect on how far Bi Pride UK has come in that time, but what’s really prompting this blog post is a bizarre gut ache of FOMO and nostalgia I got a few days ago while listening to some cheesy Rosh Hashanah-themed a capella in the office while a lot of people I know were in various places, celebrating the Jewish New Year in various ways.

Hard for me to believe, but it’s been about three and a half years since the night many things came to a head and I went ‘nope’ to the Modern Orthodox Judaism in which I was raised. The tale I’ve been telling over the years is that I finally let myself explore the hidden part of my identity, and then when I found Jewish LGBT spaces through organisations like Keshet UK, I was at last able to find a way to reconcile the two sides of my identity and live as one whole self.

I call bullshit.

There are many things to be said for the Jewish side of my identity over the last three and a half years, but ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ do not feature. I’ve used this ‘Jewish’ identifier in a loose sense, but when pushed, and I mean really pushed, I’ve got no idea what that’s really meant to me. I’ve sometimes described myself as ‘historically Jewish,’ by which I’ve meant my Jewish identity derives from an appreciation of and identification with the historical context from which I come (both in terms of the formative experiences I had when I was young and in terms of my ancestors and family tree), but that doesn’t get away from the fact that the very term ‘historically’ anything puts something into the past and removes it from the present.

There are many things to be said for the Jewish side of my identity over the last three and a half years, but ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ do not feature.

So what does it mean to me to be Jewish? I’m going to set that question to the side for the moment, and explore the other side of things: my bi identity.

Looking back through my past, I can identify many very different chapters in my life with regards to my sexual and romantic orientations, and I kind of wish that it could have just carried on the way it began, but society and heteronormativity are always on hand to mess things up.

I’m pretty sure that as a young child, I had crushes on both boys and girls, but I never thought about the crushes on girls as crushes, because I didn’t realise that was possible. I can think of at least two or three girls I had some kind of stronger feelings or connection to by the time I left primary school, though.

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Anne Shirley and Diana Barry – bosom friends, whatever that means

As a child, I think my sense of what a friendship or relationship with other girls could be was heavily influenced by two Annes: Anne Shirley (of Anne of Green Gables), and Anne Frank (of the Diary). The way that these two girls interacted with their female friends was passionate, close and all-in, and that was the kind of friendships that I sought for myself, hoping to emulate the feelings that I could read in these books. I hadn’t realised how influential these two figures were on my childhood until recently, when I read various articles which explore the possibility that both Anne Shirley and Anne Frank might be or have been less straight than the world has implicitly tried to categorise them.

Now, I don’t agree with force-labelling people as bi, and I don’t think it’s right to apply a label to someone (fictional or real) that they didn’t use themselves, especially given that both narratives exist in very different contexts to the modern world and its much more public conversations about sexuality and romantic attraction beyond the heteronormative. What I cannot deny, though, is that the ways that these girls interacted with other girls (as well as with boys) is something I wanted deeply. And with a few girls, although I didn’t have the language or framework to articulate it, I wanted that all-consuming ‘we only have eyes for each other’ friendship. Looking back from where I am now, that screams ‘crush’ to me.

As I got a bit older, and puberty kicked in, there was some point at which I realised that I was fascinated with the assigned-female-at-birth body. Everyone I saw around me, though, was doing love, marriage and babies in a hetero way, or else there were people called gay or lesbian who did the opposite, and I liked boys enough to know I wasn’t one of them. This was probably the first real inkling I had that there was something else going on, but because I didn’t have the language or the framework, I concluded that I must just be a pervert, and I needed to train myself out of these feelings and urges. I tried several different things – reward, punishment, exaggerated fixation on boys – but nothing worked, and I hated myself for it.

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Bench Crew love ❤

In my mid-teens, I found a group of people who changed my life in many ways. They were the first real group of friends I’d had at school, and they accepted me for who I was, with no back-stabbing, no rumour spreading and no bullying. The fact that many of them identified as gay or bi probably helped, but that wasn’t what brought me in (because, honestly, I had a huge amount of internalised biphobia, and some of the things I said at the time about bi people in other contexts I’m still ashamed of). What it gave me, though, was the first space in which I could safely begin to explore my identity and feelings, and it gave me the confidence to start experimenting with the label ‘bi-curious,’ which was just a way for me to express something of how I’d possibly been experiencing attraction.

If the story ended here, that would be wonderful, but of course it didn’t. There were people beyond that space who teased me for my label, first and foremost the boyfriend I had at the time. It’s amazing how easy it is to let the world around you push you down and make you conform. I had a heteronormative long-term boyfriend, and I was a religious Jew, and I was headed towards the marriage and babies thing, and I was neither equipped nor prepared to entertain anything beyond that, because if I did, things would start to unravel. This was my life and I was signed up for the long haul.

It’s amazing how easy it is to let the world around you push you down and make you conform.

It took until my final year of university for anything to change again. The previous nearly 4-year relationship had ended in the summer after first year, my world had fallen apart and begun to rebuild after Mummy died in second year, and I was back in the dating game, looking for marriage as soon as possible please because I needed something which would allow me to ignore the raw ache where my mother had been and make me ‘whole’ again. It was during this period of time that some of the Jewish student activism I was doing at university lead me to work more closely with the Pride society, and that lead to reading and researching and eventually to a late-night conversation with a new friend, and finally I was there: I knew that I was bi, and that my identity was a real and valid thing, and I was ready to say so.

What I wasn’t ready to do was allow this ‘new’ identity to change my life in any way. Yes, I was bi, but that didn’t mean anything was going to change about my relationships. I was still looking for marriage, and that meant finding a man. The man I was dating at the time turned out not to be the right man (lovely as he was), but nevertheless, a woman would not fit the life-plan I had carved out for myself (heavily influenced by the religious Jewish world I had chosen to be part of), and so a man it must be, regardless of my sexuality.

My first kiss with a woman was about 6 months after I came out. I was still religious at the time, and it was very much a drunken ‘I’ve never actually kissed a woman before,’ ‘oh, ok, let’s change that’ jokey kind of situation. What it led to, though, was me spending a lot of mental energy and time trying to work out why that kiss would be considered so much worse by so many people and by some religious perspectives just because the lips belonged to someone who identified as a woman rather than as a man, and had breasts and a vagina rather than a penis. I mean, it was just a kiss, right? Why does it matter who the person is?

It was another 6 months or so before things came to a head, and the homophobia (and occasional biphobia) I was seeing in the Jewish community I’d chosen to be a part of, combined with some theological stuff I was grappling with internally, made me go ‘nope.’ Overnight I decided that it was time for me to start exploring what Judaism meant to me without external influences, and time for me to stop suppressing the part of my identity I hadn’t even acknowledged until a year beforehand. What it led to was a prolonged period of going out of my way to be and do things that I’d never been able to before, and no small measure of feeling like ‘such a rebel’ (whilst simultaneously having a little voice saying ‘if you were still religious and cared, you’d totally be in cherem [sort of the Jewish version of excommunication] right now’). In truth, most of the last three and a half years has been about actively pushing Judaism away and wanting little or nothing to do with it.

In truth, most of the last three and a half years has been about actively pushing Judaism away and wanting little or nothing to do with it.

So why am I sharing this detailed and protracted account of my coming to terms with my bi identity in this context? It’s a painful thing to write and lay out in front of people, and it’s probably pretty painful for people who know me to read as well, especially those people who might have known me in any of the different ‘stages’ of my life without knowing what was going on inside. But I think it’s essential to understanding why, when I finally worked out who I was and the context I was in wasn’t allowing me to be that person fully, I had to break free and be true to myself. For my own peace of mind. For self-honesty. For my personal safety.

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The Keshet UK banner at Pride in London 2014

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found other LGBT Jews, and even got involved a bit with that world. Using the ‘Jewish’ label for myself in that context, I’ve told myself and others that I’d found my way to be both Jewish and bi. Being intellectually and emotionally honest, though, I’ve not. I’ve found the way to be bi with a suppressed Jewishness. In the same way that when I realised I was bi, I accepted it with the caveat of ‘but I’ll only date men,’ my relationship with Judaism since leaving religious practice has been ‘I’ll use the label, but only because it’s something that’s interesting about me, not because it’s something that I make an important part of my life.’

My relationship with Judaism has had quite a lot of fluctuations over the years, as I’ve talked about a bit in other blog posts, but the potted summary is that my family gradually became more religious through my childhood, and then through Bnei Akiva, a more religious youth movement I joined in my early teens, I became more religious still. There was a fairly constant pattern of having periods of time where I would go much more religious (‘flip out’, in the community lingo) before returning to some kind of baseline which was usually slightly more observant than I’d previously been. That all changed, of course, when I made a decision to leave that life behind and focus on shucking anything that didn’t have direct significance for me. It turned out that very little of Jewish practice actually held any real, non-performative significance to me.

And now we’re back in the present. Nostalgia and FOMO about the Jews I know off doing Rosh Hashanah things. Thinking about the fact that tonight/tomorrow is Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in a way which isn’t just ‘…and I’m going to eat consciously all day knowing that it’s against what I was brought up doing.’ Planning to go to shul (synagogue) voluntarily tomorrow, even if just for Yizkor (the memorial service for dead relatives bit). So I return to the question: what does it mean to me to be Jewish?

I can think of a few answers off the top of my head. The core principles of tzedakah (charity), chesed (kindness) and living in consciousness of the needs of others are really important to me, and I try to do what I can for other people when energy allows for it. Knowing that, as a Jew, I share things with my ancestors, even across temporal and physical distance, and that there are things which are constant through me, back to my parents, their parents, their grandparents, feels enormously powerful. Hearing Hebrew being spoken or sung gives me an involuntary feeling of connection and evokes a strong emotional response in me. I love listening to the music of my Ashkenazi upbringing and Modern Orthodox/dati leumi teenage years, even if some of it is of questionable musical quality; it makes me feel things which I can’t sum up in words. And yes, I love being able to understand Jewish in-jokes and self-deprecating humour, and groan at the really awful puns!

You can be born Jewish, but actually being Jewish is a choice, and I think that’s something I might now be ready to explore and try again.

All of these things are probably valid, but I think there’s only one answer right now which really matters. What does it mean to me to be Jewish? It is choosing to identify in that way, and meaning it. Yes, I was ‘born Jewish’ because my mother was Jewish, but when I stopped practicing, I pushed away the bit where I meant what I was saying. I would tell people I was Jewish, but I would qualify that with ‘because that’s the way I was born and brought up and that’s influenced me, but I’m not really active now.’ You can be born Jewish, but actually being Jewish is a choice, and I think that’s something I might now be ready to explore and try again. I want to see what life might be like as a newbie Jew-bi.

(See what I meant by awful puns?)

When I start looking at things through this lens, I see certain parallels between my Jewish and bi identities. Yes, I was probably born bi (or at least experienced attraction beyond gender from a young age), but there’s more to my bi identity than that. There’s a world of bi culture, social groups, differences of opinions around labels (bi? bisexual? biromantic? pan? pansexual? panromantic? queer? and so on…), and, of course, so many puns. And I’ve consciously chosen to identify into all of that, even where my opinions differ to others on a variety of topics.

At the end of the day, I’m Jewish because I want to be – some bits of my young Jewishness were shit, and some bits of other people’s Jewishness were and are shitty to me and others, and I don’t really believe in the supernatural side of things, but I agree with most of the distilled ethical code (which is common to most faith and belief traditions), and the familiarity of wrapping it up in the cultural and historical things I grew up in appeals to me. In the same way, I’m bi both because that’s who I am, but also because that’s who I want to be. Some bits of the bi community are shit and I disagree with, and some bits of what other people do and say in relation to bi identities are shitty to me and others, but other parts of this life are so wonderful and nourishing. And I wouldn’t change who I am on either count for the world.

So, in honour of Rosh Hashanah and Bi Visibility Day falling one day apart this year, I have some new year resolutions based on reflecting on the different aspects of my identity and the activism I’ve been involved in over the year:

  1. I will try to remember that my identity is not performative. Being bi is not about who I’m attracted to right now, nor who’ve I’ve been attracted to in the past, it is about who I am capable of being attracted to, and that is always 100% bi. Neither is being Jewish about what other people think about or see of my Judaism, it is about me consciously identifying as Jewish and acting on that in the way that feels most appropriate to me.
  2. I will try to remember that it is ok not to have all the answers right now. I don’t need to know exactly what being Jewish or being bi looks like to me, because identity is about constant self-exploration. I don’t need to know exactly what my bi activism will look like in 5 years’ times right now, and I don’t need to know right now how I might manifest my Judaism in the future.
  3. I will strive to assume good will in others more. Most people are working towards similar goals, to make things better for people, and it’s fine to challenge people to explore whether they’re bringing everyone along with them or leaving people behind, and for me to be challenged with that same question. If my Jewish identity or my bi identity is not working to make the world better for others, then I am not doing what I should be doing.
  4. I will try to remember that I do not need to defend my life, my choices, or my actions. My life is my own to live, and as long I am doing no one harm, I will live it in my own way. It is no one else’s concern who I am dating or not dating, or what belief systems I incorporate into my life, and I do not owe anyone my time or energy to justify it.
  5. But most of all, I will strive to become a Jew-bi who is self-reflective and authentic to every element of a multi-faceted identity. For too long my Jewish and bi identities have been in conflict. It’s time to bring them back together where they belong.
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Why are we screening the ‘B’ word?

It’s been a long hiatus from this blog for a number of reasons (mostly depression-related), but hopefully I’ll be back for a bit now. And how or when better to restart it than today, by marking international Bi Visibility Day?

About two years ago, I partook of some Netflix binges – rewatching all of Buffy and powering through the whole of The L Word were just too irresistible. Although I can’t deny I hugely enjoyed both of these binges, there was something I just couldn’t get past – the way bisexuality was treated in both. They inspired me to start writing a blog about bi-erasure and biphobic tropes on screen over time, but things got in the way, and it was never finished.

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Here’s what Bi TVisibility could look like!

It’s never too late, though! So let’s begin.

[BEWARE – SPOILERS FOR MANY TV PROGRAMMES!]

The year is 1997, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has hit our screens. (I was only 6, so of course I wasn’t watching it then. But for reasons which will become clear, I feel hugely influenced by this programme, so indulge me.) We have a ground-breaking strong female lead, fighting evil and generally being awesome. And she has two best friends, one male and one female. Let’s focus on them for a second…

It’s made very clear from the start that Willow has been crushing on Xander for a long time. It’s also apparent after not long that it’s not requited. And – remember this – Willow is devastated when it’s finally drummed home.

Fortunately for her, she moves on. She moves on to… Oz. It’s very obvious that their chemistry is strong, and I don’t think the depth of her feelings for him can be denied. Their relationship only falls apart because of one small complication, him needing to take time alone to understand his werewolf identity better. Don’t you just hate it when things like that get in the way?

I highlight these two relationships of Willow’s for an important reason. (Can you see where I’m going with this?) After Oz, her feelings for Tara and, later, Kennedy (both women) are just as strong as we’ve seen her experience previously, but something seems to have changed. We hear her say on several occasions that she’s ‘gay now.’

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Look. You made Willow cry now.

Now, let’s clear something up before we go any further. Everyone, 100%, without any exception, has the complete right to decide for themselves how they are defined, in every area of self-definition, and that goes for fictional characters too. If Willow says she’s gay, then within the canon of the Buffyverse, she’s gay. What I take issue with is the fact that this was the way her characterisation was dealt with. It was Joss Whedon and his team who put those words in her mouth. This is the same Joss Whedon who, when interviewed in 2002 about why Willow has a relationship with Kennedy after Tara dies, said ‘We can’t have Willow say, ‘Oh, cured now, I can go back to cock!’ Willow is not going to be straddling that particular fence.’ What particular fence might that be? Not bisexuality, surely?

I’ve given a lot of time here to one TV programme, but there is a reason for it. I don’t remember much of Buffy from the first time watching it, because I was in my early teens, or possibly even younger, and I only ever really watched it when my older brother did. It’s a bit… adult-themed. I definitely didn’t remember the details I’ve described above. The only thing that really stood out to me was Willow with Tara – not who she was with before Tara, or after Tara. My childhood brain saw this revolutionary LBGT+ character openly calling herself gay on screen, and processed it in a way which enforced a binary framework. I honestly believe it contributed in a massive way to my own repression of my sexuality.

My childhood brain saw this revolutionary LBGT+ character openly calling herself gay on screen, and processed it in a way which enforced a binary framework.

Now I watch TV programmes with both a [mostly] conscious adult mind and an understanding of my own space within the LGBT+ community, and I notice things which upset me. There are certain patterns to how bisexuality is treated (or often isn’t treated) on screen which I find very worrying. You’ve either got the complete erasure of bisexuality as a real identity, or the use of bisexuality to portray a character negatively in some way.

So, first, programmes where a character could quite conceivably be identified as bi according to how they are portrayed on screen, but the writers shy away from ever using the ‘b’ word. We’ve already seen Willow in Buffy more than 15 years ago, but it’s still happening today. Let’s look at Orange Is The New Black, which is pretty much at modern cult status. In many ways, it deserves this. It provides a lot of social commentary about race, power and humanity (though I appreciate the concerns many people of colour have expressed around its evolution into trauma porn for white viewers, and I’m grateful to have had these lived experience analyses drawn to my attention). It even tackles trans* issues front on (again, with its own caveats).

What I (and many other people) really dislike is the programme’s presentation of bisexuality, though. Piper describes her sexuality beautifully, saying ‘I like hot girls. I like hot guys. I like hot people’, but you’d think from watching the show that the word ‘bisexual’ itself is taboo or a swearword. The word ‘bi’ is only used once, in a tone of voice which dismisses the concept, but there are no similar qualms about calling her a lesbian, an ‘ex-lesbian’, or ‘gay for the stay’, depending on the scenario and her relationship of the moment. Why does it shy from bisexuality? I’m all for fluidity and embracing a spectrum, but there are millions of people across the world who choose to use the bisexual label proudly, and who, like me, have most likely at some point felt liberated realising that there are others like them. Would it be so difficult to give them someone on screen to identify with? Someone that other people can see and use to come to accept that it’s a genuine orientation too?

Would it be so difficult to give bi people someone on screen to identify with?

Then you’ve got the programmes where the concept of bisexuality is applied to a character to highlight a particularly negative character trait or an unpleasant action of theirs. This one’s a lot more varied and subtle, and isn’t so easily spotted unless you’ve started noticing the tropes. For example, I’ve recently been watching Jane the Virgin and Orphan Black, and there’s a striking parallel between them when it comes to the use of bisexuality.

In Jane the Virgin, we meet Rose, who has a bit of a complicated life – she’s torn up about the fact that she’s sleeping with (and apparently in love with) her husband’s daughter. Yeah. When the series began, my initial reaction was, ‘oh look, another bisexual character who’s being portrayed as unfaithful, promiscuous and confused about her sexuality.’ All common tropes, by the way.

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Rose (right), with her  husband and her lover. Oy.

But it gets much worse. She turns out to be the international drug lord whom the police have been searching for throughout the first series, and a lesbian, and she only married him as a cover so she could hide an illegal plastic surgery ring changing the faces of criminals under his hotel. I know, it’s all intentionally over exaggerated, ridiculous and far-fetched, but let’s set that aside for a moment. The only character in this programme who demonstrates any form of non-binary sexuality turns out only to be doing it in order to manipulate and deceive those around her.

I could just be reading too much into it, so let’s turn to Orphan Black, a programme with three core LGBT+ characters who are each bad-ass on their own way. There’s Cosima, the super genius lesbian evolutionary development scientist who does everything lab-related to help her clone-sisters (and one clone-brother). Then there’s Felix, the gay ever-present voice of reason and mediator whenever shit starts to hit the fan.

And then we have Delphine, Cosima’s on-off girlfriend and personal monitor in the clone experiment/the eventual director of the super evil corporation which stabs all the clone-sisters in the back and other body parts on a regular basis/eventual eventual renegade fighting on behalf of the clone-sisters. (Are you following that?) And, you guessed it, she’s bisexual. When she first starts to befriend Cosima, it’s at the behest of the man who’s her boss (and apparently also the person she’s sleeping with). Cosima falls for her, so Delphine ‘does whatever it takes,’ and they become a thing – and all the while Delphine is spying on her and reporting back.

As the storyline currently stands (at the end of series four), Delphine actually seems to be in love with Cosima and helps to save her life. The overarching theme throughout the programme, though, is that Delphine is never quite to be trusted, because her loyalties switch regularly and she’s easily controlled. Now, let’s compare that back with Rose in Jane the Virgin. In both, the only character displaying non-binary sexuality (whether genuine or as a guise) is untrustworthy, manipulative and dangerous.

It’s a recurring theme in popular culture that bisexual characters are not to be relied upon as they will ultimately hurt others because of their sexual or romantic expression.

To give benefit of the doubt, I’m sure that neither was consciously written in this way, nor can they be held responsible for the biphobia which pervades much of society. It’s a recurring theme in popular culture, however, that bisexual characters are not to be relied upon as they will ultimately hurt others because of their sexual or romantic expression. And I don’t think the writers of either programme followed that particular trope by accident.

Now, to come full circle, we have The L Word, that wonderful exploration of (mostly) female sexuality that is compulsory viewing for all queer women. If I sound sarcastic, maybe I am a little. It takes the prize with both of the trends described above.

Set, as it is, around the lives of a group of mostly queer women, you might hope it would be interested in unpacking some of the nuances of sexuality beyond the straight-gay binary. Instead, the writers just don’t seem willing to explore any of the bi presenting characters in any kind of positive, affirming way.

Where the first series kicks off, we meet Alice, who self-identifies as bisexual, Tina, who has been with Bette for many years but dated men previously, and Jenny, who has just moved in with her boyfriend. Jenny begins to explore her sexuality through an affair with a woman, ultimately breaking up with her boyfriend, while Tina and Bette clearly have a troubled relationship, which eventually falls apart.

In the third series, we also meet Moira, who begins transitioning to Max within the same series. He is seen in relationships with both men and women, but no one talks much about this sexuality because the focus is on his gender. I’m not going to explore his character in any more depth, because I lack the lived experience to capture the complexity of his gender or sexual identity, but it seems to me that here is another potentially bi character whose sexuality is erased.

What troubles me as the characters and stories develop is firstly what is said within the script to rubbish bisexuality, and secondly the social status of these characters within their universe.

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It’s an individual’s choice how they identify, but really, The L Word writers – is it so hard to write Tina as bi?

Towards the beginning, both Jenny and Alice identify as bisexual. It seemed positive in the pilot episode that when one of Alice’s friends asks when she’s going to choose between ‘dick and pussy,’ she responds quickly to this biphobic question. What’s disappointing, then, is how she and Jenny develop over the course of six seasons. Not only do both come to vocally identify as lesbians, but they are also responsible for making some achingly familiar biphobic comments about and to Tina when she dates a man, Henry, after breaking up with Bette. Upon seeing Tina dressed up for a date with Henry, Alice makes a ‘joke’ about now understanding that bisexuality is ‘gross.’  One particularly unpleasant scene in the following series sees Tina being excluded from a basketball team composed of her friends because of it; Jenny accuses her of ‘enjoying all the heterosexual privileges’ because she has a boyfriend, and says that Tina can no longer be part of their group. Interestingly, though, Tina insists that she is ‘still a lesbian’. As in Buffy, if that’s how she identifies, then we must accept her self-definition, but why could the writers not consider letting her use the ‘B’ word instead? And why do the writers stop challenging biphobia within the dialogue as they have Alice do in the pilot?

This scene with Tina takes me smoothly to the second point – how the characters displaying non-binary traits are seen within the social group and portrayed to the audience. While Tina is dating a man, she is almost completely shunned by her social group because they see her as betraying the lesbian world. The implication that she is only doing it in order to spite Bette would barely even count as subtext. Yet another instance of bisexuality being used as a tool to portray duplicity in a character. When it comes to the social statuses of Jenny and Alice, I think the writing is more subtle, but both demonstrate the use of tired tropes too. Both are depicted as unstable, suffering from severe mental illness explicitly linked to their conflicted sexual identity, and neither really receives the support they need from those around them when they are at their worst. I doubt it’s any coincidence that the chronology of both of their storylines place their new lesbian identities as things acquired after the lack of support they receive from their friends.

So, there we go. According to The L Word, bisexuality is merely a stepping stone to homosexuality, and it implies that people who identify as or act bisexual haven’t yet earned their place in the queer world. The programme deftly manages simultaneously to erase and attack the bisexual identity.

I suppose we shouldn’t be all that surprised, though – bi-erasure is right there in the programme’s name.

This lengthy overview of bisexuality on screen is by no means comprehensive, and there are other excellent blogs examining the issue. There are plenty of other programmes I could have brought in, from Queer as Folk to Glee, but I wanted to limit myself. (And, also, Kurt’s ‘bisexual is a lie gay guys tell in high school to hold hands with girls in the corridor so they can feel normal for a change’ line makes me too angry for coherent sentences.) I think it’s important to note, though, that all of the programmes I’ve looked at are pretty progressive in many ways, exploring issues like sexuality, gender non-conformity, race, minority communities and power, and would all score relatively well on the Bechdel test. So why are they still falling so short on bisexuality?

The more it’s seen, the more it becomes normalised in society.

Now, I’m sure there’ll be people who think ‘so what if you don’t get the token positive bisexual character you want in TV? It’s not like it reflects real life or anything.’ But that’s just it. It should, and it needs to. It’s not all that long ago that queer culture and identities started to be represented on screen in the first place, even though they’ve always been there. Now it’s becoming more common, and more accepted, to see same sex couples on mainstream TV or in films, which is fantastic. The more it’s seen, the more it becomes normalised in society. Being gay is far more accepted today in Western countries than it was not all that long ago, and I have no doubt that pop culture helps with that, because the law rarely leaves the ivory towers. It’s time for bisexuality to get that same recognition and acceptance, in both the straight and queer worlds.

For me, the real question is this. Would the on-screen depictions of bisexuality in TV programmes today be sufficiently visible and positive to allow a child version of myself to build a framework of sexuality which included bisexuality as equally valid? Sadly, I think the answer is a resounding no, and until the answer is ‘yes,’ I will keep pushing for our bi voices to be heard and our bi faces to be seen.

If you have any comments, and particularly any recommendations for TV programmes in which bi characters are given a decent treatment, I’d BI very glad to read them below!


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The Fault Is In Our Stars

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, SEXUAL ABUSE, CHILD ABUSE, PAEDOPHILIA, COURT PROCEEDINGS

Why is it that some difficulties people experience get them instant sympathy, and others they find themselves blamed for?

If you are unfortunate enough to suffer from mental illness, whatever form that takes, you will probably be aware of the stigma that comes with it. It took me several years, two ended relationships, and ultimately making concrete plans to kill myself on the second anniversary of my mum’s death before I accepted that I needed to get some help, and so many people I’ve spoken to have experienced similar reluctance to seek some kind of treatment.

It took me several years, two ended relationships, and ultimately making concrete plans to kill myself on the second anniversary of my mum’s death before I accepted that I needed to get some help.

Why do we refuse to seek help? If I have an infection which isn’t shifting after letting my body fight it for a few days, the pain wins out and I go to the doctor. If someone’s tooth is hurting when they chew, they take a trip to the dentist and generally accept whatever treatment they’re told is needed. For some reason, though, when it was my emotions which ‘hurt’, I resisted the help which was there waiting for me – even though my usually pretty high pain threshold had given way to pain so extreme that I wanted to escape life itself. It was pain of a very different sort, for sure, but pain nevertheless.

I decided recently, after a bit of consideration, to be very open with my Charityworks cohort, mostly because I knew that if any group of people would be understanding, it would be them. I had been starting to experience symptoms of depression returning, so rather than going out to a club with them over the weekend a few weeks ago, I made my excuses: I need to take more care of my mental health at the moment to avoid my depression taking hold again. Had I had the ‘flu, I wouldn’t have thought twice about stating that as my reason for not joining them, but because it was a reference to my mental health, it felt somehow more vulnerable to admit to my ‘weakness’.

Mental illness is seen by many as just that: a sign of weakness. Society says that if something is wrong with your emotions or your mind, there’s nothing truly wrong with you; you just need to buckle up and get on with life, and stop seeking attention. It’s not a ‘real’ illness with pathogens and bacteria and stuff.

They all look happy and healthy, but it's statisically likely that one of them is suffering from some kind of mental illness.

They all look happy and healthy, but it’s statistically likely that one of them is suffering from some kind of mental illness.

The statistics are scary, though. According to research published by the Mental Health Foundation in 2007, one in four British adults will suffer a mental health problem in any given year – that’s 25%, a quarter – and between 8% and 12% of the British population (of any age) suffers from depression, the most common form of mental illness, in any year. Clearly, this is not a rare thing, and there is very little chance that you do not know a single person suffering from a mental illness, whether it is diagnosed or undiagnosed.

Let’s compare this with cancer, another illness ‘close to my heart’ (in a manner of speaking). It’s a fair comparison, I think, because in the same way that there are many different types of mental illness grouped together within that overarching category, there are hundreds of ways that cancer can present itself. According to the Cancer Research UK website, there were more than 331,000 cancer diagnoses in 2011 in the UK, and that obviously doesn’t include the people already living with (or dying from) cancer at any given time. Of different types of cancers, ‘breast, lung, prostate and bowel cancers together account for over half of all new cancers each year’, which means that, between them, this big four hit approximately 165,500 people afresh in 2011. These figures are far lower than those of mental illness, and yet we hear much more about cancer than we do about mental illness.

Meet the Smith family. They’re having a bad year this year. Aunt Bertha was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Last time they all met up for a family meal, much of the talk was about how Aunt Bertha’s breast cancer treatment is going. Poor Aunt Bertha. What hasn’t been mentioned is Aunt Maude’s ‘episode’. Aunt Maude has bipolar disorder; after struggling for a long time, though, she has just braved the trip to her GP, and has started medication and talking therapy. She’s feeling a bit better now; thanks for asking.

If you get cancer, it’s the natural world ganging up against you; if you get a mental illness, it’s your own mind ganging up on you, and you just need to be more firm with it.

OK, that’s a bit of a sarcastic rant, and cancer is certainly not dinner conversation for everyone, but there is much less stigma attached to it nowadays than there is to mental illness. Why? The common attitude, going back to the point earlier about the latter being seen as a sign of weakness, seems to me to be that cancer is seen as an evil, physical force acting against your body, and there’s no way that you personally could have dissuaded the tumour from growing once the cells decided to mutate, but mental illness is a state of mind, and therefore you could prevent it in the same way that you can stop yourself thinking about sex at a funeral or death at a wedding. If you get cancer, it’s the natural world ganging up against you; if you get a mental illness, it’s your own mind (i.e. yourself) ganging up on you, and you just need to be more firm with it.

It occurred to me, pondering on all of this, that mental illness isn’t the only situation where society commonly views misfortune as being at least in part the fault of the person suffering it, though. Another example is that of sexual abuse and rape. All too often, victims of sexual abuse (usually women, but not always) are seen in some way to be complicit in their own abuse, whether that is because of what they were wearing, where they were walking, what they had been drinking, to whom they had been speaking, or a plethora of other terribly incriminating factors. Part of me is incredulous when I hear comments like these being made, and another part of me is insulted and sickened.

When I was nine years old, my parents’ famous hospitality was called upon. A friend of a friend needed somewhere to stay for a Jewish festival, and we had a spare bedroom in our house, so the man was welcomed as a guest and made to feel at home. He decided to make himself too much at home, and spent an afternoon in my bedroom. As an affectionate and slightly irritating nine year old, I was just glad of the fact that someone was willing to play the board game with which the rest of my family was fed up. I did not understand the significance of the other games he wanted to play, and it wasn’t until a family friend walked in that anyone knew what was happening.

'Probation for assault on nine-year-old' headline on front page of national Jewish newspaper

When you dream as a child of being on the front page of a newspaper, a reason like this isn’t really at the front of your mind.

Fast forward a year or so, and we’re at the court case. Apparently it doesn’t happen with child witnesses any more, but I was called to give evidence by video link in front of the jury, including being cross-examined by the defence barrister. Thankfully, I don’t remember huge amounts of the experience in detail, but I do remember very clearly being lead through a series of questions which resulted in the defence informing the jury that I had just demonstrated that I had pestered the man to come my room to play a board game and therefore it was not his fault. What’s more, I had apparently shown ‘some affection’ for him, which is clearly the same thing as offering consent.

Apparently that was a strong enough defence for the jury, given that he was found not guilty of two counts of indecent assault on a minor. That, despite the fact that he was being treated for known paedophilic tendencies, and was found guilty in the same trial for having dozens of indecent images of young girls on his home PC. It certainly seems like a lot of circumstantial evidence to me, but because a trained barrister was able to ask questions which lead to the nine year old victim affirming that playing a board game in a bedroom was her suggestion, enough blame was foisted on to the victim to allow the perpetrator to walk free, and for that victim to believe still that she was somehow at fault until well into her twenties.

Poor man, led astray to paedophilia by a seductive nine year old.

Poor man, led astray to paedophilia by a seductive nine year old. Let’s just pause to think for a moment about the ostracism that he’ll suffer as a result of the trial. (And yes, that was also an argument used.) The girl’s recurring nightmares are nothing compared to that, and there was clearly no loss of innocence as a result on her part, because she was already a slut. Nine year old slut.

(As it happens, the same man has since completed at least one short prison sentences for another, more recent, instance of having indecent images of young girls on his computer, and my mother once told me that she’d been inundated with phone calls, emails and letters from other parents who said he’d abused their own child but there hadn’t been enough evidence to take it to court. One woman apparently even contacted her from Australia, where the family had relocated to in order to make a fresh start. I don’t know of his current whereabouts, and half hope that the Grim Reaper has paid a visit; the last time I heard, though, he’d been shunned from several synagogues but was still lecturing to undergraduates at Oxford University.)

There is something terribly, terribly wrong with a culture in which anyone other than the instigator of sexual abuse is seen as being in any way responsible. Whatever the circumstances, a person’s body remains theirs and theirs alone, and however they present it to the outside world, this is not changed. If that body is walking down a street alone at night, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. If that body is wearing a revealing or tightfitting outfit, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. If that body has consumed more alcohol than it has a tolerance to, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. It may be unwise to do these things, but from the perspective of ‘protecting oneself from sexual assault’, the protection is only needed because there are other people who feel incorrectly entitled to those bodies. The only person responsible for sexually assaulting someone is the person who does the sexual assaulting; there is no justification for reducing an adult male’s responsibility for sexual assault simply because the body he assaulted belonged to a young girl who had permitted him to enter her bedroom (for whatever purpose). What does that young girl even know about the more nefarious activities that could take place?

The only person responsible for sexually assaulting someone is the person who does the sexual assaulting.

So why does society seem to have this penchant for feeling that some people are responsible for personal suffering over which they have no control? Before I try to answer that, I want to bring one more example forward for consideration.

An individual’s sexuality and their gender identity are two of the most personal things that could possibly be discussed. Non-tangible as they are, almost by definition it is impossible to discuss or measure them in an empirical manner, although there are plenty of scientific, psychological and sociological studies into gender/sexual self-identification and outward presentation. We certainly do not yet seem to understand why some people are attracted to the same gender, other people feel innately that they have been born with the wrong sex, and yet others cannot associate themselves with either pole of the gender binary. All we can do is accept that this is the case and try our very hardest to empathise with these individuals, even though they go against every human urge to categorise and classify the world in which we live.

There are many people, however, who go to great lengths to argue that these identities are actually chosen by the individual. The argument generally goes that humans are assigned their gender based on their sexual organs at birth and are by nature attracted to the opposite sex – generally, but not always, based on a religious foundation of ‘God created you as a woman, and so you are a woman’ and ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’, respectively. Some form of depravity or penchant for attention seeking, though, makes certain people choose to get down and dirty with people of the same sex or claim to be a different gender. If it is chosen, then, they say, these individuals could re-choose if they so wished, and therapy or external pressure might be able to make them do just that.

Does he? Really? So don't smoke.

Does he? Really? So don’t smoke.

It is often these same people who hold negative opinions towards trans or non-heterosexual individuals. Attitudes range from the religious (‘it’s against God’s will’) to the biological (‘it’s unnatural because it doesn’t allow for reproduction’), from the psychological (‘it’s an expression of formative experiences in childhood’) to the sociological (‘it’s just a reflection of the crowd you fell in with’), with a special mention for the downright intolerant (‘it’s disgusting and I don’t like it’). That last one’s my favourite. What seems to be a common trend, though, is the development of these attitudes:

1)      being that way is a choice;

2)      that particular choice is one which the bigot would not make;

3)      that particular choice is wrong, because the bigot would not have made it;

4)      the subject of bigotry should not have made the wrong choice;

5)      the person deserves to be condemned and punished, because they chose to do something wrong.

I’m not going to expend my energies picking apart the fallacies in this argument, because there are just too many ‘is to ought’s and assumptions that subjectivity can be converted into objectivity. I also willingly admit that my use of the words ‘bigot’ and ‘bigotry’ demonstrates a bias on my part. Nevertheless. What I do see is that, with very little adaptation, this same argument seems to be used in the two examples of victim-blaming I looked at earlier (mental illness and sexual abuse).

What we see in victim-blaming is that it is often easier just to deny honest expressions of pain and reflect them back towards the sufferer.

Why is it, then, that these individuals who experience or have experienced so much suffering continue to be blamed for that very suffering? I don’t know if I have a complete answer, because this really bewilders me. All I can think to say is that it comes down to a fear of that which is different or unknown. People who have not personally experienced a particularly challenging scenario, whether that is suffering from mental ill health, having one’s autonomy over one’s own body violated, or experiencing discrimination based on their non-normative sexual or gender identity, cannot truly understand the pain involved. If those people are unable to exercise even a degree of empathy, it is often easier just to deny honest expressions of pain and reflect them back towards the sufferer. I think, perhaps, that this is what we see in victim-blaming.

I look forward to the day when we are so good at recognising people passing unfair judgements that we can call it out when we see it in others and in ourselves. Maybe, one day, we can put a stop to society’s tendency to pour salt on the wounds of those whose stars simply conspired against them.

Afterword:

I am not, in any sense, saying that having a non-heterosexual identity is a form of suffering, nor that it is comparable to sexual abuse or mental illness, because one is not a ‘victim’ of gayness or any other form of non-normativity. The thing of which one is a victim is the discrimination based on this at the hands of the intolerant, and the thing for which they are blamed is the fact that they ‘choose’ to experience that discrimination because they have ‘chosen’ to be the way they are.


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Let It Go?

It’s funny how some distance can make everything seem small…

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog post. My ‘blog post ideas’ Word document has been accumulating ideas, but time has not been on my side. At the same time, though, it’s been difficult to write in the interim period, because I feel like I’m both barely the person I was two months ago and even more the person I was two months ago – and now really myself. I’ll try to explain.

When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Yesterday, I turned 23. When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. On my 18th birthday, I was taking my French A Level oral exam (which I failed!). My mother was in remission and waiting a couple of years for an all clear, and was completely healthy with it. My boyfriend of a year and a half and I were going strong, and despite some ups and downs were looking forward to spending our gap year together. My RSI was bad, but not as bad as it had been and the medication was keeping it mostly under control, so I could function normally without too much pain. I was relatively comfortable with my religiosity and my faith, a few gripes notwithstanding. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Today I am 23. I am fortunate enough to have finished university with a first class degree, to have a good job which I secured within a few months of finishing university, and to have my RSI relatively under control without the aid of medication. To that extent, things are probably as I would have hoped to see them through the lens of five years ago. Other than that, though, I doubt much of my life today is how I’d have expected it to turn out.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

My mother’s been gone two and a half years now, and I still miss her as much every day as I did on that first morning that the sun rose without her. Yesterday, she would have turned 57 – we’d have a collective age of 80 now! – but instead she’s in Bushey cemetery and I’m still putting the pieces of my life back together, rather inexpertly. The boyfriend and I broke up nearly three years ago, after just about making it through our gap year and then being on and off in our first year of university. My low moods, which were always a difficulty between us, have now crystallised into clinical depression, and his jokes that I was almost as interested in the women around me as I was in him are no longer jokes, because I proudly came out as bisexual a year ago. And my religion? Well, that’s been a constant seesaw ever since the very first week of my gap year, and the last two months have been no exception.

I had never been all that bothered about the role of women in Orthodox Judaism while I was growing up (as I explored in a post a few months ago), and I was happy to be religious in a normative way – or, at least, to been seen to be like that outwardly. Then I got to Israel for my gap year. A couple of days after arriving was a Friday, so it was my first Sabbath spent in the country, and we decided that the only thing we could even contemplate doing was to go to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for the Friday night services. That’s what we did. To pray with a few thousand other Jews at the holiest site in Judaism should have been inspiring, incredible. I was even lucky enough to get a spot right up against the Wall, at the furthest left of the women’s section (so right up against the barrier between the men’s and women’s sections). Despite that, though, and despite the fact there were probably enough men there to have maybe 200, maybe 300 minyanim (the requirement of ten men for certain parts of the liturgy), I was nevertheless unable to hear any of the men who were leading the prayer, and so I was left praying the service to myself. I found that pretty upsetting – surrounded by thousands with the same intentions as me and yet still very much alone, just because I was a woman and couldn’t position myself near a man leading the prayers for me. The following day, we went to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where there was a communal seuda shlishit (‘third meal’, the meal between the afternoon and evening services on the Sabbath), and I sat between the other two guys I was with; a few minutes into the meal, though, the rabbi bustled over and told me that I needed either to leave or to sit by myself at a table in the corner – facing the wall! – because women weren’t allowed to share the same table as men. The three of us promptly walked out.

Those experiences really shook my commitment to my faith, although not to my practice. However much I questioned the point of being religious, I always found that I couldn’t just drop the practice side of Judaism. I’m not sure whether that was because it was too habitual, a personal comfort, or an image that I felt I needed to maintain. Many people I’ve spoken to recently about similar issues (more on that later) have emphasised that the nature of Judaism is that you can keep up the practices without necessarily having the faith supporting them while you wait to see if the faith comes back, but I’m not sure if I’m convinced, because what is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

What is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

However much my faith seesawed, I do know that in the months running up and following my mother’s death, my faith was complete. By that point, my personal theology of prayer had developed such that I couldn’t accept petitionary prayer as a valid activity, so I rarely prayed earnestly for her to get better once we knew the cancer was terminal and wasn’t going anywhere; my prayer tended to focus on her being as pain-free and comfortable as possible, and right at the end all I was praying for over and over again was for her to go peacefully. Well, that prayer seemed to be answered, because rather than spending her final moments in extreme suffering from the various factors combined against her, she just took one last breath and was gone. I believed that the fact that she died on the seventh day of Channukah and was buried on the eighth day was religiously significant: the story of Channukah is about the oil burning for longer than anyone expected (like she outlasted her diagnosis); and the eighth of anything is the mystical beyond the holiness of the seventh, so she died on a numerically holy day and was buried and send to her eternal rest on a numerically extra-worldly day. I got enormous comfort from saying the mourners’ prayer three times a day (though whether that was a religious comfort or comfort from being able to say publicly, ‘I’m mourning and it’s OK for me to be doing so’, I’m not sure). It all really meant something to me back then.

I’m not sure where to go with my story now, to be honest. There’s a year and a half or so of internal struggle that I could talk about, but that probably all makes more sense in the light of recent events, and my sexuality in particular.

I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction [between my religious beliefs and commitments and my sexuality].

When I first came out, more than a few people asked me how I reconciled that side of my life with my religious beliefs and commitments, and I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction. A few very encouraging things I’d read and been told about Orthodoxy and its potential openness to non-heterosexuality in the weeks and months before I finally decided to come clean had convinced me that I could be who I was and still be who I’d always been. Once I found myself out of the heterosexual privilege position, though, I started to see things that I’d never noticed before. For example, the laws of modesty (tzniut) require you to be fully clothed in front of people of the opposite sex – let’s not get into gender/sex here, because it gets even more messy – but the jury seems to be out on what an homosexual or bisexual individual should be doing. Is a women’s only swimming pool really the right place for a lesbian or bisexual woman from a modesty perspective? Over time, then, cracks began to appear in my convictions…

The same-sex marriage debate is a whole other thing, and that’s really the core of this post, I think, or at least the catalyst. I’ve already written in a previous post about my views about same-sex marriage; rather, I wrote about my views as they were two months ago. Watching the concept being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. My faith in God was already questionable, and I will explain that further in a blog post soon to come, but when I saw the way that discussions of non-heterosexual rights were simply descending into thinly veiled homophobia and biphobia (in the sense of a complete lack of understanding rather than actual hatred), my eyes snapped open.

Watching [same-sex marirage] being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’.

Being bisexual is great. Twice as many possibilities. Twice as many pieces of attractive eyecandy. A complete lack of concern for gender identity in potential romantic interests. It’s more than that for me, though. Discovering myself and coming out has made me so much more at peace with myself, and I can know that even as other things confuse me, at least one thing now makes much more sense. It gives me peace, self-confidence, self-assurance, and happiness. By the end of these discussions, though, I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’, because my skin is not thick enough to deal with people lumping my attraction to women with other ‘immoral’ sexual activities – physical urges which are not wrong in themselves but which should be suppressed for the sake of religion. And that made me realise that, frankly, if it was going to come down to a choice between expressing my true sexuality, a piece of self-knowledge which has made me so much more at ease with myself, and following my religion, which I can’t remember ever making me feel genuinely happy in and of itself, there is no contest.

Sometime's it's OK to let it go.

Sometime’s it’s OK to let it go.

The song Let It Go from the Disney film Frozen has become a bit of a phenomenon; I’m tempted even to call it an anthem. The sentiments the lyrics express can be used in an almost limitless range of situations, because what it champions is the idea that it is possible to break free from the restrictive bonds you’ve formerly been held back by, and that when that happens, you can reinvent yourself to be the person you’ve always wanted or needed to be – or felt that you already were. Breaking away from controlling parents or an abusive childhood (as is the case in the film). Slowly making your way out of the personal shackles of a mental illness. Getting out of an unhealthy relationship. Accepting your sexuality and coming out. Or maybe leaving behind a religious tradition that suffused every aspect of life while you were growing up but is no longer the positive inspiration it could be?

I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be.

I have a long journey ahead of me, and I don’t know where it will lead me. Maybe back to Judaism and Jewish faith. Maybe to another religion. Maybe away from religion entirely. Whatever happens, though, I’m going to try to bear the ideas behind Let It Go in mind. Ultimately, I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be, and if that means that perhaps Judaism is not conducive to that for me, it is OK to ‘let it go’.


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What equals marriage?

Yesterday, I went to the wedding of a good friend, and I’m so happy for her and her new husband. What’s just as exciting is that, this weekend just gone, there have been same-sex couples able to enter the same form of partnership across England and Wales.

 This weekend there became one definition of marriage: love, irrespective of gender. 

 Far from introducing a second definition of marriage into British law, this weekend there became one definition of marriage: love, irrespective of gender. And that is beyond awesome. The law in England and Wales (and soon Scotland) now recognises same-sex marriage and same-sex partners’ right to marry the person they love. Not all religions or religious denominations are offering the same opportunities, but I personally don’t have too much of an issue with that. As long as a religion isn’t being a douchebag to same-sex couples and is recognising their right to love whomsoever they choose, I’m happy to say to a religious community, ‘OK, a religious marriage of two people of the same sex isn’t something your principles can accommodate for, so don’t do it, but play nice, please’.

In recent days and weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my own attitude to same-sex marriage. I don’t mean my attitude to whether it should be possible, because on that front, I’m 100% for it. No, I’m talking about for myself. As a bisexual, I now know that whoever I ultimately fall in love with, whatever their gender or sex, I can marry them. In the law, at least. As a practicing Jew, though, I have to put myself within the Modern Orthodox label when I want to be ‘establishment,’ because it’s the closest denomination to my beliefs and practices; Modern Orthodoxy says that I cannot have a marriage with a woman under religious auspices, and I’m not sure that I would want to change that.

 Modern Orthodoxy says that I cannot have a marriage with a woman under religious auspices, and I’m not sure that I would want to change that.

 Now, this raises some interesting and slightly unsettling questions for me. Do I recognise a secular marriage as a valid marriage, or would I only be properly married if it was under a chuppah (marriage canopy)? Is the answer to the previous question applicable in equal measure whether my partner is male or female, or would I recognise a secular marriage to a woman but only a religious marriage to a man? Do I want to marry a woman if I can’t marry her ‘fully’ in the eyes of my religious denomination? Do I even want to ultimately end up with a woman if I can’t have the religious, Jewish, heteronormative lifestyle of chuppah and babies? As someone attracted to both men and women, is that even something I can actively choose (by only dating men, for example), or do I just have to see what happens and cross that bridge if the road leads to it?

Could this really respresent a marriage for me personally if both rings were worn by women?

Could this really respresent a marriage for me personally if both rings were worn by women?

I think that ultimately I want an Orthodox wedding, because I’ve grown up with a strong sense that a registry office ceremony is only a part of a wedding for me, and unless I involve the traditional aspects of a Jewish wedding, performed in an Orthodox manner, it won’t feel like I’m as married as I could be. For myself, as for many, marriage is more than the legal status of the two partners; it’s about commitment and love, and my Judaism is inextricable from that, so I will need both aspects. And that means a heterosexual marriage, which means trying to have only heterosexual relationships in the hope of meeting the man I want to marry.

You’re probably seeing the massive problem there. However firm my resolve, I can’t guarantee that I won’t meet and fall in love with a woman, because human emotions just don’t work that way. So, should that happen, will I get married to her through civil law and live with her as wife and wife? Will I marry her under a different denomination of Judaism which allows same-sex weddings so that I can have a Jewish wedding and feel like my marriage is authentic? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to know what I would do in that hypothetical situation, and honestly I hope that I never have to make the decision. I guess I’m back to the best course of action being heteronormativity.

I’ve just finished watching a series called Queer as Folk, written and aired about 15 years ago on Channel 4, which (as the name might suggest) is about the gay community contemporary to the time of its airing. It was actually written by Russell T. Davies, a gay man who spent a lot of time in the Canal Street area of Manchester, where the TV series is itself based. My feelings about the series are pretty mixed. On the one hand, I applaud Channel 4’s willingness to explore issues like homophobia and acceptance through a lense of experiences common to everyone regardless of their sexuality: the characters deal with things like the responsibility of parenthood, the death of a friend, financial troubles and unrequited love, and their responses are for the most part realistic. On the other hand, homosexuality is always laid on heavily as a motif, and the specifics of the scenarios are almost always such that you could not replace the characters with heterosexual ones without changing the details dramatically, generally because of a heavily homophobic attitude from another character. As such, it really manages to portray the basic inequality surrounding sexuality, and perhaps highlights the fact that prejudice has been engrained so deeply within society that it has the potential to taint every aspect of life for non-heterosexuals.

 Prejudice has been engrained so deeply within society that it has the potential to taint every aspect of life for non-heterosexuals.

 There was a lot in the 10 episodes which I found deeply upsetting, and I sincerely hope that society has progressed in the 15 years since it was written. Obviously, one major development we’ve now had is the opening up of the institution of marriage to same-sex couples, and there was an exchange between two characters which stood out particularly to me in relation to that…

Stuart and Vince have been friends for 16 years, since the time that they were both exploring their sexuality in secondary school, but they are very different in personality. Stuart is the self-assured, confident, man’s man, always seeking the next one-night-stand and caring nothing for social niceties or the feelings of others, while Vince is the quiet, sensitive, ‘sidekick’ type who is a little bit geeky and always gets overlooked for the more in-your-face Stuart. After Vince has been treated particularly badly by Stuart (and has forgiven him without being asked), the atmosphere between them is a little tense, and a conversation in which Vince expresses disinterest in participating in a threesome ends with Stuart saying to dismissively that Vince ‘just wants a wife’. At a later point, in the heat of an argument completely unrelated to relationships or sex, Stuart shouts at Vince, ‘you’re just a straight man who fucks men’.

The Pride flag, an international symbol of the LGBT+ community and its quest for equality.

The Pride flag, an international symbol of the LGBT+ community and its quest for equality.

Now, I had to spend a while reflecting on exactly what all of this signified, and what it said on a deeper level about societal and stereotypical perceptions within both heterosexual and homosexual communities. To me, the second comment seems to use ‘straight man’ as an insult in just the same way that ‘gay’ is used by many homophobes as an insult, in this case perhaps to mean ‘conformist’ or ‘boring.’ By adding in the ‘who fucks men’, Stuart is basically saying to Vince that the latter tries too hard to fit in with the community he wants to be a part of, but is inherently out of place because he has a radically different worldview. In reality, this difference is almost certainly much more due to the two characters being so radically different themselves than to Vince not fitting in, but that’s not present in the sentiment that Stuart expresses. (To be honest, thought, I actually feel a little uncomfortable that the series stereotypes the gay community as constantly going out on the pull. There are people with that pattern of activity in the gay community, for sure, just as there are in the straight community, but all three of the main characters in Queer as Folk are portrayed that way, and I find that unhelpful.)

The ‘just wants a wife’ comment is particularly interesting, because I think that it gives a strong insight into what marriage inequality can do to the community which is denied the institution of marriage. To Stuart, the serial one-night-stander, wanting to settle down with a single partner is something completely incomprehensible, but rather than framing his insult in that manner, he speaks of Vince as someone who wants to be able to have a marriage – which, in a setting of marriage inequality, requires the partner to be female. If this script were to be written today, it would probably lack the same strength, because heterosexuality is no longer the only way to be settled and married. Using the same phrasing would carry a very different meaning, and I can’t but wonder whether it would be phrased instead much more along the lines of ‘just wants to be the boring married man’ (or something more snappy!). Either way, I feel this shows that discontent about not having equal marriage rights has permeated into more than just the soapbox realm.

 Perpetuating marriage inequality has damaged society in a way which has affected almost everyone’s worldviews, whatever their sexuality, and in a way which is going to take a long time to repair.

 There have been a lot of arguments put forward against same-sex marriage, but I think that perpetuating marriage inequality has damaged society in a way which has affected almost everyone’s worldviews, whatever their sexuality, and in a way which is going to take a long time to repair. The fact that Stuart was able to use not being able to marry as a an excuse to call his friend’s sexuality into question, and the fact that even now I’m not sure if I would personally consider marrying a woman to be as valid a marriage as marrying a man, suggests to me that we have a long way to go yet before equality is more than just on paper. What is quite exciting, though, is that England and Wales (and soon Scotland) will now have a generation of children growing up who have never known a society in which same-sex marriage was ever prohibited. Maybe the future isn’t so bad.


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There are no words…

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

…so herein I try to articulate my speechlessness.

A few days ago, I went to the cinema to see a 2hr15 film, and was quite unsure about whether my attention-span (severely diminished by depression) would be able to deal with the whole of it, but I really wanted to see the film, so I took the risk. That film was 12 Years a Slave, and I didn’t notice the hours pass.

It’s taken me quite a while to get to the point at which I have collected my thoughts enough to be able to pull together anything coherent. My initial reaction when the credits rolled was to sit there immobile, just blinking rapidly, and it took a while for my sentence construction to improve beyond ‘that was… I just… I mean… Wow.’ Even attempting to write this blog post is taking all the concentration I can muster, because I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

My starting point, I guess, is the initial reaction of the person I went to see the film with. To paraphrase, it was something along the following lines: ‘The film told me that black people were enslaved by white people, and white people treated them horrifically. But I thought I already knew that, so if that’s it, what’s new?’ To be sure, that does seem to be the basic gist of the film, and several more public reactions and reviews have this idea at their outset. Take Orville Lloyd Douglas’ opinion piece in The Guardian, for example. In his eyes, whatever your race, the film is ‘unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know’; instead, it seems to be intended to ‘engender white guilt’ (which it certainly did with me!) with no other further purpose.

What Douglas would prefer to see is a film which examines conflict experienced by people of colour without putting the spotlight on their race – which recognises that a black person has the same struggles as a white person, be it with sexuality, bereavement or anything else, and which looks at those candidly without the fact that they are black even entering the narrative’s consciousness. There is much to be said for this attitude, and I’ve heard something very similar said about LGBT+ films like Blue is the Warmest Colour (also an amazing film, but too long); sometimes, in a director’s effort to represent a liberation issue to a general release audience, they seem to feel the need to fixate on the differences between that group and wider society, rather than portraying them as just the same as anyone else, and that unwittingly reinforces the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. When was the last time you saw a ‘Happily Ever After’ film in which the protagonists were two men or two women?

Until the world at large comes to recognise that life has been pretty sucky for minorities, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble.

On the flip side – and perhaps I’m playing devil’s advocate here – life in general has been pretty sucky for black people, and for the LGBT+ community, and for any number of other minorities you can name, and perhaps until the world at large comes to recognise that, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble, even at the cost of playing to these stereotyping tendencies. I strongly applaud the move by the National School Boards Association in America to include this story in their curricula, using both the film and the memoirs upon which it was based as pedagogical tools to approach black history and institutional discrimination. This utility is certainly no reason not to have the other types of film as well, the ones which deal with black people struggling with their sexuality or which have a gay couple as the main characters, romcom-style, but I would never dismiss the power and importance of a film like 12 Years as Douglas seems to.

I do wonder, though, whether all of what I’ve said thus far is simply me speaking from a position of white privilege. Other than a small amount of racial prejudice I’ve been on the receiving end of as a Jew – never more than name-calling or misguided jibes – I have no lived experience of being a person of colour in a majority white society, and so the emotions evoked by a film like 12 Years are naturally going to be a mixture of shock, pity, revulsion and guilt. Empathy comes much less naturally, and it is difficult to generate it inorganically, whereas if I were myself black, I might have more of an inherent understanding. Frankly, though, even the majority of people of colour watching the film today (thankfully) have no personal experience of that level of cruelty. How, then, can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

How can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

Well, I’ll tell you what was running through my head for much of the film. Before I do so, though, I’ll preface it with the acknowledgement that, however much I ponder the idea, I still can’t work out whether my thoughts are entirey justifiable, or whether they are offensive and/or repulsive to the people involved. I’d be interested to hear what t’Interwebs thinks about it.

Basically, the only film I’ve ever seen before which can give me a frame of reference to compare 12 Years with is Schindler’s List, and I’m far from the only person to draw similar comparisons. The graphic depiction of violence and cruelty, the blasé dehumanisation of one group by another, the moral dilemmas thrown up by members of the persecuted group taking positions of power over their peers, the primacy of survival being put over all other ethical concerns, the occasional ‘more merciful’ member of the persecuting group – I found the parallels to be enormous and incredibly striking, and they gave me as a Jew a way to connect more closely with what the director was attempting to portray. That said, though, I’ve always found it very difficult to connect with Schindler’s List and with anything connected to the Shoah in general; just under a year ago, I was standing inside an intact gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau, looking at the claw marks covering the walls, and I still couldn’t process it. I am one of a privileged group of Jews who can say that they have no direct family connection to the mass extermination of 1939-1945 Europe, and I think that makes it much more difficult for me personally to comprehend the enormity of it all. Nonetheless, having seen Schindler’s List allowed me to be able to look at the slaves in this film and think ‘we were treated like that too, and I know a bit more of what that could be like’. In that sense, a comparison can only be positive.

I think. Or maybe not. Superficially, the representation is in many ways similar, but how much of that is down to film directors knowing what sells? It can’t be ignored that Schindler’s List is about a form of persecution which was an attempt at mass extermination; Hilter’s ideal world was one in which ‘the Jewish problem’ no longer existed, and all forms of cruelty and exploitation had as their ultimate end vision the deaths of their victims. 12 Years, however, presents persecution wherein the persecuted become commodities to be bought, sold, beaten, manipulated, played with, and used in whatever manner the owner wishes; black slaves might die as a result, but that generally speaking wouldn’t be the explicit aim – after all, a slave is a valuable piece of property, and who beyond the most extreme sadist purchases something just to get the pleasure of destroying it? I make no presumption here to cast any opinion on whether one form of persecution is more terrible than the other, because that would be like having an opinion one whether it’s preferable to be mauled by a lion or a tiger. Both sound pretty horrible. All I seek to do is highlight a difference between the nature of persecution in black and Jewish history, and having done so, to demonstrate why I feel a little uncomfortable with my mind drawing parallels between the two while I watched 12 Years the other night.

Its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence.

All that said, though, I think on balance I would be happy to accept the comparison as valid. Ultimately, I think there is more to this film than ‘blacks treated badly by whites’; the way I see it is that its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence. Whenever a slave owner speaks in any way of the justification of the social order, it is in terms of the slaves being their ‘property’ rather than being human beings in their own right. When an abolitionist throws that worldview into question, the veiled threat he receives in return comes from a position of absolute certainty that the slaves could not possibly be equally human. This is where there is an indisputable parallel with Schindler’s List: every Nazi character speaks of Jews in precisely the same way, particularly in the unforgettable scene in which Amon Goeth beats his maid Helen Hirsch because he believes she is to blame when he realises that he is giving serious thought to the possibility of being attracted to her, a ‘sub-human’.

If, then, as I’ve come to believe, the point of 12 Years a Slave is to highlight the terrible consequences of dehumanisation, I don’t see too much issue with comparing it to Schindler’s List on the condition that the comparison is to be recognised as limited. But in saying that, I bear in mind also that I am neither a person of colour nor a direct relation of anyone murdered by Hitler, so I don’t know how valid my opinion can really be. Which is why I’d like to hear yours too, whether you are either of those things or neither.