How Bi People Form Friendships Beyond Words

4/4/2018

istock/oneinchpunch

In gay sci-fi writer Samuel Delany’s far-future epic Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, our gender-based pronoun system has been supplanted by one where any individual is referred to as she unless they are the subject of your sexual attention, whereupon you refer to them as he. That is, the sexy six-legged alien I spot while cruising on the planet Velm is she unless I want to fuck her, at which point I start calling him he.

Delany imagines a pan-galactic civilization in which sexual relations are understood as relative and positional, a matter of temporary and shifting intensification and orientation. Society is structured around sexual desire – but around a lack of desire as well. Desire is actually less rigidly encoded in this pronoun-system than our own, where any he is assumed to want to fuck any she by default, without room for manoeuvre.

Sexual interaction is just one way a relationship can be intensified. This reality is understood by all queers – but especially bi people. When society is no longer rigidly bisected by gender, into those you might want to fuck and those you might not, you can and must find new ways of articulating your relationship to others.

In his interview Friendship as a Way of Life, Michel Foucault argues that what is transgressive and progressive about homosexuality is not the sex act itself. “Grabbing each other’s asses and getting each other off in a quarter of an hour” has its value, but it is ultimately only an “immediate pleasure… a kind of neat image of homosexuality without any possibility of generating unease.”

Rather, he argues that the homosexual rights movement is radical for allowing men to be together in non-sexual ways, to be “’naked’ among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie.” Where the sex ends (or never begins) is where a truly new way of life begins.

But Foucault also fears the moustachioed gay “clones” who see libidinous release as a sufficient end in itself, ultimately shutting out any potential for radical transformation as they recreate relations in distorted mirror-image of the stifling society they have fled.

“Have nothing to fear,” he says, speaking ironically from the perspective of the clones. “The more one is liberated, the less one will love women, the less one will founder in this polysexuality where there are no longer any differences between the two.”

That polysexual gulf is precisely where bi people are located, where we flounder, where we make our lives. We embody an answer to Foucault’s fears that the gay movement would fail to become a new and transgressive community.

We cannot compartmentalize sexual relations, as many straight people do, taking this gender as the one we sleep with and that other as the one we hang out with  – if we did, there would be no-one left for us to know.

Nor, as Foucault writes of the “moustachioed clones”, can we take this gender as the one we sleep with and make do with that as a community, retreating into “liberated” and fleeting sexual union with one another without building anything more. Being in potential sexual union with everyone, we cannot so easily structure the world around us through a hierarchy of sexual desire.

Bi people are less likely than gay or straight people to be in, or seek, monogamous relationships, and far less likely to be out of the closet at all – both conditions which push us to seek fierce and intimate friendship, outside of the overlapping sexual and romantic spheres.

Ever since I can remember, long prior to coming out, I have had particularly passionate friendships, non-sexual crushes, what you might call “crazes” over new and old acquaintances whom I adore.

I want to be with them often or always, to be intimate with them, to rely on them absolutely and have them rely on me. In some cases these have developed into sexual relationships, and in some they have not. What is sure is that I would think of these people as more than mere “friends”, more than “lovers”, but not as romantic partners either.

I have a Word document saved in my computer which is not a suicide note precisely, but a making-up of accounts in the case of my death, written during a deep suicidal fugue in Paris two summers ago. It begins with this line: “My darlings, I love you, I would have died long before without you.”

The queer theorist Laurence DuMontier notes that friendship in contemporary Western society is relegated to a second tier, from which it must scrabble to borrow the language of family and romance – “he’s my brother from another mother,” “I love my girlfriends,” and so on.

I am floundering here, looking for a word beyond “friend” to describe the people I am addressing, a word which does not exist. What I can say, with fierce confidence, is that it was they, not any romantic partners or blood relations, who drew me through this most difficult of times.

Reading Olivia Laing’s Lonely City recently, I was struck by the way she meets intensely with artists as people behind their work, helped out of her own lonely spell by passionate relationships with long-dead photographers, writers and visual artists.

It does her no disservice to say the intensity of the troubled teen’s crush on a popstar reverberates through her interactions with the artworks of Andy Warhol or David Wojnarowicz. To Laing, language and art are a “flung rope” between artist and reader.

Many queer people I know – bi and gay – meet with art in the same way. The parents of queer children are forever telling their children (and telling themselves) that their first queer passions are simply crushes, fixations on idealised figures rather than anything sexual.

But even if there is no sexual element, or if the sexual element is so deeply repressed as to be lost, there is something inherently queer about this way of engaging with the world. Without allowing the excoriating difference of queerness to be reduced to anything less than a matter of who we want to sleep with, we can see that intense, non-sexual friendships mount a serious challenge to the hetero-patriarchal order.

Why otherwise would these relationships be so vilified and misunderstood in the straight world, which insists on a hierarchy of romance above and friends below? Consider the “friendzone”, the suspicion cast on the female best friend of a woman’s male lover, the taboo surrounding non-sexual male intimacy, so lamented by Foucault.

In their refusal of monogamy, or a world ordered by desire, in their insistence on a passionately polymorphous engagement with those around us, these relationships reveal themselves as profoundly bisexual.

Laing writes that the gay photographer and artist David Wojnarowicz “did more than anything to release me from the feeling that in my solitude I was shamefully alone.” The great, releasing friendship of Wojnarowicz’ last years was with the artist Peter Hujar – they slept together for a month, but were intimate companions for seven years. All too often they are described as “lovers,” but physical love was only one early way in which their relationship intensified beyond words.

“It was not a friendship,” their mutual acquaintance Stephen Koch has said, speaking two decades after the pair of them died from HIV/AIDs. “I had a friendship with Peter, and that’s too mild a word for what went on between David and Peter. It made any friendship look trivial.”

Matt Broomfield
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.