What Can the Bi Community Learn from Dan Savage?
Columnist and podcast personality Dan Savage has a history of saying some offensive and misleading things about bi people, making him a controversial figure within the bisexual community. Some bi folks love him; some positively hate him. Yet, when we set aside that problematic history, is it possible that the bi community has something to learn from Dan Savage?
For those who don’t yet know him, Dan is a hysterically crass, brutally outspoken gay man who is entirely too handsome to be middle aged. To his fans, his biting wit and tactless sass are part of his charm. To others, he’s just a stubborn old queen who is slow to empathize with a community he was reluctant to understand.
Personally, I always liked him. Lacking a talent for diplomacy myself, I was willing to forgive his shortcomings (as long as he corrected them). It may have taken him a while, but he finally has. Today, nearly every Savage Love column and Savage Lovecast episode are awash with nuanced and affirming discussions of bisexuality and bi people. He may have taken his time doing it, but Dan Savage is now a full-fledged and enormously influential ally for bi people.
He listened to us. Maybe we should listen to him.
I stood by the bisexual community when we complained that Dan Savage was perpetuating the mistaken and harmful old “bi now, gay later” adage. And in the end, he listened to us (maybe not at first, but he eventually listened). Today, he understands that it happens just as often the other way around. “Gay now, bi later” is just as common an anecdote (yes, even with men – I know several myself who had this coming out experience). He listened to us on that and many other issues about which he eventually admitted he was dead wrong.
But herein lies the rub – he stands by one statement that infuriates many bi activists to this day. He still repeats his unchanged opinion that “bi people need to come out.” In fact, Dan Savage says that everyone needs to come out. In a recent talk with George Stroumboulopoulos he describes it as a moral imperative.
You have a responsibility to be out. You have a moral responsibility to be out. It means not being out is a moral failing but no one can compel you. If you don’t want to be out you should own that as a moral failing. We all of us in our life are guilty of moral failings. It’s not like because you have the moral failing you should be dragged out behind the barn and shot. But you have to own it, you have to eat it.
Like any sane person, he makes exceptions for when it’s unsafe to come out, but his message is strong.
Many bi activists take umbrage with this. Why should it be our responsibility to come out? Why should we identify with a label that carries such stigma, but only represents a small part of who we are? Coming out is hard, and we shouldn’t have to go through such a difficult process just to have equal rights.
There are many valid reasons why some people may not feel ready to come out, and it isn’t always safe (physically or emotionally). So, I’m certainly not saying everyone should come out. I’m not even saying it’s fair. Dan is however right about the fact that more bi people need to come out. He’s right. We do. Many many more of us need to come out.
The gay rights movement (yes, I mean specifically gay, not LGBT) has taught us some important lessons. Today we celebrate when gay and lesbian folks come out; it needs to be the same for bi folks. The question is how do we get there. Right now it’s hard; every time a celebrity opens up about their bisexuality, they are dismissed; there’s speculations about whether they’re “really” gay or straight; or the media will just call them gay or lesbian anyway. Many not-famous people have the same experiences of not being taken seriously when they come out as bi. It’s infuriating. We want to be celebrated when we come out, and the difficult but effective way of ensuring that is to continue coming out – as many times as it takes. We’ve got to proudly and visibly stand by our bisexuality.
The enormous and unprecedentedly fast success of the gay rights movement happened due to a strategic choice on the part of activists to encourage as many people as possible to positively identify as gay. They did so with an active coming out campaign. This was clearly a winning political strategy. As more and more people came out, it normalized homosexuality and ensured that more and more people knew their children, siblings, parents, and other loved ones were gay. It’s much harder to maintain homophobic attitudes towards those you already love than it is to maintain them toward complete strangers. As a result, support for gay rights has skyrocketed in popularity in one short generation.
It’s the same for us; the more people who proudly proclaim their bisexuality, the easier it is for everyone. I do mean proudly proclaim their bisexuality. I don’t mean tiptoe around their bisexuality. It’s very trendy right now to talk around bisexuality, to say that you are attracted to men and women or have had relationships with men and women, but are uncomfortable with labels like bi. I don’t blame those who try this tactic. It’s about attempting to avoid the stigma of biphobia. It’s only natural, especially when bi people are routinely told that we are lying or confused. It really does suck. The solution, though, is not to throw out the idea of bisexuality; the solution is to fight harder for bi visibility and acceptance.
Biphobia remains rampant, even within the gay community. This is in part due to the fact that bi people aren’t coming out in large enough numbers yet. Studies prove that bi people outnumber gay and lesbian people, yet a much smaller fraction of bisexual people openly identify. That is a serious problem for those of us who want to promote bi visibility and acceptance. In fact, despite studies saying otherwise, many people still deny the existence of bisexuality. The fact that lots of people don’t have any out bi friends definitely contributes to this problem.
Gay rights activists have faced many similar challenges when encouraging people to come out. In the 1980s, activists like Rob Eichberg and Jean O’Leary encouraged people to come out, eventually founding National Coming Out Day. In the early days of the coming out campaign, many gay people were very reluctant to come out and identify themselves as gay. There was a backlash against the activists who were suggesting that they do so. Anger was expressed using all of the same arguments. “I am not defined by my sexuality, so why should I identify according to it?” “Labels don’t matter. What matters is equality. Why should I have to label myself?” “Don’t tell me I have to come out. It’s nobody’s business what I do in bed.”
All of those allegations against gay rights activists were of course totally unfair and unwarranted. The coming out campaign was not about pigeonholing anyone or airing “dirty laundry.” It was about stepping out of the shadows and into the light, proudly, where gay people could finally engage in a positive discussion with the public about their rights. Nevertheless, activists did have a difficult uphill battle convincing people in their own community to embrace the label “gay” and come out. But they didn’t back down. Those gay rights activists stood by their plan and eventually won the community over. Once a critical mass of people did come out, the movement really took off. They began to see practical results.
A concerted coming out campaign for bi people is long overdue. It needn’t be about bullying anybody to identify as bi if they don’t want to. We should never be “outing” people against their will. This campaign would simply be about encouraging as many bi people to come out as possible. Resistance to identifying as bi remains a huge problem for us. So, here we are today. Acceptance of gay rights is taking off, but bi invisibility and biphobia remain deeply entrenched in popular culture. It isn’t our fault, but we can do something about it. We can come out – in massive numbers, and we should.
When people claim that “labels are no longer necessary,” they are assuming that acceptance of gay rights means bi people can just automatically come along for the ride. But, most of the time, we simply aren’t invited along for the ride, so what good does that do us? The truth is that the need to come out and identify remains hugely consequential for the bi community. Telling bi people that “labels don’t matter” is just another way for the B in LGBT to be swept under the rug.
Dan Savage may be snarky, but in this case he has a point. Rather than complaining about Dan’s past shortcomings, let’s celebrate his progress. He listened to us; let’s listen to him. It worked for gay people; and it will work for bi people too. If it is safe for you, why not consider these two upcoming dates, and let the world know that we exist and we matter.
September 23rd – Celebrate Bisexuality Day
October 11th – National Coming Out Day