Labeling Tom Daley's sexuality opens larger discussion on biphobia

Thu. December 5, 2013 10:26 AM by Anthony Morgano

tom daley on youtube

Leaders in Chicago's bisexual community speak out on Tom Daley's coming out

The hopes of queer men everywhere were lifted on Monday when British Olympic diver Tom Daley, who was named the Sexiest Man in the World by Attitude Magazine this year, posted an intimate YouTube video in which he revealed that he's currently in a relationship with a man (the mystery man has since been revealed to be Dustin Lance Black, the 38 year-old screenwriter who won an Oscar for his 2008 drama Milk).

The 19-year-old's announcement came after an interview with the UK Sun Mirror earlier this year where Daley is quoted saying "I think it's funny when people say I'm gay... I laugh it off... I'm not... But even if I was, I wouldn't be ashamed. It wouldn't bother me in the slightest what people thought." A few months later he took to the internet with a video titled "Something I want to say... "

"Recently I was misquoted in an interview and it made me feel really angry and frustrated and emotions I have never felt before when reading something about myself... And now I kind of feel ready to talk about my relationships," Daley said. "Come spring of this year my life changed — massively — when I met someone and it made me feel so happy, so safe, and everything just feels great, and well, that someone is a guy."

"And it did take me by surprise a little bit," he continued. "It was always in the back of my head that something like that could happen, but it wasn't until spring this year that something that just clicked, it felt right, and I was like, OK. And like I said my whole world just changed right there and then. Of course I still fancy girls, but right now I'm dating a guy and I couldn't be happier. I just feel safe. And it just really does feel right."

Watch: Tom Daley: "Something I want to say...  "

The media was all over Daley's revelation, with outlets from around the world reporting the news, but despite never using the word "gay" in his video and stating that he "fancied" girls as well as guys, both mainstream and queer media are washing over a presumed bisexual identity. Daley says he chose to make his announcement via Youtube because he "didn't want to get [his] words twisted" but even the UK's largest LGBT news agency Pink News printed "Tom Daley comes out as gay."

Coverage of the event has varied from publication to publication, with some like the Huffington Post merely stating that Daley "came out," while others tried to define him using explicit terms, including bisexual, but mostly centering around his being gay or in a gay relationship. For many in the bisexual community, this coverage is problematic and only the most recent example of a longstanding tradition of biphobia from both the mainstream straight world as well from within the LGBT community.

"A lot of people in the bi community were feeling like what he's saying was getting erased, which is a big thing for the bi community: bisexual erasure," Chris Pierce, a volunteer and leader in Chicago's bisexual community, told ChicagoPride.com. "Bisexuality... and bisexual leaders are frequently washed out of history and in the mainstream media."

Pierce also expressed frustration with the media's labeling of Daley's current relationship as a "gay relationship": "If I'm in a relationship with a woman, my relationship isn't straight. It's really semantics and I understand that, but I'm not straight so I'm not ever in a straight relationship, just like I'm not gay so I'm never in a gay relationship. I've had a wife and I've had a boyfriend."

In a piece for The Guardian this week, sex columnist Nichi Hodgson draws attention to the fact that "reporting of the diver's announcement that he is in a relationship with a man but also attracted to women, suggests that being bisexual is still taboo." Nowhere is this more true than in the media, where it is easy to identify rampant biphobia as it relates to celebrities' sexualities. As Hodgson says "bi-visbility in the media is a joke."

Pierce talked about something he calls "fear of the bisexual chic." The bisexual chic grows out of the concept that when a celebrity comes out as bisexual they are merely assumed to be seeking attention and trying to get a headline or increase their fan base. This is especially true for women who come out as bisexual, Pierce says, since this plays on the girl-on-girl fantasy held by many hetereosexual men, but also applies to celebrities like Josh Hutcherson. The Hunger Games star recently stated that he is "mostly straight," leaving open the option of being attracted to men as well.

Additionally, celebrities who identify as bisexual are frequently accused of being gay and in denial, or trying to "ease into" their gay identity in order to appease fans. This problem with not accepting a person's identity at face value is not a symptom of the mainstream media alone, but one that LGBTQ publications fall prey to as well.

"It's harmful to make these assumptions because it touches on the stereotype that bisexuals 'claim' to enjoy the companionship of both men and women to please other people," Rebecca Waite, Bi Program Volunteer Liaison for the Center on Halsted, told ChicagoPride.com. "Many in the LGBT community have found themselves feeling like they had to be 'in The Closet' to appease their friends, family and/or co-workers. This assumption about Tom Daley, that he is partially in the closet to appease his fans, is harmful because it equates identifying as bisexual as still having one foot in the closet."

"Like Tom Daley, I will not assume to know Josh Hutcherson or to know the inner-workings of his personal life, but I will take his word as sincere and truthful as I would for anyone else who chooses to speak about their identity," she continued. "It is not an easy thing to talk about your orientation in a public forum, so I would hope that others would listen with an open mind too."

As Hodgson points out in her Guardian article, however, Daley didn't actually use the word bisexual, although his dating a man while still being attracted to women does fall within the parameters of the sexual identity. She acknowledges that Daley may not have wanted to use the loaded term bisexual for fear of the aforementioned media stigmas, but also that bisexual may not "accurately describe his sexuality right now."

Terms of sexual identity themselves get to the bottom of the age-old question of whether sexuality is a fixed trait or identity, or something that can change and evolve over time. Most evidence seems to point to something in between, but much of the homo and biphobia in our society stems from this need to put someone in a box where we can easily identify them. Which leads one to ask, why do we need labels?

For Pierce, this is a complicated question. There are a lot of people who choose not to label themselves with a sexual identity and a myriad of other identities exist, such as pansexual, omnisexual, queer and others that go beyond labels specified by the male/female gender binary. Still, if we use the term bisexual to encompass the other identities that refer to a non-monosexist or gender exclusive sexuality and celebrities as well as everyday folk are still not labeling themselves, this Pierce sees as a symptom of a larger problem.

"I think anybody should be able to label themselves or identify anyway they want to, but at the same time, if the reason you're choosing not to label yourself or not to have a bisexual identity is because you don't want to have the social stigma of bisexuality attached to you, that's an issue," he said. "More often than not, that's why people don't want to have that label."

"I see a lot of this attitude especially among people who don't accept or aren't exposed to non-binary gender identities," Em Vanderlinden, Community and Cultural Programs Coordinator for the Center on Halsted, told ChicagoPride.com. "People who only see men and women, gay and straight, in relationships are really missing out on the diversity and opportunity for a full understanding of how gender is constructed in society and how the man/masculine/male and woman/feminine/female paradigm limits authentic expression."

Examples of biphobia are easily seen even within the LGBT community, where gays and lesbians frequently apply the same stigmas to their bi brothers and sisters that the straight world does. Bisexual men are fetishized by gay men who relish the thought of "turning" a straight man or dismissed as closeted gays. Bisexual women can find themselves treated as "two faced" by lesbians who also see them as lacking the courage to come out or assuming an identity merely to attract the attention of straight men.

The list can go on and on and the internal marginalization of bisexuals within the community is a commonly addressed subject in queer studies. The problem seems to be this: the bi community shares a lot of the same struggles as lesbians and gays in terms of coming out in a heterocentric world and fighting against assumptions about their identity. Where the LGBT community fails is that many then turn to bisexuals and tell them they must choose a single gender to be attracted to, instead of giving their self-proclaimed identities the same respect expected from the hetereosexual world in response to their gay identity.

This seems to be true in the case of trans folks as well, who face a similar stigma from community members who refuse to see beyond the gender binary. The concept that bisexuality and transgender identities undermine what the LGBT community is trying to achieve in terms of mainstream acceptance and rights (simply because they complicate the worldview of a society already reluctant to let same-sex attraction exist, much less deal with attraction to multiple sexes or abolish the gender binary altogether) has been around since the birth of the gay rights movement. While it is not a new concept, it is an old and outdated one.

"Sexuality and love are complicated issues and they are also entrenched in our religious and political landscape," Waite said. "But specifically as it pertains to the bi community, I think one of the biggest obstacles the community faces is that is more difficult for society to identify bi men and women."

"It is likely that all of us know at least one bi person; they could be in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship and the assumption is that that person is gay or straight," she continued. "In other words, to be recognized as a member of the bi community you have to be vocal, you cannot be passive, about your identity. I think the community is starting to latch onto that concept: that we have the ability to remain visible by speaking up and being proud."

For a multitude of reasons, the bi community isn't as visible or organized as the larger and more mainstream LGBT community. They are frequently left out of LGBT health surveys that only target gayborhoods when looking for participants and when they are included, studies show them to have poorer health and less knowledge of safe sex as well as less disposable income than their gay and lesbian counterparts. The bi community is still growing its connectivity and resources, but the consensus on moving forward seems to revolve mostly around their visibility, both in the wider world and as part of the LGBT community.

"From the lesbian and gay community the biggest thing they can do is, when they encounter biphobia or someone being monosexist, to stand up and call them out on it," Pierce said. "I think thats the biggest thing because silence is the worst thing... by being silent and letting people say those things it teaches people that it is okay to say and it must be true because nobody is disagreeing with them on it."

Resources for the bi community are harder to find than those for the larger LGBT community, but they do exist. Most websites and magazines exist on a national level, but here in Chicago bi visibility and organization continues to grow. Our Fences is a monthly newsletter printed for the Windy City's bi community; the Center on Halsted offers a variety of programming targeting bi folks, including a bi movie night every other Monday and bi discussion group every other Tuesday; and the community comes together as part of the Chicago Bisexual/Queer Community group on MeetUp.com.

One example of the continued growth of the bi community is right here in Chicago. The Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago, which was recently recognized as one of the top 25 LGBTQ-friendly schools in the nation, has added, in addition to groups called "Pride" and the "Gender Umbrella Society" (GUS), a group called Bi Quest. This new bi group offers educational media as well as weekly discussion and activities in a safe, all-inclusive environment. Bi Quest also collaborate with other groups outside of UIC to increase connection within the bi community and is already one of the largest bi groups at a public university in the Midwest.

"It could be that Tom is still question his sexual orientation and has not completely solidified his sexual orientation," Marc Flores, the president of Bi Quest, told ChicagoPride.com. "It actually might be appropriate for him to identify as Queer or Questioning. In fact that's what 'Quest' means in 'Bi-Quest.' People who are Questioning might eventually identify as Bisexual, but we feel it is important to allow people to make that decision themselves. One of the biggest parts of adopting a label for sexual orientation is self-identification, regardless of what others might consider you to be."

So whatever Daley's identity, whether it be queer, bi, omni or pansexual (or even homo or hetero), it's up to us as a united and accepting LGBTQ community to welcome him into the fold. If we as a community are bound together by our shared experiences in the world, we're already united to Tom for at least two such experiences: that of coming out and that of facing adversity for doing so. Those alone should be enough to garner our support.

Bisexual Resources:

BiNet

Bisexual Queer Alliance Chicago

Center on Halsted

Chicago Bisexual Queer Meetup

Related: Olympic diver Tom Daley reveals he's in a relationship with a man

 

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