Here’s a phrase you don’t hear often: “Moving to Texas made me a lot more open-minded.”
Typically, someone calling her- or himself a Texan comes with a lot of baggage and assumptions: That person must be a Republican, pro-military, on the extreme ends of masculine or feminine appearance, have a manicured lawn and so forth. But when Jules Bethea moved from Aurora to Dallas she received one of her first lessons that stereotypes aren’t always accurate — or comfortable.
“I didn’t even know gay people existed until I went to high school in Texas,” said Bethea, whose conservative upbringing didn’t allow for a nuanced approach to race relations, let alone sexuality. “Dallas had an amazing music scene, and a really amazing gay scene. I met this guy named Ronnie, and we both had fake IDs so we could go to the gay clubs and punk shows. Before moving to Texas, I hardly knew what sex was.”
Bethea identified as straight at the time, graciously declining the advancements lesbians would make toward her on the dance floor. Comfortably attracted to men, that was enough for her. It wasn’t until returning to Denver in her 20s that small sparks of interest toward other women began to flicker.
“I got a job at The Market downtown, and there was this girl Michelle who worked with me there,” Bethea said. “She had dark curly hair and the most amazing gap between her teeth. I began crushing on her hard, and having dreams about her. There was a strong physical attraction, but I didn’t do anything about it.”
That was the mid ’90s, when the Riot Grrrl punk rock movement was bringing a new brand of lesbian identity into the consciousness of young American females. Bethea was firmly ingrained in Denver’s chapter of the community, but held on to her identity as a heterosexual, eventually becoming pregnant by an African American acquaintance — which lead to accusations from her disapproving, anti–race-mixing family that she was only acting out in rebellion. This charge would only be amplified when Bethea — having little romantic connection to her child’s father — began exclusively dating women.
“I was like ‘oh, I’m not straight, that’s what the problem is: I’m gay!’” she remembers of the night she brought her first same-sex lover home with her. “In retrospect I know that’s not what it was. I was just so in love with her, and had had so many relationships with men end badly. But all relationships end badly.”
This newfound lesbian identity fit Bethea like a glove, and for several years she maintained a series of same-sex relationships and casual hookups. Yet even though sexual attraction toward women came easily to her, several of her hypermasculine friends in the music scene maintained that Jules Bethea was no lesbian — while at the same time, her maternal mates down at the gay bar would strongly proclaim “yes you are!”
A destructive game of sexual tug-of-war ensued within the worlds she occupied. She was straight. She was gay. No one was considering that Bethea fell into a surprisingly common yet rarely acknowledged designation of sexual orientation.
“I used to take that from people,” she said, “but I don’t put up with that anymore.”
Sex advice columnist and LGBT activist Dan Savage has often been branded as “biphobic.” In the late ’90s Savage made some hostile comments toward those whose proclivities swing both ways, writing in a 1999 “Savage Love” column, “avoiding bi guys is a good rule of thumb for gay men looking for long-term relationships.” Earlier that year a young lesbian had inquired of the Savage Love advice column what she should do about her bisexual girlfriend who was interested in a three way with a man; Savage advised that she should “Get yourself a refillable Xanax prescription, or get yourself an actual lesbian girlfriend.”
After a deluge of criticism from the bisexual community, Savage has since renounced the anti-bi position and tempered his attitude toward bisexuality. Yet in 2011, the gay icon wrote an editorial in The Stranger that seemed to reinforce some lingering skepticism, stating that while he does believe some people who identify as such actually are bi, he doesn’t think they all are.
“Many adult gays and lesbians identified as bi for a few shining moments during our adolescences and coming out processes,” he wrote. “We wanted to let our friends down easy; we didn’t want our families to think we’d gone over the dark side entirely. This can lead adult gays and lesbians — myself included — to doubt the professed sexual identities of bisexual teenagers. When I meet a bisexual teenage boy, for instance, I sometimes think to myself, ‘yeah, I was too at your age.’”
Bisexual author and activist Robyn Ochs is skeptical of the claims that bisexuality can be a social buffer for young gays and lesbians looking to let their families down easy.
“Embedded in Dan Savage’s statements is the assumption that it’s easier to identify as bisexual than as lesbian or gay,” she said. “A look at the data on minority stress will show that — in aggregate — bi and trans people have higher indicators of minority stress than lesbians or gay men. It’s not easier: it’s hard, just in slightly different ways. I believe that it takes a great deal of courage to come out publicly as bi.”
Ochs defends Dan Savage’s statements as having some kernal of truth — she said that in her years of research, and living as a bisexual, she’s found that “any identity can be a phase.” Citing a 1990 study by Ron Fox, Ochs explains that of approximately 1,000 self-identified bisexuals, it was found that 30 percent of them had previously identified as lesbian or gay.
“I’ve met people who have identified as bi and then later as gay or lesbian, and I’ve also met people who who have identified as gay or lesbian and then later as bi. Unfortunately, the former narrative is often used to discount and invalidate all bi identities.”
That was certainly the case with Jules Bethea. After discovering she enjoyed the physical company of males as well as females, Bethea was beginning to come to terms with an identity-free sexuality — though not everyone dealt with this transition so gracefully.
“A lot of my lesbian friends were not happy,” she said. The disappointment wasn’t universal, but a large number dismissed her as “‘a straight girl fooling around with lesbians,’” Bethea said. “They were like, ‘you don’t get to be a lesbian if you’re going to sleep with guys.’ And I was like, maybe I’m not a lesbian? I don’t know what I am. I don’t care. I’ve had black boyfriends, white boyfriends, I’ve had two major relationships with women. I’m not dabbling. I stopped caring after a while and settled on calling myself bi.”
Last month the pop culture website Buzzfeed posted a video titled “What Lesbians Think of Bisexuals” in which a series of interviewed lesbians were first asked for a word association with “bisexual,” leading to responses like “greedy,” “rare,” and “confused.” Next, they were each presented with the hypothetical scenario of meeting a beautiful, magnetic girl at a party; they approach her with interest, then find out she’s bisexual. All but one of the featured lesbians said they would completely lose interest in the woman after this discovery, with the one outlier stipulating, “if she had a really good personality, if she could make me laugh, I might be able to get past the fact that she once had a dick in her mouth.”
There’s a cold irony in that, considering this has been the plight of those with same-sex interest throughout history. Bethea has now been married to local musician Nathaniel Rateliff for five years, and in that time has received the I-told-you-you-were-straight dismissal from both gays and heterosexuals.
Ochs, the author, has also been involved in several mixed-orientation relationships. Currently married to a lesbian, she certainly doesn’t think all lesbians feel the way the Buzzfeed interviews suggest, but believes that “lesbians resistant to dating bi women are operating out of two frames: first, the fear that, no matter what you have to offer, you will not be able to compete with the social approval, power and privileges given to those in (heterosexual) relationships. And second, people in oppressed groups sometimes feel safer drawing clear lines between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ And they may perceive bi women as ‘not us’ and therefore dangerous.”
Sante Suffoletta has been on Denver’s Pride committee for 10 years, but for the first two of those years he was not out as a bisexual. His associations with the swinger community and other bisexuals raised suspicions, and when he eventually came out as bi, there were some who took exception to his participation in Pride.
“The Center received some letters about me hosting the dance stage,” he said. “It was the same stuff I’ve heard said about other bisexuals: ‘he’s not gay enough to be involved in this.’ There’s a struggle that gay people go through when they come out, and I think a lot of folks might feel entitled to make Pride specifically about being gay because of those struggles. When we think of equal rights, a lot of the time we think of gay rights, because those people are afraid of coming out at the workplace, losing friends, or being looked down upon. But bisexuals aren’t usually out, so they often don’t experience that. They could be married to a man or a woman of the opposite sex.”
Like Bethea, Suffoletta didn’t explore the same-sex attraction within him until his 20s, when he returned to his home of Colorado and began visiting the gay clubs.
“I would go to gay clubs and flirt, make out with guys,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted, because I enjoyed both. I was always open about being bi when I’d go to places like Tracks, and I’ve never had a gay man react negatively to that. I found that lesbians tend to be more hesitant about accepting bisexuality than gay men, because gay men are usually more open in their relationships than lesbians. I think if you’re in a relationship with someone and they think you’re gay, then you come out as bi, that could be threatening, and someone could be hurt. Which is different than meeting someone on the dance floor and sharing a kiss.”
Currently, Suffoletta has kept his relationships with men more casual. As one of the organizers and key players of Denver’s kink/swinger community, he regularly acts on his attraction to men, but has never entered a long-term committed relationship with a man.
Resembling how some queer-identified persons describe their gender identity, Suffoletta says that his attraction to men versus women is a day-to-day fluctuation. “In my experience, I see a lot of bisexuals with different levels of attraction to men or women,” he said. “I’m sexually attracted to both, but not equally. I’ve never dated or been emotionally attached to a man. On some days, I’m really attracted to men, and some days it’s women; it’s a sliding scale. I think that’s maybe something that causes the gay or straight community to be dismissive of bisexuals, because a lot of the time its a sexual attraction and not an emotional one.”
In his late 20s, Suffoletta had put the breaks on his makeout sessions at the gay clubs and entered a committed relationship with a woman. He was initially concerned that she would react to his sexual orientation with the same skepticism that so many lesbian women have toward bisexuality.
“But that went away quickly,” he said, “because she saw I was attracted to her and committed to what we were involved in. She didn’t feel threatened by me potentially leaving her for another man. She encouraged me to explore this side of myself.” After five years the couple was eager to get married and spend the rest of their lives together.
The acceptance Suffoleta’s wife had for his bisexuality led him to the swinger community, where a lot of bisexual men and women tend to gather. Through parties and online forums, those with more a more fluid approach to sexual encounters could engage in a scene that was free of any of the misunderstandings that come with socializing in gay or straight clubs. “Similar to when someone’s gay, there’s a community of people who can help them with that process,” he said. “Straight people don’t really have to deal with that. Most bisexuals I know are comfortable hanging out with other bisexuals, because they realize sexuality isn’t black and white.”
Now single, Suffoletta continues to work on the Pride committee (he is currently developing a bisexual march for next year’s Pride Parade) and runs his own bisexual event company, InVision Events, which hosts gatherings for Denver’s swing, kink and poly communities. “With the couples who come to my events, there will be dynamics where the girl is bi and the guy is straight, or a transgender guy with a bisexual girl, or gay couples who just want to play,” he said. “It’s more the sexual aspect, than looking for relationships.”
“A lot of the time I’ll see a man and a woman and you could assume they’re both straight, and it turns out they’re bi.”
While some consider it offensive to use a term like “gaydar,” the gay and lesbian community has often set itself up with certain tropes (regarding things like fashion, body language, career choices and others) that help others identify their sexuality. Rather than conscious self-labeling, this could be merely the result of a community that has endured cultural isolation from mainstream society, and certain artistic or lifestyle choices sprung out in response. But with so many bisexuals still in the closet, stories like Suffoletta’s are still about the pioneering stages of creating a bisexual community — there isn’t yet a set of community signifiers for bisexuality.
“We attach some weird things to sex,” said Jules Bethea. “When you come out as gay — even if you are in a place where it’s not safe to be gay — you have an identity. You get this whole package that defines you politically and artistically. But it’s not that easy. I don’t necessarily want to be in any category.”
Bethea understands the skepticism that Dan Savage and others may have when confronted with a self-identified bisexual. But like gays and lesbians confronted with those who’ve doubted the sincerity of their orientation, especially in the pre-Stonewall era, all she has to represent herslef is her own hard-earned self-discovery.
“If I hadn’t experienced it in my body and mind, I don’t know if I would believe in bisexuality intellectually,” she said. “But since I’m living in it, I have to.”