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The day after Independence Day in the U.S. this year, the New York Times published a story in its science section with the headline "Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited," which begins by saying that people may claim they're attracted to both men and women, "But a new study casts doubt on whether true bisexuality exists, at least in men."

The article became, according to the Times website, one of the most frequently emailed that week; it caused a few different organizations, including Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to criticize not only the article but the background of the lead author of the study; and the Times published six letters in response to the article, five of them criticizing it.

Not everyone in the gay community responded with criticism of the article or the study it reported. Sex columnist Dan Savage said, "The sad fact is that male bisexuality is rare, much more so than female bisexuality. While there are a lot of guys out there having bisexual experiences—probably more than ever, God bless them—there's a difference between someone's true sexual orientation and their sexual capabilities."

Truth, that's what it all boils down to. The headline implies bisexuals are liars, the study suggests "true bisexuality" doesn't exist in men, and Dan Savage is a true believer in "true sexual orientation" as the key to true love (at least for men). Savage says that "nominally bisexual men are not emotionally available to other men—in other words, these guys may have sex with other guys, but . . . they only have relationships with women. Which is why dating bi guys isn't something most gay men are willing to do. Even if the bi guy you're dating is single, you're still just his piece on the side."

Is this pursuit of truth the result of anxiety over our inability to live inside another person's mind? The people closest to us could be liars. They could have motives we don't know about, feelings we aren't aware of, dreams they don't share with us, secret lives. In a quest for omniscience, we dig through the data of genes and history to find what is natural and what is not, we crunch numbers to calculate normality, we generalize and accuse, legislate and imprison, delineate and define. To define is to control, and the appeal of narrow definitions of sexual identity is that they allow the person doing the defining to feel in control of the people being defined. Say whatever you want about yourself, but we know the truth.

This is essentially the same argument made by advocates of "fixing" anyone who isn't 100% heterosexual through therapy, prayer, or prolonged exposure to cold climates and monster trucks. (Not that there's anything wrong with monster trucks.) Such zealots believe heterosexuality is the default identity of humanity, the only true way to have a happy life, and therefore anything else is perverse, a diseased deviance from the approved norm, a cesspool of failure and freakishness. Everyone is good at heart, because everyone is straight at heart.

Are we so terrified of free choice? Is it wrong for people to choose how best to live for themselves rather than for everyone else? Is the person who claims to choose to be gay/lesbian/bi/trans/straight/anything worse than a person who says they had no choice, they couldn't help themselves, nature and God and Freud and Dan Savage made them who they are? Must all relationships look like the kind of relationship that works for you? Must all labels be the same?

Though the word queer has become a cute word in TV show titles, it's still useful as a label for the large group of people who are not comfortable describing themselves as always-and-forever-straight, because it gets away from the essentialist elements of all the other labels. It appropriates what was once an insult, stripping it of some of its hurtful power, it doesn't suggest a specific gender, it can include everybody from Bush-loving gays to Green Party transexuals to open-minded heterosexuals who like disco and hot dogs, and it preserves the sense of being outside the oppressive norms of a conformity-inducing society, the forces that mold and disfigure the many-splendored world, leaving shards of dead imagination in the wake of a paint-by-numbers vision.

Maybe all the words don't work—maybe they've all been modified into nonsense and tainted by the stereotypes they have to bear, the commodities they've been attached to, the noise of clashing definitions. Put an old John Lennon record on, sit back, relax, and indulge in utopian dreaming for a moment: a dream of a world where people are free to choose for themselves how they are defined. Imagine what could happen if people shed labels the way fashionistas shed yesterday's haute couture. Imagine the act of defining as a creative act.

The record skips, the song ends, the dream dissipates, and here we are, back in a world where fundamentalists of all orientations vomit dogma and destruction across the open landscape of desire. The enemy should not be bisexuality or homosexuality or heterosexuality or transexuality—the enemy should be coercion, and we shouldn't condone compulsory sexuality any more than we should condone compulsory sex. If we have to sound like a broken record, let the needle get stuck on one word: imagine, imagine, imagine . . .




Matthew Cheney's previous interviews include such writers as Lydia Millet, Jeff VanderMeer, Leena Krohn, Jeffrey Ford, and Kit Reed. More of his work can be read in our archives.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
Tuesday: Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years by Peter Nicholls 
Wednesday: HellSans by Ever Dundas 
Thursday: Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi 
Friday: House of the Dragon Season One 
Issue 23 Jan 2023
Issue 16 Jan 2023
Issue 9 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
Issue 2 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
Issue 19 Dec 2022
Issue 12 Dec 2022
Issue 5 Dec 2022
Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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