Queering Queer Theory, or Why Bisexuality Matters

Laura Erickson-Schroth & Jennifer Mitchell. Journal of Bisexuality. Volume 9, Issue 1, 2009.

That Awful Bisexual

The July 5, 2005, issue of the New York Times contained an article titled, “Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited.” The author, Benedict Carey, reported on the results of a study that would be published a month later, in the August 2005 issue of Psychological Science, which measured the genital and self-reported arousal of straight, gay and bisexual men resulting from male and female sexual stimuli (Rieger, Chivers, & Bailey, 2005, p. 579). The New York Times article (Carey, 2005) sensationalizes but does not alter the hypothesis behind the original study—that bisexual men do not exist, and that those who claim to be bisexual are either straight and pretending to be more “open” than they are, or gay and in denial. In other words, as Carey argued, the study “lends support to those who have long been skeptical that bisexuality is a distinct and stable sexual orientation” (p. A1). Never mind that the original study in no way “proves” what it has set out to establish, the media simply assists in the “social construction of scientific fact” (Latour & Woolgar, 1979).

Outside of self-defined bisexual communities and social circles, bisexuality is still unfortunately largely invisible, except as the target of “scientific” articles refuting its existence, and sensationalist news stories about men “on the down low,” spreading HIV to unsuspecting heterosexuals (Heath & Goggin, 2009). Although we have all heard the term bisexual and met a few people who identify with it, bisexuality, in general, is not an accepted sexual orientation. A close look at the way we view bisexuality in mainstream culture makes it clear that we rely on the categories of heterosexual and homosexual to group people, and when individuals’ behavior or self-identification does not fit either of these categories, instead of creating new categories, we expand the old ones to accommodate new facts. Take, for instance, the case of Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who was charged with “lewd conduct” in June 2007 for allegedly inviting sexual contact with an undercover police officer in the men’s bathroom of an airport. At a press conference a month later, he insisted, “I am not gay. I never have been gay” (Statesman Staff, 2007). Why did Senator Craig feel the need to insist that he was not gay? Why didn’t he argue that he was bisexual, or at least not bisexual, rather than not gay? He was married to a woman at the time and yet appeared to fear that one case of alleged sexual contact with another man would make him gay. Soon after the Craig scandal broke, instead of labeling Craig a cheating bisexual, everyone in the country had an opinion on whether he was heterosexual or homosexual—that is, which one he “really” was. Admitting to sex with men and announcing himself as a bisexual wouldn’t have just made Craig a cheater—it would have put him squarely within the category of the sexuality most ignored and disliked by heterosexuals and homosexuals: that “awful bisexual.”

In an Internet search of the content of six popular newspapers and magazines from 1990 to 1999, one author finds that the term bisexuality appeared only 80 times, while the term homosexuality appeared 5,458 times (Yoshino, 2000, p. 368). The author, Kenji Yoshino, also pointed out that though in most contexts people are presumed heterosexual, there are certain situations in which they are presumed homosexual (e.g., a lesbian bar), but virtually no contexts, outside of small bisexual or polyamorous enclaves in major cities, in which they are presumed bisexual (Yoshino, 2000, p. 369). Bisexuals in relationships often blend into the sexual orientation dictated by that relationship, rather than retaining their status as bisexuals. People who identify as bisexual are regularly accused of denying their true heterosexuality or homosexuality and either “having fun” trying out bisexuality if they are straight, or attempting to avoid homophobia, and access heterosexual privilege, if they are gay. Despite the activism of bisexual groups in the late 1980s, bisexuals continue to fight to have the word bisexual included in group names and conference titles (Young, 1997, p. 62). At one conference, a bisexual woman reports being told that, “bisexuality just isn’t a sexual orientation” (Storr, 1999, p. 309).

Scientists follow social trends on the issue of bisexuality. In the study discussed earlier, the researchers exposed a group of self-identified homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual men to pornography involving either men or women and then measured their genital arousal (by penile circumference) to each of the stimuli. The study was unabashedly hoping to demonstrate that bisexual men do not exist. The introduction begins with the statement, “[a]lthough bisexual behavior is not uncommon in men, there has long been skepticism that it is motivated by strong sexual arousal and attraction to both sexes” (Rieger et al., 2005, p. 579). The authors went on later to state that “when self-report is suspect, genital arousal may provide a more valid measure,” and then related that up to 40% of homosexual men have identified as bisexual at some point during their coming-out process, implying that the category “bisexual” might actually be just a step on the way to homosexuality (Rieger et al., 2005, pp. 579-580).

The results of the study indicate that the genital arousal of bisexual men (penile circumference) looks very similar to that of heterosexual and homosexual men—that is, most of the self-identified bisexuals were aroused disproportionately by either the men or women, instead of equally by both, leading the author of the New York Times article that reported the findings to conclude that the bisexual men were either “Straight, Gay or Lying.” What the Times article fails to mention, and the original research study does not emphasize, was that most of the men, including those who identified as heterosexual and homosexual, were at least somewhat aroused by their nonpreferred sex, even if that arousal was not as great as their arousal to their preferred sex. The original article remarks cursorily that “this suggests that most men may possess a certain capacity for bisexual arousal.” The results indicate that bisexual men have similar patterns of arousal to heterosexual and homosexual men. However, in their conclusion, rather than deducing that most men are bisexual, the authors decided that “it remains to be shown that male bisexuality exists” (Rieger et al., 2005, pp. 581-582).

Not only are bisexuals made invisible, but when they are acknowledged, it is often in disparaging ways. Bisexuals are stereotyped as promiscuous, greedy, immature, and unable to be monogamous (Rust, 2000, p. 207). Why are we so insistent on retaining the categories “heterosexual” and “homosexual” by making bisexuality invisible? Why is the category “bisexuality” demonized so much that individuals are loathe to define themselves by the term? Yoshino (2000) attempted to answer this question by suggesting that self-identified heterosexuals and self-identified homosexuals have a stake in retaining a binary system that sets them at odds with one another. Yoshino pointed out that of the studies to date regarding sexuality, bisexuals seem to exist in equal or higher numbers than homosexuals, and yet they are not as visible, indicating that their erasure is a product of social construction rather than a sheer numerical fact (Yoshino, p. 361).

The heterosexual and the homosexual communities seem to be allied in the erasure and delegitimation of bisexuality. Heterosexuals participate in the erasure of bisexuality by assuming that all bisexuals are either closeted gays, straights who are trying out bisexuality as a “fashion” or a “fad” or individuals who are going through a “phase” that will bring them to a more stable identity. It is interesting to note how much importance we place on stability, even though for many people sexual preference changes a great deal over a lifetime. Not only do heterosexuals participate in bisexual erasure, they also contribute to bisexual delegitimation. Straights stereotype bisexuals as promiscuous, insincere, closeted homosexuals, and as bridges of infection from gays to straights (Yoshino, pp. 395-396).

Heterosexuals are invested in the erasure and delegitimation of bisexuality for a number of reasons. Heterosexuals fear bisexuality because it destabilizes not just sexuality, but sex. As long as heterosexuality is the hegemonic force, each sex will perform in a way that is attractive to the other sex—especially women, who are the subordinate group. The heterosexist system, then, protects traditional sexual norms and reinforces sexism, the system upon which our laws and customs are dependent (Yoshino, 2000, pp. 416-417). Second, heterosexuals are wary of bisexuality because they fear that it destabilizes monogamy as the prevailing norm. Because they are a less stable identity category, bisexuals have become the easiest group to blame in the spread of HIV between the gay and straight populations. Bisexuals have been stereotyped by straights as duplicitous, closeted men who participate in sex with other men and then bring home disease to their wives (Yoshino, p. 423). Thus heterosexuals have many reasons to conceal or stigmatize bisexuality.

The homosexual community also has a stake in bisexual erasure and delegitimization. Bisexuals are stereotyped by the gay community as closeted, as “fence-sitters,” as “cop-outs,” and as desirous of retaining heterosexual privilege (Yoshino, 2000, pp. 398-399). On a personal level, most gays would like to be able to explain their homosexuality as something unchangeable about them (Yoshino, 2000, p. 405). With each new discovery of a “gay gene,” gays place more faith in the essential nature of their sexuality. Bisexuality challenges gays’ defense of their sexuality in essentialist terms because it allows for the possibility that at least some of them are not “forced” to be gay, but instead choose it. In addition to their individual investments in the stability of sexuality, gays as a group depend heavily on the stabilization of sexuality as a political strategy in the fight for civil rights and the struggle against heterosexism (Yoshino, 2000, pp. 405-407). As Stacey Young (1997) pointed out

[q]ueer identity politics has necessarily involved constructing definitions of queer identities whose content is characterized by the reversal of constructions of heterosexuality. While this has facilitated coherence among queers, and an oppositional stance toward heterosexism, it has also had the effect of closing off certain avenues of inquiry into queer sexuality. (p. 52)

In addition to revealing the possibly nonessential, constructed nature of homosexuality, and therefore questioning the use of identity politics in queer movements, bisexuals threaten gay politics in another way. Assimilationist gays see the stereotype of bisexual promiscuity as damaging to the stable and monogamous image they would like to present to a heterosexual public (Yoshino, 2000, p. 427). Even those gays who reject monogamous heterosexual norms often think of bisexuals as potential deserters who may give up their loyalty to the gay cause because they decide to be in heterosexual relationships (Yoshino, 2000, p. 407). Ultimately, the figure of the bisexual is a threat to the existing infrastructure of sexuality that bases itself entirely upon a dominant heterosexual population and an oppositional homosexual one.

Bi-History

As Stephen Angelides (2001) demonstrated not only is bisexuality today a suspicious identity, but the history of bisexuality demonstrates that its emergence as an identity was colored by a belief in an inherent difference between men and women. The concept of bisexuality was first introduced in 1866 by a Russian embryologist named Aleksandr Kovalevsky, who used the term bisexual to describe a hermaphroditic ascidians, or sea squirt, that he had discovered. This creature seemed to be made up of two sexes and would be called a hermaphrodite or “intersex” today. At this point, however, bisexual referred not to the sexual practice, but to the sexual morphology, of an animal. How bisexuality came to be distinguished from hermaphroditism and understood as a sexual orientation is a telling tale central to our understanding of its contemporary cultural status.

Charles Darwin published his treatise on evolution, The Origin of Species, in 1859, and in 1871 he released The Descent of Man, which outlined a theory of sexual selection or sexual dimorphism, in which male and female members of a species were on separate evolutionary paths. Darwin argued that the more dissimilar the two sexes, the more evolutionarily advanced the species. Darwin utilized Kovalevsky’s discovery of the “bisexual” ascidians as evidence for his evolutionary theory, explaining that the invertebrate ascidians were the “missing link” in the evolution of invertebrates to vertebrates, which were more evolutionarily advanced than invertebrates, and therefore no longer “bisexual.” Soon, the German scientist Ernst Haeckel would elaborate a theory of “recapitulation,” which dictated that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” or the embryological stages of a species repeat its evolutionary stages. Human embryos were observed to have a period of “bisexuality” in which they were yet undifferentiated into male or female, giving support to the idea that they had evolved from earlier, hermaphroditic species of animals (Angelides, 2001, p. 32).

Recapitulation theory was applied not only to demonstrate that the evolutionary history of the human species repeated itself in the embryological development of the fetus, but also extrapolated to make arguments about development outside the uterus. Men, scientists said, were more evolutionarily advanced than women, and therefore, during childhood, had to pass through a “feminized” stage, from which they emerged as mature and evolutionarily advanced people. At the same time, women were labeled immature and undeveloped (Angelides, 2001, p. 33).

As evolutionary science was developing, so too was a new science of sexuality. Theorists in the late 19th century hypothesized that incomplete sexual development in the uterus accounted for the sexual preference of homosexuals. The dominant ideology on sexual attraction held that homosexual people were “inverts” who took on not just the sexual preference, but the gender role of the opposite sex. However, noted sexologist Havelock Ellis recognized that a homosexual man could be “masculine” in other ways even though he was “feminine” in his sexual habits (Angelides, 2001, p. 39). He theorized that every fetus started off “bisexual,” in that it was attracted to men and women, just as it started off “intersex,” or hermaphroditic. The mature fetus reached its final destination as a complete male or female heterosexual person, whereas the immature fetus produced an adult bisexual (Angelides, 2001, pp. 40-41).

Just as the hermaphrodite had been positioned as the immature remnant of a nonsexually dimorphic past, sexologists created the modern bisexual to serve as an immature form of sexual being. Viewing the hermaphrodite as an evolutionary throwback reinforced sexist notions of an evolutionary division between men and women. In the same way, positing bisexuality as immature in comparison to heterosexuality and homosexuality supports the notion that mature sexuality involves distinguishing between two different sexes. To this day, “because attractions to women and men are culturally constructed as contrary to each other, bisexuals are thought to be internally conflicted, emotionally or psychologically immature, or otherwise unstable” (Rust, 2000, p. 207). Theories of bisexuality do not simply posit heterosexuals and homosexuals as separate species, but also men and women as opposites. As Paula Rodriguez Rust (2000) pointed out, “If men and women are ‘opposite’ genders, then attractions toward women and men must also be opposite attractions that cannot coexist simultaneously within a single individual” (p. 206). Even the term bi-sexual denotes that the person who identifies with this term is attracted to two different things, reinforcing the gender binary, and also excluding transgender and intersex people as objects of affection. Bisexuality must necessarily be made pathological to support the idea that men and women are fundamentally opposite beings.

Interestingly, the argument that “opposite” attractions are not possible in one person rests on our fundamental need for stability. One might argue, for instance, that a person is capable of being interested in “opposite” sexes, just as he or she is capable of liking “opposite” foods. However, regarding sexual relationships, we do not allow each other the freedom to take interest in both sexes because we mistakenly believe that a bisexual person cannot commit to just one partner, and therefore cannot fit into our traditional notions of monogamy and family. Bisexual people can of course be monogamous, but like gays and straights, this is not always their preference.

Mistakenly Written as Lesbian

Not only is the bisexual identity of everyday people erased or delegitimized, but such cultural prejudices extend into other realms of existence. In literature, bisexuality is constantly countered by the reality of conquest—of being conquered—that is virtually invisible but nonetheless ubiquitous. The act of reading texts is not particularly different from the act of reading people; the impulse to holistically read one’s sexual identity is pervasive and accepted. Excising bisexuality from texts perpetuates the dangerous notion that bisexuality will and must continue to be conquered, that it must be overcome. The truth is that sexualities that are less coded, less visible and less predictable are lifted from their troublesome space—troublesome, that is, to a hetero—homosexual oppositional system—and repositioned into a more seamless matrix. Upon closer inspection, however, the matrix is certainly not seamless and the sexualities are no less challenging to a steadily position.

Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body (1993) is, in all its seemingly unresolvable ambiguities, an expression of the arbitrariness of contemporary notions of identity as based on what Gayle Rubin (1975) once called the “sex/gender system,” or “systematic ways to deal with sex, gender and babies” (p. 168). Although Winterson declares her text an unrestricted examination of love, the presence of a somewhat unidentifiable first-person narrator, who is nameless and ageless, with an unspecified gender and a troublesome bisexual orientation has inspired critics to disregard Winterson’s reading instructions in favor of neater, more encompassing readings that problematically posit the existence of a monosexual ideology. Vis-à-vis a narrator who remains indefinable by most contemporary standards, Winterson should be able to escape from a discourse heavily embedded with gendered and sexual connotations. The narrator of Winterson’s text chooses not to perform his or her gender in accordance with any socially defined standards, including seemingly trivial linguistic markers. Perhaps the most overt example of this is when Louise, the narrator’s eventual lover says: “When I saw you two years ago, I thought you were the most beautiful creature male or female I had ever seen” (p. 84); this statement is symbolic of the narrative’s attitude toward its narrator’s gender—the usual cues, though they may be mentioned, in no way speak to the narrator’s gender/sex identity. Throughout the text, the reader is aware only of the object of the narrator’s sexual desire—that is, the man (Crazy Frank) or woman (Jacqueline, Louise, Bathsheba, Inge, other unnamed girlfriends) with whom the narrator is involved. Either way—the fact that the narrator has relationships with men and women speaks to his or her active bisexuality. Yet, in an attempt to define the indefinable, one of two biases surface on behalf of the literary critic when approaching Winterson’s novel: a typical heterosexist bias, connecting sexuality and gender by relying on the object of sexuality to define the gender of the narrator, or an author-as-narrator bias, forcing an unfounded link between Winterson’s sexuality and the sexuality of the narrator.

When approaching the narrator’s subject position, critics of the novel often read the narrator’s bisexuality not as bisexuality but as an indicator of the narrator’s hidden lesbian subjectivity; Heather Nunn (1996) wrote:

Within Written on the Body the narrator fluctuates between both male and female lovers and invokes imagery that suggests the alternation between feminine and masculine positions. This non-gender-specific narrator creates an intriguing (yet troubling) space that can be filled in as desires demand … it is possible to construct the narrator as a woman. (p. 18)

The “troubling” position that appears in Nunn’s parenthetical is erased by her declaration that the narrator could be read as woman; in fact, that is what Nunn does: read the narrator as woman. Instead of relishing in the problematics and possibilities that literally pour out of the nonsexed bisexuality of the narrator, Nunn, like far too many other critics, refuses to approach a character that refuses to play by her rules. Yet she still imposes those rules on a text that so explicitly tries to fight them. Reductively, Nunn views the queerness of Winterson’s narrator in purely homosexual terms, a testament to the prioritized position of a homosexual-heterosexual binary within even the queerest of scholarly interrogations.

Even despite Winterson’s own objection, many critics have sought to read her lesbianism into the text and, in the process, have ignored Winterson’s vital invitation (one could even say command) to read, quite literally, the absence of a declarative gender on behalf of the narrator. Critic Andrea L. Harris (2000) rightly asserted that “It is important that we read Winterson’s ‘concealment’ of her narrator’s gender and not just read through it by attempting to read the gender that is presumably concealed” (p. 133). Harris, however, reads the narrator only as a woman, rejecting other possibilities by replacing pronouns like “he/she” with an unquestionable “she” in her reading of the text. Despite her own recognition that Winterson’s ungendered narrator is deliberately ungendered, Harris paradoxically treats the narrator as a woman, abandoning the more challenging, more controversial reading of Winterson’s text—amputating any discussion of the narrator as bisexed.

Harris (2000), like most narrator-as-Winterson-as-lesbian critics, cited a particularly effective passage from Written on the Body to suggest that the narrator is a disguised woman: “I thought difference was rated to be the largest part of sexual attraction but there are so many things about us that are the same” (Winterson, 1993, p. 129). Harris read this passage as the narrator commenting on “the differences between heterosexual and lesbian love precisely in terms of the question of difference” (p. 144). Harris’s reading of this passage is as narrow as her reading of the narrator; her interpretation of the difference between heterosexual and lesbian love speaks to the heterosexualization of desire as Judith Butler (1990) understands it, suggesting that “normative” sexual behavior could only fit a heterosexual mold, whereas behavior that is perhaps less “traditional” only warrants the category “lesbian.” Harris never paused to consider the ultimately queer possibilities of bisexuality, choosing instead to play within the hegemonic sexuality dualism that actively dictates our own sexual standing.

Considering that Winterson’s text and narrator deliberately defy genderification, the means of critical interpretation chosen by Harris is clearly problematic. Yet she is not alone in choosing to read the narrator as a lesbian. Marilyn R. Farwell (1996), in fact, introduces Written on the Body as a “Postmodern Lesbian Text” (p. 168). An overt declaration of sexuality, like Farwell’s, only perpetuates problematic identity stereotypes that critics attempt to overlay onto the text. Similarly, scholar Patricia Duncker (1998) actually suggested that

by concealing the gender of the narrator, Winterson avoids writing a Lesbian text about the affair between two women shattering a rotten marriage, but a text which gives the (male) heterosexual reader plenty of room to feel smug. I am not like that husband, he can say to himself, I have been let off. (pp. 81-82)

This assumption, like other similar inferences, limits the potential effectiveness of Winterson’s experimental text and, in Dunker’s case, weakens Winterson’s ability and intention. Duncker and many of her peers consistently qualify Winterson’s textual decision to “never officially reveal” the narrator’s sex with the caveat that “plenty of suggestive sex takes place” (p. 84). This trope of criticism about the novel actualizes the persistent belief that bisexuality is merely a phase in the coming-out process; moreover, the fact that in Winterson’s case, it is treated with such hostility suggests that the notion of bisexual-as-arbiter-of-heterosexual-privilege underscores such critical responses. Moreover, Duncker’s reliance upon some ambiguous notion of “suggestive sex” does not function as a means to eliminate the narrator’s possible genders/sexes, in favor of one lesbian experience in the way that Duncker suggested; rather, it speaks to the presentation of the narrator as bisexual—highly dynamic and circumstantially responsive to different partners—representing the traditionally female, the traditionally male and various other points on the spectrum of gender identity—and fully aware of the performative nature of gender and sex.

However, through the deliberate absence of exclusively lesbian desire, Winterson rejects the notion of any legitimate differentiation of love in terms of sexuality, preserving and embracing the narrator’s undeniable bisexuality. Instead, she suggested something inherent in the nature of love that defies categorization along the lines of gender and sexuality: the performances of gender and sex are juxtaposed to the core reality of love and loss within the text. The narrator’s bisexuality speaks to his or her prioritization of chemistry and love above the categories on which we are so used to basing our sexual pairings. Because love and loss are completely separate from gender and sex in Winterson’s text, the narrator experiences and expresses a fluidity of gender and sex boundaries; further, the rejection of any notion of a gendered/sexed core allows for a reading of individuals as the “same” regardless of sex or gender. Winterson’s narrator is not just bisexual but is theorizing bisexuality! When Winterson declares that she is writing a text solely about love, she does not exclude sexuality but portrays encounters that manifest a more expansive notion of sexuality that is subsumed under a discourse about the power of love. Love and sexuality, in the case of Winterson’s narrator, transcend the categorizations of sex and gender.

Accordingly, within the reader’s (and clearly, the critic’s) desire for a well-defined narrator is manifest the irrational correlation between identity and gender/sexuality, which Winterson undermines by allowing the narrator to remain particularly ambiguous. Though the narrator tells long stories about love and sex, worships the body of Louise—his or her supposed soul mate—and self-reflexively analyzes his or her life, the reader remains perpetually unsatisfied with regard to the identity of the narrator. The reader’s insecurity concerning the identity of the narrator reflects his or her reliance upon the easily deconstructed, arbitrary relationship between gender and identity. Winterson (1995) revealed enough information for the reader to establish a complete portrait of the narrator, at least emotionally and mentally—should the reader feel comfortable accepting and embracing the narrator’s bisexuality; her decision to reveal clues that muddle rather than clarify the narrator’s sexual identity is one that draws attention to the reader’s conscious or unconscious biases concerning issues of sex and gender. In fact, one can understand Winterson’s deliberate decision to “push … at the boundaries we thought were fixed” as a means of drawing attention to the reader’s reliance upon socially constructed markers of identity, however arbitrary and insignificant (p. 116). Winterson’s text allows for the establishment of a love story that relies upon emotion and sexuality, both of which, for Winterson, are unconcerned with and thereby unconnected to gender; the narrator allows Winterson to theorize about love without regard for monosexuality—hetero or homo—and Written on the Body, then, is a testament to the power of love over fixed sexual identity vis-à-vis the world of bisexual possibility.

The Depths of the Well

Reading Radclyffe Hall’s (1928/1998) The Well of Loneliness is a monumental task; reading criticism about the novel is an infuriating one. The Well has been critically appropriated by individuals as a marker of watershed personal moments—most often the experience of coming out of the closet. It has also been transformed into a vehicle for different politically charged theoretical movements: second- and third-wave feminism, gay and lesbian studies, queer theory and transgender studies (see Doan & Prosser, 2001). Accordingly, Stephen Gordon has been read as the quintessential feminist and a rather mediocre one: a conflicted lesbian, a sexual invert, a prototypical transvestite—the penultimate queer martyr. The novel, as well, has been treated as a dire tragedy—lesbianism’s defeat at the hand of the acquiescence to heteronormativity—and a hopeful look toward the future of inverts everywhere—the recognition that will presumably arise from Stephen’s public visibility vis-à-vis her prolific literary career.

The attention that Stephen receives—frustrating and indigestible as it may be—has in effect banished most of the other characters in the text from the scholarship written about it. The compulsion to neatly categorize Stephen eliminates critical attention that could and should be paid to some of the more ambiguous characters in the text. Of course, there are exceptions to the reality of critical neglect suffered by “other” characters; Clare Hemmings (2001) wrote brilliantly of Mary Llewelyn’s status as femme in “‘All My Life I’ve Been Waiting’: Theorizing Femme Narrative in The Well of Loneliness.” Relying upon psychoanalytically grounded theories of the male gaze as well as sexological theories of the differing degrees of sexual inversion, Hemmings attempted to read Mary not as eternal failure—the girl who willingly abandons homosexuality for a life of heteronormative domesticity—but a woman whose future cannot so easily be reduced into a hetero-homosexual opposition with Mary simply opting for the former. Hemmings responded directly to Frann Michel’s (1996) assertion that “Mary is thus represented as essentially passive and becomes the precursor to the negative image of the bisexual woman who leaves her woman lover for a man” (p. 60) by suggesting that “there is no evidence for her [Mary’s] presumed heterosexuality outside a masculine viewpoint” (p. 194). Hemmings tried to reposition Mary—not as bisexual—but as femme invert, relying on the influence of sexologists like Ellis on Radclyffe Hall; accordingly, the presumption of Mary’s bisexuality serves the reader’s desire to justify Mary’s and Stephen’s positions relative to one another at the end of the novel. How else could one possibly explain the idea that “Stephen gives Mary up to a male lover” without the possibility of Mary’s bisexuality (Michel, p. 60)?

Hemmings’s (2001) passing references to Martin Hallam—the man who befriends Stephen, pursues Stephen, is rejected by Stephen, and then resurfaces toward the end of the text, only to be the presumed object of Mary’s bisexual desires—provide a useful starting point for an analysis of a substantially undertreated figure in the text. A critical reading of Martin Hallam, then, helps us to move beyond the last question that we posed, and into more intriguing analytical territory. Hemmings wrote:

Martin’s status as ideal heterosexual male is cast in doubt in a number of ways throughout The Well. First, there is his perhaps too gentle love of trees, and his curious isolation. In terms of desire, Martin has already proved his judgment to be flawed, through his declaration of love for Stephen earlier in the novel. Additionally, when Martin reappears in the novel he suffers from a very particular war wound—a bullet to the head that “affected the optic nerve rather badly” (416). The very gaze required to structurally seduce the feminine invert away from the masculine woman is damaged. (pp. 183-184)

Hemmings used this reading of Martin to problematize the way that Mary’s character is critically treated. Yet there is much more to be said about Martin, specifically in terms of his sexuality. Although Hemmings argued that Martin’s impaired and misdirected gaze makes the final retreat into heteronormativity an illusion, the insinuation of her argument is that Martin is not simply heterosexual. She wrote: “I cannot resist the temptation to suggest that Martin Hallam’s desire for Stephen was not for her as a mistaken feminine object but her as a masculine subject, his like rather than his un-like” (p. 184). Calling the assumption of his heterosexuality into question, Hemmings momentarily brings Martin into the critical spotlight—but that moment is fleeting, as she uses Martin to make a set of claims about Mary’s identity.

Hemmings’s (2001) instinct to read Martin as nonhetero is apt and telling. Martin’s attractions to the masculine Stephen and to the feminine Mary complicate an understanding of him as pure heterosexual. Hemmings’s reading of Martin’s desire is a bit too reductive; the equation is not as simple as ‘if Martin’s desire for Stephen is a desire for like, then his desire for Mary is desire for un-like’; the likenesses that he shares with Stephen is complicated by the fact that Martin’s always questioned masculinity exists in some opposition to Stephen’s always asserted masculine presence. Stephen’s physical prowess is distinctly oppositional to Martin’s quiet and weak characterization. When Martin and Stephen are first introduced to one another, they agree to sit out the dances that would otherwise cause them both some stress; “it was Stephen who explained that she danced very badly; it was Martin who suggested that they sit out their dances” (Hall, 1928/1998, p. 103). Stephen dances badly because she leads—Martin, because he does not.

“A queer, sensitive fellow,” Martin’s feeling is his representative characteristic: “because he liked Stephen he could talk of his trees … He talked about trees as some men talk of ships, because they love them and the element they stand for” (Hall, 1928/1998, pp. 103, 105). Because of his intense love of trees and the softness of his character, Martin presents no threat to Stephen in terms of sexual tension or masculine competition:

And Stephen, the awkward, the bashful, the tongue-tied, heard herself talking in her turn, quite freely, heard herself asking him endless questions about forestry, farming and the care of vast orchards; thoughtful questions, unromantic but apt—such as one man will ask of another (Hall, 1928/1998, p. 104). Hall is careful to remind us that Stephen is not approaching Martin as an object of love or of lust, but Martin’s intentions—about which the reader is impelled to speculate—are unclear; that lack of clarity opens up a set of sexual and critical possibilities within the suggestion that these were “unromantic” encounters between men.

Martin declares his love for Stephen and is subsequently humiliated by her repulsion and rejection. Stephen’s rejection is a reality check for her parents, as well, who momentarily think that her “abnormalities” might be superficial and not inflect her sexual self. Martin’s embarrassment leads to his abandonment of Stephen’s home. He returns significantly later on in the novel, long after the start of Stephen’s seemingly idyllic and hopeful relationship with Mary. Stephen recognizes the familiarity of Martin’s handwriting and tears open the letter that has been forwarded from her home to Paris: “But I do want to try and make you understand how desperately I’ve regretted our friendship—that perfect early friendship of ours seems to me now a thing well worth regretting … the fault was all mine for not understanding” (Hall, 1928/1998, pp. 458-459). Stephen and Martin rekindle the friendship they once had, this time both fully aware of its necessary and appropriate boundaries. Yet desire for Mary is what comes between Stephen and Martin—as, once, Martin, himself, came between them:

yet now there were times when he avoided her eyes, when he grew very silent and awkward with Stephen, as though something inevitable and unhappy had obtruded itself upon their friendship; something, moreover, that he feared to tell her. Then one day in a blinding flash of insight she suddenly knew what it was—it was Mary. (Hall, 1928/1998, p. 473)

Mary is, by comparison, an unquestionably feminine presence in the novel—a fact that makes it easier for critics to rip her sexuality apart. In their desire for Mary, then, Stephen and Martin are aligned as suitors and competitors.

The desire that Martin has for Mary is undeniable; how, though, are we to reconcile that desire with the desire that he expresses for Stephen? One is that, in some way, Martin falls in love with Stephen’s masculine presence and Mary’s feminine presence. Regardless of the question of Martin’s likeness—or unlikeness—to Stephen, Hemmings is right to question the unquestioning ascription of heterosexuality to Martin Hallam. Martin is attracted to the masculinity that Stephen embodies and the femininity that is easily located in Mary; because the gender identities of the two objects of his desire are not the same Martin is, in one way or another, not monosexual. His bisexual tendencies—perhaps less obvious and more complicated than other instances of literary bisexuality—are nonetheless a reality. Of course, the timelessness of The Well is evident in the critical attempts to commandeer its tricky protagonist. Yet, turning our focus to less overtly queer characters, like Martin Hallam, actually opens up a wealth of queer possibilities and a representation of bisexuality that is complicated, interesting and useful.

A Queer, Queer Future

Homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality are categories based on the sex or gender of those to whom an individual is attracted. Although this system is convenient, it is by no means self-evident. As Eve Sedgwick (1990) noted,

[i]t is a rather amazing fact that, of the very many dimensions along which the genital activity of one person can be differentiated from that of another … precisely one, the gender of object choice, emerged from the turn of the century, and has remained, as the dimension denoted by the now ubiquitous category of “sexual orientation.” (p. 8)

Sedgwick—among others—offered no explanation for the selection of gender as the most salient characteristic in our classification of sexual object choice. Queer theory is groundbreaking in its ability to reveal a cultural system that recognizes only heterosexuality but nonetheless is reliant upon homosexuality. However, in an attempt to oppose heteronormativity in the age of identity politics, this academic movement has come to theorize only homosexual identity, mainly at the expense of other sexual possibilities. By focusing on the relationship between homosexuality and heterosexuality, queer theory has stopped short of addressing the structures of power that underlie our organization of sexuality—something bisexuality speaks to on a daily basis.

Inasmuch as bisexuality poses a threat to the institutions of heterosexuality and homosexuality, it also opens up a set of truly queer possibilities. The existence of bisexuality and bisexuals virtually demands a reconfiguration of the ways in which we define our desired-object-choice, diffusing outward from a monosexual paradigm into significantly more open-ended categories. In the most productive of circumstances, theories of bisexuality and queer theory will mutually inflect one another, ultimately forcing a reconceptualization of categories of sexual difference that extend far beyond our current notions of them.