On Valentine’s Day two years ago, Anna — a junior who asked to be identified by a pseudonym — traveled to New York City to spend the evening with her girlfriend.
One year ago, she enjoyed a homemade, candlelit dinner with her new significant other — a boyfriend.
This year, Anna is in a new relationship.
But her openness to playing both fields, she said, has not helped her particularly in finding these valentines.
“It’s no easier to date people when there are twice as many people to date, I promise,” Anna said, laughing.
Many people might label Anna “bisexual,” a term typically defined as openness to pursuing a sexual or romantic relationship with a member of any gender. But Anna, like many other “bisexual” Yalies, is not thrilled about this label. Even on Yale’s campus, where the queer community is known for its vibrance and involvement, Anna and other “bisexual” students are a little-understood group — one that has to grapple with semiotics as well as stereotypes.
Many students and professors dispute the clinical definition of “bisexual,” which assumes only two genders. Critics of the term call this two-gender assumption a social construct — and one that is based on incorrect premises; instead they prefer the term “queer.” But beyond politics, they said, the term “bisexual” is vague, amorphous and rampant with stereotypes.
One prevalent stereotype alleges that particularly promiscuous students choose bisexuality as a way of expanding their dating pool. But, said queer students, that’s just false.
Sometimes, said Arianna Davalos ’07, a head of the Yale Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Cooperative, she’ll be looking for a woman to date. Sometimes, she’ll be looking for a man. It depends on what she feels like on any given week — but it also depends on who catches her eye. If someone has an incredible personality, Davalos said, she’ll be attracted, no matter what the gender.
But she’s a bit picky. So she still hasn’t found the perfect someone — even though she’s looking at all her options.
Personality also ranks above gender for Daniel Gusman ’05.
“If one individual has a great personality, that’s going to attract me more than anything else,” he said.
Right now, for Gusman, that individual is a man. In the past, though, Gusman tended to date women, he said.
Beyond personality, there are general differences in dating a man versus a woman, Anna said. If she is looking for a challenging, flirtatious relationship — one built on banter and joking — she’ll look for a guy. If she wants a more intimate relationship with cuddling, nurturing and emotion, she said, she’ll pursue a woman.
“In a way, it’s like people going through phases where they like blondes or athletes,” Anna said. “It’s not that different; it’s just that gender plays in. But we, as a society, have determined that gender is more pivotal to your identity.”
This pigeonholing frustrates students like Anna, Gusman and Davalos, who say that gender is not as simple as societal rules claim — or as labels will have people believe.
William Summers, a professor in the School of Medicine who teaches the class “Biology of Gender and Sexuality,” agreed. One exercise he does with his students, he said, is asking them to imagine they will sleep with someone that night. They then have to picture everyone they know, of both sexes and all levels of attractiveness, and organize them from most sexually desirable to least. Even straight students, Summers said, will mix the sexes along the line — the most heterosexual guy, he said, would still prefer to sleep with Matt Damon than, say, his own grandmother. Sexuality depends on context.
“You may be bisexual at one time, and monosexual at another time and polysexual at another,” Summers said. “I prefer to think of people as just sexual.”
One of the strongest opponents of labels is Loren Krywanczyk ’06, who would rather not be labeled as “he” or “she” at all. Even the term bisexual, he (or “ze,” a non-gendered alternative to “he” or “she”) said, is inaccurate, though functional on a practical level.
“A lot of people use bisexual to mean anything not strongly heterosexual or not strongly homosexual,” Krywanczyk said. “The problem with it is it assumes only two genders, only two sexes, and it plays into this binary system which is just not accurate.”
Not all members of academia agree with this looser stance on gender and sexuality. A number of researchers believe that gender identity is partly innate and partly cultural. In 1997, a case came to media attention that seemed to prove that fact: after a male baby had his genitalia accidentally cut off by a surgeon and was reared as a girl, she always identified as a boy, eventually pursuing reconstructive surgery and marrying a woman. Many scientists point to this case as evidence that gender is, at least partly, biological.
Summers agreed that, biologically, there are two sexes. But he made the distinction that the idea of “gender identity” — which implies sexual actions are not just what a person does, but create who that person is — is a relatively new and a socially-constructed concept.
Krywanczyk — who is pursuing a double major in English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies — said, however, that gender is far more fluid than society constructs it to be. Take being a straight man, Krywanczyk said. In one context, being a straight man is signified by being chauvinistic; in another, it may be restraining oneself from crying; in another situation, it may be knocking back whiskey. Signals of gender are arbitrary, he said, but society believes they are natural, set and fixed.
Another example, Summers said, is clothing. If Summers were to walk down the streets of New Haven in a skirt, he said, he would be signaling that he were not a “straight man.” But if he went to Scotland, his skirt, if it were pleated and plaid, would signify his masculinity.
Placing people into categories according to their sexuality, Summers said, is a recent phenomenon. The idea of identity — of which sexual identity is only one part — wasn’t even a widely used concept until the 1930s, he said, with the work of psychologist Erik Erikson.
So while Krywanczyk is open to pursuing a relationship with men, women or transsexuals, he said, he does not like the term “bisexual.” The term “queer” or “fluid” is more accurate.
Justin Ross ’07, also a head of the Yale Co-op, agreed that the term “queer” is often more appropriate to describe alternative sexualities. In high school, he identified himself as gay, Ross said. He had a boyfriend; he fit in with the gay community. So when he arrived at Yale, he assumed he would continue primarily dating men.
Instead, he found himself occasionally attracted to women. His most meaningful relationships, he said, have been with females.
That variance can cause confusion even among the gay community. As a freshman, he brought a girl he was seeing to his friends’ party, which was mostly attended by gay men, he said.
The couple was not well-received.
If you’re not squarely in the straight or gay category, it can be difficult to find a niche, Ross said, especially if you’re a man. Many people seem to think that students who identify themselves as bisexual or queer are either on the way to being gay or are somehow trying to hide the fact that they are gay.
Eric Kubo ’07, who is openly gay, admitted to sometimes harboring those feelings.
“There’s a big social stigma against being gay,” Kubo said.
When he first thought he was homosexual, Kubo said, his first impulse was to come out as bisexual — an option that seemed slightly less drastic. Because of this instinct, he said, it’s hard for him to know when people mean the labels they use.
“Most people, when they hear a guy is bi, they think it’s a cover and the guy is actually gay,” Kubo said. “When a girl is bi, you think she’s actually bi.”
Summers is not surprised. Historically, he said, alternative sexualities have been harder for society accept in men than in women. So when men begin to think they’re interested in men, the first response is often to tell themselves they’re actually bisexual.
“In this whole culture, especially gay culture, bisexuality is considered a cop-out,” Summers said. “People who have already come out of the closet tell their friends who say they’re bisexual, ‘Oh, you’re just too chicken to say you’re gay.'”
Gusman has felt similar pressures to be either gay or straight. Even though he began his time at Yale by dating both women and men, he said, he continually feels pushed to identify himself as homosexual.
Now that he is in a relationship with a man, he worries he won’t be able to go back to dating women. Girls seem to have more of a problem with having a bisexual boyfriend than guys do with a bisexual girlfriend, Gusman said.
He knows only two male students who were able to foster relationships with women after starting their Yale careers seeing men. It is as though people are not supposed to vacillate in their sexuality, he said.
And that seems silly to Gusman.
“Nobody is strictly one thing or another,” he said. “You can’t say who you’re going to fall in love with.”