Unraveling the Edges of Bisexuality: Reckoning with the Intricacies of Female Queerness within Insider and Outsider Perspectives
Writing 111: Writing Seminar
My queerness crept up on me. Years ago in my high school’s LGBTQ club, I was adamant about being “just an ally!” among my confidently out-of-the-closet gay friends. However, even at age 15, I kept coming back to some feeling of queasy queer-ness within myself. I dealt with my sexuality like a mathematical calculation, reasoning that I had dated 4 guys and 0 girls and kissed 12 guys and 1 girl (but it was with my friend in front of a guy, so it didn’t feel gay). In my head that added up to just about 98% straight, yet I couldn’t help but cling to that 2% not-straight part of myself. Out loud I laughed about being ‘heteroflexible’ because it sounded flirty and playful, but internally my thoughts were consumed by the feeling that, despite my predominantly straight track record, I was not at all straight.
Up until this year I was so hesitant to call myself anything other than a ‘flavor’ of heterosexual. It wasn’t because I ever felt that being gay was wrong. I just couldn’t call myself lesbian because I knew I liked guys, and the thought of bisexual called to mind some erotic being that bounced equally between guys and girls: and that wasn’t me either. Ultimately, a mix of bisexual and queer has felt like the right fit for me, since it describes my still ongoing ambiguity about how I deal with intimacy and romance with guys, girls, whomever. Though a bit more comfortable for me now, choosing ‘queer’ felt like a cop-out at first: almost as if I wasn’t straight enough to be ‘straight’ but not confident enough in my attraction towards girls to be fully ‘bi.’ I couldn’t decide if my natural leaning towards men over women was because I had been trained to pursue guys, because there were so few gay girls to pursue, because deep down I was just confused, or a combination of the three.
Having only recently come to terms with my sexuality, I still have, and will continue to have, questions about how I feel and who I choose to be intimate with. I find myself in a middle ground between the very clearly defined groups of gay and straight, often ambiguous about my feelings to the point where I’m not sure I can even call myself bisexual or queer. It doesn’t help that bisexuals tend to carry the labels ‘just lesbian and confused’ or ‘just straight and experimenting’ (Wandrey, Mosack, & Moore, 2015), thus, defined by others as impure renditions of what we aren’t instead of what we are. Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice (1954) defines “in-groups” by distance from their relative “out-groups” in a similar way, but this method of categorization presents an issue for young queer women such as myself who yearn for more clarity than not-straight and not-lesbian. Measuring distance from monosexual attraction, the overarching “out-group,” does not give any indication of our proximity to bisexuality.
In a way it is unavoidable to talk about outsiders’ perceptions and definitions of bisexual women, since external pressures undoubtedly influence and even commodify the way we label ourselves and express our sexuality (Baldwin et al., 2017; Fahs, 2009). However, it is imperative to listen to the narratives of the queer/bisexual women themselves, for one because it validates the bisexual identity, but also because it gives those unsure of their sexuality a dynamic basis of comparison beyond dichotomous lesbian and straight labels. Truthfully, it wasn’t until I researched the complexities of bisexuality and queerness that I felt 100% confident that I was queer myself. Visibility for bisexual/queer women can also serve as a model for any individual caught in the margin between juxtaposing groups, thus normalizing the feeling of not feeling normal in the context of race, gender, class, or other aspects of identity.
Through examining data and personal accounts pertaining to bisexuality, including my own experience as a queer/bisexual woman, I aim to shed light on the way those on the outside handle bisexuality and the way bisexuals feel in those outside spaces, then on the way bisexuals actively respond to outside perspectives through self-labeling and coming out. I must note here, however, that my personal narrative as a white, queer female does not even begin to address the viewpoints of other groups, such as male bisexuals and bisexuals of color (Yost & Thomas, 2012; Chmielewski 2017). Nonetheless, my voice is one that contributes to the ever-growing visibility of bisexuals, queers, and others caught in the limbo between gay and straight.
From the Outside Looking In: Tolerance with Hidden Judgment of Bisexuality in Straight Spaces
In my own experience, I am lucky in that I feel tolerance from most straight people I’ve interacted with; to my knowledge, the majority have no outward issue with my being bisexual. Surveys of the public opinion, though, reveal a dichotomy in bisexual women’s place in the larger straight society in which they are tolerated, yet judged, and even hyper-sexualized. In a survey conducted by Dodge et al. (2016), general tolerance of bisexuals at first seems to ring true in the larger population. When a group of 3,046 predominantly straight individuals was asked pointed questions about if they saw bisexual women as “confused,” in a phase, or sexually loose, about a third responded neutrally, indicating ambivalence, lack of judgment, and overall “larger cultural shifts away” from explicit bisexual discrimination (Dodge et al., 2016, p.12). However, those responses were countered by about a third which agreed, to some extent, that bisexual women are just confused, and by another 18% which agreed, to some extent, that bisexual women “would have sex with just about anyone” (Dodge et al., 2016, p. 9). These data give indication that a notable amount of the population either invalidates bisexuals by regarding us as delusional or sexualizes us by directly equating our bisexuality to promiscuity. Even in regard to the reported 30% neutrality, the study explicitly cites “social desirability bias,” people’s desire to be seen as tolerant even if they are secretly bigoted, as having potentially skewed that portion of the data (Dodge et al., 2016, p. 12). So, even though a third of people report tolerance of bisexuals, this number may be an overestimate, and more people than reported may have negative sentiments toward bisexuality.
I have noticed a different kind of “social desirability bias,” in my friend group of straight girls. Though supportive of me in every aspect of my romantic life, my friends will noticeably be more excitable when I mention encounters with girls as opposed to with guys. Their overzealous words of encouragement appear the slightest bit forced under the guise of authenticity, and I speculate they feel they must over exaggerate their emotions about gay encounters so as not to come across as unsupportive of my bisexuality: just as the 2016 Dodge et al. survey participants may have consciously skewed their responses to appear more tolerant. I have nothing to complain about because my friends are very much accepting of me, but I cannot help but note this social desirability bias among that girl group, which, though subtle, clearly discerns their heterosexuality from my queerness.
As with my friend group, it appears in the general population that women are overall more likely to be accepting of bisexuals than are men, according to a study by Yost & Thomas (2012) comparing female and male sentiments towards female and male bisexuals. Women also report to be equally supportive of male and female bisexuals, while contrastingly, men are far more likely to approve of female bisexuals than male bisexuals (Yost & Thomas, 2012). This difference hints that something about female bisexuals makes them more tolerable and appealing than male bisexuals in the eyes of straight men. While the aforementioned Dodge et al. study (2016) separates the 18% of the public that explicitly sexualizes bisexuals from the neutral 30%, the Yost & Thomas study claims that even the reported tolerance from men of bisexual women is a guise for men’s sexualization and commoditization of bisexual women (Yost & Thomas, 2012). Male participants in the study often explicitly regarded the idea of female bisexuals as “sexy” (Yost & Thomas, 2012, p. 694). While this may seem like a harmless compliment, calling bisexuals as a group ‘sexy’ means that men view a type of person, and better yet a type of identity, as sexual, as opposed to seeing an individual as sexy. As I and other queer/bisexual women have experienced, certain straight men’s approval of female bisexuals is contingent on our serving as a sexual object for male enjoyment.
“That’s Hot” and Other Forms of Female Bisexual Fetishization and Belittlement by MalesA moment branded in my memory is the time I opened up to a guy friend about my first romantic encounter with a woman. Sprinkling the story among others involving my intimacy with males, I excitedly stated that I had kissed a girl at a party. I was elated and proud to have, for the first time, been candid about this new side of my sexuality.
Without missing a beat, my guy friend loudly retorted “that’s hot.”
That short comment was a deep punch to the gut. My friend said nothing of my encounters with guys, yet he did not hesitate to sexualize my first encounter with a female. I suddenly felt uncomfortable and inexplicably unclean. Why was one part of my sexuality “hot” while another was just there? To appease my discontent, my friend tried to explain that his comment was meant to be congratulatory: a harmless compliment. It was very clear to me, though, that he was only congratulating me for my singular ‘sexy’ encounter with a woman and not for my encounters with men, thus turning my queerness from something celebratory for me into something for him to sexualize. In that moment, he had jurisdiction over which part of my own intimate life was acceptable. My own sexuality, in that moment, no longer belonged to me and instead had become a commodity for his amusement.
Despite my anguish at the time, I realize that my friend meant no harm and that his only offense was saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Nonetheless, commentary like his just grazes the surface of a deeply rooted problem regarding some males’ sexualization of bisexual intimacy; recorded narratives of bisexual women reveal that, similar to me, many bisexual/queer females feel their intimacy with females is invalidated and fetishized by straight males. A study by Breanne Fahs (2009) presents testimonies of situations in which men openly instigate bisexual women to put on sexual displays with other females: a performance of their bisexuality solely for the entertainment of a male audience. Bisexual women often receive such encouragement from complete strangers (Fahs, 2009), which indicates that the act of performative bisexuality, not the individual bisexual but rather the bisexual identity itself, is what is deemed ‘hot’ and desirable. In a particular testimonial, a bisexual woman, Nora, cites an instance when she was encouraged to engage in performative bisexuality in front of a male. She felt during this interaction that her sexuality was commodified, used as entertainment, and hyper-sexualized by and for the male gaze (Fahs, 2009): just as I felt when my own identity was sexualized, albeit more subtly, by my male friend.
Where some straight males are quick to hyper-sexualize and aggrandize female bisexuals’ interactions with other females, these same men belittle and undermine female-female partnership compared to female-male partnership. Males at times regard female-male intimacy as legitimate while regarding girl-on-girl affairs as frivolous and non-threatening to their exclusive relationships with bisexual women. A testimony in a 2017 study, for example, recounts a bisexual woman’s male partner saying to her, “I don’t care what you do with a girl, but you can’t be with a guy” (Chmielewski, 2017, p. 539). Even though the bisexual woman, by definition of her identity, feels attraction to males and females, in the eyes of her male partner, the potential of her intimacy with a woman is not significant enough and not real enough to pose a threat to him.
Similarly, I was not seen as a threat to the boyfriend of a girl who openly hit on me. Earlier this semester a queer friend of mine had encouraged that I hook up with her; I promptly reminded her that she had a boyfriend and that I wouldn’t feel quite comfortable intervening in their exclusive relationship. She reassured me, however, that her boyfriend wouldn’t mind: as long as he got to watch. To him, the prospect of me hooking up with his girlfriend wouldn’t have been a threat nor seen as blatant cheating, but rather, would have presented a sexualized performance for his viewing pleasure.
Being Gay, but Not Quite, in the Gay Community
Bisexual/queer women such as myself experience the heterosexual public from the outside and receive mixed feelings of tolerance, acceptance, judgment, invalidation, and sexualization. But, because we are integrated directly within the LGBTQ community, as opposed to on the boundary, we more closely deal with our connection to and, at times, detachment from homosexuals. Our place in the larger, already marginalized LGBTQ community puts us almost in a margin within a margin where we encounter both a feeling of shared marginalization and an occasional feeling of exclusion.
I, for one, feel an instant camaraderie when I identify another LGBTQ person in the room, whether that person be gay, trans, or another identity of the many contained within LGBTQ. Knowing that gays are minorities relative to the larger straight public, as a queer/bi woman I revel in getting to know someone who shares in being anything other than heterosexual. This is mostly because we can relate to the collective feeling of being some flavor of not-straight, but also because I can usually talk to them about mainstream gay culture (such as, for example, the popular TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race). In gay spaces where everyone knows the feeling of being sexually against the norm, I feel free to voice my queerness. This comfort may stem from what Allport (1954) references as discrimination from the outside creating stronger bonds on the inside. We are all marginalized due to our sexual/gender identity, and thus we all have incentive to support each other. With reference to homosexuals, however, bisexuals remain disjoint because we are not monosexual. I can say for myself that my attraction to people is fluid across gender lines, which I know is the opposite for self-identifying lesbians and gay men, who, by common definition, feel attraction predominantly to the same gender.
This difference, then, leaves a gap similar to that between bisexual women and straight people in that we are not as concrete about with whom we desire intimacy. As straight people sometimes label us bisexual women as “confused” (Dodge et al. 2016), there are instances in which homosexuals fail to fully comprehend our ambiguity and, as a result, dismiss our existence as a group. Queer women in a study by Wandrey, Mosack, & Moore (2015), for example, describe feelings of invisibility and invalidation from gay men and lesbians. One bisexual woman recounted an uncomfortable encounter in which she asked her gay male friend, “What do you think of bisexuals?” and he responded, “They don’t exist” (Wandrey et al., 2015, p. 214). Through this, the friend explicitly rejects the very identity that this bisexual woman claims, despite pertaining to the same larger LGBTQ community.
This is not to say that rejection of bisexuality is a common sentiment among gays. In fact, it is hard to make broader claims about how homosexuals regard bisexuals/queers since, for example, studies like the large Dodge et al. survey only include opinions from 112 gay people in a total of 3,046 participants (2016). Despite testimonies that claim instances of bi-discrimination among homosexuals, I can say for myself that no LGBTQ person in my life has ever invalidated my sexuality.
Although I do not experience external pressure from gays, as a queer/bisexual woman I cannot help but feel some level of internalized invalidation around gays and lesbians. Compared to sure-fire same-gender attraction, it is hard for bisexuals such as myself to feel as legitimately gay as homosexuals. I convince myself that my queerness is not queer enough and that I must prove myself worthy of my LGBTQ label. As a result, I act more flamboyant and excessively reference gay pop culture, often in lieu of meaningful, non-LGBTQ related conversation points. I overcompensate because in my head I wonder if my bisexuality really is a tainted, impure form of homosexuality rather than a standalone identity. Though bisexuality has its own letter in ‘LGBTQ,’ I still fear at times that I may be betraying my gayness because I’m attracted to men.
My friend Hope, who identifies between queer and pansexual, feels this same pressure around homosexuals. She describes the feeling of illegitimacy as “appropriating gay culture” in gay spaces, especially given that she is dating a man; given her current heterosexual relationship, it would be hard to know Hope is queer without asking (H.W., personal communication, March 31, 2018). Additionally, Hope brought up her straight-passing appearance as another divisive factor she experiences around other gays (2018). To be straight-passing generally means to have no identifying qualities that a passerby may label as stereotypically ‘gay:’ edgy haircuts, a flashy wardrobe, distinctively flamboyant mannerisms, to name a few. So, for Hope, it takes active effort to appear queer because she passes as straight and is dating a man. Interestingly, another friend of mine, Charlie, also notes that being straight-passing makes it “harder for [her] to fit in queer spaces and be accepted by LGBTQ people. It makes it harder to basically identify as bisexual” (C.M., Personal communication, April 1, 2018). And, just as I amplify my perceived gayness in gay spaces, she “vocalize[s] [her] queerness a lot” and likes “to be super visibly bisexual” in any situation, including gay environments (2018). This shared experience may, in fact, open more conversation about the constraints within gay spaces due to being not only bisexual but also straight-passing. As a straight-passing queer myself that tends to surprise other gays when I reveal that I am not straight, I share in Charlie and Hope’s perspective and wonder how my straight appearance contributes to my occasional feeling of invalidation around gays. Dealing with how I come across to gays in addition to straights, then, begs the internal question seemingly shared among other confused queers: how do I label myself?
Mixed Labels and Blurred Visibility for Bisexuals: If We Even Call Ourselves That
When first confronting my sexuality, I considered what label I wanted to adopt. Behaviorally, I am bisexual because I am intimate with men and women. But, I usually prefer to call myself queer, partially to reflect the sexual fluidity I feel but also to evade aforementioned stereotypes of bisexuals as confused or innately promiscuous. I had previously seen myself as an outlier in my own group because of my reluctance to call myself bisexual, but interestingly, it is very common for behaviorally bisexual women to exercise freedom in labels (Baldwin et al., 2017). The Baldwin et al. study (2017) asked a group of 80 behaviorally bisexual women how they would label themselves, and given a checkbox format, women self-selected terms ranging from bisexual; queer; gay; and, notably, pansexual. The prevalence of pansexual as an identity above, for example, bisexual, was so unexpectedly high that researchers added a ‘pansexual’ box that originally was not printed on the checkbox survey (Baldwin et al., 2017). Though all behaviorally bisexual, these women display variety and agency in selecting labels they fit best, just as I use the queer label that best fits me.
From personal experience I know that the agency of defining my sexuality and the ability to break away from the negative connotations of the bisexual label is freeing. With so many bisexual women electing other labels as I have to describe identity, it seems as though the bisexual community may be better defined by a conglomerate of varying identities. However, while free-labeling gives empowerment and agency, the divergence from the use of the word bisexual makes identifying the boundaries of the bisexual community more difficult. If we as behavioral bisexuals call ourselves different things, we blur boundaries within our own group, which can overwhelm or confuse queer/questioning individuals looking for a sense of belonging in a definitively named group. So, while freedom of labeling is empowering, it confounds the visibility of a group already made obscure by juxtaposition against the clearly defined gay and straight.
Coming Out and Looking Forward
My own self-identification as queer is relatively new, so I fail to call myself officially ‘out’ to the public. I’m open about my sexuality and will tell people that I’m queer/bisexual/not-straight if asked, but I haven’t told my family that I’m queer, nor do I have a grandiose coming out story to post on a public platform. I typically don’t go out of my way to announce my sexuality to those other than my friends or intimate partners. I think I choose to go about this gradual method of coming out mostly because of the ambiguity of my sexual identity. I feel as though I’m not gay enough for a big coming out; since my sexuality is not strictly defined as homosexual, I have a hard time justifying an announcement of similar poignance.
Admittedly, though, I’m scared. I know my parents would accept my sexuality, but even the mere thought of saying the words “I’m queer” in front of them and in front of my family makes my heart pound, brings about a lump in my throat, and almost brings tears to my eyes. In spite of my openness with friends in college, I think officially coming out to my family would bring my sexuality to a raw, unfiltered forefront that I’m not sure I can handle quite yet.
At the moment, I latch onto how easy it is to stay under the radar as a straight-passing bisexual woman. I could comfortably be with infinitely many men and never have to worry about explaining my sexuality unless I openly date a woman. Other bisexual women testified in an article about coming out bearing a similar idea in mind, revealing that they typically “chose to come out ‘casually’” and cited “being in a relationship with a woman as a right time to come out to others because they saw high cost and little benefit to coming out otherwise” (Wandrey et al., 2015, p. 216). This ‘casual’ coming out is an easy way to avoid public confrontation of sexuality. By prolonging our coming out until absolutely necessary, other bisexual women and I pass under the guise of heterosexuality as it is most useful for us.
The thought of passing as and acting straight is convenient. God, it’s tempting. However, I did not grapple with my queerness for years only to later hide it for the sake of comfort in public; it would be an injustice to my true self. Even more so, remaining quiet is an injustice to other confused queer girls desperately looking for someone to confirm that their own feelings are valid and real. As a queer individual today, I owe it to queer and questioning people around me to be open and vocal about my own sexuality. If I can be open about my identity, what it’s like to be tolerated yet sexualized by straight people, the implications of being bisexual in the gay community, and the intricacies of self-identification, then my perspective just may help uncertain individuals identify where their own sexuality lies.My narrative also adds to the visibility of the bisexual community, who find themselves caught in the margins of straight and gay without a proper explanation of bisexuality as a standalone group nor an elaboration of the way bisexuals choose other, better-fitting labels. I see my own marginalized group so clearly since I belong to it, but because the definitions of that group are ambiguous, I know clarification is necessary for those on the outside. Lying within the margins of ‘gay’ and ‘straight,’ I also see that my desire for visibility extends to identities beyond sexuality. Thus, the call for bisexual recognition is also a call to recognize groups that lie between polarized out-groups and give similar attention to their individual narratives.
Allport, G. W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Baldwin, A., Schick, V. R., Dodge, B., van Der Pol, B., Herbenick, D., Sanders, S. A., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2017). Variation in Sexual Identification Among Behaviorally Bisexual Women in the Midwestern United States: Challenging the Established Methods for Collecting Data on Sexual Identity and Orientation. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(5), 1337–1348. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-016-0817-0
Chmielewski, J. F. (2017). A Listening Guide Analysis of Lesbian and Bisexual Young Women of Color’s Experiences of Sexual Objectification. Sex Roles, 77(7–8), 533–549. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0740-4
Dodge, Brian, et al. “Attitudes toward Bisexual Men and Women among a Nationally Representative Probability Sample of Adults in the United States.” PLoS ONE, vol. 11, no. 10, Oct. 2016. PubMed Central, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164430.
Fahs, B. (2009). Compulsory Bisexuality?: The Challenges of Modern Sexual Fluidity. Journal of Bisexuality, 9(3–4), 431–449. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299710903316661
Wandrey, R. L., Mosack, K. E., & Moore, E. M. (2015). Coming Out to Family and Friends as Bisexually Identified Young Adult Women: A Discussion of Homophobia, Biphobia, and Heteronormativity. Journal of Bisexuality, 15(2), 204–229. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299716.2015.1018657
Yost, M. R., & Thomas, G. D. (2012). Gender and Binegativity: Men’s and Women’s Attitudes Toward Male and Female Bisexuals. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(3), 691–702. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-011-9767-8
A Word from The Author
Writing about myself was foreign territory up until spring of this year. I had written about literature (which I usually didn’t care for) and I had written critically about more unconventional topics like music, stand-up comedy, and food (which I absolutely loved), but I never thought that my own perspective – or my own queer identity, in this case – deserved the same attention. High school taught me that the use of first-person narrative was weak and distracting from ‘real’ evidence, so I avoided it like the plague. This autoethnography, however, necessitates first-person perspective by its definition, so for the first time, I let my voice be heard within a piece of scholarly writing.
My first and largest hurdle was deciding what my voice had to say. I had just fully come out to myself, so turning a critical lens on my sexuality for 10 or so pages was not exactly on my gay agenda. Somehow, though, the writing process unlocked a wave of feelings and opinions I didn’t know I had. Using a free-writing technique I adopted this semester, I started my project by letting my uncharted thoughts spill onto the page. Through this primordial jumble, I achieved a strange self-clarity. I found my first words to articulate the way my queerness has shaped my entire life through interactions with the gay and straight worlds around me. Very early on, this project transformed from a freshman writing assignment to a serious mission of self-exploration and self-expression, and I was eager to investigate further.
My voice became whole once I put it in conversation with others’ because this paper isn’t just about me; it also intends to showcase the bisexual community. While I had previously abhorred research and always resorted to the bare minimum, for this paper, I hungrily spent hours (far more than I realistically had the time for) hunting for any and all texts about bisexuality. Looking back, the hunt was as much a discovery of new voices as it was a continued realization of mine. I would read a study about casually coming out, for example, and think, “holy shit, this is exactly how I feel.” As I mention in my paper, research helped put to rest whatever unease I felt toward my identity. I suppose I hope to invoke that same response in readers who feel as confused as I once did, because after reading each study, I honestly felt like screaming, “I’m gay!” from Wake’s brick clad rooftops
And in a way, I did, except on paper and in APA format for my writing class. I won’t kid myself here; this paper wouldn’t exist if not for WRI111. I’ve always had some desire to talk about sexuality, but it wasn’t until I had this platform that I realized just how much I had to say and how badly I needed to say it. The tools I’ve acquired this semester, such as the ability to free-write; the ability to craft a rhetoric that is conscious of my voice as it is my research and my audience; and frankly, the ability to push my stamina to revise and rewrite until I am completely satisfied have brought me to a place where I feel more confident in myself as a queer woman and as a writer.
From Professor Laura Giovanelli
From Professor Giovanelli on her students
There’s a consistent, urgent question my first-year writing students carry to class: “Am I allowed to use “I” in my writing?”
Well, I say, that depends. What are you trying to do with that writing? What’s your purpose and audience?
Even with that rhetorical framework, I understand their hesitation. Wake Forest students know the academic writing rules they learn in high school inside and out. At the top of the list: never, ever use first person. Writing about yourself can feel indulgent, overly based in emotion and individual experiences, just wrong. We squirm in our seats just thinking about it!
Under the right circumstances, using your specific stories and lived experiences as a writer can be empowering. And combined with other kinds of evidence—academic studies, information from credible news sources, interviews— precise, thoughtful personal stories can be convincing evidence. As readers, we’ve all felt the power of a firsthand story, its power to move and change minds.
Although they are by no means the only example of how personal evidence can be used in academic writing, autoethnographies are a genre of writing where the very personal and the very academic collide in often productive, persuasive ways. In Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago, a book-length autoethnography my first-year students often read in preparation for writing their own autoethnographies, anthropologist Christine Walley advocates for personal narrative as evidence, arguing that they “are, of course, never just about individuals; such stories are also about the social worlds in which we live…telling personal stories means not only looking inward but also turning the self outward and tracing the links and relationships that shape and define not only who we are as individuals but also the broader social worlds of which we are a part.”
In my class, as we read Exit Zero together, we tease out the kinds of evidence Walley uses to tell the story and tensions of growing up in a working-class Chicago family in 1970s and 80s: family and historical documents, newspaper articles, photographs, interviews, seminal social sciences sources on class, and the current literature. And yes, personal stories, all synthesized together to make an argument about her complex and rich experience. Together, as novice writers working in this genre, we consider how we could borrow her writing tactics to make our own personal experiences matter more–to be more connected to a larger and relevant conversation about what it means to be a human in contrast to more abstract and dangerously hegemonic generalizations. “Stories are helpful because they are always told by someone and from somewhere,” Walley writes. I don’t think Walley means that every story has to relate with us as readers. Indeed, I think she’s cautioning us to avoid what novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” In other words, our job as storytelling and narrative-loving humans is to listen to people who may be as different from us, especially stories of people traditionally living in the margins.
In writing that takes complicated identity issues like class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality head on, these three student autoethnographies are strong examples of that purpose. These writers briefly survey social sciences literature to get a sense of the conversation about a social group they belong to, synthesizing those sources to present a picture of the current academic conversation. They then fold in their experiences through precise evidence. As readers, we’re taken on a journey of their thinking and discovery about their groups. And to me, that is the best kind of writing–writing that doesn’t have all the answers, but opens up possibilities to something new.
In Unraveling the Edges of Bisexuality: Reckoning with the Intricacies of Female Queerness Within Insider and Outsider Perspectives, the writer wrestles with her emerging identity as a young bisexual woman. She is the kind of writer and student who is never done. She revises, and revises again, and if we talked to her about her autoethnography today, she’d probably still want to revise. But that to me is a sign her thoughtfulness and maturity as a writer; we see her wrestle with her uncertainty even on the page. “I find myself in a middle ground between the very clearly defined groups of ‘gay’ and ‘straight often ambiguous about my feelings to the point where I don’t think I even fit into the category of ‘bisexual/queer,’ she writes “It doesn’t help that bisexuals tend to carry the labels ‘just lesbian and confused’ or ‘just straight and experimenting’ (Wandrey, Mosack, and Moore, 2015), thus defined by others as what we aren’t instead of what we are,” weaving her experience with a larger academic conversation about sexuality. As a writing teacher and a writer myself, I appreciate that honest struggle; She doesn’t have all the answers, but her emerging story helps point us–and her–toward more understanding.
Cassie Ball made contributing to a conversation about class her semester-long theme in our writing class. As a daughter of a working-class West Virginian family transitioning life as a first-year student to Wake Forest, an elite, private university, she saw “the Wake Bubble” with fresh, wide eyes, a change she explored from her earliest invention writing early in the semester and culminating in her autoethnography, our third and most complex major project. In You Can’t Go Home Again: The Autoethnography of a Young Woman Detached from Her Rural Appalachian Home, Cassie cites anthropologists Kenneth Guest and Max Weber, building intertextuality and relevance in her very personal argument. Here, Cassie connected on and off the page between our work and her other courses, particularly her cultural anthropology class. As a teacher, I relish seeing her synthesize those ideas because I know that’s more lasting learning. At the end of the semester, Cassie shared she wants to read and know more about class–like many strong students, she discovered a vein of curiosity and wanted to keep mining it even when her grade was in the books.
Like Cassie, Arisbeth Camillo-Reyes discovered a passion in writing about herself and her identity in ways that connected her life to the rest of the world; I remember when she asked me after a small group workshop over her draft if she could keep writing about the general theme of being a Mexican-American. She was excited–and I think, felt less alone–to discover immigration as a field of active research. It’s my hope that, even with this autoethnography and Writing 111 behind her, that she doesn’t stop. In “While Facing Trials and Succeeding: An Autoethnography of being a Female First-Generation Mexican American College Student,” Arisbeth writes openly about the specific pressures as a first-generation college student and Mexican-American woman–the push and pull between who she was and who she is becoming.
It takes a kind of bravery to do this writing, this personal, academic, something in-between mish-mash. It takes guts to wrestle with yourself and frame that against what academic studies may or may not say about these pieces of your identity, to be open to sharing that conclusion with the world.
Thank you to all three of these women. I hope your writing taught you as much as it taught me.