Brothers or Sisters

In the first series of Brothers & Sisters, which is just about to finish showing in the UK, Kevin—the gay one—meets a guy at the gym. So far, so cliché. Let's start a cliché tick-list:

  • There's always exactly one gay main character
  • Gay men meet in gyms

(I'm generally including lesbians in “gay”, for brevity.)

But Kevin's not sure whether the guy, Chad, is gay or straight.

  • Chad is a really gay name

Later, in conversation with his sisters, Kevin summarises the points in the “gay column” and those in the “straight column” of Chad's (presumably hypothetical) chart of telltale sexuality indicators.

  • Characters in drama series and sitcoms exacerbate awkward or uncertain situations by avoiding communicating directly with a particular person (or several people), especially when frank communication with that person (or those people) would undoubtedly resolve all of their anxiety and/or uncertainty. (This is known as Frasier's Law.)

Examples of “gay column” behaviour include complementing Kevin's body...

  • Any mention by a man of the appearance of another man's body is always sexual, even in a gym, where improving one's body is often the primary goal and so the appearance of a person's body, particularly in relation to their fitness, is somewhat relevant to the present activity

...having a pug (dog) named Lola...

  • Gay men... have pugs called Lola... I guess

...and having a lot of gay friends.

  • One's sexuality can be determined by aggregating the sexualities of one's friends

Examples of “straight column” behaviour include using words such as “dude” (incidentally, saying “dude” in any accent other than a North American one always makes you sound silly) and “bro'”...

  • Straight men use slightly-outdated trendy slang, which makes them appear masculine

...having a girlfriend...

  • Men who have girlfriends are not likely to be gay OK, so this one's a fair assessment and not a cliché

...and, inexplicably, acting in a daytime soap opera. (I wasn't aware that acting in soap operas was an especially heterosexual profession; maybe it's an American thing.)

Sarah (Kevin's sister) suggests that Chad may be bi. Kevin retorts that No-one's bi. Have you ever met a bisexual 70-year-old? Hence the expression ‘bi now, gay later’. Eventually everyone decides.

This is the gay one saying this—the non-bigoted one. It's not that the writers are asserting this idea ironically—Kevin is not being portrayed as naïve or bigoted here. He isn't challenged any further by the other characters—after all, they're straight* and he's gay; he knows about sexuality, because only his sexuality is an issue.

  • Gay people know more about sexuality in general than straight people do
  • Anyone whose sexuality isn't mentioned is assumed to be straight

* (If any of the other characters were bi, they'd be the authoritative source on bisexuality. If any of the other characters were gay (or possibly if they were bi or asexual), the writers would have already made a massive point of their sexualities, too.)

So why does Kevin think he hasn't met any bisexual 70-year-olds? For a start, quite a lot of people don't regularly wear any sort of label identifying their sexuality. So the only ways Kevin could know that he'd met a bisexual 70-year-old would be:

  1. Asking them about their sexuality
  2. Using guesswork, applying his shrewd detective skills, and convincing himself of his conclusion beyond any doubt

Judging by the sophistication of Kevin's criteria for determining gayness and straightness, he'd have a hard time correctly guessing that any arbitrary 70-year-old was bi. And judging by his resorting to unsophisticated guesswork, rather than just asking, “Bro'! You gay or what, dawg?” of his potential boyfriend, I doubt he asks many 70-year-olds about their sexuality.

But Kevin has probably happened upon a few same-sex couples involving 70-year-olds, and a few opposite-sex couples involving 70-year-olds. Of the former, he's thought “oh, a couple of gays”, and of the latter, “oh, a couple of straights”.

(I'm pretending here that everyone is, to whatever degree, either definably male or definably female, which isn't true. And I'm aware that this entry addressing the assumption of a sexuality dichotomy whilst still assuming that a gender binary exists is both suboptimal and generally a bit crap. But this entry is long enough and has already taken far too long to write.)

All (or at least the vast majority of) “having a relationship with one person” behaviour can be filed away neatly under either “gay” or “straight”. Compared to the fraction of people in couples, the fraction of people in relationships with more than one person is relatively small (and of those, the fraction who are 70-year-olds is positively minuscule). Examples of obviously-bi behaviour amount to:

  1. Having a series of relationships with people of different sexes
  2. Having a polyamorous relationship with people of different sexes
  3. Expressing interest in people of different sexes
  4. Displaying the bi pride flag
  5. Saying “I'm bi”

Few people are obviously bisexual, especially at first glance. So Kevin has been categorising everyone neatly away as “gay” and “straight”. Or rather, he's probably started with everyone in the “straight” pile (a category, not a physical pile), then plucked out anyone who contradicts this, and hurled them over into the “gay” pile. If you're going to assume that everyone is not bi, of course you're not going to notice any bi people.

Later, when Kevin finally does ask Chad about his sexuality, Chad says, “I may not be gay, but that doesn't mean I don't think you're hot.” (Fans of double negatives rejoice.) This, along with the ensuing sexytime, practically confirms that Chad is bi.

Yet after this, and in the following few episodes when Kevin carries out a relationship with Chad (apparently without Chad's girlfriend's knowledge), Chad's bi-ness isn't mentioned at all. Their relationship is merely described as “closeted” and occasionally “gay”. Start singing A Little Respect, everyone—it's bi erasure!

It's been said that every time you say you don't believe in bisexuals, one dies. I seriously doubt this will prove to be literally true. A couple more to finish the cliché tick-list:

  • Fairies are a bit queer
  • Bloggers like to explain general principles using individual examples of those principles (...and self-reference)