Prizm News / October 29, 2019 / By Jessica Leeds Richman /
THIS PIECE IS PART OF OUR “INSIDER/OUTSIDER” SERIES: ESSAYS ON THE BLACK LGBTQ EXPERIENCE WRITTEN BY UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS ENROLLED IN A DENISON UNIVERSITY COURSE ENTITLED “INSIDER/OUTSIDER: THE GENEALOGY OF BLACK LGBT HISTORY” TAUGHT BY DR. TERRANCE DEAN
One of the benefits of taking a class on the genealogy of Black LGBTQ History is the exposure to new concepts, theory, and media. Recently, my class read New York Times bestselling author E. Lynn Harris’s Invisible Life, which provoked a lively conversation surrounding themes of identity, bisexuality, and conformity to heterosexual norms. It was a nice change of pace from our usual essays and academic texts. We were able to focus on a piece of fiction that still spoke to the topics we discuss in our class each week. Since Invisible Life is a novel, the intensity of character development was particularly compelling and it helped me to build connections as well as empathize with the characters in the text.
The main character, and narrator, Raymond, struggles with labeling his sexuality including coming to terms with his sexual identity. Raymond is in a relationship with his high school sweetheart, Sela. They both attend the same college, and things appear to be normal, even as Raymond considers marriage to Sela after graduation. However, Raymond meets a handsome athlete who plays football for the university, and they strike up a friendship. Kelvin tells Raymond that he is bisexual, and makes a move on Raymond. This is his first sexual encounter in college with another male, and Raymond doesn’t know whether to call himself gay, bisexual, or if he should label himself anything at all.
As the novel progresses, and Raymond continues to explore his sexual identity, it’s fascinating to see how he ends up in similar sexual situations at two different points in his life. During his senior year of college, he has relationships with both Kelvin and Sela (his long-term girlfriend), and then years later as a lawyer, he ends up in a similar situation when he enters into a new relationship with Quinn (a man with whom he has a secret relationship), and Nicole (a woman he publicly dates). Both in college and later as a more established adult, Raymond is challenged by his intimate relationships, and he is confused by his sexual and emotional attraction to both a man and a woman at the same time. Throughout the novel, Raymond labels his bisexual identity as gayness. Even at the end of the novel, when he finally discloses his identity to Nicole he tells her, “I’m gay, Nicole . . . well, I guess you could say I’m bisexual.”
I am curious to know why Raymond has such a difficult time identifying as bisexual. I wonder if it might have to do with the various stereotypes regarding bisexuality. Men cannot be bisexual, yet, for women, it is acceptable and oftentimes desired by heterosexual men. Many men who profess to be bisexual oftentimes face ostracization by friends, family, and loved ones because the presumption is that their bisexuality is only a gateway to them becoming gay or queer. And, in many instances, men who claim bisexuality feel as though they may be more accepted in society if they maintain some intimate and romantic relationship with a woman. My impression is that Raymond feels that being gay may be easier for other people to come to terms with, and it is something folks may understand even if they do not like or agree with it. This reminds me of how some people think that bisexual women are actually just straight, but that bisexual men are really on their way to claiming a gay identity. In other words, whether you are male or female, you will ultimately gravitate toward men.
Raymond’s journey of self-discovery also makes me think of the stigma that many bisexual men face. In a pivotal scene in the novel, Raymond discloses to Nicole, the woman he is dating at the same time, about his relationship with Quinn. It seems to bother Nicole almost more than if he had been cheating on her with another woman.
“You’re kidding…right?” Nicole asked Raymond.
“I’m sorry, Nicole. I know I should have said something earlier.”
“Sorry,” Nicole screamed. “Sorry, after you made love to me less than a week ago? Why me, Raymond?”
“Because I love you.”
“Love me? How can you love me? You love men…isn’t that what you’re telling me? What did you do, break up with your lover? Is that why Kyle is gone?” Nicole bluntly demanded.
I wonder if Nicole was more upset because Ray was having another relationship to which she had not consented, or if she was more troubled that the relationship was with a man.
One problem I had with this novel is that it perpetuates the stereotype that bisexual people cannot maintain monogamous relationships. Although there is mention of Julian, a partner who previously lived with Raymond, we do not see Raymond engage in a monogamous relationship beyond this. Of course, if monogamy is not for him, that is totally fine, but it can be perceived that Raymond cannot only be with one person at a time—that he needs to be with a man and a woman to be fulfilled. However, monogamy and polyamory are not explicitly or implicitly discussed and as such, they may rely on a stereotype that bisexual people cheat on their partners. Overall, Invisible Life speaks to the struggle of putting a label on one’s sexuality, especially for Black queer people.
Jessica Leeds Richman is a senior at Denison University majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies with a concentration in Narrative Journalism. She is passionate about health justice, menstrual equity, and Indigenous rights. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @jleedsrichman for some hot takes about smashing the patriarchy.