This week, Sophia works with a student, Christine Luongo, who is reporting on her Seniors Honors Project. This is a great collaboration and a clear example of how we learn from our students. In the post, Sophia mentions that she is learning about terms and definitions from her student. This has happened to me frequently. As academics we are often experts in a couple of areas but can be woeful unaware of others. I found this blog post to be informative in many ways. I try to be open minded, but I can be narrow in my understanding until it touches me directly or someone I know or work with. This blog post has help me see things with a new perspective. Thanks Sophia and Christine.
Why the “B” Matters: Representations of Bisexuality in LGBTQ-themed YAL by Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides & Christine Luongo
As it turns out, Sophia had very little understanding of what might be involved in seriously considering the “B” in LGBTQ representations in YAL. Perhaps readers of this blog might feel the same way—or not realize they feel the same way...yet. For this opportunity to shape her emerging understandings around bisexuality and how it is represented in YAL, Sophia is so grateful to her student and co-author of this blog, soon-to-be high school ELA teacher, Christine Luongo.
Christine identifies as bisexual and loves YAL, making her SHP research study a labor of love. Part of the labor involved was helping Sophia to get behind far more complex definitions of bisexuality than she had imagined. Additionally, recognizing what was at stake in such definitions as social justice issues under the LGBTQ umbrella complicated matters further. Below, we begin to signal what some of these issues are by also sharing a list of YA texts we recommend for your reading pleasure and inclusion in your teaching.
Towards a Definition of "B"
To start, the definition of bisexuality might surprise non-bi-identifying readers. Sophia assumed that the “bi” in bisexuality signaled an attraction to “both” genders, since “bi” means two. Actually, bisexuality is the attraction to people of at least two genders. This definition recognizes that there are more than two gender identities—including gender fluid, gender non-conforming, male and female—and that many bisexuals are attracted to people of more than two genders. To see why this definition matters when considering representations of bisexuality in YAL, let’s look at Christina Lauren’s Autoboyography. Tanner, the bisexual protagonist of this book, uses the latter definition. He describes what bisexuality means to him by saying, “It’s about the person, not the parts, I guess” (137). He doesn’t talk about his sexuality using terms such as “both.” When this definition of bisexuality is represented in texts, it can help to make the book more inclusive by also including people who do not identify as male or female.
When looking at a bi-YA novel, the actions of the bi-identified protagonist also matter. Does the protagonist act similarly in romantic situations with people of different genders? Let’s look at Julie Murphy’s Ramona Blue to see what we mean. The protagonist, Ramona, is depicted in a relationship with a girl and in one with a boy. While the two relationships are very different, they share commonalities. Namely, Ramona is portrayed as sexual with both partners. Additionally, in each relationship, Ramona’s emotional connection to her partner is evident. Ramona herself draws attention to these commonalities, saying, “Kissing him varies in the same way that kissing Grace was different from kissing CarrieAnn or any other girl” (218). Generally, commonalities like these help to show that bisexuality is a valid identity rather than just a period of experimentation. Commonalities help to place the relationships with people of multiple genders on even ground; no relationship is depicted as more serious or legitimate than the other, so all relationships are normalized.
Also important to consider when analyzing a bi-YA book, is how it represents biphobia. Different than homophobia, biphobia is prejudice towards people because they experience attraction to people of more than one gender. This prejudice can include negative stereotypes of bisexuals as well as assertions that someone is really a homo- or heterosexual “experimenting” or in a “phase,” even though they identify as bisexual. For example, when we look at Ashley Herring Blake’s, Girl Made of Stars, we see Mara, the bi-identified protagonist, face biphobia at school. There, she is slut-shamed and her bisexuality is fetishized when boys make threesome jokes. As Christine knows from her own lived experience, biphobia is something that bisexuals must deal with regularly, even from people close to them.
A strength of Girl Made of Stars is its ability to both represent and respond to biphobia. The novel shows Mara’s experiences with biphobia and then allows Mara to respond, calling out biphobic incidents as problematic. In doing so, a text can invite readers to reconsider how they think about bisexuality. Therefore, texts that respond to biphobia have the potential to help non-bi-identified readers challenge their preconceived notions of bisexuality.
As an example, this past fall semester, and as a direct result of Christine’s study, Sophia included Ramona Blue on her YA course syllabus, requiring aspiring English teachers to present on the text, and engaging students in theoretical reading around bisexuality. Christine co-taught the class with Sophia and her presence as well as the place of this novel on the syllabus invited, permitted and required students to consider complex questions around gender, sexuality and an identity under the LGBTQ umbrella they hadn’t previously considered with depth.
All of these books represent bisexuality in ways that feel real. The characters are complex, and their different backgrounds shape how they experience their sexuality. Autoboyography was the first bi book Christine ever found. When reading it, she frequently sent quotes to her other bi-identified friends because they resonated with her experience. Even as someone who already had a bisexual community, seeing herself in these books throughout the study further validated Christine’s identity.
To close, we’d like to highlight some of our favorite books that we read over the course of the project:
Little & Lion by Brandi Colbert features a black bisexual protagonist, Suzette, whose stepbrother has bipolar disorder. This book highlights how her bisexuality intersects with her race and her stepbrother’s mental illness.
Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee is a middle grade novel that shows Mattie, an eighth-grade girl, realizing that she likes girls as well as boys. The romantic storyline follows how Mattie’s feelings develop over the course of the eighth-grade production of Romeo and Juliet.
Like Water by Rebecca Podos features a Latina protagonist, Vanni, whose father has Huntington’s disease. The novel shows how her bisexuality intersects with her father’s illness and her related fears about her future.
If readers are interested in accessing Christine’s SHP for a far deeper analysis of some of the books mentioned here, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sophia can be reached at email@example.com.
I hope that Christine will work this project into an article. I am sure that she and Sophia would appreciate ideas about how to shape the article and where they might submit it. Or course, I think Study and Scrutiny is always a good place.
Until next time.