activism, media

Sexuality Isn’t Always Either/Or

Content Notice: This post discusses bi/pan/poly/queerphobia, depictions of police in media, and contains an uncensored ableist slur.

I already talked about how gender doesn’t have to be an either/or binary and, for many people (like me!), it isn’t. Now, given that my corporate overlords employers1 at GLAAD recently released the “Where We Are On TV” report about queer inclusion in television shows this year, I thought I would talk about moving past binaries in sexuality.

By talking about a show that ended in 2008, of course.

Let me just say it: I love The Wire. I love everything about it, even though I have a general disdain for police shows (which are, essentially, propaganda). I think The Wire is a magnificently produced show with a great cast, marvelous plot lines, and amazing sets/design. If you have a chance to watch it (the whole thing is on HBO), go watch it.

If you don’t have access or time to watch the show, I would recommend reading the Wikipedia article and the TV Tropes articles for it. (TV Tropes tends to be better, though not always as well edited and objective, than Wikipedia for media works and has the option to tag spoilers.) Please, go take a look at them.

Back now? Is this when you say, “Donnie. Donnie. Omar and Kima are clearly gay. We are not going to use this to have a discussion about bisexuality – ”

Yes, we are. And it’s not going to be about Omar or Kima (great characters, by the way), it’s going to be about Bill Rawls, whose non-heterosexuality you can miss in the blink of an eye if you’re not paying attention in one specific scene that is, true to The Wire, about absolutely another thing entirely. (Second link contains spoilers for all of S3E10 “Reformation.”)

Except, of course, Rawls has a wife and kid. But everything – everything – that makes a judgment call about his sexuality (other than one line on Wikipedia), says that he is gay. Seriously, it’s like bisexuality doesn’t exist in the world of The Wire.

I’ll admit that it is weird that Rawls is in a bar, after dark, clearly looking for a date, if not just plain sex, given that he’s married with a kid. He might be closeted. His wife might know. None of this rules out him being attracted to women and men! Everything about “Bill Rawls is gay” gives me a headache.

Sexuality does not have to be binary. It’s a trend in mainstream media – and, sadly, even in the most inclusive of fandoms – to erase a character’s attraction to one gender because of their attractions to another. Characters, including characters that have canonically shown attraction to more than one gender, get dumped into either “gay” or “straight” without a second thought.2

We don’t know if Bill Rawls is canonically attracted to women (and no, I’m not going to go emailing David Simon or John Doman for you, so don’t ask). All we know is that he shows up in a gay bar in the background of one scene and that he wears a wedding ring and has pictures of his family on his desk at work. There are, thankfully, none of the usual indications entertainment media uses to signal being closeted: rampant homophobia, deflecting, camp-ness3 – no “false fronts,” as TV Tropes puts it. He’s still a crass, misogynistic jackass, but so is virtually every (heterosexual) man on that show.4

We’ve reached a point in media where we can have characters sing literal songs about their bisexuality (spoilers for the show Crazy Ex Girlfriend, you’ll want to do a page search for the term “Bi The Way”) but obviously, we weren’t there when The Wire was still on TV. And no, one song in one show doesn’t make up for years of denying people representation on TV, but it’s a definite start.

It perplexes, and frankly annoys, me that a show like The Wire, which has several openly gay characters (including an all-gay team of robbers), can have a fandom that so vehemently rejects the idea of a bisexual character when there’s no real reason to. Unless I’m missing some proclamation David Simon made, Bill Rawls is as much bisexual as he is gay; which is to say he could be either. We know he is attracted to men and is in a relationship with a woman. (I’d argue a serious one, too, since they have kids.) Make your own decisions but I’m going with “Bill Rawls is bi in a world that barely accepts gay and lesbian people and thinks bisexuality is a phase teen girls go through.” That world, is, of course, ours, since The Wire is supposed to be realistic and social commentary.

Look, I am absolutely not saying that if we’re going to have more queer characters we should make them cops. (It’s one of my bigger problems with Brooklyn 99: the show specifically draws you in to watching police propaganda with “we have a gay character! Isn’t that so progressive?”) If The Wire was going to have bisexual representation, I would have rather it had been anyone else. Bubbles! Alma! Gus! Namond! Literally any other character, please and thank you. But that’s what David Simon gave us, so that’s what I’m working with.

There is, of course, the counterargument than any character who is canonically bisexual takes away from the number of canonically gay and lesbian characters. To which I say: No. One, Bill Rawl’s sexuality isn’t canon beyond “he likes men and is married to a woman.”5 Two, if you’re looking for a place to mine gay or lesbian characters out of, look no further than the thousands of straight characters on TV. We can take food from the table like equals; we don’t have to fight over the scraps we’re given. Let people who are attracted to multiple genders have representation in the media. It isn’t that hard to let go of one character.

There needs to be a movement for more bi/pan/polysexual/queer characters in entertainment media but there also needs to be a shift in how we look at characters who are canonically attracted (or assumed from their background to be attracted) to multiple genders. Saying “this character is (not exclusively) attracted to people of their own gender so they must be gay” isn’t helping anyone and is frankly hurting people who are attracted to multiple genders. Acting like attraction to genders other than one’s own is somehow shameful or gross is juvenile and makes bi/pan/poly/queer people feel unwelcome in our own community. Yes, coercive heteronomativity6 exists and many exclusively gay/lesbian people were forced to be attracted to people of other genders under it before coming out. But bi/pan/poly/queer people still exist, we still deserve representation, and coercive heteronormativity is not our fault.

In the case of Bill Rawls – well, I hate that I have so little representation on TV that one of the characters I have to choose is a cop, but I’m going to say Bill Rawls is bisexual. In the end, the case of Bill Rawls is disappointing but a tiny, tiny step forward.

  1. Full disclosure: I am not getting paid to write this. GLAAD isn’t even paying me to be a Campus Ambassador, let alone write articles on the internet. This article wasn’t prompted by the “Where We Are On TV” report, either, even though I had the idea for this article around the same time WWAOT was released this year. Sorry/you’re welcome. 
  2. This paradigm doesn’t account for asexual/aromantic characters, I know. In those cases, it’s much more likely ace/aro characters are assumed to be straight (regardless of how/if they experience intimate attractions at all) because characters who don’t specify their sexuality or have on-screen relationships with characters of their gender are assumed to be straight. Heteronormativity is a helluva drug. 
  3. For your information, spell check tells me that “camp-ness” is not a word. I respectfully decline to take spellcheck’s opinion seriously, because bowing down to the robots is how we end up subjugated. 
  4. Which is not to excuse the misogyny of Bill Rawls and basically every other man on The Wire; it’s just to say that the show doesn’t use sexist language in men as a way of signalling sexuality. 
  5. Which is, incidentally, very similar to my sexuality of “is in a long-term relationship with a woman and is very into men.” Other than the white man thing, that’s kind of where the similarities between me and Bill Rawls end, though. 
  6. The societal process by which people are forced by society to identify as heterosexual, regardless of how/if they actually experience attractions.