EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to the second episode of TeaTalks. In this monthly column, Seth Johnson and Olivia Grace Murphy, the founders of Flexible Grey Theatre Company (which opens its second season in March with Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries) and guests discuss issues important to the LGBTQ+ and other under-represented communities in the performing arts world. Excerpts from the conversation appear in print, with links to the audio files below.
TeaTalks runs on the fourth Tuesday of the month.
In this episode, Johnson and Murphy chat with three actors about bisexuality and pansexuality. In the first episode, which is here, the topic was gender fluid and nonbinary identities.
Welcome to TeaTalks, a monthly interview series where we, Seth Johnson and Olivia Grace Murphy from Flexible Grey Theatre Company, dig into the hot topics in the DFW theatre community and spill the tea. Usually these topics will revolve around the LGBTQ+ community or other marginalized groups in the arts. As a reminder, the full audio is available for the complete TeaTalks experience.
We met with Taylor Owen, Alle Mims, and Whitney LaTrice Coulter on an early Sunday morning to discuss bisexuality, pansexuality, and why we’re upset that there is a distinct lack of representation for bi and pan people in the arts. Beverages of choice leaned towards coffee as theatre people do not enjoy being up before 10 a.m. on a Sunday unless they have a matinee, but Seth stuck with his signature Moroccan mint tea.
In this episode of TeaTalks we actually found it quite difficult to stay focused. We tried to think of bisexual and pansexual representation in the arts and frankly, there just aren’t many examples. And when there is a bisexual or pansexual character in television, film, or on stage, they are frequently hyper-sexualized and underdeveloped.
We all agreed that we deserve better representation.
Much of the focus was on our own personal coming out stories. Bisexuals, especially in straight-passing relationships, don’t frequently get asked about coming out. We also lamented about people (in both the gay and straight communities) telling us to “pick a side.”
If you readers at home could take away one thing from this podcast, we hope it’s this: don’t try and convince someone that you know more about their sexuality than they do. You don’t. #ThatsTheTea
Let’s start with your monthly LGBTQ+ alphabet lesson. We’re breaking down bisexual and pansexual this month.
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OLIVIA: So [Alle], since you’re the only person here to specifically identify as pansexual, do you want to take a minute for our listeners at home who that might be a new term for them, and distinguish maybe what some of the differences for you personally are?
ALLE: I used to identify as bisexual, like I would say most of my adolescence I identified as bisexual. And then once I read about pansexual, I was like, oh no this fits me little better. It just bridges the gap a little for me because to me gender is not important. And I don’t think about it as much and I’m still exploring my own gender identity and wondering like, what I am. And so for me it sort of bridged that gap that I was missing with bisexual. It explicitly includes gender queer people and trans people. And of course, there are a lot of bisexual people who are attracted to transgender people and gender queer people, but I just like that pansexuality directly addressed it. And some definitions are more just “you fall in love with a person, who they are, and gender is sort of on the side lines” so I like that part of it.
OLIVIA: I know for me, I came out at a pretty early age, I was thirteen when I first realized that I was bisexual, and pansexual was not a thing then. So I feel like as a 27-year-old I probably identify with that definition a little bit more—even though bisexual has changed its definition over time to mean bi: attracted to the same gender and all other genders - since it’s become more inclusive. But back in 2005 whenever it was that I came out, we were as a society just way less in tune to the fact that gender is beyond the binary. But I think that because I came out at such an early age, even though bisexual is a flawed definition I still think that that’s what I resonate with.
TeaTalks: In addition to coming out, we discussed the queer stars and icons who helped us realize our sexuality and gave us someone to identify with. Bisexual, pansexual, and queer icons are becoming more prevalent, with bigger names coming out of the closet every year. However, back when we were growing up, there was a different attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community, which meant there were less openly-queer people in film, television, and on stage.
OLIVIA: Before we started recording, we were talking a little bit about Janelle Monáe coming out and how her coming out of the closet and her music has kind of influenced us as well as other bisexual celebrities. So in addition to Janelle Monáe... is there anyone else who sort of influenced you and your own coming out or your making sense of your feelings?
WHITNEY: Frank Ocean. When channel ORANGE came out, I was just like “ooh” and everyone else was like “ah man that’s so weird.” And see this is why bisexual men have an issue coming out, especially in the black community... So like when he was speaking those words, and I was just like “man that is so brave, that is so beautiful.” So his was really good. I love going back and thinking about Prince as a queer icon.
ALLE: That was big for me too. Like, I remember watching him as a kid and already being kind of like, masculine in my gender identity and thinking like, “well is it just ‘cuz I’m tall?!” And I’m watching Prince who is very feminine but at the same time in all of his videos he has women crawling all over him... And I just remember asking my mom “is he gay?” And she was kind of like “hmm, I’m not sure how he identifies but I know he’s slept with a lot of women.” And I just remember my mind being blown because I didn’t think a man could dress like that and sleep with women. And I think a lot of people feel that way in 2018, “of well if you’re that feminine, you must be gay.” And that’s the end of the conversation.
WHITNEY: And then you go back and think about like all these celebrities back in the day, during the 60’s and the 70’s... everybody was sleeping with everybody. Being gay, being bisexual, being pansexual, all of that- it was always there but there just weren’t words to identify it.
TeaTalks: Whitney makes an excellent point. We already discussed how labeling ourselves as queer was problematic growing up, but back in the 60’s and 70’s it was well known that musicians and other celebrities slept around all the time. Without a label, it just wasn’t as compromising.
ALLE: Did y’all ever have... this happened to me once, I had an acting teacher tell an entire room full of people “don’t come out as an actor because they will always see you as gay or lesbian or bisexual and you’ll never be able to play a straight character.”
SETH: No, but I mainly had queer professors... which is surprising for A&M, so they actually helped me with my coming out process. So I originally came out as bisexual and then throughout like, figuring out gender and sexuality and all that for my own self, I eventually landed on “okay, yeah, I’m gay.” How do you feel about using bisexuality as that stepping stone for some people coming out as gay or lesbian? Because I know that’s a common trope in movies and films.
OLIVIA: Sexuality is complicated... I think that for some people that’s definitely their journey, however I do think that the bisexual character in media is just often like you said, a trope. Is it a common story, yeah, and I do think it’s one that should be displayed. I mean, in general I just think that we need more queer and bisexual stories, but that’s not the only one.
ALLE: It is annoying that like, you’ll be watching a movie or a series and a character will be like “I think I’m bisexual” and you think “yes okay, awesome”, and by the end of the episode or the movie they’re like “wait never mind, I’m gay” and it’s over just like that. And I agree that some people do go through those phases, but it’s just kind of like, it’s always seen as like a transition and it means you’re confused and eventually you’re going to pick one. And that’s why it was so confusing for me as well, I just thought, well eventually I would pick one and be happy, and that has not happened yet.
TAYLOR: I always think back to Piper from Orange is the New Black. And how... she’s explaining to her parents “no, I’m not bisexual, it’s on a scale, and it’s sliding, and blah blah blah” and I’m like “girl, just put a label on it.” Come on, you’re confused, I’m confused, we’re all confused...
TeaTalks: One of the biggest problems we discussed was the hyper-sexualization of bisexual characters in film, television, and on stage. You see this over and over again when a bisexual character is introduced into the plot—a voracious strumpet who never actually says the word “bisexual” or “pansexual.” Todd in Scrubs, Jack Harkness in Doctor Who, basically every character on True Blood, Lorraine in the film Atomic Blonde...
TAYLOR: Like Maureen in RENT. She is like the definition stereotype bisexual character and I hate it.
OLIVIA: So let’s definitely talk about that. The hyper-sexualization of bisexual characters in the media. And how that’s problematic. What has that done for you as a person and as a performer?
ALLE: I’ve been thinking lately... and I think it’s like 66 percent of bisexual women will experience rape as opposed to I think 40 percent of straight women. So, there is a disparity there and I think it has to do with the sexualization of queer women in media. Because a lot of people, that’s their only exposure to queer women, because they don’t have anyone in their life that’s out or they’re living in a small town or just a place where they’re part of a community where that’s not accepted. And I think that they don’t realize, they see this on stage, they see Maureen... just stuff like that. People see that and think, oh this is how bisexual women or men are.
TeaTalks: Those statistics are insane. We looked up the numbers ourselves, and while the actual percentage is debated, it is clear in every study we found—an alarming number of women who identify as bisexual experience sexual assault, and that number is definitely higher than the percentage for straight women. What’s even more alarming is that while these figures are well-documented and easy to find, no one seems to be asking why “is this an issue” or what we should be doing about it.
TeaTalks: So after all of those statistics, we at TeaTalks would like to end on a high note. We loved that this TeaTalk had a room full of people who were bursting with pride about their own unique sexuality and identity. But within our community, there is always room for growth. Here is what everyone had to say about going forward for representing the bisexual and pansexual communities in the arts:
ALLE: I’m pretty sure the LGBTQIA community is comprised mostly of people of color but we do not see that. And that would be nice.
OLIVIA: Use the dang words. Use the words bisexual, pansexual, don’t shy away from it.
TAYLOR: And don’t make us a joke or a punchline. And validate us when we tell you that we are this person we identify as.
SETH: Don’t assume anyone’s identity. Stop knocking on closet doors, man.
WHITNEY: I think something that would be really important for our community is just a way to network and connect with each other. Until I started working with Flexible Grey, I didn’t know there were any other bisexuals like, in the community.
Thank you to our readers, our listeners, our guests, and to TheaterJones for hosting this podcast. We hope you listen to what the rest of these bisexual beauties had to say in the TeaTalks full audio. We talked about playing queer roles, coming out to your family, being queer in a heterosexual-passing relationship, and so much more. And please join us for next month’s TeaTalks, released every fourth Tuesday of the month. Until then, #ThatsTheTea.