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Amber Heard and Johnny Depp Are Officially Engaged But We Need To Talk About Bisexuality

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by Alice Lytton
April 4, 2014 12:55 PM
18 Comments
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Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have officially announced their engagement

So Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have officially announced their engagement.

Outlets are emphasising two facets of this story. Some discuss their respective ages: Depp is 50 and Heard turns 28 this month. Others note that in marrying Amber, Johnny is incontrovertibly ending his long-term relationship with the mother of his two kids, Vanessa Paridis. I've got to be honest: I don't really care about either of these angles. As Lindy West pointed out: good relationships sometimes end and age differences don't have to matter. (This said, bring on more Sam Taylor-Woods because the dominance of the older man/younger woman trope is te-di-ous. Where's the new Sarah Paulson and Cherry Jones when we need them?). What no one is talking about in this is bisexuality. But it is precisely what we need to be discussing. Here's why.

Much of the media reporting on this story is objectionable

The suggestion is that this engagement signals Depp's successful "conversion" of Heard. Once a lesbian, she is now straight (phew!). Just as we saw yesterday with Tom Daley, the media, the public and the supposedly LGBT community are all variously culpable when it comes to silencing, ridiculing and ignoring the voices of bisexual people. For Amber Heard, this is nothing new. Before Depp, she was in a long-term relationship of her own, with artist and filmmaker Tasya Van Ree. At the 25th Anniversary of GLAAD back in 2010, Heard and Van Ree attended together. This was universally reported as Amber's "coming out". But coming out as what? At the time, what Heard actually said was that she was in a happy relationship with Van Ree. She was coming out as in a relationship with a woman, certainly, but was she coming out as a lesbian?

Amber Heard and Tasya van Ree

Heard herself has always resisted any labels

She certainly never self-described as a lesbian woman. Instead she said: "I don't label myself one way or another—I have had successful relationships with men and now a woman. I love who I love; it's the person that matters". And yet, despite this, the media, with gleeful certainty, near-universally reported that she was now a lesbian. Even a couple of pro-LGBT outlets, from whom we might expect a little more sensitivity, followed suit. And yet the only thing Amber Heard had made clear was that she was attracted to both sexes. She confirmed this in interviews last summer.

Despite this, the lesbian community embraced Amber Heard

She's talented, she's prominent, she's young and, let's just come out with it, according to the conventional standards that saturate our culture, she's beautiful. Her status as a compelling role-model was augmented by how articulate she was about her new relationship:  "I can't help but think that if I'm hiding something, then I'm ashamed of it ... I am never going to apologise for [who I love] because it's not wrong and I'm not ashamed of it". The lesbian community is so starved of representation that appropriating Heard was, possibly, too good an opportunity to lose.

But such an appropriation constituted an act of silencing

And it assumes the same logic that sits beneath all acts of silencing. This logic suggests that some people know better than the very people for whom they claim to speak. Bisexual people face this all the time. They are faking it, they are told, they are confused, they do not know what they really want, or they are being dishonest about what they do. In sum: they don't know best. Someone else does. The entire, subjective history of their lived sexuality is nullified in the face of a few confident declarations from strangers. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see that this is the kind of argument, the kind of logic, that for years propped up claims that gay people could be convinced to live differently to the way suggested by their own experiences and intuitions. The problem was they just didn't know best.

Bisexual women continue to suffer from this mindset -- even from within the LGBT community

Historically, parts of the lesbian community have treated bisexual women with suspicion. (Let me stress, not all; I'm a lesbian whose g/f is bi, so, y'know...) Those who are hostile see bisexual women as hedging their bets: trying to retain the protections of straight privilege whilst indulging at the feast of queer culture. Eleanor Margolis, who you'd be forgiven for thinking is England's only lesbian, announced that she didn't "believe in all this fluidity thing". This makes bisexuality a kind of false-consciousness and it makes bisexuals like unicorns, or Santa Claus; both are things which only exist in so far as you believe, and can be removed from the landscape in so far as you don't. Suddenly the damaging implications of this logic are clear.

Failing to recognise bisexuality is as harmful for lesbians as it is for bisexual women

Dubbing Amber Heard a lesbian when she always maintained her attraction to both men and women has opened the way for all sorts of assumptions now that her new partner's a man. Johnny Depp is repeatedly congratulated for "converting" Heard, and  "luring" her from her lesbian past.  By not recognising bisexuality is real for some people, we don't recognise that women who identify as lesbians cannot be turned, converted, or lured away from the sexual orientation to which they were born. Just as many people experience sexuality as gender fluid, plenty others don't. Heard wasn't having a "lesbian moment" or a "lesbian affair" when she was with van Ree because she was never a lesbian, she was a bisexual woman in a relationship with another woman. Heard is not evidence, then, that lesbians can, if you're the right guy, be "turned". No woman is for "turning" (we aren't vehicles) but some are attracted to a broader spectrum of gender identities than others.

The LGBT community needs to be leading the way when it comes to bisexual visibility

And yet we don't seem to be doing a good enough job. Interviewed recently in documentary "The Out List" Cynthia Nixon admitted that whilst she felt herself to be bisexual, she called herself a lesbian. She did this, she said, because she wanted to engage in the fight for queer rights, but the hostility towards bisexuality left her with a choice: join the battle as a lesbian or be sidelined as a bisexual. Nixon, or anyone else, should not have to elide their identity in order to be heard. And certainly not to fight for a community that calls itself LGBT. There's strength in solidarity, and that means taking people seriously when they describe themselves as fluid or bisexual.

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18 Comments

  • sevenstars7 | July 17, 2014 1:05 PMReply

    Several times you mention bisexuals women, but you never mention bisexual men. In fighting this battle for equality in the community, please don't leave them out.

  • Abnax | July 14, 2014 12:01 PMReply

    I've been pansexual for as long as I can remember. But I never heard the 'label' for it, so I was considered bisexual. I'm always shocked when I hear people who consider themselves absolute homosexuals deny bisexuality (or use that tone of disdain when speaking about them). I find it even more ignorant when gays deny a bisexual's existence (than when straights do it). Often it's sour grapes about who their partner dated after splitting with them. Other than that, I can't see why it's so hard for them to process the concept. Fortunately, a lot of the younger generations do get it. It seems as slow as snails, but I have hope seeing our country finally emerge from the Dark Ages into enlightenment.

  • whoever | July 9, 2014 12:33 PMReply

    $$$

  • Oliver | May 13, 2014 3:05 AMReply

    Alice - I am a 29 year old man, and as such I have grown up at a time when I could witness lot of activism and people fighting for the freedom and liberty of others; be it regarding orientation, race, wealth, etc. I realize that I am still young, and, as a straight white male, I have not experienced much of the injustice that so many other people have, but I wanted to tell you that your article has moved me deeply. Not only is it one of the best written articles that I have read in many years, but also it makes me feel very happy to realize that, although we have gone through many hardships for rights and civil liberties in the past 29 years, there are people like yourself that have truly learned from our past mistakes. You are doing what you know best to speak out on behalf of others who may not have the ability, freedom, time or voice to speak out on their own, and you are doing so with the hope of spreading compassion, understanding and logical thought to people who may have not learned from their/our past mistakes yet. I commend you on your courage and willingness to right this article, and I hope that others will read it and (hopefully) learn from what you have said.
    Thank you very much,
    Oliver

  • Varan | May 1, 2014 11:36 PMReply

    Having read interviews with Heard, I always saw her as someone who was open to love with both genders and had strong romances with both genders. However I can hardly blame the lesbian community for being hopeful that one of the most beautiful women in the world would be a lesbian. That is a part of being after all in the same way straight women swoon over say Robert Pattinson. It is about the Notting Hill type fantasy. I have seen some hostility towards Heard but that seems to come from both women and men, straight or LGBT. It seems to have little to do with her being apparently bisexual and a heck of a lot more to do with a 28 year old dating someone who is 50. For a beautiful woman in their twenties to date a very rich and very powerful man in his fifties does raise questions. Can hardly fault that cynicism can we?

  • Jill | April 15, 2014 6:56 PMReply

    I am bisexual, although I object to the label and I have to admit that all my life up until recently I have not felt like I have had the 'right' to be that, which I came to realise was just social bullshit.
    The labels go beyond simply gay or straight. We even do it with how feminine or masculine a person is i.e a tomboy, femme, butch, camp, queen.
    Me; I can only get off if i'm "thinking" about a woman but I date guys because I love the feeling of a mans body next to me. I have days where I feel like dressing masculine and other days where I feel like dressing feminine. I am just as comfy watching rugby as I am gossip girl or a history documentary as I am some reality tv. I am just as comfy flirting with a woman as I am with a man, gay or not, even drag queens aren't safe some nights it seems.
    My point is; Why do we have to 'be' something? Can't we be everything and it be ok?? Infact, we should all be encouraged to be bisexual! No limits, no boundaries. Imagine the night life if everyone was bisexual and no one gave a shit who the person next to them was kissing... Love is love, attraction is attraction. If you want to say that being gay is natural and being straight is natural then bisexual is the pinnacle of nature and shouldn't even be blinked at. Bisexuality shouldn't even be a word, it should simply be called 'human'.

  • brian | April 8, 2014 8:53 PMReply

    I think a lot of female bisexuality is fake but a lot of male bisexuality is real. That's because female sexuality tends to be fake overall.

  • Malika | April 24, 2014 3:24 PM

    Brian man, you have issues to deal with.

  • Truthsayer | April 6, 2014 3:44 PMReply

    Has anyone met an ugly bisexual person?Seriously,only good looking people are bisexual and the only reason they are is that the opposite gender only objectifies them.When they try their own gender they find that they objectify them too.Beautiful people are the only ones that realize that both men and women are generally horrible people.Amber Heard just hit the jackpot and found a nice woman let it go and went back to men not because they are better but because she found a guy that wasn't a douche.

  • Paulina | April 5, 2014 5:19 PMReply

    Very well written! I have always wondered why the LGBT community calls bisexual women lesbians with such ease. When "Blue is the warmest color" came out everyone was so passionate (for good or bad) about this lesbian movie. I seemed to be the only person in the audience who noticed the young woman at the center of the story was not gay, she was bisexual, crazy in love with a woman, but bi. So thank you for taking the time to understand that bisexual means that. No one is turning, changing or converting ;) It ain't a "mistake" like being gay or straight ain't mistake either.

  • VARAN | May 2, 2014 1:04 AM

    One more thing Paulina. The film actually has a sequence that spells that out. In the book, we are able to read the character's interior thoughts. She discusses how she is uncomfortable around her girlfriend's friends and she doesn't want anyone, besides her gay male friend, to know she has been with a woman for years. Her girlfriend tries to get her to be more public and she says no everytime. Her interior dialogue talks about how she feels guilt over her lesbianism and when she cheats with a man she talks about it coming out of the want to do what would have made her parents, who have disowned her years before, happy. BITWC doesn't have voiceover so we have to pay more attention. At the party, the main character wipes her mouth after her girlfriend kisses her in front of her girlfriend's friends. The main character is reticent about discussing the romance with the girlfriend's friends. Later on the girlfriend, in bed, says she should share her writing. In possibly the most important line in the film, Adele says she cannot expose herself to the world like that. When she kisses the male colleague she does so in the open both times where anyone can see her. As with that important line, these moments aren't there just for the heck of it. Also as with the book, it is shown that she has zero interest in anything more with the male colleague once her girlfriend breaks up with her. It is crucial when watching a film to observe. Lesbianism is not as easy as saying that if a woman is not a goldstar she can't be a lesbian.

  • Varan | May 1, 2014 11:27 PM

    I saw Blue is the Warmest Color. I don't recall the main character being bisexual. I know she has a relationship early on with a guy and she has sex with him. It is indicated in the film that she does so to quell her fears over her sexual desires for women. Years later, she cheats on her longtime girlfriend with a male colleague. It is made very, very clear that this does not seem to stem from romantic or sexual desire but insecurity and pain that her girlfriend appears to be falling in love with someone else. That it is man is shown to be based on her being closeted to all but her girlfriend's friends and falling back, out of self-loathing, on what her parents desired for her during a heterosexist, conservative upbringing. The sex is not depicted presumably to indicate how little it means to the her and she later states it meant nothing and she did so out of loneliness. Her being closeted is also brought up in the breakup sequence. She could be bisexual but the film never seems to show that. We only see her having sexual attraction to two people and they are both women - a fellow student who she falls for heavily and her later girlfriend. While it is important not to label bisexual women lesbians, it is just as important that we comprehend the details concerning a character's behavior instead of responding with a kneejerk reaction that she must be bisexual because she slept with men. The director works way too hard to depict the heroine's fears, her self-loathing, and her family's attitudes to not notice how they factor in to the character's behavior.

    There are movies and television shows that have had bisexual characters. There is even a show, Degrassi, which has a pansexual character in Imogen. But Blue is the Warmest Color depicts a closeted lesbian with deep self-loathing issues more so than a bisexual woman. If you are looking for a film regarding a young woman coming to terms with bisexuality, I highly recommend Young and Wild.

  • Neelu | April 7, 2014 5:34 AM

    Second that a million times, Paulina!

  • Alice Lytton | April 6, 2014 8:27 AM

    Couldn't agree more, Paulina! You should write up those thoughts on BITWC as an article for us...

  • dave | April 5, 2014 3:09 PMReply

    It seems we are reaching the point where the LGBT movement exposes its fractures. I heard and read critics towards bi people about how they don't get involved so much as the gay activist do; but at the same time, it seems as if society is not yet ready to face what someone who's attracted to both genres coud mean. Probably some post-Freudians believe bisexuallity is a mith, a fake for someone who has not been able to make a proper choice, they -in a way- show intolerance and lack of empathy towards those who happen to be different. If we relate issues like this with what happened at mozilla, could we say most of the LGBT movement is becoming conservative?

  • Leisha | April 6, 2014 6:00 AM

    This is really interesting. I don't think the Mozilla issue revealed the conservatism of the LGBT movement but I agree that I'm often surprised (probably stupidly if I think about it) about how conservative some LGBT people can be about stuff which doesn't affect them directly, or when they are telling people what they "are" or "are not". Since when does a gay person want to be telling me I don't know how I feel, don't they see the irony!?!

  • CrazyxCrazy | April 4, 2014 2:41 PMReply

    Everyone should be an equal opportunity slut

  • me | April 4, 2014 1:54 PMReply

    This is the best article I've read since all the "scandal" about this relationship started!

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