“One thing thing the gay rights movement taught the world is the importance of being visible,” New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles Blow said, discussing his riveting and frank new memoir, Fire Put Up in My Bones, in which, among many other things, he reveals that he bisexual.
“And one thing I wanted to do,” he continued, “was just be visible because very often the people who we see, the names we know of people who say they are bisexual, they are already in a relationship, or married, or now they can say, ‘Oh yes, I’m bisexual, although I’m married to whomever I am right now.’ Or people who said that, ’In my 20s I was bisexual and I’m not anymore.’ So people who were kind of transitory in that identity. But I wanted to say that, this is as permanent for me as it gets. I’m not 14, I’m not 24. I’m 44 years old. This is how I felt all my life. It does not feel to me in any way transitory. it does not feel like it’s going to change. And I also wanted to say that there are people who may not fit what we conceive bisexuality to be.”
Blow describes throughout the book his struggle with identifying as bisexual precisely because he didn’t experience exactly what he thought he should be experiencing. He was married to a woman — the mother of his son — from whom he’s since separated, and had been in other in sexually and emotionally fulfilling relationships with women. He hasn’t had a relationship with a man, and he describes his interactions with men in a sexual and emotional way has having been “stilted,” not quite fitting in at gay bars, feeling awkward yet still feeling attraction toward men.
“[Bi]sexuality presents in a lot of different ways," he explained in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress. “People can be bisexual and heteroamorous, meaning they can have sex with both men and women but only fall in love with people of the opposite sex. Or it can be the inverse. It can be people who fall in love with both, but only want to have sex with one. There’s a huge spectrum. Part of what my discomfort was, in the beginning, is that I wanted something that didn’t exist. I wanted something that was so singular, a label that was so singular for me. I was so special —I was so different from everybody else I was meeting. And that I wanted a different label. And I had to say, ‘Charles snap out of that. What are you talking about?’ All identity labels are umbrella terms to some degree, but this term bisexual is not only serviceable but it is sufficient. And yes, it brings together a bunch of people who are maybe shades different from one another. And maybe that’s the beauty of labels: that they force you to be with other people and see the difference.”
For Blow, there was another intense issue clouding his experience: He’d been sexually molested when he was 7, by an older male cousin. Fire Put Up In My Bones grippingly begins with a white-hot angry Blow, as a 20-year-old adult, impulsively planning to violently confront his abuser. A lot of his anger was because he partially blamed himself, as many sexually-abused people do, for something that was not in his control.
“At 20 years old, in my mind, all of the pain that I’d ever experienced had originated from him, and him making me believe that some part of that had been my fault,” he explained. “That it was something about me.”
That something, for him, was his sexual orientation.
“I think that in the mind of a child you can braid the two together,” he said. “We have to recognize that children who are abused often do. The abuse and attraction become of a part. It’s only as I got older that I had to then spend the rest of my live unbraiding the two, and say, ‘Whoever you were going to be attracted to you were probably born predisposed to that or predetermined to have those attractions anyway. This person doesn’t have that kind of control over you.’"
Blow knows how delicate this issue is to broach and addresses the lie that anti-gay bigots spin out: that sexual abuse causes homosexuality. In the book he eloquently explains how, in fact, it is the abusers who may sense a child who is questioning, and see that child as an easy target.
“It is a fact that people who are LGBT are far more likely to be victims of sexual abuse when they were children,” he explained. “The anti-LGBT people do try to say that it is because you are abused that you are different. I think we have to turn that on its head and say, ‘It is likely that because you were different. or going to be different, that you are more likely to be abused.’”