When I was a child my parents used to say I had "invisible friends" because I was often lost in some make-believe world of my own creation. Other kids wanted to play "cowboys and Indians" -- I wanted to play the Indian chief's pet hawk. I've never been good at playing the binary roles proscribed by society: even then I was looking for some alternative. So I invented worlds, other planets and magic realms, and populated them with my invisible friends.
It's not a big jump from there to being a professional fiction writer.
These days I'm known for writing erotic romance and for being outspoken about "alternative" sexuality. You may have heard the term "bisexual invisibility." It's the phenomenon that means unless I'm wearing a T-shirt that says "Nobody Knows I'm Bisexual" OR am currently in the midst of Public Displays of Affection with a male-identified person and a female-identified person at the same time, people who look at me (or any other bisexual) will automatically assume I'm straight. Or maybe if they see me with a woman, they might assume I'm a lesbian.
This has always struck me as weird, since in my mind all people are "bisexual until proven otherwise." But that's because I'm an optimist. A bisexual optimist.
The result of living with all these constant assumptions by other people is that to stay sane, I've had to find ways to push back against the consensus reality that the mainstream tries to saddle me with. Like the time I wore my Bisexual Pride T-shirt to Disney World in the early '90s. Talk about invisible friends! Disney employees would sidle up to my family and help us to skip the line, get a better viewing spot for the parade, seat us faster. Many many queerfolk worked at Disney and before they could be open about it, they looked after their own. In those days before Ellen, before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, before Adam Lambert, before Will and Grace, any kind of queer visibility was precious and to be encouraged.
But I can't wear that T-shirt every day. The default that people still stamp on me is "straight female." There must be other ways to push back against the default.
My biggest one is writing itself. When I write, all my characters are bisexual until proven otherwise. My invisible friends earn their keep, not only by being part of how I make my living in fiction writing, but by keeping me sane, by giving me an outlet for all my urges and desires. I write erotic romance and most people make the assumption (there's that word again) that the urges and desires are all about who I want to sleep with or fall in love with. But they are only half right. The other half of the equation is about who I want to BE.
In what I write I can be a swashbuckling masochist who fucks my way across the kingdom to rescue his true love, I can be a rock star struggling to reconcile his attraction to his lead singer, I can be the sex magician fighting to prove that love is even more important to him than sex itself. I can also be the ingenue having her first BDSM experience or the shy librarian falling for the hunky detective she's hired to find her missing sister. Only one of these referenced books of mine would probably be categorizable as "bisexual romance," while the rest are divvied up into gay and straight. Sound familiar?
What makes them "bisexual romance" for me may be invisible to the reader, though, because my characters' bisexuality, if it's not brought out by the plot, remains unmentioned. Or sometimes a mention is there, but if you blink--or are blinded by your assumptions--you'll miss it. I can't put every character into a Bi Pride T-shirt.
I only just realized while writing this essay that the love interests in my books, even the heterosexual ones, are often somewhere on the genderqueer spectrum. Remember what I said about desire? Is it that I wish for a partner who could "satisfy" a bisexual like me (presumably by covering a larger portion of the gender spectrum that I can be attracted to?), or is it that I am writing about myself, about the way I am pushed back and forth between the straight and gay categories by outside perception even though I myself haven't changed?
But of course it's a false dichotomy to ask if it's one or the other. It's both, it's always both, and you'd think as a person who inhabits the gray area in the middle that I'd know that full well. Yet somehow even I have to work to overcome our natural human tendency to break everything into either/or.
"Forget or--embrace and," one of my heroes is fond of advising. It's advice perhaps we could all use. If we did, perhaps bisexuality invisibility would instead become the bisexual default. Romance novels--and love--would still be the same, but the palette of choice would be expanded. That only makes it even more exciting when you meet "the one" who makes you fall so hard you feel physically ill when you're apart, like you literally cannot live without them. For now, for those who can't live as out bisexuals or who can't have all the flavors of love in their lives that they wish for, romance novels will have to be the next best thing. They're a space where readers can try on emotions and relationship styles like costumes--where my invisible friends (and lovers) can become theirs, too.
Queer Romance Month runs throughout October, and celebrates love stories in all shades of the rainbow and in all shades of romance. Join us, and over a hundred LGBTQA+ authors and allies, for essays, flash fiction and much, much more.
Cecilia Tan is the award-winning author of many erotic romances and books of erotica, as well as the founder of Circlet Press. Since the publication of her first book, Telepaths Don't Need Safewords, in 1992, she has been known as a pioneer in combining the erotic with science fiction and fantasy.