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?
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.