Caution: Contains spoilers for the YA novel Bi-Normal by M.G. Higgins.
I read a lot of young adult fiction. Personally, I think the importance of YA literature in general cannot be overstated because the characters young readers encounter in books help them understand their own experiences. For queer youth in particular, who are often afraid to talk about what they are feeling and sometimes lack access to queer communities and support networks, just seeing oneself and the challenges one is facing in a book can confirm one’s identity and prove one is not alone. Luckily, it is becoming easier and easier to find queer main characters in YA novels.
Bi-Normal by M.G. Higgins is one of those novels. It is the first YA novel I remember reading that directly addresses the difficulty of coming out to oneself as bisexual.
The main character, Brett, is a sophomore in high school, a football player, and has a girlfriend, Jillia, who he loves. But then he meets a student in his art class, Zach, who he is strongly attracted to. The rest of the book deals with his struggle to come to terms with his bisexuality, especially as part of a group of friends that bully the out gay students at their high school.
I think Bi-Normal is an important book because it addresses the ongoing invisibility of bisexuals. Brett didn’t even know what the term ‘bi’ meant until he worked up the guts to ask one of the gay students he and his friends had been harassing, describing his own experiences as the experiences of ‘a friend’ because he was too afraid to admit that he was the one questioning his sexuality. His high school has a gay-straight alliance that advertises its meetings with a poster that reads, “Support for those in the LGBTQ community. If you’re gay, straight or questioning, come check us out.” The ‘B’ is on the poster once, but it doesn’t spell out what it stands for. These are just details in the larger picture of bisexual invisibility and erasure in both hetero- and homosexual communities, but they are some of the ones young adults are most likely to face, making them important details to include in YA literature.
I also appreciate that the book ends with Brett coming out to his father and seeking to develop friendships and a support network rather than entering a relationship with Zach. So many stories, from Disney on up, focus on romantic relationships as the key to a happy ending, but a one person support network is not much of a network at all. Media consistently undervalues friendship and community, and the end of Bi-Normal does a little to refute that.
However, the book has a fatal flaw. Brett, trying to deny his attraction to Zach, pressures Jillia into having sex with him. She later explains that she only said ‘yes’ because she “felt like [she] didn’t have a choice, like [she] needed to just get it over with.” She dumps him in the end after they have a conversation about how she felt bullied into sex. At the end of their conversation, Brett thinks, “[I] want more than anything to kiss her, start the fire up again. But I guess that would be pressuring. In her eyes, bullying.” I don’t care how realistic a sixteen-year-old male voice that is. Combating bisexual invisibility while essentially condoning rape culture is not okay. I might not have such a strong reaction if the book included discussion questions at the end, resources for bisexual teens, information about sexual harassment, anything to put the story in a larger context. But it doesn’t. It leaves that qualifier, “In her eyes,” as the final thought on Brett and Jillia’s relationship. There is no “in her eyes” about it. Brett refrains, but kissing someone who doesn’t want to be kissed is not just pressuring or bullying, it is sexual harassment, and it is not okay. Brett claims he isn’t that person anymore, the bully, and he has accepted that he is bi so his urgent ‘need’ to have sex to establish his straightness is gone, but while he acknowledges that he was bullying the gay students, but he never acknowledges that he bullied Jillia into having sex with him. He doesn’t truly think he did anything in their relationship wrong and that comes through in the tone of the story. It is small, but only by recognizing the small ways in which all forms of media perpetuate the myth that ‘no’ doesn’t really mean ‘no’ and that anything one can do to make the other person change their mind is fair game can we combat the insidiousness of rape culture.
There are other YA books with bi characters out there. I particularly enjoyed The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson, and Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. While less well-written, Alex Sanchez’s Boyfriends with Girlfriends deals with a bisexual male character, biphobia, and a female character questioning her sexual identity and wondering if she might be bi. Though most of these books don’t deal with bisexual invisibility in the same way, I would recommend reading one of them instead of Bi-Normal.
Queerview Mirror is a semi-regular feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts on Friday afternoons.