Welcome to AH&HL’s third annual guest-post series for Bisexual Awareness Week! The “Bisexuals and their Laptops” series aims to share a diverse set of bisexual stories, histories, and celebrations. This post is by Black bisexual writer, Ja-Mel Vinson (he/him). Read all identity posts.
As a kid, the stories I wrote would have protagonists named Atre Williamson, Astor Palam, Ryan Grayson, Charn Dimension (now Brendan Chambers), Alice Jones, Rosalyn Brown, and Maya Juanita Isidora Hernandez Lilac (just “Maya Lilac” back in those days). These aren’t names that I grew up hearing in my black/Caribbean neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York. The names of all of my characters were all white-sounding names, and the characters themselves were, in fact, white (Maya, at this point in time, is no longer white—now she’s mixed—but at the time she was). It wasn’t until years later, when I was 14 going on 15, that I had begun writing people of color like me—and people of color also not like me, in the case of Maya—as characters in my stories.
Part of the reason it took me so long to write black people in my stories, I realized, is that I didn’t see many people like me in media, or at the very least, not in favorable roles in the media. The only time I’d ever seen a black person in the media (aside from in my childhood in Disney shows like The Proud Family and That’s So Raven) was in the Tears of a Tiger trilogy that I read in 8th grade in 2013. And because of that invisibility of people like me and the sheer overabundance of white characters, the racial demographics of the things I created reflected the world as it was in media rather than as it actually existed around me in my neighborhood. And this epiphany didn’t just happen one day, either. I had to be “woken up” to the reality of the situation by my former best friend telling me in plain observation that all of my characters had white-sounding names. And, from then on, I’ve been writing people like me to get rid of the deeply uncomfortable reality that I was nowhere in my writing, not even superficially.
And with that discovery of an utterly white-washed cast came a discovery that sexual orientation in my stories was essentially the same. Because the cast of characters I had in my stories was evenly split between guys and girls, every guy either ended up dating a girl at the end of the story or there just wasn’t romance in the story to begin with. Thinking back now, things were very cishetnormative in my stories to start because–in addition to the oversaturation cishet characters–I’ve always had a very strong attraction to AFAB (assigned female at birth) people. My attraction to AMAB (assigned male at birth) people was, and still is, considerably lower. It was so low as to be virtually non-existent, save for a few guys that I was very strongly pulled towards, though I could never explain why at the time.
The first bisexual character that I ever remember writing and specifically having as bi was Maya, and, if you’ve read anything that I’ve written on my blog or heard me in any interviews or on Twitter, you’ll know that Maya was actually my oldest character that I had started writing back when I was 10 (that I can remember, anyway). I’ve written and changed her surroundings and personality to match whatever stage of life I was in—first with her being in high school, and then her going to my college when I started university in 2017.
Though I had originally just started writing fantasy for the sheer creativity of making something entirely from scratch with nothing but my gray matter, the characters I made sometimes became more than that. Maya, in particular, had become a vehicle for me to thrust my thoughts, emotions, and life experiences onto, to help process them in a way that I might not have been able to otherwise. One day, when I was 17 or 18, I had just decided to make Maya bi and gave her a girlfriend, though this had happened after her boyfriend, Jake, was written out of the story because he didn’t do anything. Maya’s girlfriend had just become one of the other characters who were much more prominent in the story.
Along with Maya now being bisexual, her best friend, Rosemary, had been changed to be lesbian and had started on the path of falling for another character in the story, Astrid. Maya’s mother, Caitlin, had eventually been changed from straight to bisexual because I noticed a spark between her and another character while writing their interactions. Virtually all of my characters in Dreamer had become queer in some way, shape, or form, sometimes with multiple intersections as some characters were both bi/lesbian and ace or bi/pan/lesbian and non-binary. They were all solidly their sexualities,, had already had them discovered and were fully secure in their identities at the point in their lives that I was writing them, with them all being college-aged or, in the case of Maya’s mother, beyond.
All of my friends–with the exception of one, which is no longer a friend–were queer,. I wanted them to see themselves reflected back in stories where queer people had the same plots and stories and adventures as cishet people, where they weren’t villianized on the basis of their sexuality or gender. I was tired of the virtually all the books and movies with black leads featuring situations that were deeply traumatic to us and I didn’t want to have any of my queer friends go through the same with my books.
Another reason I didn’t want to write stories where queer people were discovering their identities or dealing with homo/bi/a/transphobia is because, at the time, I believed myself to be solidly straight. Sure there were a couple things that I had done and found attractive that made me wonder if other cishet guys did it as well (spoiler alert: the answer’s no…largely just because I’m not heterosexual), but I never found any guy attractive or even looked at a guy. Why would some girls look at me and ask if I were gay if I never even looked at a guy that way? I was solidly straight. Sure, I was passionate about gay rights and I knew stuff about Stonewall: all of my friends were queer and I couldn’t call myself a very strong ally if I didn’t know anything about queer history. That just didn’t make any sense!
Fast-forward to October 2019. I was texting a friend on Twitter. I had jokingly said “be bi, do crimes” to them, and the conversation had quickly turned to an experience that I had had with another boy when I was 10. It was very brief and quick,, and I never really thought much about it beyond that moment, but my friend had said that a straight guy wouldn’t have had an experience like that. They had said, “Girls experimenting with girls was so common and encouraged in media that simply kissing another girl doesn’t always force a girl to question her identity; there’s a lot more to it than that like attraction and everything else. Guys kissing other guys, on the other hand, has no presence in media, so when a guy kisses or does anything sexual with another guy, that in and of itself, means something.” From there, everything had begun to turn in my head.
All of the things that I had questioned (“did other straight guys look at this” “did other straight guys think about that”), sentences that I had said to myself—but as I quickly found out never actually finished to their logical conclusion—and the fact that there were a bunch of people who thought I was some sort of queer started to make sense. I was actually bisexual. My friend had later told me that they had figured I was bi from my first conversation with them (turns out, virtually all of my friends—who again, are all queer and have functioning gaydars) partially because of the fact that all of my characters in everything I had ever shown them had been queer and there were essentially no straight people in the story. Some of my friends said because of how closely tied to me Maya-the-character actually was and the fact that she was bi, they figured I was as well.
I bring this all up because, like with how slow the uptake was for me to start writing people like me (compared to how long I’ve been writing, that is), I think part of the reason I was so slow to realize my own sexuality (despite subconsciously writing it in a majority of my characters) is partially because I didn’t have really any exposure to bi people, either in media or in real life. I had a few friends who were bi, but they were all girls and attracted more to girls than guys, just like I was. Girls who were straight, I never really questioned or felt like I really had a reason to question. I didn’t have any friendships with other bi/pan guys to really make me wonder about anything. The books that I had read, both for school and in my own personal time, had been up until about a year or so ago, had cishet relationships in them. What little TV I watched were similarly cishetnormative. Gay people, and bisexual guys guys in particular, were virtually absent. That started to change more as I got older, as I’ve seen from other bi groups that I’m a part of and their favorite fictional bisexual characters, but for me myself, I never personally had a reason to question myself, especially since I didn’t feel like I had any attraction to guys to even think about.
A lot of writer friends I have had said that they mainly began to work through some of their personal issues and troubles—particularly with sexuality—through fanfiction that they had made. The stories they consumed and the stories they wrote became vehicles for their minds to process the tumultuous state of mind and being that is adolescence, where they largely worked through a lot of their issues. Sexuality, in my house, was never talked about, so I never saw it as a thing to question. My family, despite being Christian, only loosely went to church, so I never grew up steeped in Christianity and with the experiences that a lot of other people with Christian families in the western world have faced.
I hadn’t even seen many stories with the negative and harmful stereotypes of bisexuals (we all know the ones), though I’ve definitely heard them said to me irl and have argued with people about them online. I grew up starved of people like me and couldn’t even begin to start discovering who “me” was. I’ve been digging and adding books with queer main characters to my TBR list for a few years now, and in the past year, I’ve been zeroing my search in on books with other bi people like me at the helm. The few I’ve read thus far (I don’t read much despite genuinely loving it—I blame ADHD) have been written in the way that I write queer and racial identities in my own writing; it gets a small mention and then it either isn’t mentioned again or it comes up a few more times after in very select situations. The identity is never a focal point of the story. One story I’m writing has a sapphic enemies-to-lovers romantic subplot with one of them being bi, but the bisexuality will be mentioned in narration and dialogue in passing.
In my personal life, however, I do anything but mention it in passing. I’ve been out, , loud,, and proud about my bisexuality,, and I’ve been itching to buy all manner of pop sockets, rings, phone cases, etc. with the bi flag on it. The first week after I found out was spent looking for another guy to fully spend time with (and the bi panic that ensued as a result of my lack of experience) and telling all of my friends my new discovery, with each meeting getting longer than the last due to me making more connections to how my bisexuality showed through my actions and thoughts as a kid. I have it marked on my Twitter and Instagram profiles, I’ve changed my “attracted to” label on Facebook, I’ve posted about being bi on all of my socials at least 300—no, 500—times, the logo I’m using for my business cards are in the bi flag colors (see that down below), and I’ve made sure to mark my debut novel, Dreamer, and all of my other novels that have bi characters in the leading role as #ownvoices bi rep in all of the TTwitter and Instagram marketing.
I’ve been doing this for several reasons: 1) I’ve never been one to hide parts of my identity (a blessing that not everyone has), 2) I’m happy that I’ve learned more about myself and want to share it with people in case it helps them learn things about themselves, and 3) because I want to show the teens and young adults and maybe even the 30 and 40 year old adults who are still grappling with it it, are just now coming to accept their sexuality, and have been steeped in their sexuality for years now that they’re not alone.
Since discovering I’m bi, my fervor for writing queer characters—and in particular, bi characters—has only increased. I’ve yet to write a book about a character who, as part of their journey, comes to discover their bisexuality. I’ve yet to write a character whose journey with their sexuality has mirrored my own (though a journey similar to mine is quite common, I’ve come to learn), because I’ve always believed in having my characters’ identities just figured out at the start of the story and it just getting a casual and small enough mention that the audience is aware of the fact that they are what they are.
It’s a holdover from, honestly, even now where race and sexuality are still major factors in stories with non-cishet and non-white main and side characters, and it’s a thing that I don’t ever see myself stopping. Though one day, I’ll probably write a story with someone that looks like me in the hopes that I can increase someone’s exposure to a character who learns to question and accept their attraction to girls, guys, and enbys, so that maybe one day that person can have bi pride.
Ja-Mel is a chaotic bi that is absolutely obsessed with writing, playing games and talking about his own books and others on his website. He tends to stick to YA Fantasy and Sci-fi by QBIPOC, but also loves a heaping dose of romance depending on the book. You can find Ja-Mel on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Patreon, and his website. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sending Ja-Mel a few bucks via PayPal.