As my poor friends and loved ones can attest, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last week trying to decide if and how to interact with the latest fandom discourse. Which is pretty rare for me already; in general, I try to avoid that. Getting involved in discourse actively hampers my enjoyment of fandom, and I’ve been pretty clear about enjoyment being my top fandom priority. And in this actual case, I have the problem of agreeing with specifics and disagreeing with generalities, which makes me feel pretty awkward. If I were going to generalize, I’d say that I think that anyone can write whatever they want and no one can stop them, but that doesn’t mean they should write these things, and my opinion on most of these cases tends toward shouldn’t.
But at some point, the generalities became so general and so moralizing that they began to actually make me feel sick. And I am a thirty-year-old woman who has been around the fandom block a lot, which means that doesn’t happen very often. But the more I see posts about why bisexuals don’t get to have opinions on gay characters, the less okay I feel about keeping my mouth shut.
And that’s why I’m here to discourse about Willow Rosenberg.
I was out of college before I felt comfortable identifying as bisexual, but like a lot of queer people, I have all these experiences that when I look back on them, I think, oh yeah, that’s what was happening there. I think about female characters I really, really liked, and how I had strong opinions on how they should wear their hair. I think about girls I liked, but it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t a real crush.
I think a lot about Willow Rosenberg.
I don’t know how many of you reading this were around in the Buffy fandom, or were around in the parts I was in. I don’t even know what parts I was in. I was never a fic writer and barely a fic reader. I didn’t care about getting involved in things. I don’t even remember how it was that I got my information about it.
But I remember that Willow Rosenberg was Gay, because she said she was gay in canon. I remember that anyone who suggested that her canonical relationships with men might indicate she was bisexual being told that they were being incredibly disrespectful, that they were being homophobic, and that they were erasing the experiences of lesbians who dated men before realizing they were lesbians.
And that’s not an invalid reading. It’s true that there are lesbians who identify with Willow and are hurt by people suggesting that she might be bisexual because of her past relationships with men. And that’s important, and meaningful. I don’t want to take that experience from anyone. I get how important she is as a gay character.
But it’s also true that are also bisexuals who identify with Willow and are hurt by people suggesting that she can’t be read as bisexual, because it’s disrespectful to ignore how a person identifies. Because real people feel this way, and those real people are gay.
Because, yeah, that’s all still true. But Willow Rosenberg is not a person. Willow Rosenberg did not sit down and think for hours about her relationship with Oz and her relationship with Tara, about her crush on Xander, about how it felt to see an alternate-universe version of herself who seemed interested in women. She did not go on the computer and read sites about LGBT issues and carefully select her own label.
She is a character, and a person (or a group of people, who knows) decided she identified as gay. And that is canon, and that is will always be canon. Nothing I or anyone else says changes that. And that bothered me, and I didn’t know why. And when I saw people saying, over and over, that this character couldn’t be bisexual because they related to her, because they saw their experience in her and they were not bisexual, it fucked me up.
And I didn’t even realize it fucked me up. Not for a long time. I thought that I was being good and letting it go. After all, I was straight. I didn’t have a horse in this race. Obviously, I wouldn’t mind, if I was bi. I didn’t have anything against it. If I ever wanted to date a girl, I totally would.
But I was straight, and Willow Rosenberg had never been mine. I liked the first three seasons better, so it made sense I liked and valued her relationship with Oz. I liked Tara too, of course. And I was happy she was gay! I love representation!
And, again, all that is true. Or I thought it was true at the time, in the case of the straight thing. But it’s also not true, because some part of me knew two things: that I was not gay and that I was really confused about Willow Rosenberg. And it fucked me up because every time that bisexual label came into it, I heard how wrong and disrespectful it was, how much it hurt real people, and how much I had no right to be hurt back. That this pain was not mine.
I remember recently seeing one of those posts with information about canon bisexual characters, and Willow was on it, with an asterix to indicate she had IDed as gay but had significant relationships with both men and women, and it actually made me wince, that they’d call her bi. I remember telling Brit how torn I was to see her on the list, and when I searched my chat history with her, I found four occasions of complaining to her and other people about Willow’s sexuality. And in every one, I note Willow as identifying as a lesbian, as being textually not bisexual. I still know she is not mine, no matter how much I want her.
So, yeah. You can’t say that this an issue bisexuals don’t get a say in. You can’t say that bisexuals aren’t fucking hurt by this discourse. You cannot draw a neat line down the center of this as a sexuality issue and say that you must be this gay to talk. I get why you are. I do. But fandom is one of the places where people come to figure this out, and when you say anyone who does this is scum, that only gay/lesbian people get to talk, you aren’t just hitting the target you’re aiming for. I know what it’s like, to have an image in your mind of the person you are talking to, and what they’re like. And some of the people you’re talking to might be that person.
But some of the people you’re talking to are eighteen and don’t know why they feel the way they do, and don’t know why this makes them feel sick, and they will believe you, when you tell them they’re being assholes, because they care about this. They don’t know why, but it matters to them so much. And they want so desperately to do the right thing. To be a good person.
So when you talk about alternate character interpretations as something that devalues your own experience, you aren’t just talking to people who don’t understand. You’re talking to people who do understand, and telling them that they don’t. You’re teaching kids like me that bisexuality is less than, that bisexual readings of characters are only valid when they’re about straight (or presumed straight) characters, that if their experience is not yours, theirs is harmful. You act like thinking of characters as bisexual makes them less queer, and that has a very real impact on actual queer people too.
You can tell me that it’s not what you’re saying, that that’s not what this is about. But I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that this is what some queer kids–gay, lesbian, bisexual, ace, trans kids–are going to hear you saying. That I heard that, and I stepped out of the conversation like you said I should, and it still hurts.
So, yeah. I’ll unfollow you. I’ll stop talking to you. I’ll leave you alone. But if you tell me that bisexuals don’t have a place in this conversation, that we cannot take characters who show same sex attraction (who, in this fandom, do not and apparently will not ever have canon sexualities, so don’t come at me with this canonically gay argument) and make them our own, then you are hurting people too. And your pain is not more important than mine.