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the Bisexual Backpack

...From the Bisexual Backpack

Freaks Talk Back:

Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity

by Joshua Gamson

(University of Chicago Press, 1998)
reviewed by Robyn Ochs

In Freaks Talk Back, Gamson, a professor at Yale, offers a brilliant discussion of the daytime television shows that exploit sexual minorities. Through interviews with talk show hosts, producers, members of studio audiences and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered guests, he attempts to make sense of the whole mess. What is the agenda of the talk shows? What are they trying to promote? To what lengths are producers and talk show hosts willing to go to get a product that sells? Why do sexual minorities go on talk shows? Gamson argues that minority activists, while being used by the shows, in turn use these same shows as a forum for education and visibility.

Freaks Talk BackGamson points out that middle class, well-dressed, and monogamous gays and lesbians are not viewed by many talk show viewers as the enemy, and the validity of their identity is rarely called into question. The enemy, rather, is the extreme homophobe and the non-conforming queer. Only the boundary blurrers -- gender transgressors (butch lesbians, cross-dressers and sisses) and bisexuals -- lack audience and viewer support. The rare monogamous bisexual who manages to get onto a talk show (in my own experience, we're not seen by most producers as "bisexual" enough to represent bisexuality on TV) may get the audience's approval, but those in three-ways (or worse!) are the recipients of animosity, anger and derision.

Gamson observes that there's a class thing going on here. He discusses the shift of television talk shows from the "nice professional folks in suits" model of Donahue and Oprah to the mid-'90s wave of trashy shows, such as those of Jerry Springer and Richard Bey, which encourage outrageous stories and outbursts, pile many guests and story lines into each show, and tend to have working-class guests. This trend, Gamson argues, has had a democratizing effect in that working class people are increasingly given a voice. The down side is that these same people are often manipulated and exploited. Stories abound of guests who were prodded to scream and yell at each other, provoke fights, exaggerate or lie, and there are even accounts of return tickets being withheld in exchange for promised outbursts. There are also many reports of actors being hired to play guests. At the extreme, of course, is the unaired Jenny Jones Show on "secret crushes" that prompted a guest to murder Scott Amedure, and a New York show I refused to appear on during which people were going to find out about and meet their partners' secret lovers for the first time on national television.

About bisexuality, in particular, Gamson has a lot to say. Like its sister, transgenderism, bisexuality is consistently portrayed as other, "not nice," and disruptive. Gamson interviews a number of bi activists, including Lani Ka'ahumanu, Loraine Hutchins, Jill Nagle, Cole Roland, Eve Diana, Laura Perez, Michael Szymanski, Mark Silver and myself, and gives an accurate account of the behind-the-scenes and on-stage tugs of war at bi shows on Donohue, Geraldo, Leeza, Bertice Berry and Jane Whitney.

Gamson's book is well written and, in my opinion, much more interesting than the talk shows it's about. And if Josh Gamson ever contacts you and asks for an in-person interview, go! He's charming and a pleasure to behold: pretty, witty and gay.


Suits Me:

The Double Life of Billy Tipton

by Diane Wood Middlebrook

(Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998)
reviewed by Mark Silver

Suits MeThe true story, in brief: Dorothy Tipton (1914-1989), who loved both jazz and women, created a male persona, Billy, that became her main identity throughout her life. Billy had access to the music and musicians that Dorothy could never have, as well as to the women he loved. Now, I hardly know anything about jazz and I'm not much of a butch. I picked the book up in part to learn about the music, and I was afraid I was the wrong person reading the book for the wrong reasons. Luckily, I was wrong.

The book was perfect for me. Middlebrook has done a thorough job and gives what I have to believe is a very true picture of what it was like to be a touring jazz musician in the Midwest in the '40s and '50s. Her descriptions of the culture, the struggles, and the people Billy spent time with were fascinating and made me want to learn more about the music.

Woven into the jazz is the story of how Billy came to and continued to be. Since "queer" and "lesbian" didn't exist when Dorothy became Billy, the time Middlebrook spent researching what it was like for folks "in the life" back then pays off handsomely for the reader. She shares what she knows from interviews and other research very well, with only a slight tendency to the melodramatic. When she doesn't know something, she makes it clear that she is guessing, gives good reasons for the guesses she makes and, in some cases, outlines a few different possibilities.

The photos Middlebrook has found are priceless: family pictures, touring pictures, and gig pictures, most of them featuring Billy Tipton's cute boyish smile. It's hard to believe that no one guessed Billy was Dorothy, but I guess without a 1990s transgender context no one would have any reason to suspect. In a backwards kind of way, Dorothy's freedom to be Billy must have been a bit greater for that very reason. To pass today without anyone guessing would take a lot more effort and more hormones.

I don't know which is more fascinating, the story of jazzman Billy Tipton and his era or the story of Dorothy-Billy's life and how she and he led it through the years. The combination for me was irresistable.


Eileen is a Spy

directed by Sayer Frey

reviewed by Raven Usi

Eileen is a Spy, a work in progress by director Sayer Frey, is a beautiful movie about an adult woman coming to terms with her sexuality after a childhood of incest by a now-dead father. The movie, which is unreleased, was for me the highlight of this year's San Francisco Bisexual Film Festival. As both a bi woman and an incest survivor I strongly identified with Eileen, her problems with intimacy and her ambivalence about being biologically mature. As is true for many abuse survivors, adulthood for Eileen seems like a foreign country.

When Eileen meets her romantic interest, Jane, she fights against her desires. She implies that Jane is obscene because Jane can enjoy the beauty in the world that Eileen cannot. Frey explores Eileen's thoughts and feelings with voice-overs from real survivors, both shedding insight on the character while echoing many abuse survivors' experience of not having their own voices. The technique captures the common experience among survivors of seeing but not being able to speak their truth.

The strongest image for me was the scene where Eileen confronts her mirror. Only those of us who have experienced incest by an immediate blood relative know what it is like to wake up and see our abuser's face staring back at us in the mirror. We must wage an ongoing battle to see ourselves as beautiful, worthy of love, or even friendship. This response is artfully conveyed to the audience in this masterpiece.

The most emotional moment came at the end when Eileen dances with Jane. I felt a pang of envy for the pure vulnerability that Eileen was able to experience. Although I have dealt with sex in the opposite way from Eileen, I still face the same challenge of being intimate with other women. I hope all audiences understand how universal Eileen's emotions are even when the circumstances are different. Sayer Frey's profound subject and presentation add up to a ground-breaking film. (For more information, contact the SF Bisexual Film Festival c/o Jeff Ross, 530 Divisadero Street #183, San Francisco, CA 94117.)

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