In what would otherwise be a charming love story, Lauren Morelli, one of the writers from the TV show Orange is the New Black, fell in love with one of the stars of the show, Samira Wiley. One of the reasons why the situation is not exactly perfect is that Lauren had been married, that Lauren had considered herself straight.
Of course, these things happen. Marriages end all the time. People unexpectedly (and sometimes inconveniently) fall in love. But the backlash here is interesting. One of the critiques that fascinates me is the idea that Morelli cannot really be gay because she was married. Or, if she really is gay, how did she not know earlier? Why did she get married if she was not straight? Is she a fraud in the gay world or a fraud in the straight one — or just not very bright?
Of course, I cannot speak for Morelli. I cannot speak to her confusion or her soul-searching or the personal journey she had to forge. I do know, because she herself said it, that she was so deep in her own self-doubt that she constantly felt like a fraud.
But I do know that sexuality is not always easy to define or determine. That, despite strength of character and sense of self, it is not always easy to defy societal pressures and expectations. It is very possible that I’m bisexual. I’ve had long-term relationships with men. About twelve years ago, I made the conscious choice to prioritize men over women for a variety of reasons, one of which that it was simply easier. If I didn’t have the propensity to date douchebags, maybe I, like Morelli, would have gotten married. Maybe I would be happily married even now. Or maybe I, like Morelli, would have eventually felt like a fraud. There is no way to know.
Just because I have zero interest in dating men now does not mean that I never did or that I never will again. Just because I feel like I cannot get enough of women now does not mean that I always felt that way or that I always will.
But I do know that societal pressure works in insidious and powerful ways. Speaking as someone who feels like she is coming out all over again, I feel very much the outsider. I’m the outsider in straight circles, and I’m the outsider in gay ones, the sexual equivalent of being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I can blend into both but not very convincingly and not for very long. I feel like a fraud in one and an amateur in the other.
At times, this outsiderness works to my advantage because I’m seeing everything as if for the first time. I am keenly (naively?) aware of the massive heterosexual presence that is pretty much everywhere. Yes, sure, we have some gay characters on TV. Yes, sure, we have some gay couples on TV. There are probably a couple in the movies. But you want to get a gay greeting card? That’s going to be tricky. You want a gay emoji? That’s tricky. You want to know what most couples are on TV and in the movies? They are straight. Romance, according to mainstream media, is coded straight.
Now while this shouldn’t surprise anyone anywhere, I think we underestimate the pervasive and surreptitious effect of all this hetero-messaging. One of the pervasive themes of the documentary Miss Representation is that we cannot become what we do not see. Jan Yanehiro, a broadcast journalist, never thought she could be a journalist because she never saw anyone who looked like her on television. It is possible that Morelli is bisexual and merely fell deeper in love with Wiley and less in love with her husband. But it is also possible that Morelli thought she was straight because it hadn’t occurred to her that she wasn’t. Because she hadn’t been exposed to enough images of the alternative. Because the default is the default for a reason. Because the default is easier. And then as Morelli wrote these scenes, as Morelli developed these characters, Morelli, in effect, became what she saw because she saw it.
If you can date both sexes, if you can love both sexes, it requires a conscious choice to choose the more difficult path. It requires a conscious choice to forge a path where one does not exist, to diverge from the heavily-trafficked freeway, that comes complete with easy-access rest stops and a smooth asphalt finish, to drive off-road, on a path unmarked and unpaved — especially if you do not see this path in the first place.
Again, I cannot speak to Morelli’s journey. I do not know what she went through, what the mitigating factors were. I do know that for me, an almost thirty-eight-year-old who has spent much of her life in urban areas, I am shocked and embarrassed at how much I have been shaped by societal pressures and mainstream media, by how easy (and natural) it seemed to choose the path of least resistance. And I’m a scholar. I study media. And yet I did not realize the full extent of how much it was shaping my life choices. I did not realize how much, in certain circles, it would feel weird to use words like “girlfriend,” to think twice before taking another girl’s hand or kissing in public. To know that these choices could have serious professional and personal consequences.
So why not take the easy route, if you can?
But now that I’m not, I have respect for people like Morelli. For people who have seen the road more travelled and ignored it, even if it took them a little while to get there. My heart beats a little louder for them. Because I can imagine what they went through, and I’m grateful that they went through it first. Because, yes, that makes it a little easier for me.