Making sense of Ted Haggard’s “bisexuality”

Could the pastor's (kind of) confession in GQ pave the way for a more nuanced understanding about men and sex?

Topics: Ted Haggard, Gay Marriage, Gender, Gender Roles, LGBT, Sex, Love and Sex,

Making sense of Ted Haggard's "bisexuality"Ted Haggard (L) and his wife Gayle answer questions during the HBO panel for the documentary "The Trials of Ted Haggard" at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Los Angeles January 9, 2009. Haggard, the powerful U.S. evangelist who fell from grace in 2006 amid a gay sex scandal, returned to the spotlight on Friday saying his faith was stronger but he wished people had been more forgiving. REUTERS/Phil McCarten (UNITED STATES)(Credit: © Phil Mccarten / Reuters)

It’s about time Ted Haggard came out. Not that the Christian evangelical has done that, exactly — but in this month’s GQ profile, he says that he would be coming out as bisexual if he were still in college. “Probably, if I were 21 in this society, I would identify myself as a bisexual.” However, the pastor, whose public image is still in rehabilitation from a 2006 scandal involving a male prostitute and a load of meth, adds, “I’m 54, with children, with a belief system, and I can have enforced boundaries in my life.”

It might seem that he’s conforming to the conservative talking point that one’s sexuality is strictly a choice. At the same time, though, it could be seen as a progressive admission that bisexual people don’t have to — or even necessarily want to — pursue their every sexual desire. He added: “Just like you’re a heterosexual but you don’t have sex with every woman that you’re attracted to, so I can be who I am and exclusively have sex with my wife and be perfectly satisfied.”

Salon spoke with Jonathan Alexander, editor of the Journal of Bisexuality and a professor at the University of California, Irvine, about what Haggard’s revelation means, and why we care.

So, Haggard has said that if he were younger he would identify as bisexual. What do you make of that?

It’s in some ways a completely understandable statement. We know that younger people right now are more inclined to identify as bisexual — whether that’s a sexual identification category they will continue to claim once they leave late adolescence and move into full adulthood, we don’t know. But it does seem to have some cachet right now and that could speak to a greater sense of sexual fluidity or sexual experimentation in one’s younger years.

Ted Haggard, however, did not grow up at a time when identifying as bisexual, much less gay, was really acceptable. Only he can really tell us the truth about his sexuality, but if he is experiencing feelings of same-sex sexual attraction, but obviously also feels very drawn to his wife, then I can understand why he might think that “bisexual” would be a good term for him. We can only go by what he tells us.



He compares it to being heterosexual but not sleeping with every woman you’re attracted to. Is that a fair comparison?

In terms of bisexual studies, Fritz Klein came up in the late ’70s with the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, and it was a refinement of the early Kinsey scale of sexuality. What Klein was trying to do was measure not just sexual behavior — what people actually did with their bodies — but he also said we need to take into account people’s fantasies, their emotional attachments, whom they prefer to socialize with. He said the picture of sexuality was probably far more complex, that there are probably a great many people who feel erotic or emotional attraction to members of the same sex but may never act on those impulses. For Klein, that is a kind of bisexuality. So there is some room within our understanding of bisexuality to accommodate Ted Haggard’s claim to be bisexual even if he’s no longer going to act on those impulses.

So, basically, just because one identifies as bisexual doesn’t mean that you have to actively explore every sexual avenue that’s attractive to you.

No, not at all. I don’t think anyone has that much time. [Laughs.]

None of us do, regardless of our sexual identity.

Right!

I think what’s lurking here for a lot of people is the suspicion that this is a half-truth, that perhaps he’s actually gay and this is an “in-between” coming out.

Only he can really tell us, but I will say this: We know there are many men who are apparently fairly happily married and who also engage in same-sex sexual behavior on the down-low. When I use the term “down-low,” I’m not meaning to invoke the African-American community — this is a pan-racial phenomenon in the United States. You only have to look at the Craigslist personal ads to see any number of individuals claiming to be married but also claiming to be straight and wanting to engage in same-sex sexual behavior. So, the question is, “Are these people really gay or is our culture too restrictive in how it categorizes sexuality?” Right now we operate under a pretty binary set of rules: You’re either gay or you’re straight, and there’s not a lot of room in between.

I’ve read Ted Haggard’s wife’s book, “Why I Stayed,” and it’s hard not to believe that they have a very deeply committed relationship. She clearly is in love with him, and the way that she tells it he is clearly in love with her — but he’s obviously also having these other feelings from what he’s told us. We’ve seen him struggle to identify what that means. At one point he was saying he was a heterosexual with “complications,” now he’s saying that he’s bisexual. I think his inability to settle upon any particular term doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s gay and just can’t come out, it might actually mean that we don’t really have a cultural language rich enough to describe the complexity of people’s intimate attachments and desires.

How common is it for a married man to explore these desires, either in real life or just as an active fantasy?

That’s a great question. There’s no way to know. These fantasies are on the down-low, so there’s no way to capture statistically what exactly is going on or how prevalent it is. I read just recently that it could be as high as 40 percent of married men potentially engaging in same-sex behavior — but that seems to me pretty high. You get conflicting reports about extramarital affairs to begin with, and you’re gonna get even more conflicting reports about something that is even more stigmatized like same-sex extramarital liaisons.

It’s instructive to use things like Craigslist to try to measure the extent to which this may be happening. There are clearly a lot of people out there who are thinking about this, but what they actually do? Who knows?

It’s interesting that one would explicitly state that you’re married and straight when looking for gay sex.

It clarifies that there will not be a romance, for instance. The desire is just for some sort of sexual intimacy. Although you find other ads where people — both men and women — are clearly looking for emotional intimacy with members of the same sex but not necessarily wanting sexual behavior. You can cut it a lot of different ways. In general, our culture has a hard time navigating intimacy, particularly male on male intimacy. Even the idea of male friendship is often fraught. The idea of the “bromance” for instance: We want to culturally celebrate it, but we put it out there because we’re anxious about it — could this turn sexual? You see even that in the Ted Haggard story as he himself is trying to figure it out. And we ourselves — you’re a reporter, I’m a researcher — we’re trying to figure out what’s happening here. We’re drawn to it because our culture has a hard time conceptualizing these things and we have anxiety about them.

People want a definite answer: Are you gay or are you straight? And people become very suspicious if the answer is somewhere in between, or if they feel they’re not getting a quote-unquote straight answer. That in and of itself is revelatory. The culture is very uncomfortable with bisexuality and bi-eroticism in general. There’s an openness with the younger generation and as they mature and become adults we may become more at ease with greater sexual fluidity. But from what Ted Haggard has said, it’s clearly not where he is.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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