“Am I LGBT or W?”: Maria Bello rejects existing sexuality labels in favor of "whatever"

"Whatever ... Love Is Love," spun off from Bello's popular New York Times Modern Love column, debuted this week

Published May 1, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

Cover detail of "Whatever...Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves"         (HarperCollins)
Cover detail of "Whatever...Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves" (HarperCollins)

Three years ago, actress Cynthia Nixon stepped into a minefield. In a New York Times Magazine essay titled “Life After ‘Sex’” — the HBO series — she discussed being in relationship with a woman. (They are now married and share a son.) For many years, Nixon had been “straight” and in a long-term relationship with a man, with whom she has two children. She told the Times:

I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.

Ka-boom. Her comments in the piece, published in January 2012, riled many who strongly believe that individuals don’t choose their sexual orientation. (The idea that anyone can change being gay or straight — which is not exactly what Nixon was saying — is dangerous; it could be misconstrued to imply homosexuals can be “cured.”) In a blog post that has since been taken down, writer John Aravosis of AMERICAblog said Nixon’s statements were irresponsible and did “tremendous damage” to the gay rights movement. “Every religious right hatemonger is now going to quote this woman every single time they want to deny us our civil rights,” he wrote in a letter addressed to Nixon. “Thanks.”

I understood why Cynthia Nixon rattled readers with her rather flippant remarks; still, I was surprised by the intensity of the backlash. In the last two sentences of that quotation, Nixon uses the phrase “for me” three times: did she not clearly draw a line between her personal experience and that of others?

While being interviewed for the piece, Nixon must have known her comments would cause controversy. She went on at length to defend her point: “‘As you can tell I am very annoyed by this issue. Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate.’” At this point, the reporter, Alex Witchel, writes that Nixon’s face got red and her arms began to wave. She was angry.

A part of me agreed with Nixon. While I wouldn’t want anyone to damage a decades-long civil rights movement, why cede to those so-called religious-right hatemongers? Can’t we just ignore them already?

Of course we can’t. (Plus, it’s now an election season…) Could Cynthia Nixon be so naïve to think her comments wouldn’t be political — if not extremely polarizing? (I was struck by Witchel’s description of her anger, and wondered what, if any, hidden agenda Nixon had.)

Nixon eventually backtracked. A couple weeks later, in a statement to The Advocate, she clarified her original comments: “While I don’t often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have ‘chosen’ is to be in a gay relationship.”

Cynthia Nixon’s momentary Gaygate reflected not so much a feud between “born this way” believers and “gay-by-choice” crusaders, but a need for new language — and perhaps new labels — to describe the unconventional partnerships that are becoming less unconventional.

Cue Maria Bello.

Another well-regarded television and film actress — who recently acknowledged being in a relationship with a woman named Clare after years of being involved with men — has something to say about love. Maria Bello has written a book about her life called “Whatever… Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves.” The book expands on a piece she wrote for the New York Times’ Modern Love column, “Coming Out as a Modern Family,” in which she discusses her relationship with Clare (her former best friend) and raises questions about partnership and labels. The piece, published almost a year after Gaygate, in November 2013, quickly went viral and was named one of the ten best Modern Love columns ever by editor Daniel Jones. Bello seemed to strike a chord with readers.


Just as Cynthia Nixon is celebrated for her very heterosexual role as Miranda Hobbes in “Sex and the City” (“I drink coffee, have sex, buy pies and enjoy battery operated devices,” Miranda defiantly tells her conservative cleaning lady), Maria Bello is known for her portrayal of sensual and complicated straight women. Two of her finest performances are in “The Cooler” (2003) and “A History of Violence” (2005) — films that feature particularly explicit love scenes. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for playing the down-on-her-luck Vegas cocktail waitress in “The Cooler” and for her role as Viggo Mortensen’s wife in David Cronenberg's explosive “History of Violence.”

Though she’s starred in some mediocre, if not downright bad, movies — “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” both “Grown Ups,” and most recently, Disney’s “McFarland, USA”— Bello’s known for tackling tough parts in small films. She played a grief-stricken mother whose son commits a mass shooting at his college in “Beautiful Boy” (2010) and a suicidal sadomasochistic housewife in the absolutely wretched (and unwatchable) “Downloading Nancy” (2008). On television, she had the gall to take on a role made famous by the unsurpassable Dame Helen Mirren. In NBC’s tragically short-lived adaptation of the beloved British series “Prime Suspect,” which ran in the U.S. for only one season in 2011, Bello played Jane Timoney, the sole female detective in a squad of misogynistic New York City cops.

A self-described “pretty face” from the “wrong side of the tracks” in a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, Bello, now 48, includes in her book snapshots from her chaotic childhood. Her father was a disabled construction worker who abused not only booze and painkillers, but also his four children. (Bello’s since made peace with her father, who was diagnosed later in life with bipolar disorder.) Her mother, whom she repeatedly describes as saintly, was a nurse and the family’s breadwinner.

Bello caught the acting bug while studying peace and justice education at Villanova University and eventually trekked to Manhattan with the standard starving artist accessories: very little money ($300), few belongings (two trash bags filled with clothing) and, of course, dreams of stardom. But Bello avoids talking showbiz, and “Whatever…Love is Love” is not your typical celebrity memoir. (As a press release for the book explicitly warns: “This is not a celebrity memoir.”)

“Whatever… Love is Love” is not a great book, but for a newly published writer with something important to say, it’s a good start. Shunning chronology, Bello presents her life in snapshots: suffering from depression and eventually being diagnosed with the same mood disorder that affects her father; navigating relationships with so-called “Prince Charmings” (who, surprise!, are not so charming); waiting for her soul mate; becoming a mother; finding partners in unexpected places (like Father Ray Jackson, an Augustinian priest who was her only friend at Villanova); working in Haiti as a humanitarian; and, of course, falling in love with Clare, who is actually only a small part of the book. Each narrative is meant to circle back to the book’s thesis: traditional labels (from “partner” and “soul mate” to “straight” and “gay”) have not really held up for her — and might not hold up for you. Yes, you.

Bello begins each chapter with questions that serve as gestures to the reader, an attempt to draw us into the discussion. It’s too forced. She begins a chapter about religion by asking: “Do you consider yourself religious? Or maybe not religious but spiritual? What do these terms actually mean to you?” I don’t know! A chapter on family and forgiveness starts: “Do you still hold the pain of your past? How does that pain impact you today? Do you need to forgive those in your life who hurt you to move on?” Oh, for the love of god…

These tacked-on questions, while considerate, brought the book too close to self-help territory for my taste. (I started skipping over them.)

If you can’t handle questions, this may not be your book. “This is a book about questions rather than answers,” Bello declares, probably attempting to avoid the didacticism that makes some autobiographical writing so intolerable. Not only does each chapter kick off with a benign interrogation, the book itself is organized by questions; every chapter title ends in a question mark.

When the questions are thought provoking, this device works well:




Other times, it falls flat:

AM I PERFECT? (Probably not.)


AM I A WRITER?  (Groan.)

“Whatever… Love is Love” could have benefited from two things. First: editing. I don’t mean cutting the questions (this is a small criticism); rather, reexamining the weight given to each anecdote. Bello lingers too long on some stories — one about shoes and one about seeing a wack-job celebrity doctor, for instance. This wouldn’t have been an issue if the book weren’t so strikingly slim. (The book is 221 pages, but its dimensions are only 7.5 by 6 inches — tinier than your average hardcover.)

It could have also benefitted from more material — a testament to Bello’s appeal. I flagged a handful of stories I wished were developed further, including her account of working in Haiti before and after the 2010 earthquake. Six days after the disaster, Bello went to Haiti with a “motley crew” of activists, actors, doctors and others. “We all fought and laughed and drank and made love and broke up and made up and raged and screamed at each other and at the country that seemed to have been forgotten by much of the world,” writes Bello. She describes falling in love with a man and even developing a relationship with a woman. (Not Clare; another woman, which seems like a huge thing to drop in and never again address.) It would have been nice to stay in Haiti a little while longer.

Around the time Maria Bello returned to Haiti, Hollywood trade magazines reported that she had signed on to star in an HBO drama called “Emergency Sex,” a series inspired by the book “Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth” by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the show was supposed to revolve around “the larger-than-life exploits of expatriate non-government organization workers who find their sanity tested in the face of atrocities, loneliness, and primal desires.” I don’t think the show ever got out of development, but I was surprised there was no mention of it in the book. The treatment for “Emergency Sex” sounds like Bello’s brief description of her time in the Caribbean country. My curiosity was piqued.


I realize I still haven’t addressed that title. When I told some friends I was writing about a book called “Whatever… Love is Love,” the response I repeatedly received was, “Whatever?” As in: someone used the word whatever in their book title? It sounds like a title a character from “Clueless” would use for their term paper in Mr. Hall’s class: Whatever… love, is, like, love. It’s not exactly like that.

In her New York Times essay, which is essentially the book’s first chapter, Bello recounts telling her then 12-year-old son that she was now in a relationship with Clare. His response: “Mom, whether you are lesbian, gay, bi, or transgender, shout it to the world. Whatever, love is love.”

Her son’s reaction was enlightening. It led to the article, which led to the memoir, which led to her purchasing the URL www.wlgbt.com, a so-called “tie-in” to the book and a twist on LGBT, the abbreviation for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender. (The other standard abbreviation is LGBTQ — the q usually representing “questioning” or “queer.”) Though LGBT(Q) is already a mouthful, many have questioned whether it’s still sufficient, considering advances made by the genderqueer movement. (“Genderqueer” is a term that advocates freedom from binary female/male gender roles.)

You don’t have to take Introduction to Queer Studies to know that a younger generation of activists is seeking something beyond LGBT rights. “The core question isn’t whom they love, but who they are — that is, identity as distinct from sexual orientation,” wrote Michael Shulman last year in a piece called “Generation LGBTQIA” for the New York Times. (LGBTQIA — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual — is one of the recent labels in the seemingly endless alphabet soup of initialisms for a diverse community.)

What is gender? (Cue Judith Butler.) Is gender even anything?

These are today’s questions — questions that are particularly hard to grasp, even for the friendliest LGBT(QIABCDEFG...) ally. In fact, a very small percentage of Americans — less than 10 percent — say they know someone who is transgender. That changed on Friday evening, April 24, 2015.

Just days before Maria Bello’s book hit the shelves, America was rocked by the revelation that Bruce Jenner, once a symbol of masculinity as an Olympic gold medalist, identified as a woman. “Yes, for all intents and purposes, I am a woman,” Jenner told Diane Sawyer in a special two-hour "20/20" interview that was shockingly sensitive and surprisingly poignant. Jenner, known to my generation as the wilting patriarch of the Kardashian clan, explained that his femininity isn’t located in sexuality, but in his soul. Nearly 17 million viewers tuned in to watched Jenner — articulate, emotional, funny, poised — tell his tragic story.

On Twitter, praise (for both Jenner and Sawyer) poured in:

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Maria Bello had something to say too. She quoted Jenner: “I'm saying goodbye to people's perception of me and who I am. I'm not saying goodbye to me.” She added the hashtags #BruceJenner and #LoveisLove, and then embedded a two-minute YouTube video (another book tie-in) in which she questions her own identity while cheery guitar music plays in the background — all in one tweet.

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Normally, I’d recoil at such shameless self-promotion, but I don’t think that’s what Bello was up to. (Sure, it was some well-timed tie-in.) Her book, her website, her videos, her tweets — they lead us to that “core” issue: It’s not about who we love; it’s about who we are.

In her book, Maria Bello doesn’t get into the details of genderqueer theory, but in the chapter “AM I LGBT OR W?,” she addresses the issue as best she can, maintaining the tone of the book. “So here we are today, calling our community of revolutionaries Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender,” she writes. “Will we have to add more initials to honor all the communities who are defining their own identities, such as asexual, gender-neutral, trans-bi, etc.? And why not? These are people who ought to have their own rights, too.”

Bello calls herself a W (for “whatever”), though never explicitly offers W as a solution to the “alphabet soup” problem. (Perhaps she’s trying to avoid a Cynthia Nixonesque incident involving pissing off many people.) I happen to think W is a smart solution, and that WLGBT has a nice ring to it. By co-opting complicated theories about gender and sex, Bello makes accessible a somewhat radical idea.

But I can’t offer the same praise to her chapter on feminism, which was one of the few disappointing parts of the book. As a whole, it’s not a particularly revolutionary section: Bello describes her feminist forebears and then concludes with a TED Talk-ish description of what feminism means to her. The conclusion, however, made me pause. “I believe the new feminism is not about gender,” she writes. “The new feminism is an energy.” NOT ABOUT GENDER? AN ENERGY?

What I think Bello is trying to underline is the idea that men should also be involved in this so-called effort to get women to stand in their “own divine right” (which apparently is different from “fighting against or for something,” though I’m not exactly sure how). Feminism not being about gender is a flippant, if not naïve, assertion — not unlike Cynthia Nixon’s original gay-by-choice comments. Without addressing the history of feminism, which was often at odds with parts of the gay rights movement, Bello’s statement seems misguided.

And, yes, I am holding her to a higher celebrity standard. Before becoming an actress, Bello studied to be a women’s rights attorney and even worked at the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. She is celebrated for her advocacy on behalf of women and children around the world. I’m not asking for a history lesson or a jargon-filled diatribe about women’s rights. Just a little more than what’s on the page.

By Briana Fasone

Briana Fasone’s writing has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, The Rumpus, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @brifasone

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Book Lgbt Maria Bello Memoir Modern Love Whatever ... Love Is Love