In season two of House of Cards, Frank Underwood comes home to find his wife, Claire, drinking and flirting with one of his security agents.
I am sitting with my girlfriend on the couch, watching on my laptop. The music is ominous. We have already seen Frank kill two people close to him. The scene is dark, and I can see my fingerprints on the screen. The security agent apologizes for his unprofessional conduct and makes a move to leave, but Claire stops him and pulls him in for a kiss. I gape. Frank smiles. Then, the security agent turns to Frank, and they start to make out. I yell at my computer, “What! Did they just—” And then it fades to black.
Frank, played by Kevin Spacey, is a rare portrayal of male bisexuality. I collect them like agates. Here’s another: in Skyfall, Javier Bardem runs his hands over James Bond’s body while he is tied to a chair. “First time for everything,” Bardem says.
Bond says, “What makes you think this is my first time?”
That counts. I count that. It takes so little to keep me fed.
Soon after being hired as an intern, I agree with my boss about a male celebrity being attractive. She jokes, “Are you sure you’re not gay?” I do not know how to respond, how to tell her that I am somehow both and neither, sometimes welcome, sometimes ushered out, sometimes standing with my hand pressed up against the glass. I stall with a fake laugh. “Well,” I say, and let it hang.
Around Christmas, I tweet, “Just when you thought the straights couldn’t get any more ruinous, Michael Bublé changes the lyrics of ‘Santa Baby’ to ‘Santa Buddy.’”
“smh u straight,” replies a friend from high school. He and I have had sex three times.
When I begin to doubt the existence of my own sexuality, I search my collection for someone to identify with. Here’s another agate: Wolverine’s supervillain son, Daken, whose name means “mongrel”—a mixed breed, a neither-one-nor-the-other. He uses pheromones to seduce both men and women, usually to some nefarious end. He kisses a man and then kills him in the same issue. While he is a member of the Dark Avengers, he is asked to join the Dark X-Men. “I always did like playing for both teams,” he says.
That’s how it feels: like there are two teams. You can only wear one jersey at a time. To play for both teams is a contradiction; you must be a double agent, your loyalties firm to one side.
At a company pizza outing, my boss asks whether the table believes that bisexual men exist. She makes it clear that she doesn’t. I have just been hired part-time as the company’s fourth employee. I am afraid I could be sloughed off if they find me too disagreeable and I don’t want to field follow-up questions on the specifics of my sex life. So I keep quiet while my heterosexual coworkers hypothesize, offering up what scant evidence they have to be dissected. One unwittingly comes to my defense, saying she once knew a Real Life Bisexual Man. My boss wonders aloud whether he might have just been gay. The conversation ends, and nobody’s mind is changed.
She spoke as if bisexual men were mythical creatures, but that can’t be right; mythical creatures appear in popular media all the time. Unicorns and mermaids are not real but are easy to comprehend. Bisexual men are the opposite.
A year later, I am a full-time employee and still not out to my boss. We are talking about House of Cards, and I am recounting my shock at the threesome scene. Maybe I am trying to hint at something. In my apartment, I have practiced coming out to her—taking a nonchalant, “oh, didn’t you know?” approach—and have promised myself I would never lie if directly asked. But I have learned from Frank that there can be equilibrium in sleeping with whomever and letting people assume what they will. “I don’t think he is bisexual,” my boss says. “I think he is gay and is just using women for a political end.”
But he has sex with Claire, I point out. And Kate Mara, before he pushes her in front of that subway car! I fight for Frank’s bisexuality, and in this I fight for myself, for my own possibility and existence. I don’t know what she is fighting for. Maybe so she and her team can keep playing their game, whatever it is.
Another year later, it is fall of 2017 and our office does not go a week without someone exclaiming that another celebrity has been accused of sexual misconduct. When the dam breaks for Kevin Spacey, I think back to the first scene of House of Cards, where a dog runs into traffic and is hit by a car. Frank kneels and strangles the dog—a coup de grâce. And I know that Frank Underwood can never appear on the screen again.
Spacey was accused of sexual assault by over a dozen men. In one account, he fondles a man at a club. In another, a man passes out at Spacey’s apartment and wakes up to find Spacey performing a sexual act on him. Other men have done these exact things to me. When I read about these experiences, I don’t see Spacey and a young boy; I imagine Frank, his syrupy approximation of a Southern accent, and myself. I had once identified with Frank but now find myself across from him, his hand reaching between my legs. I could always see on his face that he was capable of something like this, but I had always imagined that Spacey was just acting.
Maybe I should have been more critical. The security guard was clearly intoxicated, and Frank was his boss. In the first season, Frank repeats a quote most often attributed to Oscar Wilde—a man who, like Frank and me, had relationships with men and women; a man who, like Spacey, pursued men decades younger than him— “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Daken, Frank, Bond, these men with body counts—maybe all they ever wanted was leverage. That is the nature of bisexual male representation: a liminal space, a “maybe” that never resolves to no or yes. It can be hinted at, even shown, as long as there’s plausible deniability.
It is another year later now, and after a workplace happy hour, my boss pulls me aside. “I have to apologize for something that’s been bugging me forever,” she says. I steel myself. “When you started here, I made a joke about you being gay,” she says. “And I’ve felt bad about it ever since.”
I still don’t know how to respond to this. But until there are better bisexual men to point to—men who don’t commit horrendous acts of violence, men who are unambiguous and proud—I have to believe that the simple, damnable existence of Frank was a step forward. It takes so little to keep me fed.