Emmy-nominated Fiona Dawson on being bi, a trans advocate, and erased from LGBTQ spaces

September 23, 2016

In honor of #BiWeek and Bisexual Visibility Day, renowned advocate and media professional Fiona Dawson has contributed this guest post exclusively to GLAAD. Fiona Dawson is a national Emmy®-nominated multi-media director, producer and writer. She directed "Transgender, at War and in Love" commissioned by The New York Times and created the media project "TransMilitary," which intimately shares the lives of American transgender troops risking discharge as they work to end the ban upon their service. In 2015 Fiona was honored by The White House as an LGBT Artist Champion of Change.You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @fionajdawson.

Last year to celebrate three months of dating, my boyfriend, Emil Pagliarulo, and I went out to a favorite Italian spot of mine in Dupont Circle, a Washington D.C. "gayborhood." Living in the suburbs it had been a while since either of us had been into town. As we stepped out of our Uber car Emil said, "Wow! I haven't seen you light up like this before. You're beaming. What is it?" "I feel like I've stepped home," I said. "It's been so long since I've been out among my people. I'm so excited!" "I can see that!" he concurred. "I'm happy for you," he said.

Emil had been to a gay bar only once in his life. As a teenager his friend had begged him to accompany her and he begrudgingly complied. Today, as a cisgender, hetero man in his mid forties, he felt excited to be on a date with his girlfriend, who happens to be bisexual, and paid no mind to her restaurant choice being in the hub of D.C.'s LGBTQ night scene.

After dinner Emil and I decided to go to the bar above the restaurant for a nightcap. It was still early enough to grab a table from which we could people watch with our drinks. As the venue filled up we shared our spot with a few others, including a gentleman in his 50s, who started hitting on Emil. We laughed it off initially, although his wandering hands -- particularly on Emil's chest -- became rather invasive. Emil uncomfortably pushed his hands away and instead we engaged with him in conversation. 

"What are you two doing in here?" he asked. One of us replied, "We've just had dinner and we're enjoying a cocktail. How about you?" The man responded along the lines of this being one of his favorite places and how hot Emil was. I said something in an attempt to lay claim to my boyfriend, but ignoring our insistence that he was not interested, the man questioned what we, a seemingly "straight couple," were doing in a gay bar. I said, "We belong here. We're a part of the community just the same as you. I'm bisexual... I've spent decades in gay bars." 

The man scoffed and carried on hitting on Emil. 

The lack of respect for Emil's boundaries and the dismission of my sexual orientation hurt equally. I know gay bars have been the safe living room for us LGBTQ people for decades, so straight people coming into gay spaces has been frowned upon. But as I think back to this man letching over my boyfriend's body, I can't help but wonder if it would have made a difference if Emil were trans. 

In the past, I have been in a relationship with a trans person and because he was perceived as cisgender we looked like a straight couple then too. So in dating people who the world sees as binary male, my identity as a bisexual woman is visually erased. Of course it was the same when I was in a relationship with a cisgender woman; then I was assumed to be lesbian. But neither the anatomy nor the gender of my partner determines the label applied to my sexual orientation.

Maybe it's the erasure or the judgment that unites trans and bi people. Or that when people transition gender their sexual orientation is called into question. But certainly, in a world that operates within binaries, trans and bisexual people unite in a common experience -- that gender and sex assigned at birth are different and there's no wrong combination of each. 

Trans and bi people are forced to face the intersection of gender, sex and sexual orientation in order to understand who we are as human beings in a way binary cisgender male and female people don't. When you're lesbian, gay, or straight you're typically thinking of gender as opposites and defining male and female labels based on sex assigned at birth. Trans and bi people, on the other hand, readily see people -- anatomy and gender -- on a spectrum.

I didn't come to this conclusion overnight. As an openly bisexual, cisgender woman I've been part of the LGBTQ community for over a decade. However, it was through working on my media project TransMilitary that I developed close friendships with transgender people, who live and work within the most gender binary environment you'll find: the U.S. military. And they taught me a lot.

In an effort to raise awareness of the ban on transgender people serving, my team and I set out to create media sharing the reality of their lives. Studies show that media portrayals influence the way human beings are perceived and according to GLAAD, "84% of Americans continue to learn about transgender people through the media."

In which case, Logan and Laila Ireland coming out as transgender in my short opinion documentary (Op Doc), "Transgender, at War and in Love" significantly changed the narrative for trans people and was a catalyst for changing policies within the U.S. armed forces. The same day the film was released, June 4, 2015, the U.S. Air Force elevated discharges for transgender airmen to the Pentagon level, Logan and Laila met with President Obama, and the Op Doc has become one of The New York Times' most viewed online short films. Last night, we attended the 37th Annual News and Documentary Emmy® Awards as nominees for "Outstanding Short Film."

Despite the recognition, it's how the story changes hearts and minds that matters the most. Earlier this year I was at the United States Air Force Academy chatting with a cadet, who asked me about my work. When I told her about the Op Doc she jumped to introduce me to a senior leader nearby. "This is the woman who made that film I showed you," she said to him. This self-professed heterosexual cisgender Air Force parachute instructor told me that seeing Logan and Laila completely changed his attitude towards who transgender people are. He told me that before watching the film he was absolutely against the idea that they could serve in the military, then "Transgender, at War and in Love" showed him that he was already among transgender troops and his fears were unfounded.

So undeniably storytelling helps shape the world we live in and influences the way we see people for generations to come. I would love for that gentleman hitting on Emil in the gay bar that night to embrace the diversity within our community (and not be so forward with my unwilling boyfriend). Just because a couple appears straight, it doesn't mean that their lived experience is such. The stats back it up, that in fact more people identify as bisexual than lesbian or gay. All those straight people who've been seen as stepping into a gay space may actually not be that straight after all.

This bisexual awareness week my hope is that stories of bisexual people will abound. It's through the lens of those attracted to others who are the same as or different from themselves, who will positively move society forward in ending the binary perception of gender, sex and sexual orientation for us all.