A bisexual woman’s journey of learning, defiance, and courage against all odds
Any bisexual knows it is not easy to live openly as bisexual. The ignorance, judgment and jokes are just the beginning. So what is it like to walk in the shoes of someone who is bisexual, African-American, polyamorous, atheist, a nude model and a cancer survivor? What does it mean to navigate those identities – separately or as a whole – in a world that often reveals its ignorance and judgment about sex, sexuality, race, gender and bodies?
Meet Gloria Jackson-Nefertiti.
Gloria grew up in the deep South during the 1950s and ’60s where religion played a major role in giving her life some structure, something that she could depend upon. “I was part of the Pentecostal community, very hardcore, washed in the blood; people who took the Bible literally,” she recalls. “But I learned that they only took it literally when a particular verse served their interest. If it didn’t serve their interest, then it was interpreted as a metaphor for something else. I learned that you could interpret the Bible to mean whatever you wanted it to mean.”
In the early 1970s, Gloria began her college studies at Portland State University in Oregon, an environment she thought would be more accepting and progressive. Still craving the familiarity and safety of the religious community, she found herself in a religious cult started by a former member of Campus Crusade for Christ. The cult made her feel bold, without a care for what anybody thought. “I would go up to total strangers and share the gospel,” she says, “because I felt this responsibility that I had to let people know or they would go to hell.”
She was the only African-American in the group. She remembers the pressure and how difficult that was. “The standards that they had for me were different than the standards that they had for anybody else in the group,” she says. “Most of these people had never known a Black person before. In this day and age that’s really hard to imagine but at that time in Oregon that was common. I felt that it was up to me to represent the whole African-American race. If there was something in the news – if a Black person committed a crime or whatever – I felt that it reflected on me, that I had to explain it.”
Racism was a big reason why she gradually began to change her mind about religion. “These were people who professed to be Christian and were just so obviously uncomfortable around Black people in their presence,” says Gloria. “We would have these noon meetings called Sing and Share. One day a Black man came to the meeting and immediately people were looking for me. For them, there was finally someone I could date! The idea was that there was nobody in the group that they would approve of me dating because they were all White. The guy never came back. He wanted a fellowship with other believers and what he found was a matchmaking group.”
But a real turning point was a conversation she had with one of her classmates, a psychology major, who said to her that there are no absolutes with anything. This was such a shocking contradiction to everything she had come to believe through the church that she cried, “Then, how can one be sure of anything?” To which her classmate simply said, “You can’t.” And so she began to question the beliefs that previously she was willing to die for.
Those beliefs included the church doctrine around relationships, sex, and sexuality. Like any other normal youth, Gloria began to explore her identity in college and confronted the kinds of questions that many bisexual women have asked themselves: Should I call myself straight? Or should I identify as lesbian so I feel like I fit in? She was a late bloomer when it comes to sexual experiences but even then she knew that identity was a distinct, and far deeper and more complicated concept than sexual experimentation. She has been in an intimate relationship with a man for the past 8 years. “I kind of joke about this,” she laughs, “but at the same time I’m not really joking when I say that I can’t claim to be a card-carrying bisexual anymore. It has been more than 20 years since I’ve been in a relationship with a woman and so, much of the time I ask myself, “Who do you think you’re fooling?” I feel like a total fraud.”
Gloria’s apprehension is understandable when one realizes that even as recently as the 1980s, bisexuals got a lot of flak for identifying as bisexual. “When I first started to explore my bisexuality, I didn’t know how to go about it,” she says. “So I would just answer a bunch of ads and what would happen a lot of the time is that it would be the man’s fantasy, and his wife or girlfriend was maybe into it, but usually not. I noticed that it was strictly for him. I remember how much that bothered me; that I was just there to fulfill somebody else’s fantasy and once it happened, then that was it, never heard from them again.”
She had another moment of “there are no absolutes” revelation when she read this article in the New York Times. “Reading that article validated for me that it is okay for me to identify as bisexual even if I haven’t been in a relationship with a woman for years,” she says. “That I’d really been bisexual all my life but I didn’t have a place that I could express that or to actually say that. This article gave me the courage to do so.”
It also gave her the courage to open up to Bi Magazine. Identities are multi-faceted and fluid and Gloria is the living example. “A lot of times I feel like I’m a walking sex toy,” she says. “I fulfill all these fantasies of being bisexual, being a woman of size, and polyamorous. Then, add to that our society’s hyper-sexualization of Black women in general and I’m just a multiple liability trying to navigate this world as best as I can.”
It is in the poly community that Gloria found some structure again and more clarity to embrace her multiple identities. Communication has to be honest and forthright. Boundaries have to be repeatedly negotiated and enforced. People try to keep the drama to a minimum. One is forced to examine archaic beliefs and dogma around relationships in general but particularly guilt and jealousy surrounding open relationships. “What bisexuals and polyamorous people have in common,” she says, “is that we are always told to make up our minds. People assume that we have no guiding principles, values, feelings, or standards in our lives. But being poly has made things easier for me. I don’t have to look to one person to meet all my needs. I love my partner, he is secure in that knowledge, but I’m attracted to other people and I don’t have to go through the unnecessary guilt and angst.”
It is best to let Gloria explain her unique relationship structure. “I’ve been with a male partner for 8 years,” she says, “and last year he got married to a woman he has known for 16 years. He also has another girlfriend with whom he’s been for 9 years. I have another more-than-a-play-partner. I’ve been with him for a couple of years. He’s married and he has other relationships. These relationships I’m in are very intimate and I also know the extended families of each of my partners. I’m in relationships that are redefining relationships and the idea of family. What makes it work more than anything else is the openness and communication. Just the attitude that this is okay, that this is normal, felt amazing to me, and so radically different a situation than what I grew up with, or understood, in the deep South.”
To appreciate how far Gloria has come from her southern roots, one has to look at how she supports herself. She is a model who often poses nude for art classes at colleges, universities, art academies and private studios. She also works with major grocery chains and department stores doing product sampling. Yep, she’s that lady you run into at your local Safeway luring you with free samples of cookies, lotions, and vitamin water, busting the common myths that LGBT people have white-collar jobs and disposable income or we are angry activists at non-profit organizations.
Gloria first got into modeling after she was laid off from a dull office job in Portland, Oregon. She just knew she wanted to do something totally different from office work. So she opened up the Yellow Pages – back in the day when people relied on the Yellow Pages for community resources – and began looking for art schools and fine artists. Through the art department at Portland State University, she found a painter who was looking for models. That led to word-of-mouth referrals to other modeling jobs and it just snowballed from there. Along the way, she has survived some rude comments when she gained weight but, for the most part, she remains in demand.
After her cancer diagnosis late last year and mastectomy this year, Gloria felt only slight hesitation about going back into modeling and would initially wear a bra. “But then,” she says, “I thought the bra is just going to draw more attention and I might as well not wear anything. I use that as a teachable moment. Most people don’t get a chance to see someone who has had a breast removed. I’ve had so many people tell me how brave I am. I do feel brave. But I’m just taking charge of my own destiny instead of the cancer speaking for how my life is going to turn out.”
Under the care of surgeons, she has diligently pursued a path to reconstructive surgery submitting to a year-long cycle of tests and saline injections to increase muscle flexibility. On November 13th, Gloria received a new breast and is looking forward to the next phase in her life. In complete contrast to her Pentecostal heritage, she now identifies as an atheist who occasionally practices Pagan and Buddhist rituals. She also likes going to the Unitarian Church for their progressive and inclusive nature and also because “Unitarians just believe in the goodness of humanity.”
She is thrilled to see attitudes toward bisexuals change over the past 30 years. She doesn’t encounter as many people as she used to that tell her to make up her mind. She is seeing younger and younger bisexuals coming out. “Just be who you are,” is what she would like to tell them. “I know that sounds really basic but that was something that I couldn’t really do for years. Young bisexuals have it a heck of a lot easier than I did at their age. And get involved in political groups; don’t just leave it up to lesbian women and gay men.” She hopes that there will be more qualitative research to understand who considers themselves bisexual and why. “Research has to be a lot more than just yes or no answers,” she says. “There is still a lot that is unknown about bisexuality. We also know very little about trans people who identify as bisexual and bisexuals who do not prescribe to gender binaries in their relationship choices.” Gloria loves the LGBT Pride parade. She has marched with the Bi Women’s Network and with the Center for Sex Positive Culture, feeling buoyed – and validated – when the crowd cheers as their contingents pass.
“I’m finally in control of my life,” she joyfully remarks. “The cancer diagnosis was a real impetus. It just showed me that life really is short and I don’t care what people think of me anymore. I don’t have to prove anything or justify anything in any way.”
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Photo credit: Patrick Johnson © 2013.