Gay, Straight, or Lying
Posted by Neal on January 4, 2012
A few weeks ago I listened to an episode of the “Stuff Mom Never Told You” podcast about bisexuality. (Sorry, I can’t seem to find it on the SMNTY site, which is hard to navigate.) The hosts talked about a widely held belief to the effect that bisexuality does not exist, and those who identify as bisexual are “gay, straight, or lying.” They kept using this phrase to describe the situation, and after doing some Googling, I find that the phrase seems to have made it into wide circulation with the 2003 publication of J. Michael Bailey’s book The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. On pages 95-96, he wrote:
[Gay men] have a saying: “You’re either gay, straight, or lying.”
The phrase gained even wider currency after a July 5, 2005 New York Times article by Benedict Carey, who wrote:
People who claim bisexuality, according to these critics, are usually homosexual, but are ambivalent about their homosexuality or simply closeted. “You’re either gay, straight or lying,” as some gay men have put it.
Both sources attribute the phrasing to gay men, and imply that it’s been around for some time, but these sources are the earliest that I’ve seen it in written English. However, being the literal-minded kind of guy that I am, my question about this phrase is: Why isn’t it gay or straight and lying?
Let’s assume that the or in this phrase is intended to be exclusive or, since it’s coordinating the mutually exclusive properties of gayness and straightness. Furthermore, let’s assume that in this phrase, lying doesn’t refer to lying about any old thing, but to lying about being bisexual. In that case, gay, straight, or lying means that there are three possibilities:
- You’re gay.
- You’re straight.
- You’re lying about being bisexual. That is, you’re either gay or straight.
The third possibility is just the union of the first two possibilities. Why bother saying it, then?
Well, the idea is to include the part about lying. If you identify as bisexual, you’re lying. You’re either gay or straight.
It seems to me that you could state this meaning more straightforwardly (if you will) with the phrase gay or straight and lying. But that’s certainly not what people say. I get exactly three hits when I search for “gay or straight and lying”. (And only four for “straight or gay and lying”.)
Maybe gay, straight, or lying is more appealing because it has a less complex structure — the nice flat kind of structure you see just below.
Gay or straight and lying has the two-tiered structure you see in the middle diagram, not to mention an extra word.
Worse, this phrasing could also be interpreted to have the structure in the bottom diagram, which to my ear makes lying want to scope not over bisexual, but over straight or gay. That gives us two unintended and hard-to-decrypt meanings:
- “gay, or lying about being straight; i.e. gay or closeted gay”
- “gay or lying about being gay, i.e. gay or gay-acting straight”
Which do you think is easier? Separating the intended compositional meaning from a few unintended compositional meanings in gay or straight and lying? Or skipping compositionality and simply assigning the intended meaning to gay, straight, or lying as an idiom?