You'd think we'd have learned by now not to get too attached to anyone on Game of Thrones. The show seems to take perverse glee in destroying our emotions. Even knowing what was coming, though, didn't make me ready for it.
(Spoilers ahead, of course.)
I started writing this last night, while the episode was still airing, unable to bring myself to watch. Having read the books, I already knew what was going to happen, and it left me a nauseous, emotional wreck. I watched Ned Stark die and felt nothing, I handled the Red Wedding without batting an eye — but I don't think I'll ever be able to watch this episode. If I don't see it with my own eyes, maybe a part of me can pretend it didn't happen. But I know the truth: Oberyn Martell, the most important male bisexual character in TV history is dead.
I'm more than slightly insane when it comes to stories. I look up the plot synopsis and ending to any dramatic show, movie, or book before I watch or read it — I hate surprises specifically because of situations like this. So because I'm a neurotic mess of a human being, I knew where this was headed from moment one. Obviously, I was far from alone. Anyone who'd read the books (or is as much of a lunatic as I am) knew we'd love Oberyn as long as Pedro Pascal was even half-awake at the wheel — as it turned out, he was so perfect for the role that everyone basically shut up with the "he's not dark enough" stuff as soon as he hit the screen. What we didn't know is just how much he'd mean to us.
Before fans of the Doctor Who spinoff series Torchwood say anything, I'm aware of the existence of Captain Jack Harkness. I know that the Torchwood character is bisexual, and that he actually mocks the "narrow" 21st century sexuality paradigm during the pilot. Two reasons why he isn't as significant as Oberyn Martell, though: 1) Torchwood was a lesser show on a lesser network (don't even pretend you don't know this is true), and 2) having a time-traveling space pirate be into both men and women doesn't quite count, at least not in the same way. The very fact that he mocks the sexuality paradigm hurts his case because his existence is inherently othered, and his bisexuality is a tacit admission of our own otherness in contemporary society.
Oberyn, though, is a product of the same (albeit fantasy) universe that created everything else in Game of Thrones. Dorne is seen as exotic and different from the other Westerosi kingdoms, true, but even that's a sly point in his favor: it's as if Martin's intent was to point out the obvious truth that people would be a hell of a lot less hung up on the definition of their own sexuality (and there would be a hell of a lot more openly bisexual men) today, rather than in the future, if the culture that produced them didn't place sexual orientations within a hierarchy of value. It's strange, but Westeros resonates more with reality than Torchwood's fictionalized version of actual reality. I watched both shows after I came out, and only one of them hit me in the feels. That isn't nothing.
There's another difference, too: while Captain Jack laughs off concerns about his sexuality, Oberyn comes at them confrontationally. He's asked the question by Olyver (the man he's in mid-orgy with, no less): "You really prefer both boys and girls?" and Oberyn treats the query like the absurdity every bisexual knows it is. I guarantee you that every single out bisexual of both genders has been asked that question at least once. Even being asked hurts: would you ask a gay man if he was sure he was into dudes?
Oberyn, for his part, points out that it's a ridiculous question. Then this exchange happens:
Olyver: "Everyone has a preference."
Oberyn: "Then everyone is missing half the world's pleasure. The Gods made that, and it delights me. The Gods made this...and it delights me. When it comes to war I fight for Dorne, when it comes to love...I don't choose sides."
I've spent thousands of words trying to explain my bisexuality, and a fictional character needed only 42 of them to do a better job of it than I ever could.
It's worth noting that in the books, Oberyn is only rumored to be bisexual — there's never any confirmation on the page. The same was true of the relationship between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell back in season one. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss knew EXACTLY what they were doing in both cases — showing Oberyn (and Renly) in that capacity was a call they didn't have to make, but they chose to do it anyway. Say what you will about any of their other choices (and there's a lot that needs to be said), but on this particular call, I can't thank them enough.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Oberyn validates me in a way Jack Harkness couldn't. Let's be honest: most of the really hurtful stuff bisexual men deal with doesn't come from the straight community, it comes from gay men. As this video makes perfectly clear, there's a staggering level of condescending vitriol among a vocal contingent of the gay community when it comes to bi guys.* This has led to a paradoxical situation in my own life where I'm not afraid of talking about my sexuality around straight men, but even thinking about telling gay men about who I am causes my heart rate to spike.
I have a gay friend I've known for nearly a decade now. He's one of the sweetest and most understanding human beings I've ever met. I have absolutely no cause to suspect he'd be anything but supportive of who I am — but when I came out, I actively avoided telling him for fear of rejection. To this day I don't make any comments on Facebook about my bisexuality purely because of him, despite there being no reason for me to assume the worst. While I would without hesitation trust him with my life, there's a part of me that can't bring myself to trust him with the truth. That fear of rejection, however illogical it may be, is almost impossible for me to shake. It's a sad (and probably illogical) truth that I expect hatred far more from gay men who think I'm lying than I do from straight homophobes who think the fact that I'm into dudes isn't cool with Jesus.
That's why Oberyn Martell is so important to me: to see him fearlessly being himself, in one of the most (if not THE most) popular TV shows in America is to be told, in no uncertain terms, "your existence matters." It's a powerful answer to everyone, gay or straight, who would tell me my identity is a lie. Don't think such demonstrations aren't necessary; we're still a society where every single major piece that touches on bisexual men, even from no less an august source than the New York Times, is about whether or not we're real.
Oberyn Martell truly couldn't have given less of a shit whether people cared that he was bi, and they could damn well think whatever they wanted to think. When Tywin Lannister (not exactly a friend to dude-on-dude action) interrupted him mid-orgy, Oberyn gestured with utmost politeness to the bed where the festivities had been taking place and asked, "Would you like to sit?" It might be my single favorite moment of the show other than, "What do we say to the God of Death?" That scene, and every one of Oberyn's appearances on the show, was a giant middle finger to anyone, gay or straight, who would tell me I'm lying about who I am. Taken together, they served to tell me I don't have to be hurt by anyone who would claim bisexual men don't exist.
That's no small thing, because I strongly suspect there's a tiny voice in the mind of even the most stridently avowed bisexual asking the question "what if they're right?" I know that voice is wrong — at this point in my life, I'm well aware of who I am — but the paucity of characters like Oberyn (or even better, real-life people like him) can make us feel far more rare and alone than we ever really are. I remember what it was like before I figured myself out, and seeing that still hits me right in the feels. To a bi guy struggling with his identity in a way I've moved past, seeing someone confront that voice without doubt or hesitation has to mean something I can't even begin to describe.
The point of this isn't to say "but what about teh bisexual menz"; I'm well aware that in quite a lot of ways, we have it easier than gay men. As I've said before, it costs us comparatively little to lie to ourselves and the world around us about who we are. I strongly suspect that the biggest reason people doubt our existence is that so many of us go through life without ever speaking up about our feelings. I'm sure there are countless bisexual men who never fully come to grips with their orientation in the first place and never really suffer for it. For most gay men, that isn't an option. But for what it's worth, gay men do have Anderson Cooper and Neil Patrick Harris and Dan Savage and George Takei. They have a voice.
As strange as it may seem, Oberyn Martell was, while we knew him, the most prominent bisexual man within the human consciousness, including actual living bisexual men. Think about that for a second. I don't want to take anything away from Oberyn as a character, but that's pretty goddamn depressing, isn't it? Even historically, our options are pretty limited. John Maynard Keynes probably counts, but a stuffy British economist isn't exactly lighting the human soul on fire. Freddy Mercury should count, only gay men have basically co-opted him at this point, even though he was almost certainly bi. For the present day, we thought we had Tom Daley for like five seconds before it turned out NOPE — gay guy. Billie Joe Armstrong proudly talks about his bisexuality, but he isn't necessarily someone I want representing me, for just so many reasons. Sorry, Connor Mertens, but a D-III kicker coming out as bi isn't exactly shaking the pillars of the Earth. A whole host of other men who are most likely bisexual prevaricate about their identity and consciously try to reject labels (like Mercury, whose evasion of a sexual identity while he was alive is in large part what allowed gay men to co-opt him), seemingly operating under the principle that labels are bad in the same way Brawndo is what plants crave.
The sad truth which finally came full circle in last night's episode is that our most prominent avatar was a made-up dude on a show based on a book series with a proud history of gleefully yanking the rug out from under us when it comes to characters we love. This isn't purely a lament — Oberyn was wonderful for as long as we had him — but it's more than slightly depressing that he was, as far as I'm aware, our only real avatar. Even if he were still there, it wouldn't fix the fact that he's one person among a barren landscape — and that he was never even a living, breathing human being.
That isn't going to change until someone prominent steps up and stands for us. That, ultimately, is what makes Oberyn and characters like him so important: seeing ourselves represented in fiction hastens the day when someone has the courage to represent us outside a magic box. I don't know about any of you, but for me, that's going to be a hell of a day.
*It's worth noting that bisexual women deal with this, too — although at least in the case of that video, there's less outright hostility and no one seems to be denying their existence. I'm not trying to say it's "worse" for bisexual men (I have less than no interest in the Oppression Olympics, and bisexual men don't deal with nearly the same level of hypersexualization as do bisexual women), but bi men and women deal with undeniably different forms of erasure.