'It is highly unlikely that I shall ever meet any one person who could fulfil all my emotional, intellectual, and sexual needs'
David Burkle, 45
David Burkle was a founder member of the London Bisexual Group. For the last six years he has devoted considerable amounts of time to organising meetings, answering enquiries about the group, counselling bisexual people over the phone, representing the group on other bodies such as the Greater London Council Gay Working Party, and generally taking care of the group's correspondence and finances. David was one of the inaugural members of the Bi-Monthly collective and has contributed several articles and reviews to the magazine.
At forty-five David lives with his two daughters in North London. Kate and Jo both have cystic fibrosis and need a special diet, complicated medication, and physiotherapy twice a day. Several years ago he left his job with the family building firm to do a role swap with his wife, Anne. Since then David has stayed at home to have more time to support his daughters, to work on the house and garden, and to do other voluntary work, most recently as a counsellor at the Terrence Higgins Trust. Two years ago Anne moved out to live alone.
* * * * *
My earliest memories of being bisexual, although I didn't think of it in those terms, date back to boarding school, which I went to at the age of eight. Between ten and thirteen I joined in sexual games with other boys and when I was thirteen the housemaster's eighteen year old daughter got involved as well. This promising start to my sex life was too good to last. At public school there was a lot of talk but not much action. When I was seventeen I was very much in love with the boy in the next room, but we never talked about it and all he seemed to want to do on a physical level was wrestle.
At the same time during the school holidays at home, I was very attracted to the girls in the ballroom dancing classes which I attended. This attraction to women contrasted strongly with the images of homosexuality which I had received from the media. Nothing I read or saw or heard made me think I was a 'homosexual'. (Not that there was very much freely available information in the 1950s. And I was not aware of bisexuality as an option.) However at the same time I wanted an element of closeness and physicality in the relationships I had with other men. Unfortunately, the men I met fell short of what I thought I wanted. I fell in love with David whom I met at college, but he just thought I was 'funny' when I said how I felt or made sexual advances towards him. (When I met him ten years later he said he might try a gay relationship because he was having so many problems with women. Unfortunately he had lost his charm for me by then!)
In my late teens and early twenties I continued to be attracted to both young women and young men, but the ones I fancied most did not fancy me and vice versa. Some good times were had though in coming to those conclusions.
The first person who responded to me in the way that felt right and with whom I wanted both to have a sexual relationship and to live was Anne.
Neither Anne nor I had had much previous sexual experience, nor had we discussed our sexuality. I had no experience of living on my own except at school. We got married when I was twenty-three and Anne was twenty-one, and I expected to have a monogamous relationship. I hadn't considered any alternatives to monogamy. I had been shy and withdrawn, partly because of my belief that I was different from other people and that I would be rejected if they knew all about me. I thought perhaps I was just a late developer. Once married, at last I began to develop some confidence. I had unwittingly acquired status. I was treated as an adult, though with no experience of how to be one. I had both won and lost my independence at the same time, but I could love and be loved, and have sex without fear of getting the wrong girl pregnant. It felt great; now I had a sexual relationship with a woman, my fantasies about men would fade into the past – or so I thought.
But I found that my attraction to men didn't disappear. I became very attracted to a man I worked with. He inspired me politically, as he identified very strongly as working class. We enjoyed working together for four or five years and shared the experiences of becoming fathers at the same time. We taught each other a lot. But there was no physical response from him and his feelings about me remained a well-kept secret. When I told him how I felt about him he told his wife, which wasn't a response I had envisaged. I was very depressed when he left the firm.
Because I had not found any straight men with whom I could establish a relationship of the depth I wanted, I made a conscious decision to find out more about gay men. Gay people were becoming more visible and I wanted to meet some of them. My need to talk to someone who would understand my feelings could not be suppressed much longer. Since I was thirteen, my only expression of this side of myself had been in secret infatuations.
I started to read the old Gay News in the early seventies when it was first published, and I answered some of the contact ads. Geoff, whom I met socially for several years, was the first person I got to know, and I learned a lot from him about what it was like to be gay. He was involved with another man and we did not have sex until about two years after we met.
At the same time I met another man – Ray – whom I fell for immediately. But he rejected the idea of any emotional involvement with me because I was married. He was very reluctant to meet the family until much later when he became a great friend of us all. I was very keen for Anne to meet gay people, hoping she would find them less threatening face to face. When it eventually happened this was generally the case, and as she got to know gay men she acknowledged there were even some aspects of them that she found more attractive than in heterosexual men.
I wanted it all in the open so I did not have to feel guilty about it. For me, now, I think sexual attraction might lead to a brief sexual fling, friendship, (hopefully some intimate friendships, with or without sex) or a committed, possibly co-habiting, relationship. Even then I didn't feel sex for fun or sex between friends was either wrong, or inevitably threatening to a committed relationship, and I still don't as long as it is 'safer' sex. I felt I could allow my homosexual component to be in the open because I loved Anne very much. I enjoyed our life together, my commitment to our relationship was strong, and I was not looking for someone to replace her. I could read Gay News, invite gay friends home, and answer my childrens' questions honestly. Not only could I technically be bisexual, I could identify as gay and grow to be proud of it. In a way, I saw it as something I shared with her, in as much that women and gay men are both oppressed by heterosexual men.
What Anne felt, of course, was quite a different matter. I had successfully passed her my guilty secret and it became hers, something she couldn't share with anyone else, so badly did it reflect on her. Outwardly she seemed to accept the changes in me relatively easily and carried on with life much as before. I didn't tell her I had started having sex with other men, because I felt she would prefer to know as little about it as possible. It was only when I contracted NSU that she had to face all the implications that infidelity brings to a traditional marriage.
I regret that my personal growth and becoming whole was the catalyst for so much distress for somebody else and I'm grateful to Anne for sticking with me through that and for all the good times we had in spite of it. I am sorry I was not strong enough to leave her in no doubt that I cared for her very much, even when she was distancing herself from me because of my behaviour.
Once she realised I was actually having sex with men her first reaction was to get out of our marriage. It caused enormous difficulties, compounded by her feeling that she was being taken for granted, that she wasn't able to express her needs clearly enough and that what she wanted was not being respected.
My first long relationship with a man – Mark – was not a good time for Anne. She felt it was an intrusion into our marriage. She resented the phone calls. She and I didn't have sex for a whole year. At the root of the problem was the common feeling that she could have competed with another woman — but with a man? There was pressure on me from Mark too, although he maintained that he didn't want to break up my marriage. He was very closeted and though it seemed to suit him having a lover who wasn't too much in evidence, he wanted a greater commitment, particularly of time at weekends.
As well as ceasing to have a sexual relationship, Anne and I had stopped communicating, other than at a superficial level. Anne had become depressed, which was not a state I had seen her in before. I went to our GP to see what we could do about this situation. He referred us to the Tavistock Centre's Institute of Marital Studies where we had Psycho-Dynamic Therapy. This helped us to look at what was going on in our relationship, move forward and start talking again. After a while we began to want something that was selfmotivated, rather than therapy we had to pay for. I joined the Married Gays Group and enjoyed it immensely. It boosted my confidence. However I found that all of the married gay men I met seemed to have given up sexual relations with their wives, which was quite different from what I wanted. For two or three years after admitting my homosexual feelings, I had been casting around for a valid identity, a peer group as it were, and a term to use to describe myself. My new-found confidence propelled me to an Anti-Sexist Men's conference in Bristol. This was to prove a milestone in my life. The conference was organised by Men Against Sexism – groups of men all over the country meeting regularly to try to find ways of changing their sexist, patriarchal and heterosexist attitudes and behaviour.
Their newsletter had carried an article about bisexuality and at the conference I met, for the first time, other bisexual men who were having relationships with women. At last, some people I could really identify with! I began to feel that the right way for me to identify was as gay politically and bisexual behaviourally. Having discussed bisexuality at the conference, a lot of men wanted to carry on discussing it. So a small 'self-help group' was set up and this met fairly regularly in London.
We produced an issue of the Anti-sexist Men's Newsletter with bisexuality as a theme. Then, as our group was closed to new members, we felt we should encourage an open mixed bisexual group. We advertised all through the summer of '81 and eventually 80 women and men turned up to the first meeting at the club 'Heaven' on September 1st. This was the foundation of the London Bisexual Group. In my enthusiasm for setting up LBG, I was very conscious that I wanted to show Anne that the feelings I felt for her were strong heterosexual ones; I hoped, too, to find in the group people who admitted to homosexual feelings, whether they acted on them or not, and saw them as a positive and good aspect of their lives.
Meanwhile Anne herself had gone to a conference in Nottingham organised by SIGMA (the support group for (generally heterosexual) partners of bisexuals, lesbians and gay men). She joined the SIGMA women's group which was trying to get away from the idea of 'isn't it awful to be married to a homosexual person'. Later she edited their newsletter, dealt with correspondence and set up the SIGMA telephone counselling service. She also undertook a counselling course, several other related training courses and a part-time job with the Gay Christian Movement. All of this, together with her experience as the parent of children with cystic fibrosis, eventually helped her to a job in a magazine problem page department. She started to work there after we swapped roles.
After a painful split with Mark, I met Andrew through SIGMA. Anne hadn't got on with Mark but she was positively enthusiastic about Andrew. Everyone seemed to like him and I loved being with him, though sexually the relationship was probably mutually disappointing. Anne was having a relationship with another man at the same time and the four of us occasionally went out together. This was the first time Anne had given me permission to be open and honest about my sexuality. I was happy about the gay side of me and consequently Anne's and my relationship improved again. This was at last the situation I had been hoping for – where both Anne and I were happy about what was happening.
Our separation came about when, several years later, Anne again fell in love with another man and wanted to live with him. There was always the recurring fear in her mind that ours wasn't a real relationship – because I was 'gay'. Yet I do not think the sexual aspect was the main cause of our breaking up. I often felt that Anne was disappointed with my performance sexually but there were other ways in which we found ourselves incompatible. I was trying hard to be anti-sexist – trying not to fall into the old patterns of male dominance, but she was not able to be assertive with me. I failed to understand this at the time, as she seemed so strong, confident and efficient in everything else she did. If she could have foreseen that the shy youth she married would become a pioneer, she probably would have run a mile, as she sees her aspirations as much more 'ordinary'.
I think Anne would agree that the area we came nearest to getting right was the bringing up of our daughters. I have met so many bisexual fathers who have not come out to their children, saying that they would do so when they are older and can cope with it. As Kate and Jo have cystic fibrosis, it was possible they could have died quite young,At the time, the life expectancy of people with cystic fibrosis was very low and most died before aged 20. Fortunately, as of 2020, both Kate and Jo are still alive. so that there may not have been a chance to be honest 'later on'. I was also conscious that they were going to have to cope with being different themselves, and I hoped my acceptance of my own 'difference' would be a positive example for them. I believe the decision to be open with them was a good one. I have certainly derived a great deal of personal strength from it and I hope they may have too. I think that it is often less a matter of whether children can accept the situation and more whether the parents can.
One of the aims of the London Bisexual Group has been that sex education in schools should embrace bisexuality and homosexuality and that these should be properly and positively represented, as a matter of course, alongside the mechanics of sex and the study of human personality and behaviour in relationships. Small advances in this direction are being seriously threatened in the climate created by Thatcher and the tabloids, using AIDS as the excuse.
Fear and prejudice still surround homosexuality and I believe they will continue to do so until more people who are predominantly heterosexual can openly accept and value elements of homosexuality in themselves.
If children could be brought up and educated to consider bisexuality as a fact of life and a personal option, this would be a real contribution to the breaking down of the 'them' and 'us' attitudes on which the fear and prejudice thrive.
I'm happy being bisexual and much of the time I've felt I've hid what I wanted for both sides of my personality. I do not wish I hid been anything other than bisexual, nor do I wish I had not got married and had children. There have obviously been very painful limes, but I've enjoyed making the effort to keep a long term relationship working and to be a good parent. I have also enjoyed the rich variety of people I've met and loved through my sexuality. If would certainly have been easier to do this in a society that could accept diversity as more desirable than conformity.
Now that my marriage has broken up, I do wonder what the future holds, especially in terms of relationships and sex with women. A major part of my life is still a shared commitment with my wife to the support of our daughters. There's only so much time – I've tried a committed relationship with a woman, and I think I'd like to try one with a man. This is not because heterosexuality didn't work for me. I still retain the confidence that I could have a good sexual relationship with a woman. I know now that good sexual relationships with men are no easier. But as the oppression of gay people and homosexuality surges all around us in increasing waves, I feel I want to assert my gayness all the more. I know my love of other men has been good, not evil, and I know homosexuality itself can be a power for good. While the fence is there I want to stand on the gay side of it.
With hindsight I can see that it is highly unlikely that I shall ever meet any one person who could fulfil all of my emotional, intellectual and sexual needs. Now this seems obvious, but I had been encouraged to believe this was what a good relationship entailed.
The problem with falling for that fantasy of an ideal relationship is that one inevitably expects more of people than they can give. I have had several rewarding relationships of a 'limited' nature – limited in the sense that there were whole areas in our lives and attitudes to living which did not overlap at all. In this I have found a certain amount of balance between distinct and different needs, which his strengthened my self-image as a bisexual.
David died around 2018.
|At the time, the life expectancy of people with cystic fibrosis was very low and most died before aged 20. Fortunately, as of 2020, both Kate and Jo are still alive.