Frequently, Bisexual Awareness Week is the same week as my birthday, so I had been planning a post about bi-erasure, the importance of bi visibility, and so forth for next week. Then I saw a link on a newsblog that this week is it.
I often quote the study completed by the Centers for Disease control in the early 90s whose conclusions included the line, “Americans would rather admit to being heroin addicts than being bisexual.” I’m not bisexual, but my husband is. A lot of people leap to the conclusion that because he’s a man married to another man that he is gay. He’s not. A have several other friends who are bisexual who have ended up in long-term relationships with opposite sex partners and people assume that that means they are straight. They aren’t. And that’s just one aspect of bi-erasure.
One of the reasons I take bi erasure a bit personally is my husband: I love him, and being bisexual is part of who he is. It’s not that I only love his “gay half” (as if that even existed), I love all of him. Because he’s awesome.
I have to admit that another reason I take it personally is because I owe bisexual people an apology, because I’m one of those gay guys who—during the time I was struggling with coming out of the closet—lied and said I was bi. I was lying to myself at least as much as I was lying to anyone else, but it was a lie. It wasn’t a transitional phase on my way to being gay. The complicated forces of internalized homophobic and the tremendous social pressure that defines adulthood, in part, on getting married to a person of the opposite sex and starting a family cause us to do some stupid things. And unfortunately, the existence of exclusively gay or lesbian people who falsely identified as bisexual for a time while struggling with their identity contributes to another aspect of bi-erasure.
Bisexual (and pansexual) visibility is important. There are people out there—many of them young people—who aren’t out yet. They may be struggling with even understanding what their sexuality is. And the more examples they can see of adults of all sexualities — bi, pan, ace, gay, lesbian, queer — the more they will know that they aren’t alone and that they can have a future full of love.
And that means that the rest of us in the queer community need to do what we can to make our bi+ siblings feel welcome in queer spaces. If someone tells you they are bi, believe them. Don’t argue with them. Don’t tell them that they may feel differently later. Recognize that they are trusting you with information that makes them vulnerable, and be the kind of ally you wish your straight friends and family members had been for you when you came out.
Not every person who identifies as bisexual is experimenting. Nor are they in denial of their real orientation. Because a certain number of gay people who are struggling with accepting themselves take shelter in a lie (a lie we were trying to sell to ourselves even harder than to anyone else), we give other people anecdotes that get weaponized and used against people who actually are bisexual. So, for my contribution to that misperception, I must apologize. I’m sorry.
So, to be clear:
- A bisexual person who settles into a long term committed relationships with a member of the opposite sex is still bisexual. They just happened to fall in love with this person.
- Also, a bisexual person who enters a long term committed relationship with a member of the same sex is still bisexual. They just happened to fall in love with that person.
- A bisexual person who isn’t dating anyone at all is still bisexual. They’re just not seeing anyone right now (or ever). A person’s sexuality isn’t determined by their current relationship status.
- A bisexual person who has never been (or you have never seen) in relationships with members of both sexes is still bisexual. Again, relationship status is different than sexual orientation.
Bi erasure is a real problem. Bisexual people often don’t feel welcome in queer spaces. They also often don’t feel welcome in non-queer spaces. People assume that they are straight of gay based on their current relationship. Other people dismiss them as confused or in denial. Sometimes they don’t just feel unwelcome, but unsafe.
Studies have shown that the stress of enduring homophobia affects the health and nervous system exactly the same as PTSD. It’s traumatic and physically damaging. That’s true whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or any other orientation outside the heteronormative. And its true in all the forms it takes, including biphobic attitudes of other queer people.
Don’t contribute to someone’s trauma. Don’t be an asshole about bisexual people—all the time, not just when you think you’re in the presence of a bisexual person. Because if those National Institutes of Health studies about covert sexual activity are correct, about 46% of the population is bi (and about 6% is exclusively gay). So if you’re sitting around with a half-dozen people, the odds are more than one of them is bi. You just don’t know it.
When the NIH published those studies in the mid-90s, the summary included this little gem: Americans would rather admit to being heroin addicts than tell someone they were bisexual. And that’s because of homophobia in general, but also biphobia among both the straight and queer communities.
So, if someone tells you they are bisexual, don’t argue with them, don’t doubt them or try to convince them that they’re just confused or curious or uncertain. Believe them. Accept them. They were brave enough to open up to you. The least you can do in the face of that is refrain from being a jerk. You know, don’t be a “contemptible, stupid, or inconsiderate person.”
Instead, be an ally. Their sexuality is valid. Period.
I had a topic queued up for this week’s Throwback Thursday/More of why I love sf/f post, but then I remembered that it’s Bisexual Awareness Week, which is an expansion of Bisexual Visibility Day, and I thought, maybe I should write about some of the sci fi stories that I remember reading in my late teens/early twenties that nudged me into thinking maybe I was bi rather than gay.
As I tracked those stories down over the last few days, I realized something: none of the characters in those books actually identified as bisexual. The characters talk about bisexuality as an abstract, in exactly the way a closeted queer person might with their friends as a means of tentatively sounding out the friend to see if said friend would accept them if you came out as gay or bi.
And then there was no actual coming out. No romance other than opposite-sex couples, et cetera. It was a little irritating. Especially since one of the rules I adopted about my “more of why I love sf/f” posts is that I want to talk about books, stories, authors, movies, et al from the genre that I love rather than focus on critique or griping. So I couldn’t write about those stories that I had misremembered as having bisexual characters without it turning into a big gripe session.
So I’m not going to write about them tomorrow. And other than that explanation, I’m not going to write anything more about them, today, either. Because today is Bisexual Awareness Day, and it’s is supposed to be a celebration of and for bisexual people, not a time for a old white gay guy to gripe about related issues. So I encourage you, if you don’t know why Bisexual Visibility Day exists, and is different that National Coming Out Day and why it’s needed, to read this: Bisexual Visibility Day: Why being a bisexual is not easy.
And you might find this interesting: Celebrating the ‘B’ in LGBT: A history of Bisexual Awareness Week.
And while you’re at it, take a look at this: Why Bisexual Visibility Is Important.
As I mentioned earlier in the week, I’m not bisexual myself, but I happen to be married to someone who is, as well as having several other important people in my life who are bi. So I have at least an empathetic understanding of their struggles, and how some of those overlap with mine, while many are different.
Remember, love is love; shout it for the world to hear.
I often quote the study completed by the Centers for Disease control in the early 90s whose conclusions included the line, “Americans would rather admit to being heroin addicts than being bisexual.” So I am hardly the first person to notice that bisexual visibility is fraught. As one friend said, “My orientation is bisexual, but my temperament is monogamous, then I fell in love with a man, and there’s just no natural moment to mention to your future in-laws, ‘oh, by the way, I’m bisexual.'” Later, when we were both members of the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus, she said the chorus finally gave her a way bring it up with many people as she would try to sell tickets to the concerts. “No, you don’t have to be gay or lesbian to sing in the group, we’ve had a few straight members. But I’m not one of them.”
Most of the bi people I know (or I should say, most of the people I happen to know are bisexual) have wound up in long-term opposite-sex relationships. Just as a matter of statistics, there are more straight people, so the number of potential partners who happen to be opposite sex is much larger than the number who are same-sex. Some bi people, like my husband, end up in long-term relationships with same-sex partners. That same CDC study I mentioned earlier found that about one-third of people who self-identify as gay are actually bisexual, but keep quiet about it.
Because society—even folks who think of themselves as enlightened—assumes that people will settle down as part of a couple, when you do get into a long term relationship, colleagues and acquaintances assume they can infer your orientation. If you wind up with an opposite-sex partner and they are aware of any of your previous same-sex relationships, they assume it was an experimental phase. If you wind up with a same-sex partner and they are aware of any of your opposite-sex relationships, they assume you were in denial.
And gay people like me who actually did try to convince ourselves that maybe we weren’t really gay but actually bi don’t help your cause. Because there was a time when I described myself as bi, and because many gay people do that as part of their own coming out process, a lot of people assume that’s what everyone who describes themselves as bi is doing. For which I apologize.
I do know that the only way to decrease the stigma of being bisexual is to be out. Just as the only thing that has made people warm to the notion of gay and lesbian rights was for more and more of us to be out to our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, that’s what it’s going to take for bisexuals. Yes, it’s scary. But being open and honest is very liberating.
So, come out, come out, wherever you are!