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Pride month 2017: Some notes on bisexuality
This article was updated for Bi Visibility Day on 23rd September 2018.
This isn't something I've ever felt a particular desire to be an activist about, but there are a lot misconceptions floating around and I'm reliably informed that my past experience might be useful to people who are still figuring out their sexual orientation, or that simply want to learn more about what bisexuality is.
So, here are some of my thoughts on common myths about bisexuality. Since writing this I should point out I've come out as a gay man, but I think my experience of "transitional bisexuality" and the research I did for this article is still valid.
"This is just a phase"
That assertion is the most annoying one bisexuals have to deal with. This is because for a large number of bisexuals it definitely is not a phase, and it's something they've known about all their lives. They have doubts like anyone else, but they're finally being open about it and that should be celebrated!
As it turns out, there is such a thing as "transitional bisexuality" for gay men and lesbians. Due to the social stigma of only being attracted to people of the same gender people can find themselves drowning in internalised homophobia, denial and past trauma. In that situation they may identify as bisexual until they've finally come to peace with who they are. However, it doesn't logically follow that every self-identified bisexual is a gay man or lesbian in a fluctuating state of denial. Neither does it follow that they're all just straight people "experimenting".
If someone told you that they knew what your "real" sexuality was you'd be annoyed with them, and it's the same deal with bisexuals. Whether they're semi-closeted gay people or bisexual through-and-through, they should be accepted in queer spaces and not subjected to pity, ridicule or rejection.
I can attest from personal experience that hostility to people identifying as bisexual when they enter queer spaces actively harms them, and the doubly upsetting part is the same hyper-critical people know what it's like to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment! We need to be more supportive of each other, and as a community we can do better.
"Everyone/No one is bisexual"
As I mentioned in the last section, someone's sexual orientation is a deeply personal thing that we all have to decide for ourselves. It seems a bit presumptuous to tell other people who they're attracted to! I would suggest that if you think no one around you is bisexual, you're probably not looking hard enough or you've made assumptions about people based on who they're dating.
For those who think "everyone" is bisexual, that's not true for the reasons mentioned in the first paragraph. But what you are right about is it's not always an exact 50-50 split for everyone, so the bisexual community is much larger than official figures would suggest. Some people prefer labels like "heteroflexible", "homoflexible" or "fluid" to better describe the gender split amoung the people they're attracted to.
"Isn't the term 'bisexual' transphobic?"
It depends on the definition you subscribe to. I opt for "attracted to more than one gender" rather than "attracted to both genders", which presupposes that only two are possible. Others prefer less ambiguous labels like "pansexual", but this seems to confuse the "cishets" (who often seem to fixate on the "attracted to transgender people" part)
"Can bisexuals be monogomous?"
Yes! They follow the same rules as everyone else if they're in a monogomous relationship. I tend to assume this myth that "bisexuals aren't great at monogamy" comes from the same school of thought that claims they're "greedy" or "sluts".
It is also not uncommon for bisexuals to hear "you must like three-ways" from people who are confused about the difference between romantic attraction regardless of gender and very specific sexual preferences.
My experience is that bisexuals are no less happy or committed when they're in a relationship than anyone else. "I'm bisexual" is not a reasonable excuse for infidelity.
"Are bisexuals polyamorous?"
Some bisexuals are, just as some straight and gay people are. A polyamorous relationship is just a more complex version of a monogomous relationship, because it includes more people.
It's still not okay for those involved to hide relationships or "one night stands". Everyone involved is still committed to the individuals they're romantically attracted to, with no single relationship being any less important or valid than any other. "Three-ways" are definitely not a requirement, and neither is it a requirement for everyone involved to be in love with everyone else. All that's required is for everyone involved to consent and be fulfilled by the arrangement.
As you can probably gather this is not the same as an "open relationship" or "swinging", as these both still require a monogomous relationship with the agreement of both partners first.
"Bisexuals are just confused"
This is unsurprising if everyone around them constantly asserts that you can only be interested in one gender, and that it has to be male or female. As a result bisexuals spend a lot of time questioning themselves and it takes longer for them to "come out" because they know calling themselves "gay" or "straight" isn't accurate.
Bisexuals can also sometimes be guilty of just saying "I'm straight" or "I'm gay" to people they don't know for a quiet life. It can be tiresome having to convince everyone they exist and answer the same questions over and over again. Not everyone is worth the effort.
As I mentioned in an earlier section, bisexuals can sometimes doubt themselves or be gay men/lesbians still coming to terms with their sexuality. But it doesn't logically follow that every person identifying as bisexual is in that situation, so this stereotype is still very harmful.
Everyone I've known who has identified as bisexual has been sincere about it, and while they may go through phases of being attracted to one gender more often than another (I tend to assume that's just luck of the draw!), I've never heard of anyone waking up one morning only to discover they're not attracted to someone they were previously based purely on their gender.
"If you're in a same-sex relationship then you're gay, aren't you? (and vice versa)"
Imagine you support the Liberal Democrats. However you're told that you can only vote for the Conservatives and Labour, and that by choosing one of them you'll always be known to everyone as a supporter of that party and be expected to vote that way for the rest of your life.
That obviously doesn't make much sense. Your vote for either party wouldn't reflect your real political identity and the party you opt for could easily change between general elections. Who you voted for this election doesn't dictate who you'll vote for next time, and there are still a whole load of smaller parties you could opt for that weren't even mentioned as options.
It's not a perfect analogy, but it more or less illustrates the deal with bisexuality. It is a distinct sexual orientation bisexuals have about as much control over as you have over yours. It doesn't change because they happen to be in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship, and neither would their current relationship dictate the one that might follow it.
"You have bi privilege!"
There's a pervasive myth that bisexuals can just retreat into straight privilege on the grounds they can "pretend" to be straight.
I can understand where this myth comes from, as from the outside it can seem like non-camp bisexuals in straight relationships are "getting away with it". (I'm assuming we're all smart enough to agree that bisexuals in same-sex relationships experience all the same discrimination gay and lesbian couples do).
However, a few points worth bearing in mind:
- A not small number of people (both gay and straight) just flat-out refuse to date bisexuals because of the preconceptions I've mentioned in this post
- Fewer resources are allocated to dealing with the bisexual community's problems (particularly around mental health) so they have worse outcomes
- Bisexuals often find themselves being criticised from all sides, so don't always feel like they're part of the LGBTQ community
- When you come out as bisexual you're much less likely to be believed, which makes being open much harder
- Dating sites usually assume everyone's only interested in one gender, so they're quite a chore for bisexuals to use
I've never been to a pride. This isn't because I'm opposed to them (quite the opposite!), but hostility towards my sexual indentity in the past has put me off attending. For bisexuals in general, standing in the crowd at the side erases their existence but visibly marching under the bi flag can also draw controversy and abuse. I hope one day to brave it and see how it works out for me, as it'll probably be much better than I expect.
The recent debacle around bisexual representation at London Pride kind of illustrates my point though that bisexuals are the community least likely to be open and they're not particularly high up on anyone's list of priorities for outreach. Bisexual "erasure" is a significant problem, as are bad TV tropes that amplify the myths.
In summary, bisexuality isn't an "easy option" with special privileges. Anyone who is identifying that way under the illusion it's some sort of cop-out is in for severe disappointment!