Note: A lot of language surrounding gender is new. These words/ideas have been around for years but it’s only in the last decade or so that the singular “they” and the idea of gender as a spectrum have entered the public consciousness. You’ll see a lot of the outdated style of language in this piece, especially in quotations from the previous generations of scientists and philosophers of gender and sexuality.
For the present purposes, let’s simply say that “bisexuality” means: attracted to people with a gender identity similar to mine AND attracted to people with a gender identity different from mine. Erika acknowledges that her own language in this piece is uncomfortably gendered, but with Bi Visibility Month already a receding memory we thought it better to post the piece now and continue to refine our language as we publish more pieces on this subject. -Ed.
Bi Visibility and Invisibility
Sometimes people think invisibility is a superpower. There are some cool superheroes–like the Green Lantern or Violet Parr from The Incredibles–who can become invisible. It’s something people think about when they imagine what kind of superpower they would like to have. I don’t really think of invisibility as my superpower. Especially not this month.
September might as well be “everything bisexual” month. September is Bi Visibility Month, which includes Bisexual Awareness Week from September 16-23, culminating on the 23rd in Celebrate Bisexuality Day. And yet here I am, the month already over, having struggled to talk about it at all. It’s not the persistent case of writer’s block that I’ve battled for the last six months that keeps me staring at a blank screen No. It’s the exhaustion from the constant battle to be seen as bisexual, to be seen as legitimate, by both the queer and straight community that has me at a loss for words.
Bi Visibility is an Issue Even Among Other Queer People
Back in 1975, Woody Allen said “Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.” Woody Allen is repugnant for a lot of reasons. He also happens to be one hundred percent wrong about dating. If anything, bisexuality doubles your chances of rejection, not dates. Too gay for the straight community, too straight for the queer community. Just because there’s a B in LGBTQ doesn’t mean people actually want to acknowledge that it is there.
All of this means that bisexuals everywhere along the gender spectrum are reluctant to come out. Only twelve percent of bi men are open about their sexuality, with most of them pretending to be heterosexual. Bi women are also hiding, whether they’re in relationships with queer women or with straight men. All that hiding is stressful. Being able to talk about your bisexual identity actually protects the mental health of bisexual people. But we’re often unable to talk about it. Meaning: the rest of you are often unwilling to listen.
Embrace the “And”
I get it. Bisexuality is scary. It challenges people to see the grey areas. Letting someone exist in that middle place isn’t easy. Our lizard brains want to be able to divide things into “safe” and “dangerous” very quickly. They don’t like ambiguity.
Except that bisexuality isn’t ambiguous. It states very clearly what it is. Decades ago, back in 1970, Carl Wittman spelled it out quite clearly when he wrote “Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto.”
Bisexuality: Bisexuality is good; it is the capacity to love people of either sex [we would now say “of any gender”]. The reason so few of us are bisexual is because society made such a big stink about homosexuality that we got forced into seeing ourselves as either straight or non-straight…
We continue to call ourselves homosexual, not bisexual, even if we do make it with the opposite sex also, because saying “Oh, I’m Bi” is a cop-out for a gay. We get told it’s OK to sleep with guys as long as we sleep with women, too, and that’s still putting homosexuality down.
Bi Visibility Means… we’re not Just into You Because our Boyfriend is Watching
More than fifty years later, we still live in a world where bisexuality is viewed with suspicion. Where bisexuality is viewed as fake. We’re told that women are lying and only doing it to get the attention of men. Or that men are doing it because they really are gay but they don’t want to come out as gay. It’s true that these beliefs may be on the decline, but there’s still a persistent myth that bisexuals are indecisive and promiscuous.
Don’t worry–bisexual behavior in women is okay. According to the best information available, I can still kiss a girl and like it. As long as it’s only for performance, without actually developing real relationships. And as long as it also still involves men. Woman+Woman+Man doesn’t challenge the social structures that delineate feminine from masculine. It remains feminine. On the other hand, Woman+Woman or Man+Man does challenge those ideas. And we can’t have that, can we?
A Way Forward
How do we respond when we need to challenge those structures? We find ways around them. Women have long been permitted deep, intimate “friendships.” (Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert anyone?) Men, historically, haven’t been permitted that kind of intimacy that allows those non-traditional relationships with other men (though hobbits have). And so bi men enter heterosexual-appearing relationships and continue to hide their attraction to other men. Whatever our gender, we find ways to hide in plain sight. Me? If I have a male or transmasc partner, you wouldn’t clock me as queer, and quite possibly not him either. But I’d still be just as queer in that relationship as I would be if my partner’s gender were similar to mine.
My gender presentation isn’t my only strategy for hiding in plain sight when I have to. There are the usual things like code switching and other things that help me “pass” as a cisgender, straight person. There’s one other thing I do that obfuscates the bisexual part of my identity. I use the label “queer” instead. That obfuscation that comes from using the label “queer” wasn’t something I chose intentionally. When I first came out, it felt more right. It encompassed everything I felt about gender, about my sexual orientation, and relationships. It still does. In the early-to-mid-90s, it felt angry and transgressive which matched my mood. But it also helped keep my identity a little bit vague. It still does.
Having Done Both, it’s Easier to Come Out as a Rape Survivor than as Bi
What this all means is that I live in a world where it feels easier for me to talk about being, or come out as a rape survivor than as bisexual. I had no reservations about telling a palliative care nurse about being a rape survivor, and how it impacts my interactions with the health care system. That it makes me hypersensitive to issues of consent, and how I have a lot of fear about being in the dark, and how that affects anxiety and in turn things like my blood pressure or how I need care providers to talk to me before, during and after a procedure.
But when I met with a new palliative care nurse this week? Even though the health disparities among bi+ people are widely known,and even though I know that being queer does matter when it comes to my health care, I’ve remained deeply closeted herefor my own safety. There’s just too much risk in a Christian-affiliated facility where many of the staff are also quite open about their religious beliefs.
This week though, was a little different. A new-to-me nurse said something about “my partner.” And that triggered my gaydar. I can’t be sure that just because someone says “partner” it means anything. It just makes it more likely. Except she followed that up by telling me her partner is a woman and that she’s gay. That’s a big rainbow Bat signal that I can disclose my own queerness, isn’t it? It was a relief to be able to be honest about how much the death of my ex-girlfriend was weighing on me, especially with her birthday only a few days away.
Bi Visibility Means… Challenging our Own Reticence (that was Instilled by Years of “Okay but Which do you PREFER” and “Yeah but You Have Passing Privilege” and Other Gems)
Even with all of her encouragement, I hesitated long enough to conduct a quick analysis of what to come out as. Bi? Queer? The persistent myths about bisexuals (we’re going to cheat, leave you for a partner of a different gender, spread an STI) mean that many people of all sexual orientations aren’t okay with bisexuality.
And so I said something about how my ex and I “did the good, queer women thing,” and remained friends after we broke up. We made jokes about the U-Haul stereotype and about how when queer women break up no one has to worry about who gets custody of their couple-friends because everyone stays friends and dates everyone else anyway. I hadn’t laughed about those things in a long time and it felt good. But I was still on the fence about which label to use. And so, I went with the safer choice. Queer. Because it was safe.
I took the easy way out. But in doing that, I’m part of the problem. I’m denying my own, very real, not-having-anything-to-do-with-the-male-gaze bisexuality. I’m contributing to my own erasure. But in a space where I’m without any allies, even the most fragile of lifelines has to be grabbed. I don’t feel good about taking the easy way out. And further into the conversation, I did come out as bi. But really? I find myself wondering what kind of person am I, if I’m willing to perpetuate the same erasure that I get so angry about?
Sometimes Bi Visibility Means… Putting yourself in Danger, in Which Case… Don’t
Would I have made a different choice, come out as bi the first time, if I weren’t in such a delicate situation to begin with? Maybe. I’m not sure how to feel. I like the word “queer.” I do identify as “queer.” And while bisexual, meaning “attracted to a gender identity similar to mine and a gender identity dissimilar to mine,” definitely describes my sexual orientation, if I’m feeling strongly about including other pieces like gender or romantic orientation then I need a more inclusive word than “bisexual.” “Queer” would logically be that word. So why do I feel like it’s a form of self-erasure to call myself “queer” instead of “bi”? Something to think about.
Is it undermining the whole point of this essay if I say I sometimes identify as “queer” more strongly than I identify as “bi”? Gender is complicated. Sexuality is complicated. It’s not surprising that labels don’t catch up. It’s like how sometimes I “feel sleepy” and sometimes I “don’t feel sleepy.” Is that inconsistent, too?
Bi Visibility Means… no Simple Answers
If queerness of any flavor were as simple as some people would have you believe…if it were only about what people are doing in the bedroom, that probably wouldn’t matter. But being queer isn’t just that. It can’t be reduced to the idea of sex and desire between two (or more) queer bodies. When we shoehorn it into a heteronormative framework like that, we take away all of the other things that queerness means. That it affects a person’s relationship with themselves. That it affects their relationships with others who they may or may not desire physical intimacy with. And that it is, for many people, something that is a part of each and every facet of their life. Who you partner with. Where you live. What career you might choose. How you create a family. All of it.
There isn’t a simple answer. Just like there isn’t a right or a wrong way to label your own sexual orientation. Or to be bisexual. The only thing “bisexual” means is that I am attracted to people whose gender identity is similar to mine and people whose gender identity is dissimilar to mine. In a world full of beautiful people, that’s a beautiful thing. That’s a superpower I’m very happy to have.
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