Pride Month in June celebrates the entire LGBTQ+ community including bi+ people. There are some struggles unique to the bi+ community though, and September has been set aside to honor them. The month of September is Bi Visibility Month., which includes Bisexual Awareness Week is celebrated from September 16-23, and concludes with “Celebrate Bisexuality Day” on September 23.
Why I used “Bi+” instead of “Bi”: “Bi+” allows for a more expansive definition of gender which includes non-binary, agender, genderqueer and gender fluid people along with other gender identities. It also allows us to include people who are attracted to more than one gender and don’t identify as bisexual, but instead as pansexual, omnisexual, sexually fluid, queer and a variety of other labels.
Flying Under the Gaydar
I don’t really read as “queer” to most people. I’m not athletic. I don’t have a particularly butch or femme style. And many of my relationships have been with men or people who present as men. The fact that people generally don’t assume that I’m queer makes it difficult to connect with other queer people outside of queer spaces. So it was a little surprising one day when a nurse here at the rehab facility showed me the mark from his monkeypox vaccine and began telling me about how his second vaccination had hurt less than the first and he wasn’t having the same side effects.
I responded by asking where he’d gotten it. Monkeypox vaccinations are in short supply. Because they’re the same vaccines that are used for smallpox, which the US hasn’t routinely vaccinated for since 1972, and which the WHO declared eradicated in 1980.
I don’t know if he interpreted that question as a backwards way to ask if he was queer. The current monkeypox outbreak is primarily spreading among men who sleep with men (whether they identify as gay, bi, queer or none of those labels at all,) and the current vaccine recommendation is that men who sleep with men should get vaccinated. (And the response to this outbreak and the recommendation from the queer community has been fantastic… almost as if they had been through this before with another virus about forty years ago.)
The nurse answered my question with the name of a gay club here in Orlando. We talked for a few more minutes about where else monkeypox vaccine events were being held. We talked about Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, which would be on TV in the morning. Then he continued with the things he had to do, and I went back to writing about Banned Books Week.
Coded Language and Clothing
Later on, I jokingly asked online: “Is ‘I just got my monkeypox vaccine’ the new ‘friend of Dorothy’?” Am I going to have to explain this to the younger folk? When it was less safe for queer people to be out, there were a lot of ways that people communicated their interest. The most well known now is probably the hanky code which is a relatively modern way to get the message across. Others, like flowers, have largely faded from use. Oscar Wilde asked his friends to wear a green carnation in their lapel for the opening of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan. And, for a while, green carnations were a way that men could communicate their interests. Other flowers like violets, pansies, and lavender have been used too.
And there’s plenty of coded language. Phrases like “confirmed bachelor,” might be a “polite” way to describe a queer man. An obituary might say “so and so is survived by their long time companion” to indicate that someone had a partner. “Died of pneumonia” was often code for “died of AIDS.” Queer and straight people had plenty of coded ways to describe queer people and their lives whether they used those words because they were bigots or they were trying to stay safe.
The Privilege (or Curse) of Passing
Perhaps this nurse just had excellent gaydar. Or maybe he just wanted to share the news (and the complaints) with someone. I’m used to people just telling me things. I guess I give off a “good listener” vibe or something. Either way, my lack of conformity to stereotypes gives me the privilege (or the curse) of flying under the radar most of the time.
Which means that more often than not, if I don’t tell someone that I’m queer, they won’t know.
Sometimes it’s good that I can hide in plain sight. It helps keep me safe. It gives me time to determine whether or not it’s safe to come out to someone. And it might even allow me the opportunity to change someone’s mind about queer people or to dispel some of the myths about bisexuality.
And other times it’s a problem.
Biased Language that Makes Queer People Uncomfortable
It’s hard to exist in that middle space that is neither here nor there. Homophobia and heterosexism hurt every queer person no matter how they define their sexual orientation. We’re surrounded by it every day, often as microaggressions. It happened today with my physical therapist who has a child a year or two older than my oldest. We often talk about our kids while I do my PT. Today he was talking about the person his child was dating and he asked about whether my kids were dating. But he didn’t ask “Are your kids dating yet?” He asked the question in a way that presumed that the kids had to be straight.
We’re all used to making those kinds of assumptions and not really thinking about the impact they have. As a queer person, I listen for those kinds of clues to tell me what details about my life might be safe to share with them. Little things like someone who uses the word “partner” instead of “wife” or “husband” can tell me a lot about what I can or can’t say.
Bi+ Visibility in the Larger Queer Community
For bisexual people, that kind of bias goes a step further. We often feel alienated from the queer community. Some lesbians will reject bisexual women as romantic partners, and even as friends, because bisexuals are seen as untrustworthy, incapable of monogamy, disease-carriers and even as “sleeping with the enemy.” We’re too queer for the straight world and to straight for the queer world. And, when we’re isolated from both heterosexual and queer communities, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of bisexuality and biphobia. We end up with a sort of double closet effect, unable to come out as queer sometimes and unable to admit to not being monosexual at others.
Performative bisexuality doesn’t help either. When Katy Perry sings “I kissed a girl just to try it / I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it,” she’s not helping advance bi+ visibility. She’s perpetuating stereotypes of bisexuals as promiscuous. And she’s feeding into the unicorn fantasy–the bisexual woman who is looking to join a threesome that involves a straight man and another woman–whether that woman is queer or straight.
Bi+ Erasure often Comes from Within
So yes, we have the “privilege of passing” if we’re single, or if we’re in a relationship that appears to be straight. But passing like that means we’re even more invisible. My queerness doesn’t magically go away based on the gender of my partner. I’m still queer. My relationship is queer. And my partner may be, too.
When people don’t seem to fit stereotypes. It’s easy to assume things about them. When it comes to relationships and sexual orientation, most of the time people will presume heterosexuality. Especially if you’re in a relationship that appears to fit that category. Or if you’re in queer spaces, the common assumption is that you only have same sex attractions. Bisexuality is often seen as a phase. Whether that’s BUGs (people, usually women, who explore intimate relationships with same-gender partners while in college) or whether it’s people saying that “bisexuality is just a stop on the way to gay-town.” Bisexuality is actually a stable sexual orientation for many people. Yet it still gets erased.
And, as out as I am, I know that there are times when I’ve contributed to that erasure. Not only in situations where I was questioning whether or not it was safe to be out at all; but in situations where I knew it was safe to be out. I’ve been in situations when I’ve been in a same-gender relationship and not mentioned that I’m bisexual. I’ve been in situations when my partner’s gender was different from mine, and where it would have been fine to come out. And I haven’t done it, leading people to assume I was straight. I’m not sure which one of those I feel more guilty about.
It’s hard to imagine a situation that I feel more cringey over than one that happened about twenty years ago, shortly after I’d finished grad school. A time where I knew it was safe to come out as queer. A time where I had the opportunity to bolster bi+ visibility and didn’t. Because I was afraid. Afraid of rejection. Of losing one of my very few connections to the queer community. Afraid of something I can’t quite put my finger on. I just know I was afraid.
When it Doesn’t Feel Safe to Come Out as Bi, Even to Other Queer People
I’d finished grad school about six months earlier and had recently started a new job working with students who had come to the US to gain English proficiency. I was enjoying the work and beginning to get to know my co-workers. One day, as we were getting ready to leave the office, I noticed a rainbow flag pin on a co-worker’s jacket. What a perfect clue that someone is safe to come out to, right?
A few days later, she invited me to come over for dinner with her partner and her son. It was a really lovely evening. We became friends during the time I worked there, but I never actually mentioned that I was bisexual. I’d been out for five or six years by then. Coming out wasn’t a new experience, and I’d even done it at work a few times, too. What held me back? What allowed me, someone who has, since coming out, been pretty vocal about bisexuality, to contibute to bi+ erasure?
Well. The sad fact is that that rainbow flag isn’t perfect. As I’ve said, there’s lots of biphobia and transphobia in the queer community. (Racism, too, but that’s a different story.) So… Coming out at work had risks. It almost always does. Even when I knew I wouldn’t be the only one. But coming out as bisexual came with risks from both sides. The risk that my lesbian colleague would, as many lesbians do, reject me for being bisexual. The risk of alienating myself from other colleagues. It felt like choosing between two bad options and so I chose the one that seemed less risky. It was the easy way out. And I regret it. I had the opportunity to do something good. Perhaps even to change some minds and counter some of the negative stereotypes about bisexuality. And I didn’t do it. Because I was scared.
Deadly Stakes of Bi+ Visibility
I may joke with other bisexual people about bisexual invisibility, but the reality is that it’s harmful. Bisexuals have higher rates of anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation than heterosexuals or homosexuals. Bi+ women face a higher risk of intimate partner violence than straight women or lesbians. For bi+ women, the rate is twice as high as for straight women. As many as 70% of bi+ women may experience intimate partner violence. Queer people in general face challenges that straight people don’t in getting appropriate medical care. For bisexuals, it may be even harder.
(Once, in my twenties, there was a nurse practitioner in my doctor’s office who was completely baffled at the idea that I’d had sex with men and women. When I spent months dealing with intense fatigue and more pain than I expected after a virus, she kept insisting that I was pregnant, even though I told her very clearly that I wasn’t having sex with men at that time. With every round of bloodwork, she included a pregnancy test, which came up negative every time.)
Bi+ women also experience higher rates of sexual violence, and poorer outcomes after violence, than straight or lesbian women do.
Study Proves Studies Don’t Always Report Accurate Findings
In 2020, two scientists who “proved” that bisexual men don’t exist actually retracted their study. Meanwhile, bi+ women may experience both erasure when the legitimacy of bisexuality is questioned while simultaneously being viewed as hypersexual and “only doing it to perform or please men.” I’d like to put both of those ideas to rest. Bi+ men exist. Bi+ women are not hypersexual or only into it to please men, or only biding their time until they finish their degree at Radcliffe.
The only way to end the erasure of bisexuals (along with pansexuals, omnisexuals, polysexuals and anyone else who isn’t monosexual) is to come out. Even when it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. Or when it’s scary but you can determine that doing so won’t put you in danger. If we want to normalize bisexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation, we need to speak up. If we want accurate research done about bi-specific things like our unique experiences with minority stress, or about improving health outcomes for bi+ people then it’s important for people to know we’re out there.
History is in the Making and it’s Queer as Hell
As we observe all of the bi+ celebrations in September (Bi Visibility Month, Bisexual Awareness Week, and Celebrate Bisexuality Day,) I’ve been reflecting on how things have changed since I came out. It’s so very clear to me how much more accepted bisexuality is as. Half of all Milennials report that they’re “not 100% heterosexual.” Gen Z may be even more queer! It gives me hope that we’ll find ourselves kicking open even more closet doors and ending the double closet experience. I’ve spent almost thirty years navigating the coming out process. I know it never ends. Every time I encounter new people, it’s something I have to do again (or decide that it’s not safe to do it.) After all this time, I know I’m not confused and it’s not just a phase. It’s just the way I am.