Biphobia and Bi Erasure
Illustration by Erin McPhee
In Glee, Kurt tells Blaine, a character questioning his sexual identity, that “Bisexual is a term gay guys use in high school when they want to hold hands with girls and feel normal for a change.” In Orange is the New Black, Stella makes her Season 3 debut, and straight women on social media boast about how they’d “go gay” for Ruby Rose. When the USA finally legalized same-sex marriage, headlines showed only “gay and lesbian” couples that were happily married.
There are a number of myths associated with bisexuality, and major misunderstandings go hand-in-hand with stigma and invisibility. In Western society, bisexuality and pansexuality are blanket terms for people who are not attracted to solely one gender, and many people think bisexuality is simply an “attraction to men and women.” This reveals a very cis-sexist approach to breaking down bisexuality, and doesn’t take into account the gender spectrum. Within bisexuality, there is no inherent binarism, as “bi” refers to any two gender groups. Yes, this could mean you are attracted to a man and a woman, though it could also mean you are attracted to folks identifying as genderqueer and folks identifying as male. By saying bisexuality is an attraction to someone of the same sex and someone of the “opposite” sex, you are making bisexuality trans exclusive. For someone identifying as agender, what is the opposite sex? Well, contrary to popular belief, there is no “opposite” sex on the gender spectrum.
Moreover, bisexual people have to constantly validate their sexuality to people who aren’t bi. For example, bi individuals will be asked a number of irrelevant questions such as, “If you’re bi, why do you have a boyfriend? Doesn’t that mean you’re straight?” or “How many people of a different sex have you been with?” Of course, possibly the most annoying question of them all: “if you haven’t been with a girl/boy/trans-folk, how do you know you’re attracted to them?” (To people who ask this question, consider this: what about straight people who have never been in a relationship, or are waiting for marriage to have sex? Why are they automatically exempt from interrogation about their sexuality?)
Bisexuality’s constant invalidation stems down to stigma. In our society, two women “getting it on” is considered appealing to the male gaze, and can be more normalized than the idea of two men together. Two feminine woman together are thought of as sexually appealing in a way that couples who don’t conform to certain cis-normative standards of beauty are not. This fetishization increases the ongoing biphobia members of the bi community face.
The term “going gay,” when used by straight men and women to describe an attraction to someone of their own gender, is in itself problematic. To use the recent example of Ruby Rose, straight women saying they would “totally go gay for Ruby Rose” are forgetting that: a) Ruby Rose identifies as genderfluid, and b) bisexuality exists. The word “bisexual” is constantly erased from our vocabulary. The media displays a woman in a relationship with a man as “straight,” or a woman in a relationship with a woman as “gay.” This points to the way in which our society privileges binary-thinking and being.
Across the spectrum, people who identify as straight or gay alike voice concerns about dating people who are bisexual, as though sexuality affects loyalty. Phrases like “bisexuality is greedy,” “bisexual people are just on the fence,” or “pick a side already” only contribute to this phobia, and it doesn’t acknowledge another myth about bisexuality: you have to be equally attracted to two genders. While this may be the case, bisexuality can as easily mean you are 70% attracted to one gender and 30% attracted to another.
When bisexuality is constantly ignored and pushed to the peripheries, even in LGBTQ+ spaces, there is no one there to educate kids, teens, or even adults on the rich complexities of bisexual identities. How are people going to figure out their sexual identity when they’re constantly told what they’re feeling “isn’t real?” Bisexuals have higher depression and anxiety rates than heterosexual individuals, and, in some cases, higher rates than gay/lesbian individuals. Suicidality occurs at a rate of 45.4% among bisexual women, 29.5% among gay women, and 9.6% among straight women. Conversely, suicidality occurs at a rate of 35.8% among bisexual men, 25.2% among gay men, and 7.4% among straight men (Canadian Community Health Survey, 2010).
These rates can increase when there is not enough social support for bisexuals after they come out to family and friends, or when they stay closeted for an extended period of time. While Western culture needs to tackle biphobia, LGBTQ+ communities also need to take a look at the way they approach the word “bisexual” and actively educate those in their communities on bisexuality, in the hopes that society will recognize “bisexuality” as something other than a fantasy or punch line.