Flora Gosling unpacks some of the myths and misconceptions around what it means to be bisexual.
Pride month this year may not have gone quite as expected, for obvious reasons; instead, we have been given the opportunity to look at other events on the queer calendar and quietly educate ourselves. As September is Bi Visibility month, it’s a good time to look at what it means to be bisexual. I should preface by saying that this comes from the mouth of a white, cis, bisexual woman, who has lived in Scotland for most of her life. It is important to recognise that my experience of bisexuality is nowhere near universal; religious bisexual people, bisexual people of colour, trans bisexual people, intersex bisexual people, ace/aro bisexual people, and thousands of people from other intersections each have their own unique stories to tell. That being said, there is one misconception that nearly all bisexual people face; that they do not understand themselves.
Bisexual men are stereotyped as being half-way out of the closet; the homophobic underlying assumption here is that being gay is something to be ashamed of and concealed behind another, “easier” label. Bisexual women are accused of coming out as bisexual to appear quirky and interesting whilst still being able to date men; the sexist underlying assumption here is that women ultimately do everything for attention, that sexual identity is some kind of accessory.
Bisexual non-binary people are told their sexual identity is at odds with their gender identity; the transphobic underlying assumption here is that non-binary people are required to fit certain criteria in order to fit cisnormative expectations. It’s not a coincidence that hatred and bigotry are always interconnected, but bi-erasure (the act of ignoring or removing the existence of bisexuality in the media, history, etc.) and biphobia is most damaging when internalised. Despite having my suspicions, I put off coming out for years; am I bisexual, or do I just want to be? Am I attracted to women, or am I just trying to be special? It took a lot of self-reflection to unlearn the myths that I had been taught.
At least, with comments like these, there is a community to support us. When biphobia is coming from within the LGBTQ+ community, it can be harder to address. With the increasing popularity of terms like pansexuality, omnisexual, and polysexual, the worst of these misconceptions is that bisexuality enforces the gender binary – that the prefix “bi” implies there are only two genders. I could write for hours about why this isn’t true. I could bore you to tears with queer history and theory. But take it from me – bisexuality does not mean there are only two genders. Bisexuality is not a transphobic identity, pansexuality is not a biphobic identity, and all sexual identities that fall under the multisexual umbrella are valid. Nevertheless, the fracture in the community remains. The increasing diversity of ways to express one’s sexuality needn’t mean that any of them must be pitched against each other; they can all be equally celebrated. This does, however, leave a more philosophical dilemma – what precisely is bisexuality?
Personally, I use the word bisexual because I feel my sexuality is more gendered than say pansexuality, where the emphasis is on attraction regardless of gender rather than attraction to all genders. That is to say, I am attracted to men in a different way to how I am attracted to women, which is different to the way that I am attracted to people who present as agender or another gender identity. This isn’t the case for every bisexual person, sexuality is fluid and can change and evolve without the need to change which label you use. I only learnt recently that the only material difference between bisexuality and pansexuality is that they grew from different movements. Bisexuality was coined as a response to monosexuality, pansexuality was coined as a response to the gender binary.
Ultimately, defining bisexuality is an individual, internal process, rather than something that can be summarised in a glib metaphor or antagonistic meme. You can be more attracted to one gender than another other and still be bisexual, you can have more experience with one gender and still be bisexual, you can have no experience with anyone and still be bisexual. Too often bisexual people are expected to justify their sexual history or to discard their status as a bisexual if they start dating someone new. To the outside world, their bisexuality becomes irrelevant. Suddenly they are straight or gay now that the possibility of dating anyone else is, at least temporarily, suspended.
A lot of biphobia that exists boils down to society’s stubbornness to accept that just because a person does not look queer, according to the convenient, consumable imagery that we have become accustomed to, then their queerness is substandard, or unimportant. It is important that bisexual people unlearn and reject that mentality. This means embracing the fact that being attracted to multiple genders is a part of who you are. It means taking opposite-sex attraction as part of your queerness, rather than dividing yourself into pieces. It means saying “I am not half gay, half straight. I am all bisexual.”