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Bisexual visibility and the spectrum of identity

By Marianne Tambini

The LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall recently found that more people identify as bisexual than gay or lesbian, making bisexuality the most common identity after heterosexuality. This doesn’t surprise me: truthfully, I’m a bit surprised if I speak to a woman under 25 who isn’t bi. It seems that our generation might be moving further away from the binary ideas of sexuality that were held by previous generations. 

This opens up conversations about visibility, categorisation, and the way forward for a coalition of LGBTQ+ identities and individuals, who experience similar but distinct struggles.

Bisexuality refuses to be neatly characterised, and this might contribute to its lack of “visibility.” Even though I’m bisexual, I’ve never “come out” as bi. Bisexuals are less likely to “come out” to family and friends, maybe because of stigma, or maybe (as in my case) because we feel we don’t need to. Many bisexual people are straight-passing (i.e appear to the outside world to be straight), especially when in a relationship with a person of the ‘opposite’ sex. It can be a destabilising experience to know that some people perceive my sexuality as something that depends on my relationship status. However, from talking to gay and bi friends, it seems like it actually often is easier for straight-passing bisexual people to feel at home in a hetero-dominated world, even if we can feel excluded in some spaces for “not being queer enough.”

Being bisexual involves understanding the struggles we have in common with gay people, as well as the privileges (and occasional problems) that come from being able to pass as straight. In my view, because we are open to dating more than one gender, bisexual people can be well-positioned to develop a more progressive understanding of gender, recognising the variety of gender identities, roles and forms of gender expression. I certainly feel that my bisexuality helps me to get to grips with my own gender identity. However, occasionally, the benefits of being bisexual (rather than gay or straight) are overstated. Bisexuals are still a highly stigmatised group, and the consequences of this can be severe. For example, according  to Novara Media, at least one person has been denied asylum on the basis of being bisexual (rather than gay). 

Bisexual people are also often subject to stereotypes, such as alleged promiscuity and dishonesty in relationships. There’s also a general tendency to view bisexuals as people that are confused about their sexuality, or are temporarily experimenting with it. Often, bisexual men have their sexuality questioned, and are instead perceived to be gay men that haven’t come out all the way yet. Bisexual women, on the other hand, are often viewed as straight women who are just “going through a phase.” I think that men have sometimes considered my attraction to women as insignificant, subscribing to the idea that sex between women is not “real sex.” In having these misconceptions of what bisexuality is and isn’t, I feel that they were perhaps able to settle their own insecurities about how I could possibly be attracted to more than one kind of body or gender presentation, including – but not limited to – theirs.

Just like stereotypes of gay people which caused so much damage during the AIDS pandemic, and, more recently, trans men being labelled as lesbians led astray, stereotypes of bisexuals exemplify the ways in which hetero-patriarchal ideology attempts to flatten out the nuances of sexuality and gender. It is becoming increasingly clear that these things are fluid, and people don’t need to fit into one particular type for their identity to be real.

Bisexual visibility, and LGBTQ+ visibility in general, is a tricky concept. Often, it’s suggested that all queer people need is to have their identity labelled and recognised. In my view, it’s far more important to develop viewpoints that go beyond binaries, acknowledging a whole spectrum of difference. Maybe it’s more important to encourage fluidity than assign labels to each individual identity, to look for a new unity and openness which encourages human complexity. 

I attended a Stonewall talk a few years ago by Ian McKellan, in which he said that he, and some other older gay men, have a complicated relationship with the word “queer”,  a reclaimed slur which is used both as an umbrella term for LGBTQ+ people, and as its own label, describing a way of identifying outside of heterosexual norms. I understand why, for the people who still associate the word with homophobia, the term might be difficult to come around to. But I think that there can be value found in reclaiming words like “queer” – taking a term of abuse used to exclude LGBTQ+ people, and turning it into a positive, affirming identifier.

Queerness is not a way to erase specific identities, or the problems faced by gay, lesbian or bisexual people, just as it is also not meant to erase gendered issues. Identity categories like queerness and bisexuality becoming more common show that we’re willing to build community and solidarity across the spectrum of sexuality, and encourage non-conforming identities.

While for queer and bisexual people, visibility could be a first step, it isn’t the end of the road. I hope that ideas of gender and sexuality as open and full of possibility will become widely accepted, in the LGBTQ+ community and the world at large.


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