It’s LGBT History Month in the UK, and I decided I would mark this with a blog post. Although it’s possibly more of an essay. When I say ‘essay’, I don’t mean that it’s going to have a bibliography or even probably be referenced to any great degree. This isn’t the result of particularly academic thinking or practice on my part. It’s mainly just opinions.
It was sparked by a short, ten-minute talk I did for Nine Worlds 2015, on a track run by Laura Kate Dale (@LauraKBuzz on Twitter). My talk was titled ‘Bisexual Erasure’, and I’ve now got around to getting that somewhat jumbled mess down in longhand, with additions.
The issue of Bisexual Erasure can be split into two parts: bisexuality, and erasure. Increasingly, I find the bisexual part problematic. In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that bisexuality doesn’t actually exist.
Controversial? Perhaps. But stick with me, my story gets better. So let us discard the issue of bisexuality for now, and focus to begin with on the issue of:
First of all, erasure can come from an ignorance of existence. We live, by and large, in a heteronormative society: that is, most people will assume most other people to be heterosexual unless there are specific cues. These cues might take the form of appearance, behaviour or location. If you’re in what is known to be a gay bar or a gay club, for example, or perhaps at a Pride festival, you’d probably consider that most people you met were far more likely to be gay: that’s the location factor. I was walking around Nottingham one Saturday when I encountered a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, wearing a black vest top with the word ‘GAY’ on it in huge white letters. I do not generally believe in judging by appearances, but I was prepared to take that person’s shirt at its word, as it were. She was with another young woman, they both had short hair, and they were holding hands. The visual cue of short hair is a stereotype of lesbians in Western culture, and as a stereotype it is far from 100% accurate, but when you add it to the behavioural cue of holding hands you get a slightly stronger case, and especially when one of them is wearing an item of clothing openly declaring what she presumably considered to be her sexuality.
Now, here is a further dynamic of erasure when it applies to bisexual people. In my experience (I said this wasn’t academic, right?), if someone’s heteronormative view is challenged by other evidence, they are most likely to then assume homosexuality. That kind of makes sense: let’s assume that you see a man kissing a woman. You might assume that they’re both straight. If you see a man kissing a man, you might assume they’re both gay. But unless you see a man or a woman kissing both a man and a woman in quick succession (which of course is possible, but not necessarily as likely), how would you make an assumption of bisexuality? Unless you know this person and have seen their behaviour over time (or they’ve told you about their self-identity), you don’t have enough evidence to make that assumption. So here, bisexuality is even less visible than homosexuality, which is itself less visible than heterosexuality. It’s like a Russian doll of sexuality (do not Google that. I haven’t, but I doubt it’s a good idea).
Let’s go back to the two young women I saw in Nottingham city centre that time. We can probably safely assume that the girl in the ‘GAY’ top was gay. However, her apparent girlfriend didn’t have any clothing displaying her sexuality. Most people would, I am reasonably certain, assume that she was gay because she was walking around holding hands with another girl who had ‘GAY’ on her top. In fact, that second girl could quite easily have been bisexual, but there was no immediate visual cue to suggest that and so I think the possibility probably wouldn’t have even occurred to most people.
(yes, I’m aware it’s also entirely possible that she was straight. However, given the various cues, I consider it unlikely. We can never be sure, however)
Now, there is something to be said for heteronormative assumptions. Statistically, so far as I’m aware, heterosexuality is the norm. Self-defined straight people seem to be far more numerous than everyone else combined. However, there is an important difference between assuming, on the basis of probability and with no other evidence to suggest to the contrary, that someone is likely to be heterosexual, and acting on that assumption. Because your assumption could be wrong, and that error is likely to cause more distress or annoyance to the other person than to you.
If someone makes an assumption about you and voices or otherwise acts on it, you have two choices. You can challenge it and correct their mistake, or you can go with it. Neither of these are perfect options.
If you challenge it, you are immediately telling the person that they are wrong. In general, we don’t tend to like telling other people that they’re wrong (well, some of us thrive on it
but that’s another matter). It takes a certain amount of energy and a certain amount of self-confidence to stop someone in mid-flow, or even find an appropriate gap, and say “Hey, that thing you just said about me? That’s not correct.” No matter how you do it, it’s likely to feel at least a little like confrontation. Some people really can’t do confrontation. Some people can sometimes do confrontation, but maybe at this moment they’re just too tired or too fed up to do it, or have another reason not to. Perhaps they don’t want you to know that they’re not heterosexual, for fear of how you’ll react. Perhaps they don’t want you to know for fear that you might tell others, and then that will have a negative consequence. And I’m sure that you can generally keep other people’s business to yourself, but remember this?
Just letting it go brings its own set of problems, though. For one thing, it will make it harder to ever challenge the misconception in the future because you didn’t do so when it was first raised. If someone’s misconception is challenged down the line they’ll almost inevitably ask themselves why the other person didn’t feel comfortable telling them the truth at the time, and neither explanation of “I thought you might be a bigot” or “I thought you couldn’t keep your mouth shut” is likely to sit well, no matter how delicately worded. Secondly, and probably more problematic, is the gradual wear-down effect of Not Being You. The low-level grating of people thinking that you’re someone you’re not, of not saying certain things or joining in certain conversations, or not letting people know certain details about your life because if you do so then that will involve a challenge of the misconception.
It’s probably fair to say that most of us censor ourselves to at least some extent in most environments, but the topic of sexual attraction and relationships is a very prevalent and very personal one. Having to either live a lie or just stay out of certain topics to avoid landing in an awkward situation takes yet more emotional energy. It should be small wonder that both internationally and in the UK specifically, bisexual people have the largest rate of mental health problems of any of the commonly identified sexuality groups. The Bisexuality Report is very important reading anyway, but particularly from page 26 in this case.
Secondly, erasure comes from trivialisation. Time and time again, bisexual people are portrayed in the media and literature as unsure of their true sexuality, greedy, or going through a phase that will result in them “realising” that they’re actually gay or straight. A study that’s also quoted in The Bisexuality Report shows that on UK TV, bisexual characters (where they appear at all) are first of all rarely portrayed as bisexual, instead moving from gay to straight or vice versa, and secondly are often portrayed as manipulative, untrustworthy, promiscuous and amoral.
Now, I don’t really watch regular TV much because I’ve been working in homelessness for a dozen years and quite frankly, I get enough real life without needing to see grim, dark, gritty or mundane dramas on the telly. I prefer stuff with explosions and wizards and spaceships (or monstrous sharks), hence my choice of writing genre. So, bisexual characters I can think of from the genres that I read and/or watch:
Jack Harkness (Doctor Who/Torchwood). Disclosure: I don’t watch Doctor Who or its related series, but I know enough about Captain Jack that he heavily ticks the boxes of ‘promiscuous’ and also ‘amoral’, at least at first.
Saffron/Bridget/Yolonda (Firefly). Either bisexual or simply willing to use seduction to get what she wants from men or women, YoSaffBridge is pretty much the archetypical ‘untrustworthy’ bisexual character. It’s arguable that her portrayal is balanced by Inara, but I’d counter-argue that Inara is more pansexual than bisexual in that “it’s about compatibility of spirit” rather than their physical appearance (but more on that later).
Poison Ivy (DC Comics). I’m no comics buff, but I know that Poison Ivy tends to poison people by kissing them and has been romantically linked with both male and female characters. And… she’s a supervillain. So that kind of auto-ticks the ‘negative portrayal’ box.
Harley Quinn (DC Comics). Mainly known for being the Joker’s abused girlfriend, Harley has also had a relationship with Poison Ivy. Harley’s another supervillain so, yup, she goes down as a negative.
Maeve (Dresden Files). The somewhat-deranged Winter Lady spends a fair bit of time trying to seduce series protagonist Harry Dresden and is quite happy to throw one of her attractive handmaidens into the deal if it’ll help, as well as employing the usual amount of faerie untrustworthiness. Maeve is pretty much every negative bisexuality stereotype turned up to eleven, and the fact that she’s not technically human anymore doesn’t get her off the hook.
John Constantine (Hellblazer): Definitely untrustworthy, manipulative and promiscuous, and sort of largely amoral, Constantine has explicitly had relationships with men and women in the comics (not so in the movie or TV series, to my knowledge).
Nyx (Bel Dame Apocrypha): Kameron Hurley’s bounty hunter fights, kills and copulates with little regard for anything other than making money or surviving. While she makes a refreshingly different female protagonist, you can hardly hold her up as an example of a positive portrayal of a bisexual person. That said, given the general amorality of all the other characters, you certainly can’t single Nyx out as ‘the untrustworthy one’.
I might be able to think of more if I tried, but I’ve run out of immediately obvious candidates. I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies, and that’s all I’ve got. That tells you something. Also, when Jack Harkness and John Constantine are the best you can do in terms of morality, you’re really screwed (there’s another angle to this: female bisexuality is often portrayed as something to titillate the male character, and by extension the male viewer, because unlike with lesbians there’s the theoretical “joining in” angle – hey, heteronormativity, good to see ya! Not).
Now, of course there are promiscuous bisexual people. Of course there are.
But there are also promiscuous gay people, and promiscuous straight people, and plenty of bisexual people who are in long-term, monogamous relationships. The notion that bisexual people can’t hold down a relationship because of their sexual desires is laughable, and is presumably held by people who assume that once you’re in a relationship with someone you automatically stop finding anyone else sexually attractive. If that was the case then people wouldn’t have affairs, right?
Let’s finish up this look at what I consider to be the second part of erasure with a quick thought of how bisexuality is defined. Some people will say that you can’t be properly bisexual unless you’ve actually had sex with both a man and a woman. Well… what about people who’ve simply never ended up with one or other? Or both! People who haven’t had sex with anyone aren’t assumed to not have any sexuality, they’re just virgins. People can have sexual desire without acting on it, for various reasons. And yet, time and time again, people will be told that if they haven’t actually gone all the way with a man and a woman, they’re only “pretending”. That’s offensive. It also plays into the “promiscuous” myth, because it’s essentially saying “unless you’ve had sex with at least a certain amount and type of people that I specify, I don’t consider your identity to be valid”.
And now, after talking about the various ways in which bisexuality is erased by mainstream society and how damaging that is emotionally to bisexual people, I’m going to say that I don’t think bisexuality exists.
This essentially comes down to language. “Bi” means “twice” or “two”, but I firmly believe that there are more than two genders in the world. That right there means that you can’t have “bisexual”, at least not without further clarification of which two genders it is that you find attractive. Rather interestingly, it also raises queries about the validity of “heterosexual”, since “hetero” means “other” and now we have to ask “well, which other?”
I have come to the conclusion that in many respects, sexuality is actually a negative label. Sexuality labels don’t define who you will find attractive, only who you definitely won’t. Assuming for a moment that we revert to a two-gender world, a heterosexual man won’t find all women attractive. Two heterosexual men could walk into a bar with a bisexual man, and see twenty women. Each heterosexual man could find, say, half the women in there attractive, but it might not be the same half. Their tastes might not coincide at all. However, the bisexual man might also find ten of those women attractive, and could share an attraction towards five with each of his companions. The two heterosexual men might have more in common, in that scenario, with someone who identifies as a different sexuality than they do with someone who allegedly shares their sexuality. All their heterosexualism declares is that they won’t find any men attractive. It’s an exclusionary label.
Then again, that’s not entirely true either. People may subscribe to a certain label, but their behaviour might not fit what society would view to be the behaviour of that label. This article has some interesting stats, including that in the last big US survey, 10% of women and 3% of men who identified as “heterosexual” have experienced same-sex contact. A friend of mine who identifies as gay, and has done for as long as I’ve known them, had sex once with someone from the “other” gender. It was a one-off (so far as I know), but it happened. And what about bisexual people who are in a long-term, monogamous relationship? As previously discussed, their sexual behaviour doesn’t exactly match with who they find attractive.
The other thing is, of course, that identity can shift. I have another friend who now identifies as gay, but didn’t do so until they experimentally kissed someone of the same sex when they were well into their adult life. People can change who they define themselves as. But should they have to?
Gender is a sliding scale. That is my firm belief (this article, although primarily concerned with biological sex and not being the most open-minded about that either, does contain some interesting points about it, including the person who can’t say that she is either male or female physically but has a strong gender identity as female). There are certainly some people who sit firmly at either end of the male/female spectrum, but there are all manner of gradients between. As a personal example, I wear nail varnish, which is generally considered a feminine thing by society. I definitely consider myself male, but I have a strong objection to being referred to as a “man”. I’m happy with “guy”, or “bloke” (not “lad”, but that’s for different reasons), but I just don’t like “man”. My band’s bassist described me as “a man in his mid-thirties” the other week: I had no problem with the “mid-thirties” part but “man” freaked me out a little. I’m only a little way into the spectrum, but I definitely don’t consider myself to sit at the far edge of the masculine.
I found this article (yes I know, it’s Wikipedia, but feel free to look up the referencing if you doubt it, I told you this wasn’t academic) very interesting with regard to pronouns in Japanese, and how there is a more feminine male pronoun that’s sometimes used by women who think the female pronoun is too feminine for them.
There are agender people, who don’t consider themselves to have a gender at all. There are genderfluid people, who move between genders. The whole notion of gender, of how people portray themselves to the world, is far, far more complex than a simple male/female binary. So, if we accept that gender is a sliding scale and there’s more to it than just male and female, then sexuality HAS to also be a sliding scale. You can’t have binary sexuality when the objects of the sexual desire aren’t binary. That just doesn’t work. Here‘s a handy reference page listing many of the sexual and gender identities that people currently identify with, although I’ve seen pansexual described elsewhere as not being about finding all genders attractive so much as it is about being attracted to the person rather than their appearance or gender identity.
A strong sexuality identity can also be potentially damaging to an individual. If you identify as a certain sexuality and then experience feelings that contradict that identity, you are forced to question it. Sometimes questioning of a strongly-held identity can lead to self-doubt and internal trauma. Sometimes it can lead to anger and aggression towards the person or group of people that caused the confusion in the first place. It wasn’t too long ago that I learned that some people use the word “trap” to refer to a transgender or transsexual person, i.e. someone who looks like one thing but is actually something else. Now, that’s a horrible mindset, but a potentially interesting use of language, because most traps have bait and bait is something that you want (otherwise it wouldn’t work as bait). So to my mind, someone who considers a trans person to be a “trap” is someone who finds them attractive but doesn’t think that they should. Even if that person holds to the (imbecilic) argument that a trans person is not a “real” member of their gender, they still found them attractive in the first place. Any subsequent loss of attraction is a cognitive process, not anything relating to sexual desire. They’re experiencing cognitive dissonance because what they want is different to what they think they should want.
A strongly-held sexual identity can potentially be problematic in other ways. Let’s say that you’re a heterosexual man and you find someone attractive. Because you identify as heterosexual you’re automatically gendering that person as female, because they’d have to be in order for you, a heterosexual man, to find them attractive. It might be that they don’t identify as female. Now, no-one will know for sure unless that gets discussed, but if it is then at least one of you is probably going to feel a bit uncomfortable.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that labels can be useful. People can find a great deal of encouragement and solidarity by knowing that there are other people out there like them. I’ve seen people exclaiming with joy when they find out that there is “a term for people like me”, as though they need an official term in order to be justified in who they are. I think this is both good and bad. On the one hand, something that gives people the confidence to accept who they are and understand that they’re not alone is wonderful. That can be incredibly empowering. Labels can also help in breaking down the variety of human experience for others who don’t share those particular experiences. It helps us quantify the world.
On the other hand, it seems almost more divisive, this endless chopping up of human experience into smaller and smaller fragments to find a definition that completely fits each individual. I think that’s impossible. As I’ve said above, even people in the same sexuality group won’t find the same people attractive. You can’t explicitly define someone’s experiences with a term, all you can do is eliminate things that won’t be their experience. That has value, but I don’t think it’s the perfect solution. If you remove labels (and I mean properly remove labels, not just remove the labels of minority groups and take everything back to the days where everyone’s gender binary and expected to be straight), then you remove the possibility of cognitive dissonance. You remove the potential for people to experience feelings or desires – for a person, for a gender, to be a gender – that their previously existing self-identity is in conflict with.
I think we should erase bisexuality. Along with every other sexuality definition. And all the gender boundaries too, while we’re at it.
Now, I’m well aware that this is unlikely to ever happen (and until it does then we damn well need to be combating the invisibility and erasure experienced by minority sexuality and gender groups), but to my mind we should focus on the fact that we are all individuals with individual experiences. All too often, these categories become battle lines. Hippy bullshit though it may sound, I think we should be working towards an approach that is simultaneously universal and individual. We are all people, and in that sense we are the same. We are all individuals, and in that sense we are all different. Trying to place dividing lines between those two extremes, at least in the case of gender and sexuality, just seems pointless to me. It shouldn’t matter.
Hi, I’m Mike. My sexuality is mine, and my gender identity is mine. And that’s all you need to know.