My Highly Biased Biography of Bi-Erasure for Bi-Visibility Day
Today, September 23rd is Bisexual visibility/awareness day! While by this point I think most of you who know me know that I’m not quite straight or gay maybe I don’t do the best job of being as aggressively out as bisexual as I could considering all the privilege I have as a straight passing white woman with 90% of a PhD. I think this is partly instinct from living in a hyper-conservative small town for so long. Even after I left my small town I always felt like “coming out” would have resulted in an onslaught of friends asking me to list every girl in my small town I ever had a crush on (there were lots and no I don’t want to tell you about it) or angrily wanting to know why I didn’t say something about it sooner. Also, of course, I feared what people’s reactions would be like. While as a child or a teen homophobia stopped me from coming out, ironically, as an adult probably my biggest deterrent to not writing something like this sooner wasn’t that people would know I was gay, it was the fear that people wouldn’t believe that I was. The fear that people wouldn’t think I was queer enough. That fear has kept me frozen for a long time. And that is mostly what this article is about: in some ways straight passing privilege makes it safer to come out, especially if you have a long term partner of the “opposite” gender and therefore you get to keep that privilege when you need it. But in other ways it makes it much harder. You may feel like you don’t deserve to come out, or like you don’t deserve to come out unless you are in a serious relationship with someone of the same sex, or like no one will care, or like you are demanding attention that you don’t deserve. These are the thoughts that keep bi people invisible. Hence why it’s important to have a bi-visibility day. To highlight the problems that specifically affect people who are this particular type of queer.
So here I go. I won’t tell you everything. I want to keep some of my private life private. But I will tell you this:
The first time someone ever told me I was gay I was 5 years old. It is possibly my earliest and most vivid childhood memory. It was the same week I was getting my tetanus shot and my older wiser friend let me know two things that day: 1) that I was definitely fully gay and 2) that that shot was going to be excruciatingly painful.
I remember holding on to the leg of the telephone table as my mother (very carefully and lovingly) had to drag me from the house. The shot didn’t hurt, and I got over my fear of needles quite quickly, but it took me much much longer to get over the fear of being gay. Because neither myself or my friend really knew what “gay” was the context of the conversation between us (me a 5-year-old and him an 8-year-old) went something like Me: “blah blah blah blah blah” Him: “don’t say that. That is gay and I know gay is bad” Me: “What’s gay?” Him: “it’s when you want to hug and kiss girls instead of boys”. Me “oh”.
It took another few years for me to learn the hard way from my mom that gay wasn’t bad at all and that calling someone gay as an insult was just about the worst thing a person could say. Even though my young friend was wrong about gay being bad he was right in another way — I was standing in my driveway telling him about how I had a HUGE crush on a girl in my class. I was telling him about how she smelled and looked and how we always hugged at the start of the day. I was telling him about how I couldn’t wait to see her when school started the next week. What I was saying was really truly gay; I meant it in the queerest way possible because I was just too young to realize that having crushes on girls wasn’t a socially acceptable thing to talk about. I didn’t really know what a crush was. But I had one. My first of many. But that day I learned to keep my thoughts about those crushes to myself.
On the first day back to school the girl who I had a crush on ran over and hugged me. I pushed her off aggressively and told her not to do it again. If I hugged her it was gay. It didn’t have to be but it was because I was the one doing the hugging.
I spent most of my childhood liking only girls and convinced that I was “gay”, I spent most of my preteen years being purposefully enamoured with mostly boys (with a few super queer experiences packed in there for good measure) in order to affirm to myself that I wasn’t. I spent most of my teenage years in a relationship with one (male) person finally sure that I was straight and that the weird feelings I had about that girl at work, and that other older girl at school, all the girls on TV, and that girl I saw when we went to the movies in the city that one time — were to be ignored. I had also somehow after years of being in a homophobic environment convinced myself that my constant parade of teenage hormone fueled sex dreams about — exclusively girls — were to also be ignored.
When my high school relationship ended in my second year of university I spent the next two years flip flopping aggressively between believing I was fully straight or that I was fully gay and telling no one. I mean literally no one. Despite the fact that I am sure people around me could tell I was struggling with this I just really didn’t want to talk about it. I am, and trust me on this, the least private and most private person you’ve ever met all at the same time. I will tell you everything you could never imagine a person saying out loud in order to avoid telling you the one thing I don’t want to.
During my childhood, my mom was always incredibly pro-gay rights and pro queerness, we used to watch Queer as Folk together for god’s sake, but growing up in a small town meant that that didn’t matter as much as it should have. I knew she was pro-gay but, as far as I could tell, the the rest of the world was not. Plus, being bi, and not knowing that concept even existed, I thought to myself horribly and repeatedly “why would I tell anyone I’m gay when there is a chance I’m still straight!”. Either way coming out to literally anyone made it real, and no matter how supportive they were, that would mean having to deal with being different in a small town where being gay was without a doubt, at least to kids, 100% bad. I spent all of elementary school (and sadly some of high school) listening to kid’s constant whispers about which teachers they thought were gay (usually because they weren’t married), how “disgusting” it was, how they were probably paedophiles and so on. Add onto that the constant stream of insults kids hurled at each other in relation to being queer and you have instant self hatred. Long story short — I could see what a fuss it caused and I sure as hell wasn’t telling anyone about myself.
Despite not talking about it to anyone I am sure at times it was obvious. There are experiences I look back on and I understand them now that I know that I’m queer. There were times guys I was dating would literally tell me I was probably bi, and I would deny it. There were times I would get drunk and navel gaze dreaming of a universe where I was born gay. Sometimes I would tell people that I “just wished I was gay” basically so I could have sex with women. Imagine that, I wanted to have sex with other women, so I WISHED THAT I WAS GAY. Think about how contrived that logic is! Sometimes I think about times when I was really young and female friends would want to play “fight” and I didn’t want to do it because I was or wasn’t attracted to them. I think about other girls wanting to hold hands or fake kiss and despite it being meaningless to them it wasn’t meaningless to me. I couldn’t “fake kiss” anyone of the same sex any more than I could “fake kiss” anyone of the opposite sex. It made me feel guilty.
I remember doing things I’m ashamed of, like dirty dancing with female friends while drunk and getting too handsy because I couldn’t understand how to dance with a girl like a straight girl pretending to be a gay girl because I was too gay and would get real into it instead of fake into it. If drunk girls at the bar kissed me thinking I was straight in a type of performance was I a predator if I kissed them back? What if they met it in the way I wanted them to! How could I tell? The whole thing just confused me to no end. You look back wondering “that was so gay for me… was it gay for them?”. How I got through all of that at the time thinking I was straight is beyond me now honestly, most days. Other days some part of my brain tries to convince me it was all “perfectly normal” and that I don’t deserve to be queer. Which is a whole other problem.
Despite having friends who identified as something other than 100% gay or straight (once I moved to the city) I honestly didn’t believe bisexuality existed. Not even a little. Not for a very long time. It took me most of my life to come to terms with “being neither” and then with “being bi” and that’s because of something we call “bi-erasure”. Bi-erasure (also sometimes called bisexual invisibility) is a term that describes the way we erase a lot of queer identities because it doesn’t fit into the straight/gay binary and therefore we don’t believe it really exists. Or at least we treat it as if it doesn’t exist. This takes place in our lives, but also in our history, our literature (Virginia Woolf was bi folks!), and our media (why does Piper on Orange is the New Black call herself a “former lesbian??”). There is a fear of bisexuals that is hard to describe. On the one hand the female bisexuality is fetishized as “hot” to straight men, but on the other hand, people will fear dating you in case you leave them for someone of the other gender. Furthermore, there is the way in which male bisexuality is treated as closeted gayness, while female bisexuality is treated as closeted straightness. No matter what, if you are bisexual people think you are in denial about being attracted to exclusively men because of our intensely phallogocentric culture (that’s just a fancy word to describe how our culture thinks everything is about the D).
It’s hard to come out of the closet when people won’t be happy with their ability to label you as 1) straight or 2) gay. Instead of getting the stereotypical initial reaction of horror or acceptance you are met with confusion. There are lots of people who I know who I am sure either don’t really know what bisexuality is, or don’t believe it exists. So coming out never felt as simple as saying “i’m bi”! Bi-erasure makes you feel as if when you come out you won’t be accepted into queer culture (because you aren’t even going to pretend to attempt to reach “gold star” status) but you will also be losing your ability to pass as straight. You become a queer with no real home.
Sexuality (alongside gender of course) is insanely complicated, and most of us lack understanding of what it means to not be 100% gay or straight, which is why bisexuals (and pansexuals, and those who don’t identify, and asexual folks as well) often don’t even know their sexual identity exists until adulthood, or in many cases they don’t ever really fully know. Explaining sexuality is complicated — but understanding your own sexuality is quite simple once you know all the options. Once I found out bisexuality was a real thing it was obvious to me that that was what I was. Trying not to be bisexual was hard. Trying to be straight or to be gay was hard. Being bisexual was simple, telling people I was bisexual was often more complicated.
Our culture enjoys making complicated things simple: black or white, man or woman, straight or gay, monogamy or adultery, Democrat or Republican, crazy or sane, good or evil — and while we know these binaries are myths we still cling to them because they are so easy to understand and base our cultural beliefs on. It’s simple for 100% straight people to understand that 100% gay people do exist (even if they are bigoted as hell about it) because they know what it’s like to only be attracted to one gender. We call this “monosexuality”. It is much much more complicated to explain what it’s like to be attracted to people of all genders, or as I sometimes explain it, for simplicities sake, not repulsed in any way, by anyone, because of their gender. That doesn’t mean bi people are attracted to just anyone of course, or that we don’t each have types, or likes and dislikes, but it means that for many of us our “specifications” are not locked on to only one set of body parts or a specific gender performance.
Of course, as many people have pointed out, the term “bi” is limiting in itself as it implies that there are only two genders to be attracted to, and creates another false binary between “bi” and “mono” sexuals. When in truth there are more than two genders are there are more than three possible sexual orientations. This is why many people use the term “pansexual”. I personally prefer to just use the umbrella term “queer” to describe my sexuality but I also know that it is important to still use the term bisexual in order to validate it as a real thing. Especially because it’s the term that most people have at least maybe once heard of. Bisexual as a term lets people who haven’t spent years steeped in queer theory and identity politics grasp at some semblance of what I am like as a human. Some use the phrase “hearts not parts” to describe their bi or pan sexuality but I don’t think that describes me personally because although personality is a majority deciding factor in any attraction to someone (isn’t it for everyone?) anyone who knows me at all (or has taken a look at the art on my walls and bookshelves) knows, I am, if anything, aggressively interested in parts.
For myself it’s not about interest in someone despite their gender it’s interest in people because of their gender — but for people of all genders. I guess?? I’m not “gender blind” or anything, I’m just not gender discriminatory when it comes to my attraction. I know that I’m a hyper-sexual person, I have the ability to enter a conversation and suddenly it turns towards sex, many of you who know me have probably experienced this first hand. But you don’t have to be a sexed up porn collecting maniac like me to be bi — there are many other ways for bisexuality to take shape. You can be asexual and also be bi! It’s not all about sex! Don’t forget that!
For myself, I know what I like and I really like it. Nerds mostly. Frequently I see people I’m attracted to when I’m going about my life and I don’t even know what their gender is and frankly it doesn’t matter even a single bit. A little perk there for some of us chilling here in no man’s land between the monosexuals. But I also know, despite my confidence in my sexuality, that there are people who will question everything I just said. Even as you are reading this many of you are thinking “yeah but do you really know” or “but how many times have you tested yourself” or “yeah but aren’t you in a relationship with a guy”. And that is bi-erasure. It’s hard to deprogram yourself from thinking those things but I know it’s possible because I used to think them even though I am bi.
So today I am here being visible first and foremost to prove to anyone who knows me and still has doubts that bisexuality does exist. You know me. You know it’s true. I’m not, as one person once put it to me “the gayest straight person I’ve ever met”, I’m bi! Just think about it for even a single second and it will be obvious. My favourite reactions from friends when mentioning to them that I was bi, or that I had a crush on a girl was “of course you are Emma it’s obvious”. But if it’s not obvious to you I also understand your doubts because we are made to doubt by our culture. I doubted for so long. I remember actively and vocally insisting that bisexuality doesn’t exist when I was in high school because I was in a terrified state of denial. I was elated (but also devastated) when girls dating girls would go on to date guys because I thought it meant something about myself and my sexuality.
There are still days that I wake up in a panic that I am actually 100% gay and my relationship is a lie until I see the guy I love and remember instantly who I am and that he is totally okay with it. For the most part my panic has subsided and all my feelings have become normal to me. People around me know, or assume soon after meeting me and it’s just normal. One of the best things about being in my little corner of academia is that for the most part, I don’t feel like people assume I’m straight, they meet me, they find out I’m queer, they meet my partner, and it doesn’t change anything. That’s a great feeling. To know your sexuality is not determined by others based on who you are currently sleeping with.
BUT, that panic doesn’t go away completely for many people because it sometimes feels easier to remain invisible and not face nasty comments from those who don’t believe bisexuality exists — queer and straight people alike. While this is totally understandable and I am not pressuring those people to out themselves at ALL, (please don’t do or say anything before you are ready or if you don’t feel safe) I am being visible just to let you know that bi people are there. You know them. You know LOTS of them. They may be in straight relationships, or gay relationships, or no relationship at all — but they are there.
You don’t know the sexuality of everyone in your life, do not assume you don’t know any bi people. Also, don’t assume you have the right to know the sexuality of everyone in your life, don’t invade their privacy by asking them. I’m choosing to be less private about this because honestly, it’s just not working for me anymore. It’s too connected to my writing and my career to be an open secret. I’ve been talking about being queer in my academic work for years because I have the privilege personally and professionally to do that. Being too private about it would hamper my writing, my research, my ability to say what I think and mean.
So this is your public service announcement:
- PLEASE do not erase the experiences and feelings of people around you OR your own feelings and experiences! Don’t assume your female friends are making out for “male attention” even if you know they have dated guys, don’t assume that when your friend dates a guy after a string of girls that she is “now straight”, don’t assume the sexual feelings you have about your friend of the same gender are just because you just think they are “really really cool” in a totally heterosexual way. Don’t assume (and this is especially for women out there because we are taught EVERYWHERE that women are just naturally open to experimentation) that everyone just thinks about having sex with people of the same gender all the time and it doesn’t-mean-anything-at-all-because-you-totally-have-slept with-people-of-the-opposite-gender.
- Don’t spew homophobic “not gay” “no homo” bullshit at your friends. It’s really not funny to make jokes about how straight you are because you are afraid people might think you are gay. It’s gross. Also, don’t spew homophobic bullshit ever period. It’s embarrassing, you are embarrassing yourself and you are going to look back at that shit and feel really dirty some day if you don’t already.
- On the other side of it, don’t assume that everyone is secretly bi! I know it is tempting if you are not 100% straight or gay to assume that people who ARE 100% straight or gay are in some sort of denial. I’ve had these thoughts, they are hard to repress when you are bi — just like the thought that bi people are secretly gay or straight are hard to repress when you are monosexual. But not everyone is “a little gay” or “a little straight”. Leave them be.
- If someone comes out to you don’t ask them for a list of sexual exploits as proof! Having sex with someone of the opposite sex does NOT make you straight and having sex with someone of the same sex does NOT make you gay. Only that person knows what their orientation is. Believe the person telling you that they know what their own sexual orientation is based on how they feel. You don’t have the right to know details of their sex life just because they are not straight. Do not ask your female friend who comes out to you how much pussy she has eaten cause I guarantee you wouldn’t ask your other female friend to prove she is straight by asking her to list how many dicks she has sucked. Just fucking stop with all that shit.
- Mostly just stop over simplifying other people’s sexuality. And stop assuming you know more about their sexuality than they do. Please.
Lastly, I’m just going to put this out there that if you are bi and you aren’t out (or if you are I dig that too) and you need someone to talk to about what you are struggling with feel free to PM me to chat no questions asked. Love Y’all! #gaysbreaktheinternet