Welcome to Oh, bi the way, a monthly column exploring philosophical and existential ideas around bisexuality, pansexuality, and other nonmonosexual identities. Each month, I’ll answer a question from a reader, taking the opportunity to dive a little deeper into issues of community, labels, demographics, disparities, and more.
My name is Heron, and I’m a policy attorney and researcher who loves to talk about the theory behind bias against bi and pan folks. Bi+ advocacy is my side hustle that doesn’t actually hustle me anything. During the day, I research and monitor anti-LGBTQ advocacy and rhetoric here in the US and abroad for Political Research Associates.
First things first
Since this is our first column together, I’m going to get a few things out of the way that I won’t be addressing in this space. Follow me on Twitter and reach out to bi and pan community or advocacy orgs to find out more.
- While individual labels may have individual nuance for each person who uses them, I assume here, unless told otherwise, that all nonmonosexual people have the possibility for attraction to more than one gender. I will use a person’s individual label if given permission to do so, and will otherwise alternate between using bisexual+, bi+, bisexual and pansexual, bi and pan, and nonmonosexual.
- Bisexual and pansexual people comprise the largest portion of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual population. Bi and pan people and people who have had sexual contact with more than one gender might comprise up to half of all youth.
- Bisexual and pansexual are not mutually exclusive. “Bisexual” does not reinforce the gender binary to the exclusion of nonbinary or trans people. “Pansexual” is not intended to erase bisexual people. Both terms can be weaponized in unpleasant ways, but that is true about nearly every word.
- Bisexual and pansexual people are more diverse than straight, gay, and lesbian people, meaning that people of color are more likely to identify as bisexual+, transgender people are more likely to identify as bisexual+, and bisexual people are more likely to be low income, to be parents, and to experience homelessness, hunger, and disabilities.
- This will never be the space for gatekeeping or dehumanizing rhetoric. This is a space for intersectional feminism that centers black, indigenous and other people of color, trans people, non-binary people, women, parents, and people with disabilities.
Call me in (or don’t)
I am a huge proponent of cancel culture. You don’t need to give me a reason to not watch a show, not buy a brand of printer paper, or stop listening to a musical artist. Every fave is problematic, and our energy is too precious to waste on those who won’t listen.
In that spirit, when I fuck up, I do not expect anyone to waste their time telling me what I did wrong. But if you do have the labor and the inclination to help me grow, thank you. Emotional labor is the backbone of progressive advocacy, and I am always to grateful to learn from those who have the time and space to teach.
QUESTION OF THE MONTH: Am I bisexual enough to be bisexual?
This month’s question is a doozy, and one that cuts to the very quick of internalized biphobia: am I bisexual enough to call myself bisexual?
Last week on Twitter, I shared a little exercise I did at a full-day training on bisexuality+ and homelessness. On Twitter, as I did in the room for the training, I asked respondents to answer five questions designed to help them interrogate their own internalized biphobia. I encourage you to do the exercise now. It takes 60 seconds and requires no pen or paper. Simply answer the following questions in your head.
- Why don’t you identify as bisexual?
- Have you ever in any way, sexually, aesthetically, romantically, or emotionally, found any member of a different gender attractive?
- Have you ever in any way, sexually, aesthetically, romantically, or emotionally, found any member of a similar gender attractive?
- Have you ever in any way, sexually, aesthetically, romantically, or emotionally, found a nonbinary or agender person attractive?
- If you answered “yes” to any 2 of the previous 3 questions, why don’t you identify as bisexual?
This little exercise is not meant to imply that everyone is bisexual. Nor is it to say that all nonmonosexual people should identify as bisexual. This exercise is meant to help you understand the roots of internalized biphobia that you may not have explored. For example, if your answer is “I don’t believe in the gender binary,” then we can start the conversation about the myth of binarism and bisexuality. And if your answer is “I don’t want to be seen as greedy,” then we can talk about how harmful those stereotypes are to people inside and outside our community, and how they literally prevent people from joining community and accessing resources.
My hope is that this exercise helps people understand that no one comes by the label “bisexual” lightly, just as no one comes by the label gay, lesbian, pansexual, queer, fluid, omnisexual, etc lightly. These are all labels fraught with context. And “bisexual” as a label is fraught with negative context that deeply impacts how nonmonosexual people interact with “bisexual.”
Case in point, the responses to the exercise on twitter and today’s question. A reader, whom I’ll call Adele, reached out with the following story:
I am bisexual (I have had sexual experiences with women and men, but mainly men) and do strongly identify as bisexual in my own mind. I lean (say 85%) toward partners that are male-presenting or gender-queer, but I do have significant minority interest in female-presenting partners. So far, so bisexual. (Or I don’t mind the term pansexual if that is better.)
The conundrum comes in my presentation. I am a middle-aged, white, upper-middle-class woman who has been married to a man for nearly 10 years. We have two children. All of my serious long-term relationships have been with men. I have an immense amount of privilege before we even reach the fact that I am typically perceived as straight.
I would be more than happy to be out, loud and proud, but I don’t want to cause inadvertent harm by claiming a minority identity when so many people with less than I have in life have to struggle with acceptance. Also, I have an inkling that some lesbians feel bisexual women in straight relationships are letting everyone down (though perhaps this is an incorrect perception on my part and I am happy to be corrected).
So my question is: Should I just keep on as a “straight” ally and keep my own identity — which causes me no struggle and which is academic in my current life — to myself? Or should I be openly bisexual at every (sensible) opportunity, in order to do my own small part in raising awareness/visibility/normality?
My primary concern is doing right by my LGBTQ family.
There is a lot to unpack in Adele’s question. I hear defensiveness, I hear longing to be part of a community, I hear acknowledgement of seeming privilege, I hear empathy for those with seemingly less privilege, and I hear, under it all, the doubt of internalized biphobia.
Lynne Schmidt of @AbortionChat on Twitter also responded with a similar question:
I’d like to start with a few truths:
- The majority of bisexual people are partnered with people of a different gender. Kristina Marusic lays out the math clearly in this awesome article on Slate.
- The majority of LGBT parents are bisexual people. Again, the math makes this inevitable. If bisexual people are the majority of LGB people, and most of us are in relationships with a different gender, and most of us and our partners are cisgender, it makes sense that the majority of LGBT parents are bisexual.
- If you have the potential to be attracted to more than one gender, you can call yourself bisexual, pansexual, or otherwise nonmonosexual. It doesn’t matter how attracted you are, what kind of sexual, emotional, or romantic relationships you’ve had, or how that attraction changes over time.
So if those are truths that we share, what are Adele and Lynne really articulating?
I propose that they’re really articulating the bullshit that gets articulated to bisexual, pansexual, and other nonmonosexual people every day. The bullshit that seeps into our pores and means that less than thirty percent of bisexual people are out to the important people in their lives, compared to three-quarters of gay and lesbian people.
And one big dimension of anti-bi bullshit in Adele and Lynne’s questions is the lie of straight-passing privilege.
Trust me. It is a lie.
Shiri Eisner developed the beautiful, impactful Monosexual Privilege Checklist in 2011 to help dissect the myth of straight (and gay) passing. I’ll let her words speak for themselves. Please check out the checklist and her book.
And here I will raise one hidden impact of the myth of straight passing that exposes it for the conspiracy theory that it is: extreme levels of sexual and intimate partner violence against bisexual people.
We’ve all seen the statistics: 46% of bisexual women have been raped, as well as 17% of heterosexual women and 13% of lesbian women. Thirty percent of student respondents to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey who had sexual contact with both sexes reported experiencing dating violence, compared to 14% of students who had only had sexual contact with the opposite sex, 20% of students who had only had sexual contact with the same sex, and 23% of students who identify as bisexual. Nearly two-thirds of bisexual women and 37% of bisexual men report experiencing rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. And 47% of bisexual men and 75% of bisexual women reported experiencing any sexual violence other than rape from any perpetrator across their lifetime.
Among transgender and gender non-conforming students responding to a survey by the Association of American Universities, bisexual transgender and gender non-conforming students reported the highest rate of experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation: 24% of bisexual transgender and gender non-confirming students, compared to 9% of heterosexual transgender and gender non-conforming students and 18% of lesbian and gay transgender and gender non-conforming students.
Biphobia has deep negative impacts on the health and safety of bisexual people and nothing illustrates that more clearly (and destroys the myth of straight passing) than the experiences of bisexual survivors of violence.
In 2017, Nicole Johnson and MaryBeth Grove published a paper looking into possible causes for the intensely high rates of sexual violence that bisexual women face. Johnson and Grove hypothesize that hypersexualization of bisexual women, plus biphobic harassment and bisexual women’s greater likelihood of substance use, may compound to increase the probability of sexual assault. But the authors do not address the complex correlation between sexual violence and substance use and abuse: it is clear that substance use does not cause sexual violence, and in fact substance use and abuse may be indicative of trauma from sexual violence and other traumas associated with biphobia.
In fact, the National LGBTQ Domestic Violence Capacity Building Learning Center held a series of focus groups in 2015 with bisexual women survivors of domestic violence and found that bisexual women felt that their abusive partners were threatened by their sexuality and used that as a reason for perpetuating violence. Bisexual women reported “going back into the closet” as a survival mechanism when experiencing intimate partner violence as their bisexual identity was seen as threatening to abusive partners.
And, bisexual women survivors reported feeling isolated from LGBTQ people and from the broader community and often did not disclose their bisexual identity when accessing services for intimate partner violence.
So when I hear Adele and Lynne asking if they’re bisexual enough to be bisexual, I hear the thousands of little comments, and looks, and tweets, and blogs, and articles, and whispers that pile up as bisexual, pansexual, and other nonmonosexual people walk though life. The stereotypes, the myths, the threats, the violence.
And so to Adele and Lynne and to all of us who worry that we take up space when we say we’re bi or pan, I say: if you can be safe, take up all the space in the world. Be a possibility model for those of us who need to see that someone can be out and proud. That someone can wear bi earrings or a pan pin and walk through pride with her husband and kids.
Be a possibility model for working through internalized biphobia and coming out the other side stronger and more determined to thrive.
Being bisexual or pansexual and being in a relationship with a person of a different gender isn’t a privilege. It’s merely a star in the constellation that makes up our identity, and we should be proud of the whole darn universe.