Sexuality is not Binary
The issue of Bi-erasure
As part of the London Gaymers Diversity project, I am here as a member of LG to talk about bi-erasure, my experiences with it and the problems is caused on my journey to coming out and being comfortable with my sexuality.
Coming to terms with my sexuality was, and is, one of the most confusing things I’ve ever had to go through. Being bisexual is not easy and bi-erasure can create a hurdle that’s difficult to overcome. Bi-erasure is the idea of ignoring or denying the existence of bisexuality and it is something that, troublingly, also occurs in the LGBT+ community as well as in general society.
Many gay storylines in the media are framed in a certain way. Take a character who previously was interested in, and even had relationships with, the opposite sex. Give them a coming-of-age storyline where they slowly come to terms with the fact that they are interested in someone of the same sex. They then get together with someone of the same sex and everything is great. They have discovered who they are — they’re gay/lesbian! But, hold the phone, what about the fact that they were interested in the opposite sex before? Are we just supposed to forget that?
Sure, sexuality is fluid and they could have moved from one end of the spectrum to another. Sure, they could have been in denial all this time and forced themselves into straight relationships in order to fit in with the heteronormative society. These are valid scenarios that real life people do happen to go through, this cannot be denied. Bisexual is never mentioned, it’s never given a look in.
We see this time and again. Take the TV show 90210 for example. Teddy had relationships with both Silver and Adrianna in early seasons. However, in a later season he sleeps with Ian, a man. He reveals that he is gay, but is not yet ready to come out. I recall it being presented as a gay-in-denial character arc and paints his past relationships with women as him trying to fit into society. Adrianna herself also has a similar storyline. After having a meaningful relationship with Navid, she later gets together with Gia before getting back together with Navid at the end of the show. She actually has a moment on screen where she recommends to all the other women that they should get with a girl at least once, for the experience, painting it as “just a phase”. Both of these are examples of how the show denied these characters to be bisexual. They have moved along the Kinsey scale from one end to the other and, in one case, back. They’re never framed as liking both.
Willow in Buffy The Vampire Slayer was in a genuine relationship with Oz. A couple of seasons later, they break up and, soon after, Willow meets Tara. She becomes attracted to Tara and they enter into a relationship. In Willow’s own words, she’s “kinda gay”. A more mature audience here could probably take this as her being bisexual, but the word is never mentioned and her bisexuality is never made apparent in any way. As far as the TV show goes, Willow is only seen in same sex relationships after that point, first with Tara and then with Kennedy. For younger viewers, such as myself, she is now seen to be gay. As a young man trying to come to terms with my own sexuality, this was quite confusing and upsetting for me. To see her switch from straight to lesbian invalidated my bisexuality. This is the kind of issue bi-erasure can cause.
When I was younger I fancied many a woman but also had this sexual attraction to men that, with my limited knowledge, I could not explain. Surely, the very fact that I was attracted to men in any way meant that I was gay. And that didn’t make sense to me, so I denied that part of myself. Even when I did hear of terms like bisexual and bi-curious as I got older, they were mostly laughed at as people being in denial of being gay.
Media helps fuel this issue. There is an episode of Glee where Blaine, a gay character, has a drunken kiss with Rachel and starts to question whether he might be bisexual. It’s interesting as this feels like a reversal from usual storylines. Instead of a straight character having a same-sex encounter that causes them to question their sexuality, it’s the reverse that is occurring. Bisexual is also mentioned, but unfortunately is quickly ridiculed by Kurt who says that bisexual is a term gay guys use to make themselves feel normal. This is explicit bi-erasure as it picks up the term and then instantly trashes it as invalid.
I do commend the monologue from Blaine that followed, calling Kurt out on how he, of all people should know better, and states that bi is confusing and needs to be figured out. The conversation between the two is very real and reminiscent of real life. But Kurt isn’t called out by the wider cast, nor does he learn to accept the validity of being bisexual. Instead, he spends the episode using words like “experimenting” and refuses to accept Blaine’s process. The storyline is wrapped up very quickly, within the same episode in fact, with Rachel having a sober kiss with Blaine at the very end and Blaine deciding that he is “100% gay” and Rachel cleared it up for him, whilst Kurt watches this and acts very smug. This process feels very fake and does bisexuality an injustice.
However, what this episode does do is show a very real issue. Bi-erasure is not just prominent in wider society, but also within the LGBT+ community. When I was going through the process of coming out as Bi, I remember telling my friend briefly just before her stop on the train. Between that time and the next time we met up, she had talked to her friend, who is gay, about this. This friend had told her that bisexuality doesn’t really exist. That, while there are some people who are actually bisexual, most of the time it’s a stepping stone to being gay.
It is true that many gay people do, in fact, use bisexual as a stepping stone. It’s almost a way for them to “pass as straight” — to still blend into society whilst, at the same time, being more open about who they are. But, in fact, it’s just a new form of denial. They use this as they’re normally scared of being entirely open about who they are, and this way they can lessen the blow when coming out. Whilst I am sympathetic to their plight, this only adds to bi-erasure as it creates a falsehood of what being bi is about.
It is very troubling that my friend got this kind of information from someone who is within the LGBT+ community. I had to spend the evening undoing everything he had fed her as well as her own pre-conceived notions of bisexuality. Of course, I ordinarily wouldn’t have minded doing this, as tiring as it may be. It comes from a place of ignorance and genuine ignorance is not an issue and we all need to play our part in undoing this. However, I was upset that I had to do this after she had spoke to her friend about the matter. I cannot say how much they spoke and exactly what he said to her, but the little I did get was deeply worrying.
This is the problem bisexuals have to deal with. Sexuality isn’t binary, it’s a scale. The Kinsey scale helps put this in an easy to describe form. I would have said I was 1 that developed into a 2 when I was younger and, once I realised I would be happy to be in an same-sex relationship and all that entails, I now say I’m a 3 (bisexual) but shift anywhere between a 2 and a 4 at any given moment in time. But this can’t be explained to people easily. Either consciously or sub-consciously, many believe in the binary and don’t understand the shades of grey in between the two.
If I told anyone my feelings when I was younger, most people would have instantly labelled me as gay. And whilst there was nothing wrong with that, it didn’t explain the thoughts in my head. It doesn’t explain the women I’ve had a crush on, the women I’ve wanted to kiss. And so, due to the confusion and the fear of being misunderstood, you deny that part of yourself.
The straight/gay binary is so prominent you start to question yourself, such as “What if I only think I like women because society says that, as a man, I should. What if I’m actually gay and in denial?”. It’s a thought I’ve had more than once and it hindered my coming out. After coming out, I constantly feel the need to validate my bisexuality. For example, I’ve been with men more than women, does that mean I’m not straight enough to be bi? Does that mean I’m more gay than straight? Am I actually gay in denial? It’s questions like that that makes life difficult as a bisexual. Bi-erasure and the belief that sexuality is binary, causes these questions to be raised.
Being bisexual is a confusing mess and bi-erasure causes a very real issue in the coming out process for bisexual people. In the last year, I have seen instances of bisexuality handled well, which has been incredible to see. Jane The Virgin had a very moving storyline — that actually brought me to tears — over being bisexual. It was handled amazingly and dispelled all the myths. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s storyline on Rosa’s coming out showed how hard the process can be, how it’s lifelong. And having a bisexual actress in the role was amazing! Just hearing the word bisexual used on screen was refreshing!
I have had some amazing experiences coming out as bisexual. I’ve had a lot of love from friends and the community as well. I joined London Gaymers and they couldn’t be more accepting of people from the whole scale of sexualities! They recognise the issues, both inside their community and in the wider LGBT+ community, and have launched a Diversity project in order to tackle all of this! From a “women’s only” discord channel, to reaching out to youths and the wider gaming audience, they’re working hard to help those in tough situations come to terms with who they are, which is wonderful.
Sexuality is a scale. We must learn to accept this. And I hope that with changes like these, we can stop bi-erasure. It’s upsetting that this issue is still rife within the LGBT+ community. As a community, we must do more. We have to become more inclusive, more accepting of the shades of grey and help and support each other.