Comment: Why bisexual visibility could be one of the defining LGBT rights struggles of our time
Today marks the 14th annual Bi Visibility Day, an event held to challenge biphobia by promoting the rights and legitimacy of bisexual people alongside the rest of the gay community. In this article, PinkNews writer Aaron Day reflects on his experiences growing up inside two closets, and explains why bisexual visibility could be considered one of the defining LGBT rights struggles of our time.
Bi Visibility Day (Sept 23) is now 14-years-old, which makes it approximately one year younger than the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and a whopping fifty years younger than the first ever recorded gay pride movement.
It was first launched in 1999 by US activists Wendy Curry, Michael Page, and Gigi Raven Wilbur. Their intention was to challenge the widespread assumption that people are either born gay or straight – an assumption that has so far led many to believe in the absolute nonexistence of bisexual people.
Curry, Page, and Wilbur are also responsible for the signature bi pride flag we all know today, with its distinctive tri-colour (pink, purple, blue) design. It is this symbol I have since come to identify with as a bisexual man – a symbol that enables me to feel welcomed as part of a open community after spending a great deal of my life feeling both isolated and disconnected from the rest of the gay world.
Today, however, I am also grateful for those I have met in both LGBT groups and societies who are more and more recognising what it means to stand in solidarity with the bisexual community. Support from both friends and family has been overwhelming, and I could not have asked for a more open and accepting environment in which to grow and mature as a person.
Bi Visibility Day means that we are not only considered a part of LGBT pride as a whole, but that we have our own distinct concerns and issues at stake here as well – and these concerns, finally, are starting to be acknowledged and understood.
But for many more, the exact need for bisexual visibility still remains a mystery. What challenges do bi people face that lesbian and gay people do not experience already? What difference does being read as bisexual have on the livelihood of a person anyway?
The concern seems to be that bisexual pride is a frivolous product, reflecting the demands of an entitled community who already have the privelege of ‘passing as straight’ whenever they see fit. The demand for bi visibility seems at first ludicrous, because it suggests that we are somehow refusing to acknowledge the bigger picture of LGBT struggles, favouring only our own (petty) agendas.
The other problem, some would argue, is that no one even faces oppression specifically for being bisexual. If a bi person is attacked for their sexuality, it is because the attacker thinks they are gay, not because they are bi. It is always a homophobic assault, never a biphobic assault.
Nevertheless, the issue of bi visibility is still a growing concern for many people, and shows no signs of stopping. To this, I stand firmly in solidarity with the movement.
Growing up in two closets
I have been bisexual for as long as I can remember. Which, by my account, is my whole life. I am 22-years-old, and I am still going through the same phase that I should have outgrown as a teenager.
The reason I support Bi Visibility Day is not only because it gives license and validation to the struggles I have grown up with personally, but also because it raises key issues with the LGBT movement as a whole, challenging us to reconsider precisely what it means to fight for inclusion and solidarity in the first place.
I first realised I was bisexual at around six or seven. I knew I was attracted to more than one gender before this time, but it wasn’t until then that I even had word for it.
Nevertheless, what knowledge I did have of bisexuality was still largely mythical. It was at a time where ‘gay’ was still used as a playground insult. Not a malicious one targeted specifically at same-sex attraction, bear in mind, but an abstract one which could have meant as much as ‘dork’ or ‘loser.’
It is true that children are taught to despise these things before they even have any concrete idea what they mean. No one could really say at six or seven what ‘gay’ or ‘fag’ meant, or what these terms were used to describe, but somehow they learned to use them as insults anyway. The flipside of this, of course, is that we ‘grow into’ our sexual orientations with just as much blindness.
So I knew about bisexuality before I knew I was bisexual. I knew I experienced both same-sex and opposite-sex attractions, but I was damned if I knew what this knowledge even amounted to.
To think of it at that age, I only knew bisexual as a word used to reflect whatever reached beyond the threshold of gay issues into a world of weird and fantastic ‘gay decadence.’ It was one of those terms you quickly learned to associate with the foreign and the exotic – the kind of peculiar term you might hear a high modernist use to describe one of their art pieces. Rude, indignant, bisexual.
Now thinking of my 7-year-old self as an awkward, quiet loser, it is clear why bisexual was not exactly a word I would have used to describe myself. I was not exotic. I was only a little bit weird. And sex, quite frankly, still scared the living hell out of me.
By the time I was a weird and awkward teenager, bisexuality meant a lot more to me. For some reason however, I still kept a minimum amount of distance from it.
At 16 I had reached the age of consent, but still many of us were ignorant when it came to matters of actual sex. Up to that point, we had only really been taught that it was something boys and girls did, and that it “hurts the first time for ladies,” and that condoms can stop you from catching STDs.
Sex then was something thought of as two-dimensional, to be generally understood in this weird ritualistic and mechanical way. Even enjoyment itself, associated with sex, was something we then had to be told to feel – that pleasure was a ‘natural’ thing, and it was okay to orgasm, and so on and so forth. Frankly, however, I think even pleasure itself secretly scared a majority of 16-year-olds.
Caught up in this mess, gay sex was still something a majority of teens thought of functionally as ‘bumming for gay men’ or ‘scissoring for gay women.’ In this way, you can imagine teenage homophobia was not too far removed from the homophobia of the early modern period, where it was not gay identity people despised, but the very act of ‘buggery’ itself. People would not hate you for having same-sex attractions, they would hate you for what these attractions implied.
So there I was – bisexual at an age where teenagers could not only legally have sex, but still insisted on the wit and cunning of using phrases like “batty boy” to belittle gay kids.
In saying this, however, coming out as bi wouldn’t have been such a bad ordeal after all. At this age, bear in mind, certain people could still identify as bisexual provided they had the confidence to get away with it.
So why was I still closeted?
The lynchpin, I think, was that people always viewed bisexual identity as something you could turn back from. Gay kids used bisexuality all the time as a way of ‘testing the waters,’ and others also used it as way to experiment.
At its core, though, bisexuality was also a teenage trend. People were bisexual because they listened to certain types of music. They were bisexual because of the clothes they wore. And they were bisexual because the people they hung out with also said they were bisexual.
So as I said, I distanced myself from bisexuality at age 16 because I knew what it implied. You could even say I was a part of the problem. I mocked those who declared they were openly bi, dismissing them as attention seekers. I also proudly honoured the myth that you were either born gay or straight, refusing to believe that there was any more to it.
This is precisely what you call living in denial. I lived in contempt towards bisexuality for a good few years following that. I saw it as a symptom of narcissism and arrogance. I considered bisexuals to be cheating the system somehow – to be living false lives. In the back of my head, I think I even deluded myself into believing that I was somehow any different from these other people.
Nevertheless, at age 19, I finally came out as bi to both my friends and my parents.
What changed? It was my first year of university. A lot was changing for me. Finally, I had the opportunity to pursue my dreams away from home, but still I found myself reluctant to fully come clean as an out and proud bisexual to the people I met.
So the decision to come out was a spur of the moment thing – I did not allow myself to think, and I just went for it, holding nothing back.
My parents’ reaction was the usual shock, but was otherwise lukewarm. My dad asked me whether I meant ‘bicurious’ and I had to confirm otherwise. Everyone quickly adjusted to the idea however.
Altogether I can say that it ended up being one of the best years of my life. Never before would I have imagined that such open acceptance and understanding would have been possible from both my friends and family. My only regret is that it could not have happened sooner.
Still, not everyone recognised what it meant for me to come out as bi. Even today, various people still ask me whether or not I have changed my mind about my sexuality, assuming that I have yet to take that ‘final step’ towards self-acceptance.
This does not anger me on a case-by-case basis however, nor do I even count it as an experience of authentic biphobia. I count it as a basic misunderstanding born out of a lack of education.
We are taught sex, but we are never taught sexuality. We are taught the mechanics and the biology of it all, but beyond this there are no mandatory lessons in school teaching us what it means to desire, or even what it means to enjoy.
As a result, sexual orientation is still a constant mystery for a lot of people.
A gay undergraduate medical student from the University of Sussex once challenged me on the topic of my sexuality. He had previously heard from a friend that I was bi, but could not wrap his head around it. “But it is scientifically impossible,” he said, “no one is really bi.”
At the time, I was not certain how to process this idea. The problem, I told him, was that I didn’t think sexuality was even a biological thing in the first place. Still, he would not let up on the idea that ‘science’ proved me wrong. He claimed I had not yet found my place in the world, and that I was simply living in denial.
Even if what he said was true however, so-called scientific studies on the issue of gendered attraction have been shaky and contradictory at best. Many have either “proven” or “disproven” the existence of bisexual men and women, but none of them have ever used methods which reflect the full scope of circumstantial desire.
The most reliable tool we have today for ‘measuring’ sexuality is the plethysmograph – a tool which literally records genital stimulation when a subject is shown pornographic images. These tests do not take into account the diversity of gendered attraction, nor do they factor in the particularity of something like bisexual desire.
In my case, for instance, I have found myself more attracted to androgyny in both men and women than to anything else. This means that I find both effeminate men and tomboyish girls to be more appealing than men and women on opposite sides of the spectrum.
But still, especially in science, this idea of a rigid binary sexuality remains a persistent one. As a result, we have systematically erased entire subsections of people whose sexual orientations tend to be far more fluid and ambiguous than we might take for granted. This, in turn, has created barriers for those who struggle for solidarity and recognition alongside the rest of the gay community.
Research published in May 2013 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), for example, has shown that bisexual people experience even higher levels of work discrimination than gay men.
The report stated that bisexual people were more likely hide their sexual orientations at work than lesbians and gay men, and bisexual women were also the least likely to report discrimination from colleagues, believing it would not be taken seriously as it “happens all the time.”
Further findings by the Open University have shown that of all sexual orientations, bisexuals have the worst mental health problems, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide.
One US study even found that over a quarter of therapists seen by bisexual clients assumed that their client’s sexuality was an issue that needed treating, and around a sixth saw bisexuality as being part of an illness. 7% attempted conversion to heterosexuality and 4% to being lesbian or gay.
Here is one extract of a quotation from the Open University guide:
“A psychiatric nurse asked me what I’d done at the weekend and I mentioned I’d been at a bisexual event, and as a result came out as bisexual. He seemed fine at the time but when I came to see my counsellor, I found out that my referral letter said that I had unresolved issues with my sexuality. I hadn’t said anything like that! I felt so betrayed, knowing that he’d secretly been judging me like that.”
Needless to say, I too have experienced biphobia as a direct result of the attitudes discussed so far.
Dating in the gay world, for instance, is not breath of fresh air I had originally hoped it would be.
I have learned that not only do a majority of gay men openly mistrust bisexuals, but many more also assume that we are unconcerned about forming any meaningful attachments or relationships. Some even openly list “no bis” on their dating profiles to ward off unwanted advances from bisexual men.
In other circumstances, I have also been outright ridiculed for coming out as bi. In one instance, a person told me I was pathetic, and that I should “seek help” for suffering from a delusion. They added that I had lied to everyone I ever dated previously.
On a certain level, I can understand why people would doubt me. What I cannot tolerate, however, is the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with me, making me “unresolved” about my sexuality, or making me into a pathological liar.
I am 22-years-old now, and I have come to realise the only way the world can openly accept bisexual people is to change its attitudes to sexuality as a whole.
As I mentioned before, Bi Visibility Day is only now 14-years-old. The reason for this however is not that we are only now beginning to recognise biphobia in society, but that biphobia itself is a product specific to the world we live in today.
Those who disagree with me in this case tend to argue that there is no such thing as biphobia in modern gay communities, and that because bi people have more ‘passing privelege’ than gay people do, their claims to entitlement are irrelevant.
My argument, however, is not to separate biphobia and homophobia entirely, but to view them as two sides of the same coin.
In this sense I believe it is crucial to understand that both homophobic and biphobic oppressions can emerge in spaces where gay lifestyles are not only tolerated, but also accepted and integrated into everyday life.
In the UK, for instance, we are today living in a world where homophobia is no longer seen as the norm. Anti-gay views are openly challenged, and the far right and religious fundamentalists must now resort to outright sensationalism if they are to carry their claims against us.
On top of this, I don’t think anyone could have imagined just a few decades ago that today we would be seeing the passing of same-sex marriage into law (supported by none other than the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron).
The naive but crucial question, however, is what was it that changed between then and now to enable these developments to take place? What happened to homophobia that it could just up and disappear so quickly? Where did it go?
Gary Powell got it partially right here when he commented that while the “basic human needs” of gay and lesbian people are today accounted for in our more gay-tolerant society, the “deepest needs” of the LGBT community may still be something we are falling short of recognising.
What this means is that while we have now addressed the more “legal” aspects of anti-gay discrimination, this current absorption we are seeing of gay life into ‘everyday society’ is perhaps not as streamlined as we might have first expected.
In truth then, anti-gay views have not died out at all, but have ‘mutated’ – adapted to their new environments like powerful, unrelenting viruses.
As a result, what we are now seeing is not an all-encompassing acceptance of gay people into modern society, but a kind of newfound scepticism for what is now generally referred to as ‘gay lifestyles.’
In essence, what these ‘gay lifestyles’ consist of is a splitting in two of the gay community itself. So today there are in fact are two ‘castes’ of gay person.
‘Good gays’ are those who fit the mould of their new gay-tolerant society by playing along diligently with its rules and regulations. Their main strength is that they can set a good example for the gay community. They can be ‘straight acting,’ they can be business-minded, and they can prove to the world that “we are just like them.”
‘Bad gays’ are those who fail to adapt themselves, and so give all gays a bad name by acting too promiscuous, or by taking too many drugs. The consensus is that ‘these kinds’ are ruining everything for us. We fear that many will look to these people as signs that we are deviants after all, writing us off as burdens to society.
If you think I am exaggerating on this point, you should perhaps take a quick read of Ivan Massow’s remarks on what he believes to be a gay culture “inhabiting a soulless and empty world of hedonism.”
“We, the gay community, are becoming a group of people who suddenly have everything and nothing, all at once.
I don’t want our community to deal with this just because I find our behaviour embarrassing. God only knows I’ve embarrassed myself enough not to throw stones. I think fun in moderation is great.
I’m making the point because it’s a miserable way to live. Chemically induced highs and kids addicted to ‘chem-sex’ is all fake bollocks. Bollocks that leads to depression and, frequently, death. Bollocks that is just plain boring and ultimately empty.”
Here Massow constructs a direct barrier between himself, a conservative millionaire, and a “miserable” culture of teenagers who take drugs and have sex.
The ‘good gays’ are those, like him, who refuse to associate with all this “bollocks.” The ‘bad gays’ are those who continue to “embarrass” him, and are therefore “fake” in the lives they lead.
Needless to say, there is a prick of irony here in the fact that a millionaire like Massow is even reprimanding gay kids about “moderation” in the first place.
Writing for PinkNews he said: “Discrimination against those who have HIV has not gone away; it really gets to me when people on their Grindr or Fitlad profiles refer to HIV negative or positive people as “clean” or “dirty.” How many of us would refer to a cancer patient as dirty because of their illness? Why on earth should HIV be treated any differently?”
The point then, is that between the arrogance of conservatives like Massow towards drug-taking sex-havers, and the intolerance of the gay dating community towards HIV positive people, homophobia is no longer something which simply comes from ‘out there’ (from the most stereotypically anti-gay lobbyists). It is now very much something ‘in here’ as well, and it has managed to split our community from within.
To extrapolate on this, it may be more edifying to think of this ‘new gay lifestyle’ not as a positive affirmation of same-sex sexual attraction, but as kind of trademarked identity – a brand name to be worn only by those most deserving of it.
Paranoia about “fake bollocks” and “dirty” gays is less about protecting people from ruining their lives, therefore, and more about protecting the gay brand – keeping the whole thing clean and presentable.
And is this logic not precisely the same one propelling modern-day biphobia?
Here we have gay dating profiles openly rejecting bi men, therapists attempting to ‘cure’ bisexuals by turning us straight or gay, as well bi people highest on the list for suicidality, self-harm, and mental disorders.
And how does the popular mantra go when we try to factor bisexuality against this divided gay community? “Bi now, gay later.” It means that bisexuality is as inauthentic as “fake bollocks.” If a bi person demands he wants the same acknowledgement as the rest of them, then he is refusing pay his dues. He is cheating the entire system.
This is why bisexuals are forced to exist either as ‘gay people living in denial’, or ‘gay people living too extravagantly,’ ruining their own lives as well as the lives of others.
In the case of a recent “controversial” re-writing of Matthew Shepard’s notorious 1998 murder, for instance, it was not enough for writer Stephen Jimenez to claim that Shepard was not in fact as ‘good’ of a gay person as we might have expected (allegedly living as a meth addict and drug dealer), but that his killer, Aaron McKinney, was also none other than Shepard’s secret “bisexual lover.”
Perhaps this is what I meant earlier when I said that bisexuality originally came to me as something far too ‘exotic’ and strange to associate with my 7-year-old self. In the case of gay commodity, bisexuality has always been that extra detail giving us ‘more than we bargained for,’ threatening us with an unbearable neurotic excess. Like the case of ‘bad gay people,’ it is something we are already prepared to see as duplicitous and unpredictable.
Another way this motif returns to us is in the case of the anti-gay UKIP election leaflets reported back in April, which mocked the call for same-sex marriages by presenting the case of “Rights for Bi-Sexuals” (sic) as an instance where things are headed too far:
The general tone here is specifically homophobic, although again bisexuality is used as the main crutch to attack gay rights (“Where will it end?”).
Of course, UKIP’s misreading of the bi community as polyamorous (“at least one man and one woman”) once more demonstrates the kind of ignorance we are up against.
But more than this, perhaps what this leaflet really tells bisexuals is that our worth in this world is little more than a bad punch-line with no set up – a greedy caricature with an enormous and elaborate set of demands.
And is this not true in a much more radical way than it might first seem? Let’s face it: bi people are not exactly the vanguards of modern equality we like to think we are. If anything, we are the laughing stock of entire the LGBT community. People do not want to see us – they see through us. In fact, they see everything and anything around us in order not to see us.
And so we are often told that bi people have the “best of both worlds,” but here I am constantly reminded that both these worlds are closets.
When I visited a student pride event in Brighton this year, I noticed there was a table catered specifically to bisexual support groups and events. It was situated just on the outskirts of the main hall, nearby the entrance, and it was manned by two people draped in purple, pink, and blue.
For the time I was there, I noticed not one single person visited this table, and neither of its two representatives ever seemed to make contact with anyone else at the event.
I cannot explain why exactly, but of all the stalls and attractions I visited that day (including a job opportunity with PinkNews), not once did I ever think about going over and talking to those people.
I would like to say that I am not biphobic myself, but I am also a person who believes actions speak louder than words. The truth is hardest to face: on that day I made a choice, and that choice was to step back inside my closet once more.
And to tell you the absolute truth, nowadays I simply allow people to read me as gay. It doesn’t even bother me.
Occasionally, when asked, I will tell them I am bisexual, but this is frequently an exhausting process. It is easier to tell a white lie. I grew up closeted, acting as straight person, and now I live with my foot in the other closet.
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But at least for today, I am allowing myself to come out. At least for today, things can be different.
For me, Bi Visibility Day is not just about giving bi people a valid identity, it is about challenging what it is we really value in our struggle for equality.
On one hand, we can choose to step back into the shadows. We can choose a life where people’s expectations remain unchallenged. Or we can refuse choice altogether.
Because we do not do this thing through choice, we do it because we are driven – and bisexuality is an expression of the self.
If we should be choosing anything then, it should only be to stay visible. Not only for ourselves, but for others as well. We should choose to be the role models we once lacked in our childhoods. We should choose to be louder and more persistent than ever before. And finally, we should choose to step forward, to reach out, and to let the world know we are the worst it has to offer.
The views expressed in this article may not necessarily reflect those of PinkNews.co.uk