Johanna Li is a final year War Studies student with an interest in conflict, neo-colonialism, queerness, and good ASMR videos.
[Featured Image: The bisexual flag consists of three horizontal pillars starting with pink at the top, purple in the middle, and blue at the bottom.]
Recently it came to my attention that many of my friends have been going through bisexual breakdowns. Whether they once identified as straight or gay, the bisexual label has come to seemingly lead to an outstanding number of my friends breaking-down recently. ‘Breaking-down’ is perhaps a slight over-dramatisation but definitely more accurate than the misconceptions that bisexuality is just a lighter, more easy to deal with version of being gay or lesbian. According to the Bisexual Resource Centre, “bisexual+ people make up the majority of the LGBTQ community, but receive less than 1% of all funding that supports LGBTQ advocacy, and they experience significantly higher rates of physical, sexual, social, and emotional violence and disparities than gay and straight people, as well as poorer physical, mental, and social health”. To explore these themes and understand why my friends are ‘breaking-down’ over the label, I interviewed a variety of bisexual+ identifying people, Alex, Jack, Emilia and Monica, (in the interest of privacy, the names of the interviewees have been changed) trying to gain insight into their relationship to the term ‘bisexual’, their experience of discrimination, specifically in relation to internalised and external biphobia, and insights and learning experiences from their own specific situations.
The Label: ‘Bisexual’
I was flat sharing with Emilia over the summer, during which she came out to me as bisexual. During the interview she revealed that she had only used the label in the last few weeks, while living in the flat, far removed from her home and university environments. She shared the sentiment: “I am living with these people for 3 weeks, I might as well try it out”.
The bisexual label is contested in many ways. One of the key areas of misunderstanding is the impression that bisexuality is a phase of confusion, that will either lead to the acceptance of homosexuality or heterosexuality. In her decision to experiment with the label in a safe, separate environment, Emilia reclaimed experimentation with labels as a positive act, one that bisexual label leaves plenty of space for.
The bisexual label is also contested in its definition. In recent years its prefix ‘bi’ has come under fire, with critics suggesting that the bisexual community does not recognise the multiplicity of gender and with that is transphobic. This critique is unfounded, however, as the bisexual manifesto defines bisexuality as an attraction to one or more genders. All the people that I interviewed highlighted this recognition of the multiplicity of gender in their own definitions. Yet, a few also suggested an identification with alternate terms like pansexual and especially queer to better describe their personal experience. Monica stated that her studies of queer history made her no longer want “to constantly balance a 50/50 binary that doesn’t even exist”. She adds, “I should not have to balance my sexuality on a scale for other people”, an expectation that others, especially other LGBTQ people, enforce upon her when they question her bisexuality on the basis of her having only dated women in university. Monica recognises the practical side of the ‘digestibility’ of the term bisexual. With the same sentiment Jack talked about how he uses different labels, primarily bisexual and pansexual, depending on the environment he is in and does not see it to be necessary to ‘come out’ and use any labels at all to certain people as it is not relevant to their perception of him. While it may not be the best descriptor of my experience either, I primarily also choose to use bisexual because not having to explain it to every person ever, allows my identity to sometimes just be mine and not a political statement.
For Alex, a woman whose identity recently shifted from lesbian to bisexual, values the word queer. Queer has been a word that she has found comfort in at all stages of her identity. The broadness of the term makes it inclusive of personal change, removing the pressure for the stagnation of identity and decision making. Alex also highlights that in her definition of bisexuality, the type of attraction does not have to be perfectly ‘mirrored’ in her attraction to other genders.
Regardless, of how each interviewee personally chose to apply the term ‘bisexual’, their responses showed that as people with attractions towards more than one gender experience the inclusivity of the term and struggle with the limiting misconceptions held by others towards it.
Internalised and External Biphobia
The discussion of internalised and external biphobia is vital in working towards bettering the mental and physical wellbeing of members of the bisexual community.
Alex admitted, as a once lesbian identifying person, her path to accepting her attraction to more than just women comes with significant internalised biphobia. Additionally, she highlighted a phenomena that she experienced in her niche young queer community: “the expectation for women to be super fluid”. She felt that this exception to be fluid pressured her in her acceptance process of herself as an increasingly fluid individual. I found this insight particularly interesting because it is the direct opposite of the typical manifestation of biphobia but still made the process of self acceptance more difficult. Emilia and Alex shared similar feelings towards the struggle of self acceptance and their perception of their place in the wider LGBTQ community. While they come from opposite experiences, previously straight and lesbian identifying, they experienced similar struggles with reconciling their experience with the expectations of the community as newly in some way bisexual identifying people.
Monica and Jack have both used the label bisexual in someway for at least half a decade and also share core insights into their experience with biphobia. They both see it to impact them very little in day to day life and it does not make them question the validity of their identities. However Monica takes a hardline approach stating that “we have to be careful about the way we characterise our own oppression”, highlighting that biphobia rarely entails “interpersonal violence” unlike homophobia. Monica spoke of being threatened with death for her homosexuality in high school, but was only at times made to feel slightly uncomfortable when her identity was invalidated by members of the LGBTQ community. While her experience validates her statements, the rate of physical and psychological abuse faced by bisexual individuals suggests otherwise. Perhaps we need to stop viewing biphobia as ‘homophobia lite’ to solve this problem. Though Monica’s request for bisexuals to stop “martyring ourselves on our own labels” is also vital in providing help specifically to those members of the bisexual community that really need it. The role of intersectionality is perhaps what allows biphobia to be a non-issue in one persons life and a huge one in another.
Jack provides a nuanced response: while he does not personally have the need to see his identity validated by external acceptance, he does highlight some of the specific difficulties that come with bisexuality. Because he is “not not excessively camp”, it has been “harder to come out” and “it almost feels like its not worth coming out for” because “if you’re not completely gay it feels like the announcement is worth less”. He recognises that in someway this is caused by some internalised biphobia that he still holds but has decided for himself that “you’re still you and you don’t change [by being out] if anything the perception by other people may change” and hence does not see coming out to everyone has a necessary step to be accepting of himself.
Alex and Jack also had an interesting point of cross over on the topic of ‘code switching’. Both spoke of experiences where especially when speaking of a partner of interest in a person of the ‘opposite sex’, it was surprisingly easy to not switch from being identifiably queer to be unquestionably straight in that conversation. For both this ability to ‘code switch’ has impacted their need or interest in coming out to more people.
Biphobia, internalised and external, affects everyone differently but at least the internal struggle seems to get easier with time. Whether the suffix is ‘phobia’ is suitable for describing all forms of discrimination and discomfort as a bisexual is debatable but the realisation that bisexual people face specific difficulties is important for ensuring that the community become healthier and happier. In the LGBTQ community we must be the best allies for each other and it is upsetting to here that a lot of external pressures come from the community itself, however as Jack highlighted “every community has its toxic people” and is in no way a “monolith” as Monica added but it has so much potential and responsibility to make the bisexual experience an easier one for all.
Insights and Lessons
At the end of my interview, I asked for insights and lessons learned in the process of discovering their bisexuality and living as a bisexual person.
There is little to no representation of people that come out as gay first and later realise their bisexuality. Hence, I found it necessary to give Alex a place to express insights into her transition from being only into women to also finding some people of other genders attractive. This broad question at the end allowed her to share that for her “it came from a place of fear and mistrusting [her] own emotions”, a feeling she also experienced in her first “phase of coming out” that was however escalated by “a nonconsensual experience with a man” without which “the second coming out would have been much easier” as she is still unsure as to whether her current attractions to men may be a form of “trauma processing”. The complexity of her experience is one that exceeds the realms of questioning that is usually associated with bisexuality but deserves discussion on a larger scale.
Alex and Monica highlighted that bisexuality made them aware of the biases within the community and the ability of labels to “divide us and combine us all together”. But the most significant overlap in all interviews was that all echoed the sentiment of “learning to accept myself as me” as Jack put it. Emilia, as an English major reminded us that “language is inherently inadequate to describe a human experience” and Monica, as someone whose been out for almost a decade, gave the advice that “performing for other people does you no good” and that you must “live to your own expectations”.
Overall, bisexuality is a broad term describing a varied set of experiences. The misconceptions and biases held by individuals and communities must be broken-down. My friends do not deserve to breakdown over a label that is meant to help to accept themselves and feel like part of a proud, open and inclusive community. Let us instead build each other up.