There are a lot of things I am going to say in this article that I hope will generally be met with a resounding “duh,” but that repeated experience has shown me aren’t nearly as obvious as they should be (shocker!). I’m writing here for the bisexual who’s considering coming out, the bisexual who (like me until fairly recently) is mostly out but not comfortable claiming a place in queer spaces, the other flavors of queer who may be able to make life a little easier for that person (by avoiding making it harder, if nothing else), and for straight friends and family whose loved one may have just come out to them.
There’s a particular stigma attached to “fence-sitting” – even that quite common description underlines the idea that bisexuals are just refusing to make a choice as to what they are. Much like genderfluid and genderqueer individuals challenge comfortable assumptions of a male-female binary, so do bisexuals challenge assumptions about binary sexual orientation. In a world that starkly privileges heterosexuality over homosexuality, those of us who seem to move between the two are treated with distrust (or just plain disbelief) by both ends of the spectrum. I’ve run into this in both straight and queer spaces, and I’m hoping to give some perspective here that may be useful to everyone from the person who still doesn’t believe there’s a middle part of the Kinsey scale to the stalwart ally who will find most of the information in Part 1 quite obvious.
A note before beginning: I am using the term bisexuality broadly (not necessarily assuming a gender binary) in this essay, and most or all of these items apply to people who identify as pansexual, as well. I chose to use the word bisexuality because it is in common use outside of queer circles, whereas pansexuality is not.
I have tried to clearly indentify the areas in which I am speaking only of my personal experience because there are many versions of and responses to these misconceptions; I use anecdotes to provide examples rather than to present them as necessarily How Things Are.
1. “Everyone is really bi, if you think about it.”
Really now? Do you identify as bi?
If your answer is no, I guarantee I’ve ‘thought about it’ quite a bit more than you have.
Bisexuality, like other queer identities, is just that – an identity. It does not have an associated set of behaviors by which the outside world can judge whether someone is bi or not. If you’re a guy and you had sex with a guy that one time (or that ten times, or that however many times…), but you identify as heterosexual, then you are heterosexual. If you’re a lesbian who dated guys in high school, you’re still a lesbian. Orientation describes attraction and preference, not behavior, and that is something no one can decide for someone else.
2. “You’re really just gay/straight/in denial/confused (because bisexuality doesn’t exist).”
This is the most common myth I have personally run into, and much like its mirror image described above, it’s just flat wrong. The fact that you are monosexual and can’t imagine being otherwise doesn’t mean someone else can’t be. (And if you’re reading this blog, chances are good you’re some kind of queer – compare it to a straight person saying they just can’t possibly imagine being attracted to a member of the same sex. It makes exactly as little sense for that straight person to deny your identity as to deny that of a bisexual.)
And here’s the kicker part of this – if a bisexual later identifies as gay or straight, it does not mean they were never bi. Sexual orientations can change over time. Sometimes that change may not result in a different identity – I’ve slid up and down the Kinsey scale more than once while still identifying as bi – and sometimes it might, if that slide goes to one of the ends of the scale.
3. “You’re really just gay/straight/in denial/confused (because I know you dated/are dating ___).”
This, at least to me personally, is one of the more hurtful myths that get trotted out, because it’s acknowledging me as an individual rather than a statistic (as opposed to #2 above, which makes a sweeping statement), yet still denying me my assertion of identity. Again, orientation and identity do not equal behavior – whatever you think you know about that person you’re talking to, it’s not enough, because you aren’t them.
I had a boyfriend not too terribly long ago who was, to most eyes, about as queer-friendly as a non-activist can be considered, yet because I was dating him, I was “straight.” I’ve known I was attracted to women since I was twelve. That denial was one of the first major undercuts of trust that led to the end of the relationship, because it wasn’t just about my sexuality – it was the harbinger of other dismissals of my attempts to communicate about myself.
A sub-myth of “you’re really just gay/straight” is that you can only be bi if you are attracted to men and women equally, and it feeds into the attempts to assign sexual orientation based on behavior. Some people who identify as bisexual may only rarely be attracted to a particular gender and overwhelmingly often toward another. They’re still bi.
There’s a rhetorical question that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with this myth: “Well, how do you know, if you’ve never [dated/slept with] a [gender]?”
How often do straight people who have never dated or had sex get asked this question? They don’t, because heterosexuality is the assumed default. The question isn’t at all limited to bisexuals, either, though it’s an extremely common one we run into. If you’re a monosexual queer and you’ve ever been asked some version of “well, how do you know?” then you know what it feels like. If you’re straight, you’re straight; if you’re queer, you’ve got to prove it…. which brings me to number four.
4. “Prove it.”
Those exact words don’t get said very often, but I had to pick a way to condense the many and varied forms this statement comes in, and that one worked. This misconception is the idea that we somehow owe an explanation/justification of our sexuality to anyone who cares to ask.
Sometimes it will come in the fairly nebulous “How do you know?” form; sometimes it will involve detailed interrogation on dating and/or sexual history. All forms fundamentally miss the concept that orientation isn’t something that can be assigned from outside, and are additionally offensive because they’re just plain invasive. If you aren’t sleeping with someone, you have no right to any information about that person’s sex life, and even if you are, your partner shouldn’t have to pass some kind of interrogation to get you to acknowledge what they are.
This post will be continued in Part 2, tomorrow.