By Michelle Talsma Everson, April 2019 Issue.
In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of LGBTQ Americans, 36 percent identified as gay men, 19 percent as lesbians, 5 percent as transgender — and 40 of respondents claimed to be bisexual. While these figures show that bisexual people make up a significant part of the LGBTQ population, many bi folks often claim not to feel fully a part of the LGBTQ community or at home in queer spaces.
We spoke with a handful of bisexual people to hear their thoughts on this and the following is some of what they shared. Of course, the thoughts of a few does not represent the bisexual community as a whole, but we feel it does start a conversation on the concept of inclusiveness for bisexuals.
A part of the community?
Marcia Leung came out as bisexual in her mid-20’s and is currently married to a man. She shares that she doesn’t always feel a part of the broader LGBTQ community. “It often seems like gay men and women are more valid than me, but I still go to Pride and I still openly claim bisexuality,” she explains. “It [Pride] is meant to be our space too and we belong there.”
Holly Griffin identifies as bisexual and came out as a teen. She is passionate about bisexual pride but doesn’t always feel at home in the community either. “If I’m in a straight passing relationship, there can be almost gatekeeping within the community,” she says. “Some say I’m not ‘gay enough.’ Some people say I’m just going through a phase or I can’t love both men and women. It can be extremely painful to be interested in a woman only for her to reject you because you’re not a ‘real lesbian.’”
When bisexual people are in a heterosexual-appearing relationship, things can get tricky, says Zail, who identifies as bi and is out to her friends but not her family. “Because I am hetero-romantic, I usually feel that my heterosexual relationships are not valid in LGTBQ spaces. I know many would be accepting, but I have seen many discussions on LGTBQ subreddits discussing the legitimacy of bisexual people into hetero relationships and it makes me feel like an invader or a pretender.”
The concept of bisexual invisibility or bisexual erasure is a hot button issue. “Bisexual erasure or bisexual invisibility is a pervasive problem in which the existence or legitimacy of bisexuality (either in general or in regard to an individual) is questioned or denied outright,” according to GLAAD.
“I have definitely felt the struggle of erasure,” says Carolyn Thomas, who identifies as both bi and pansexual. “From well-meaning family telling me that one day I would ‘pick a side’ or ‘figure it out’ one day, to having to explain to partners that, no, being bisexual doesn’t mean I’m going to cheat on you or that I’ll ‘want more.’ It’s less of a struggle now that I’m married, gratefully, but even then, people assume I’ve just ‘picked a side.’”
“I’ve definitely seen it [bi erasure] in media and among other LGBTQ people,” Griffin shares. “There are so many well-known people throughout history that were bisexual, but they are usually called gay or straight. If you identify as strictly bisexual, what keeps you from not considering yourself pansexual? I’d never heard the term when I was starting to come out. Since coming out, I’ve heard a few definitions that never really seemed to fit me. Having been out a good deal longer, I’ve heard people use the term as a way to put down bisexuals. If that’s not how someone uses it, fantastic! I will never dictate what someone wants to identify as. However, when someone uses it as a form of elitism and biphobia, then it’s a problem for me.”
Zail points to online spaces as a place where bi erasure is all too common.
“Seeing posts on Reddit spaces claiming that bi people are straight people who want to be a bit more queer or that bi people are just gay people too afraid to be queer makes me feel like my identity and sexuality is a joke or a farce. It makes me question myself sometimes,” she shares. “I also see this happen in media.”
Stereotypes & Misconceptions
Like many who fall under the queer umbrella, bisexual people deal with their fair share of stereotypes and misinformation.
Leung shares stereotypes that she has encountered. “Bisexual women are just straight and putting on a show for men and bisexual men are just confused gay men. People don’t want to deal with us and I think it’s because if they acknowledge that we’re real they have to start to acknowledge sexuality is more complicated.”
“Being bisexual does not make anyone more or less likely to cheat. Being in a hetero relationship does not make someone straight, and definitely does not mean they don’t belong at Pride,” Thomas shares as she addresses some misconceptions. “We have enough people still trying to divide us from the outside; don’t do it from within. And being bisexual doesn’t exclude trans folks. It’s entirely possible that someone could be bisexual and transphobic, but one does not imply the other.”
The concept of bisexuality and the accepting of transgender individuals is a reoccurring topic.
“There is a weird assumption that bisexuals are transphobic or that because I’m bisexual I can’t be attracted to people who are nonbinary or gender non-conforming. This isn’t true,” Griffin shares. “A lot of people who aren’t bisexual will say bi means two, so bisexuals only think there are two genders, thus they are transphobic. I know people who are bi who use it to mean two or more, or same and different. Being bisexual instead of pansexual doesn’t mean I’m transphobic or not attracted to other genders.”
Some other stereotypes that came up were that those who identify as bisexual are somehow more promiscuous or are always polyamorous. “Men can be bisexual too, that’s just a fact,” Griffin adds. (Writer’s note: Many efforts were made to have male-identifying bisexual sources share their story. None came forward by deadline.)
Bisexual vs. Pansexual
If you start a web search for the “difference between bisexual and pansexual,” the main thing that comes up time and time again is that bisexual addresses attraction to two genders while pansexual addresses multiple gender expressions. Those we spoke to, however, find that bisexuality and being pansexual are nearly synonyms or, at times, a matter of personal preference.
“To me, bisexual already covers the gambit of possible genders,” Zail explains. “I never considered that some people see bisexual as literally meaning two genders. I have never felt any differently towards trans, genderqueer, genderfluid, etc. than the ‘traditional’ male or female identity. To me there is not a reason to identify as pan because to me bi already covers it.”
“I consider pansexual and bisexual essentially the same thing,” Leung says. “So, I believe it’s up to me to decide what feels right. I’ve experimented with saying queer or pansexual, but at the end of the day I just prefer the term bisexual.”
“I identify under either or both terms [pan and bi],” Thomas shares. “The distinction within the community is mostly in regard to trans and non-binary individuals, and there’s been talk that ‘bisexual’ is limited to just folks on the gender binary, which isn’t true for me. My attraction is more based on a person, sex and gender don’t really factor in as either a bonus or a deal-breaker. I just happened to fall in love with and marry a woman.”
While there are many issues and misconceptions to wade through, many bisexual people continue to show up and claim their space in the community.
“Bisexuals have historically been erased by straights, lesbians and gays in the community, and now people are claiming pansexual is a better way to identify. Stop telling bisexuals what it means to be bisexual, we know,” Griffin says. “I hope more people will feel empowered to come out and not feel ashamed or like they need to hide their identity to fit in. There is nothing wrong with you if you are bisexual.”
“Bisexuality can be defined many ways by many different people, and many of us lean more toward one side of the gender spectrum or the other, but that doesn’t erase our identity,” Thomas says. “I’ve found I tend to be more attracted to women than men, but that doesn’t make me any less bisexual. It’s all wibbly-wobbly, sexuality and gender. It’s a spectrum, and it’s colorful and crazy and vivid no matter where you end up on it.”
Continuing the Conversation
GLAAD says that bi erasure is a legitimate problem but continuing to talk about it and combat it by including bisexuals in queer spaces can make a big difference. To learn more about bi erasure and how to fight it, visit www.glaad.org/bisexual/bierasure.