Imagine you are among a group of people, some known to you and others you are meeting for the first time. At some point you find yourself in a conversation with two people, one of whom says something that suggests or indicates they are bi. The third person makes an offhand comment to the effect that oh, that’s not a real thing, and further expects you to join them in sniggering along because they think they are being witty and funny. What will you do and how will you choose to react? — Will you choose to laugh along because you are unsure if what they just said is true or not, or will you take the bi person’s word for it, and refuse to be part of this victimising behaviour?
This scenario could play out anywhere, whether you are among predominantly straight folks or queer folks, whether you count yourself among one group or the other. September 23 is celebrated worldwide as Bi Visibility Day. There are few truly affirming and inclusive spaces for bi people. And we need allies to help build those spaces. To be an ally is to stand up for someone or at the very least, to stand with someone. The smallest act of empathy you can perform will go a long way in building confidence and solidarities. Example: to say, Yes I hear you, and Yes, I believe what you say.
Allies (and potential allies) please understand that bi people need you just as much as anybody else in a marginalised position does. You would recognise from your own life experiences that you are the best source of information on how you think, how you feel, what you believe, what issues you have — not your siblings, parents, friends or partner. If you would not like somebody else to speak on your behalf, don’t let others speak on our behalf by way of making casually biphobic comments like, for instance, “oh that’s actually just gay”, or “bi people just can’t make up their minds”. The first statement is an act of bi erasure, that is, erasing the existence of bisexuality and bi people’s identity. (Remember, erasing someone’s history or identity is an act of violence.) You can be an ally by saying, “I’m sorry but that is actually biphobic and to say that is to disrespect a person.” It is disrespectful because it means that you are invalidating something that they have spent a chunk of their life coming to terms with, not to mention having the courage to share with you. It is an act of trust for anyone to share something of this nature with someone else, so let us respect that trust.
At times bi people feel alone, without anybody to reach out to—just as other queer people do in the course of their lives. This isolation is felt as acutely and has as much of an impact on our psychological and social selves as it does for anyone who feels isolated. Studies done in some countries have shown that bi people suffer worse than straight and lesbian/gay peers on every count of physical, mental, social and economic well-being including behaviours like substance abuse and attempts at self-harm. Bi people are also as likely as other queer individuals to suffer sexual harassment at the workplace. Part of the reason for all of this is a prevalent culture of biphobia, bi-erasure and monosexism (the idea that a person can only truly be attracted to people of one gender). Through childhood, adolescence and adulthood we are indoctrinated with the harmful idea that bisexuality is a myth, leading to a high degree of self-doubt and low self esteem. So when we do reach out to the larger queer community to be part of something bigger than ourselves, imagine what it does if we are made to feel less-than, or that we are fence-sitters (between straight and not-straight). The truth is closer to how one bi-identified person put it: bisexuality is a place in its own right. We decidedly and consciously occupy that space.
The “Bi” (Latin for “two”) in bisexual, bi identity, bi politics, bi visibility, bi erasure and biphobia does not imply any sort of surrender to or endorsement of a gender binary. The bi community has — for a long time now — in its definition of bisexuality and the discourse around it, understood the bi as standing for potential or actual attraction to genders ‘similar to and different from oneself’. So, if someone describes themselves or the community using the term bi, they are in no way excluding any person no matter where this person stands off or on the gender spectrum. We also welcome anyone who wishes to come under the bi umbrella to do so, because the bi community is about so much more than just bisexual behaviour (i.e. being involved physically with people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time). It is a way of seeing the world, our place in it, the role of gender in it and a way of doing politics. A way that recognises the fluid or stable desire many of us feel for people of more than one gender identity or expression and the implications this has for sexual freedom and diversity, gender justice, and human rights.
If you are still not convinced and look at it as an in-between space, then here’s some good news: it is a space with a great deal of creative and political potential. Brenda Howard, sometimes described as the “mother of pride”, was a bi person (as were many other fine people throughout history). According to some theorists and activists, being bi is an inherently radical category that resists cooptation into the normative. You can have the possibility of normative “gay marriage”. But what does “bi marriage” look like? In fact, statistically we are more likely than not to be in mixed-orientation relationships (in which one person is bi and the other is not). Bi erasure leads most people to conclude a person’s orientation based on the perceived gender of their partner(s), succumbing to the binary of gay or straight. Another couple of ways to be bi-inclusive: don’t do it. Keep the possibility of a person being bi open in your mind, regardless of the gender of their partner. Also, do not automatically assume a bi person is polyamorous. There are no studies at this point to indicate that bi people practising polyamory are any greater a percentage of their population than straight or gay people who practise polyamory are of theirs, though we do count polyamorous folks among both members as well as strong allies of our community.
All of this is to suggest the many ways there are of being bi and how these are all valid, but have an underlying commonality. Some people are bi only for a segment of their lives and after a point no longer identify as that. It does not mean that the period when they were bi was a lie, nor does it discount the fact that many of us are able to come into the identity only later in life, and then choose to stick to the bi label for life because it feels like home. Many pansexual folks (desiring people of all or no genders) do consider themselves to be part of the bi and bi+ community, and others don’t—both are valid. This idea of desire is something we recognise and articulate within ourselves in different ways, but recognising that potential sets us free of many of the pigeon-holes we might otherwise slot ourselves into. It empowers us in different ways. Either not to assign primacy or centrality to other people’s gender if that feels most natural to us, or if gender is integral to how we live and desire and see the world, to recognise and celebrate the essence of what makes you you or me, me.
So, this Bi Visibility Day/Week/Month, make yourself a promise to act in ways that support and empower bi people rather than discriminate against us or put us on the defensive. Maybe here’s something you can do: get to know a bi person and listen to what they have to say. While you’re at it, share your own story with them — we could all do with learning more about each other’s lives.
Note: Many in the community prefer to use “bi” over “bisexual”, as it is a more inclusive term, and identifying as bi is independent of one’s sexual behaviour. Ace (asexual) people for example may identify as bi, or someone could be bi-romantic and not necessarily bisexual.