“The Gay Part of You”: On Biphobia and Why We Need to Speak Up

by Holly on July 28

People are talking about queer issues more than ever before. Gay marriage has been on the global political agenda for some years now, elevating the conversation on equal love to the level of government policy. The mainstream press is jumping on the queer-positive bandwagon, and it seems every other day a different celebrity is coming out, speaking up or declaring themselves an ally. This gives me tingles of hope and happiness all over because more exposure means more dialogue, and that’s how change happens. So, in the name of change, let’s talk about bisexuality and biphobia.

Recently I attended a professional development course run by a LGBTQI health organisation. The aim of the course was to educate professionals about LGBTQI issues and to increase empathy via experiential learning so that participants might perform their work in a more inclusive and sensitive way. I was thrilled to learn that workplaces are finally having these conversations.

I bobbed along enthusiastically as the trainer encouraged our group – mostly white, heterosexual women – to consider events in their lives that left them feeling different, alone or misunderstood. I was pleased to see that attention was paid to transgender, gender diverse and intersex issues with clear explanations given as to what these terms mean. Perhaps most importantly, emphasis was placed on the lived experience of discrimination and its impact on mental and physical health and wellbeing.

The glaring statistic was this: bisexual people experience the worst mental health outcomes, including self-harm and addiction issues, and the highest rates of sexual coercion among all LGBTQI people. This is a finding in western countries around the world. Most bothersome was that the trainer dropped this fact in passing and with no discussion of the causes. Biphobia, the term and the lived experience, was entirely left out of the training programme.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean to ignite debate about who is the more special snowflake. I feel strongly that we are a joint cause; however, that doesn’t mean that our experiences are the same.

We’ve been lumped together because we deviate from heteronormative rules. This is okay, but if we are going to have meaningful conversations about the lived experience of difference, then we can’t gloss over certain groups simply because it feels too complicated to give equal and sufficient attention to each.

I approached the trainer at end of the course and put it to them directly. They are a leader in their field, after all, and I wanted to hear their thoughts on biphobia and the rationale for its exclusion from the training material.

The answer, apparently, was simple. In their words, “it is the gay part of you that heterosexist society takes issue with, therefore the discrimination you experience is homophobia.” Oh, if only it were that simple! They went on to say, “we could just keep adding more letters of the alphabet but where would that get us?” – Obviously a completely irrelevant statement to our conversation. The trainer also felt the need to point out that “not many people identify as bisexual,” as if to explain why biphobia as a term is not particularly important. Did I need to train the trainer about how marginalisation works?

The whole thing stunk of a big old pile of in-fighting and I walked away feeling sad.

Let’s make some things clear. Bisexual people are NOT part gay and part straight; we are fully bisexual. Speaking about bisexuality in this way suggests that bisexual people experience some sort of internal split. It suggests that we inhabit distinct heterosexual and gay identities that are somehow glued together but don’t make a coherent whole. It is this sort of thinking that leads to the very stereotypes about bisexual people we need to combat.

A lesbian lover once said to me, innocently enough, “I don’t why you would choose to be with a woman if you could just as easily be with a man. Life is so much easier when you’re straight.” Unfortunately, she is right: life is easier when you’re straight. However, statements like this miss the point entirely.  The attraction that bisexual people have for both genders is no more of a choice than my ex-lover’s attraction to women. To use a crude analogy, we simply like chocolate as well as strawberry. That doesn’t make us greedy or incapable of enjoying one flavour at a time, nor does it mean that we just haven’t yet admitted to ourselves that we secretly only like one.

What is true is that some people are attracted to both genders, and their experiences of discrimination are unique because of this fact. What the trainer did not pause to consider is that it is our very bi-ness that monosexual people seem to take issue with. Contrary to the argument rife within queer circles that bisexual people hold heterosexual privilege and are better off because of it, the fact that bisexual people are not either/or but both/and only compounds the discrimination and marginalization that they face. Not only do they experience heterosexism but also monosexism, leading to feelings of exclusion from the straight community and the queer community as well.

The data on the health outcomes and rates of sexual coercion among bisexual people speaks for itself, and yet we seem to fail to really address bisexual issues in our social and political discourses. Too often bisexuality is a mere afterthought.

But there are some things we can do about it.

People who identify as bisexual can choose to speak up. People tend to assume the sexuality of others based on the gender of the person they are in a relationship with. While this is understandable and mostly harmless in practise — humans innately struggle with what they perceive as ambivalence, and we default to shortcuts to make life easier — these assumptions contribute to the invisibility and erasure of bisexual identities and experiences.

I choose to call myself bisexual. While the details of my personal life are just that — personal — I’ve made the decision to describe myself this way for a reason. That is, my sexuality is not accidental. I don’t identify with labels like pansexual or omnisexual because my sexual attraction to men and women is more exacting than those terms connote. I find men’s bodies, voices, and mannerisms attractive. I also find women’s bodies, voices, and mannerisms attractive, and I find them attractive for different reasons and in different ways.

Next, people in research and education need to start questioning why the health outcomes for bisexual people are so abysmal, and, with the support of the broader queer community, look at how we can elevate their platform. We are meant to be allies, after all.

Finally, maybe it would help if all of us went back and started from the point of view that sexuality and gender identity do, in fact, occur on a spectrum. Perhaps then we will be more accepting of the complexity and variety of people’s responses, affections and desires. It is natural to want to simplify life in order to make it more manageable, but in doing so, we risk robbing life of its richness and authenticity.

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Holly

Holly is a social worker, writer and social justice advocate. She became interested in personal development in her early 20s when she stumbled across a web forum where she met members of the Spiraling Up crew. Holly is interested in psychology, spirituality and astrology. She currently resides in Victoria, Australia where she works full-time as a support worker and plays with spoken word and written poetry.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Rawlinson July 29, 2015 at 12:34 am

Congratulations, Holly, an interesting and well-argued position. It makes a lot of sense and I hope it gets people thinking about the complexity of life and love. I am very interested to hear more.

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Elissa July 29, 2015 at 12:55 am

Thank you Holly. I had no idea of the high rate of biphobia and self-harm among those who identify as bisexual. I’ve always described my sexuality as fluid – I’m attracted to people, not gender. But after reading this article, I’m going to claim and own my bi-sexuality 😊

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Holly July 29, 2015 at 11:38 pm

Thank you, Elissa!

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Jacqueline July 29, 2015 at 1:02 am

I wish we could send your essay to the training organisation, Holly – I think it would be very helpful for them to hear this perspective, and in turn, very helpful to future participants in their training!

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Holly July 30, 2015 at 12:23 am

I wish we could, too, Jackie! I hope they at least somewhat took on my feedback in my conversations and emails with them. We’ll see..

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Amy July 29, 2015 at 1:07 am

Great piece, Holly. I can’t believe that a leader in a professional organization would display so much ignorance about the very cause she’s fighting for. Guess it shows how pervasive biphobia and ignorance really are.

Very courageous discussion for you to put forth here!

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Jason July 29, 2015 at 5:37 am

Yes bravo Holly on a very well thought out call to enlightenment. My thoughts on the problem definitely parallel yours. I.e. mass ‘pop’ approaches to straight and LGBTQI culture is the problem and where fear is the force behind forming these. The divisive force that would conquer. Especially in Australia where there is such an extreme polarization within socio-political groups. Although I’m straight I’m definitely an ally of such nuances of identity and watching such conflict between brothers and sisters has been heart breaking. I have considered moving to Europe so many times but, of course, that would be a cop out.

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Holly July 30, 2015 at 7:21 am

Thanks, Jas 🙂

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Sophia July 29, 2015 at 8:50 pm

Correction: bi people have the worst mental health outcomes amongst LGB people. Trans people still do way worse than them…

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Holly July 29, 2015 at 11:37 pm

I presumed the same, Sophia, but that’s not what I found in my research.

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Sophia August 11, 2015 at 10:13 am

I would be shocked if bisexual suicide rate was as high as 41%. Do you have any sources showing that?

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jo July 30, 2015 at 12:41 pm

I wish i could understand why so many people get hung-up on other peoples attractions. I wish i could understand why these people think it is any of their business who other people are attracted to. Who cares who loves who, or who is attracted to who. Let people love (and/or have sex with) who they want to. This anger and negativity aimed at same-sex attracted and bi-sexual attraction is such a wasted emotion and could be aimed at more appropriate concerns, like, for example, idiot dentists who shoot magestic animals for fun.

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Sue Rawlinson July 31, 2015 at 7:34 am

I totally agree, Jo, I don’t understand it either. It can only be that it threatens their own sense of themselves as sexual beings in some way.

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Holly July 31, 2015 at 8:50 am

Thanks, Jo! Truth, you speak it!

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jo August 2, 2015 at 1:34 pm

And i still ponder this point, as to why my choice of who i love threatens anyone else. What is so threatening about love? What is so threatening about sexual activity ( which generally takes place in private/secluded places). If i dont care what my neighbours are doing and whom they are doing it with and in what style, why should they care what i am doing?

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Sharon Wall August 1, 2015 at 12:49 am

Proud of you darling girl for presenting this information in this way . Hard to accept that organisations and people arguing for the rights of “disenfranchised groups” create their own isms by their exclusion of information (or misinformation) of the people they are mean to be representing. Brave people like yourself then ensure that ongoing equity by standing up , being loud , being proud and being heard.

ps my perusal belief is people fall in love with people – i.e. not gender, not culture, not socio economic group , not religion : not anything – just people + people = love (if it was only so simple) xx

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Holly August 5, 2015 at 8:15 am

I couldn’t agree more, Shaz. xx

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Sally Goldner September 9, 2015 at 12:22 am

Great article…and I would only need 2 guesses maximum to work out which of 2 so -called LGBTIQ organisations was the culprit

Either way, it is damaging. Enough people know now when fundamentalist anti-LGBTIQ types are talking nonsense and can call it out. Thing is, when a so-called LGBTIQ organisation gets it wrong people are less likely to question it.

So it’s important to stand up to this sort of inaccuracy.

So , having done the totally appropriate thing of trying to engage the “trainer” is it then time to “name and shame?”

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