Every September, when Bisexual Awareness Week begins, publications that claim to be devoted to covering LGBTQ issues as a whole suddenly remember the B. Many of these publications cover stories related to the stigmas bisexual people face and cultural issues specific to bisexual people. Then, once the month ends, they often forget to include bisexual people in their stories for the rest of the year.
I usually try to write something this time of year about the higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse bisexual people experience, and how they are likelier to be victims of abuse and sexual violence.
But still, these are just concepts and numbers for most people. This year, I want to share some of my experiences as a bisexual woman, in the hope that perhaps I can make it clear why we need to keep stigmas about bi people in check, why these stigmas are so harmful, and why we should recognize that bi people have just as much of a right to be part of the community as anyone else.
My conversations with gay, lesbian, and straight people lead me to believe that most people simply don’t think that bisexual people struggle with their identity in the ways that gay and lesbian people do. Instead, they think I happened upon my bisexuality in an attempt to be “edgy.” My experiences have surely been different, but they haven’t been carefree.
Throughout middle school and high school, I didn’t talk to most people, and being bi played a role in that. I was often quizzed about my sexuality, and people would whisper about my queerness as they walked past me. I don’t know how they knew. But when other girls joked about being romantically involved with each other, I reacted with great awkwardness, and although I avoided talking to everyone, straight boys were the group I avoided talking to most. One day in eleventh grade, as I worked on my high school paper, an athlete intensely asked if I were a lesbian. In his mind, there was no other explanation — I had to be a lesbian, since I clearly “hated” boys, as if loving women is simply a way to hurt and punish boys and men.
I felt scared every time I walked into the gym locker room, knowing that the few out bisexual or gay girls were constantly badgered for allegedly looking at other girls’ bodies while we changed. For this reason, I kept my eyes fixed on my locker door, afraid to engage in any conversation. Even though our culture often assumes queerphobia is something men are uniquely responsible for, women can also be incredibly queerphobic. Many straight women see queer women as a challenge to them, their values, and their place in society and will punish queer women with the same venom straight men reserve for queer men. Toxic masculinity affects women too, it should be said.
It took years for me to fully understand that much of my dislike of high school was connected to the fact that I was constantly hiding from everyone. I was hiding from straight people, but I was also hiding from many of my gay friends. From both groups, I only heard disparaging things about bisexual people. “Sure, he says he’s bisexual,” both straight and gay friends would say, “but everyone knows he’s gay.” After seeing this attitude reflected in popular television shows, it made sense that I should keep quiet. Coming out as bi meant no one would believe me anyway, so I just didn’t talk about sexuality and dating. It wasn’t until graduate school when a close friend told me she was bi that I felt empowered to tell my friends and most of my family and begin to pursue relationships with women.
When you tell other people you’re bisexual, they see your sexuality as a novelty — and it’s as if they need you to prove that you didn’t make it up. When did you first know, they ask, expecting you to substantiate that it wasn’t a late discovery. But not everyone knows at a young age where their sexuality falls, and that’s fine. Personally, I knew in childhood, and I can’t quite express exactly how I knew — but the bigger point is this: straight people never have to wrestle with the question of when they first knew they were straight, because their attractions are assumed to be natural.
Today, I continue to feel out of place at gatherings where all or most of the women present are straight. Although in groups of straight women, we’re both attracted to men, I can’t help but feel that I’m expected to erase my feelings about women to make straight women feel more comfortable. Often, when I mention attraction to women, eyes begin to roll or look away from me at some corner of the room, as if I’m just attempting to draw attention to myself. It’s as if people think my being bi is about making other people feel uncomfortable, instead of about comfortably being myself.
At the rare LGBTQ+ event or gathering that I attend, I am loath to mention attraction to men or a man I’m dating, lest I be considered the straight friend someone brought along. My presentation–bright lipstick, longer hair, dresses–already makes it difficult for me to attend an event without somehow explaining myself. As I sat at a table full of queer women one evening, one woman approached and said she didn’t know if we were the right group. “You all look straight to me,” she said.
At events full of straight people, I constantly come out as bi. At events full of queer people, I constantly come out as bi. But if I talk about my sexuality too little, I’m hiding. If I talk about it too much, I’m trying to use my sexuality to provoke a reaction from people. When you’re bi, it doesn’t matter how you disclose the fact, because the method is almost always perceived as calculated.
The questions people ask are different but also the same. I’m supposed to prove myself as sufficiently attracted to women and nonbinary people, as if the romantic and sexual worthiness of women and nonbinary people is difficult to comprehend. I’m sometimes expected to prove that bisexuality actually exists. If the person I’m talking to knew any bisexual person who had a sexual experience outside of a monogamous relationship, I’m supposed to answer for that too, as if bi people are responsible for every affair that has ever happened. As a professional writer, I often feel the need to prove to both straight and gay people that I can write about LGBTQ+ issues, when few people would question a gay cis man’s ability to write about issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
This is exhausting, even as a cisgender white woman, so I can only imagine it is extremely draining when someone holds a few different marginalized identities on top of being bisexual. In honor of Bisexual Awareness Week, I ask that you think about each time you ask a bisexual person to explain themselves to you, to justify the existence of their sexuality. It really isn’t hard to understand that people can be attracted to more than one gender. After all, there are so many other concepts we as Americans manage to grasp and even embrace — the existence of sandwiches made entirely of meat and cheese, tiny houses that are only for rich people, needlessly gendered consumer products, President Donald Trump — that surely, bisexuality shouldn’t require endless critique.