Reading my blog and other online presence, it's pretty difficult to miss that I'm bisexual. It's there on my Facebook profile (and no, not just because I enjoy those lesbian cruises ads so much), it's in my Twitter profile, and it's something I refer to in my blog posts fairly regularly. I spend some of my time in my day job championing LGBT causes in the workplace, and I am a trustee of Broken Rainbow, the UK national LGBT domestic violence charity. I have also been in a committed monogamous relationship with a man for the last ten years. This seems to confuse people.
Every so often someone asks The Question. The Question comes in many guises - "Why do you flaunt your sexuality?", "Why put that on your Twitter profile - is it really such a defining characteristic?", "But you're with Paul, so how does it matter?" Ultimately, though, it's the same question: "Why don't you just shut up and conform?" So here are some thoughts on bisexuality that may go some way towards answering The Question.
"Why are you involved in the company LGBT network?", a straight colleague asks me. "You're not lesbian, gay or..." The penny drops.
"Why are you involved in the company LGBT network?", a gay colleague asks me. "You're not lesbian, gay or..." The penny drops.
To both straight and gay people, I don't fit, I am invisible. There are common stereotypes about bisexuality. It's just an experimental phase and you'll settle down and be "normal" again eventually. This one's popular with straight people. Alternatively, you're just saying that until you're ready to admit that you're gay really. Unsurprisingly, this one's a favourite of the gay community. Such stereotypes make it easy to dismiss bisexuality, and sometimes bisexual people may find it easier not to correct assumptions of hetero- or homosexuality (depending on the relationship they're currently in). It certainly cuts down on the awkward questions from people who would never presume to ask of a straight friend or colleague that kind of intimate detail. ("Oh, so you've had sex with girls?") It cuts down on the accusations from the gay community that you're just making yourself socially acceptable, more like a straight person.
Finding visible bisexual role models is hard. Portrayal of LGB people in media is not great but improving (with portrayal of trans people being a whole different kettle of fish), though arguably the portrayal of bisexual characters in particular is lagging behind. It is often characterised by stereotypes like the character who's really gay but finds it more socially acceptable to identify as bi, or the "fashionably bi" young woman who's only doing it to get male attention. While we may see bisexual behaviour, few characters openly identify as bisexual, and this in turn fuels the stereotype that bisexuality is what you do rather than who you are.
So one part of my answer to The Question is that if I'm openly and visibly bisexual, I'll get the awkward questions, and I've more or less worked out how to deal with them. Maybe this will save someone else from having to deal with them further down the line. Maybe it will help other people who struggle with the invisibility of their identity.
"Assumed heterosexual" privilege
"My son saw me in a pink shirt this morning," my team leader says at the team meeting, "and said I looked like a right poof." Everyone laughs.
A side effect of bi-invisibility for those of us in "straight" relationships is "assumed heterosexual" privilege. On cursory inspection, we look like a duck and we quack like a duck so we're assumed to be ducks. An interesting consequence of this is that people will not self-censor their homophobia when speaking to us. When I was less visible about my sexual orientation, comments like the one above used to be a frequent occurrence in my environment. They were never directed at me, and that was almost worse. I can deal with being the direct target of discrimination and harassment; but being there in the room as those things were said made me feel complicit. So I started challenging them and started being a lot more visible as a bisexual and member of the LGBT community.
There are other "perks" of assumed heterosexual privilege. While they're not as extensive as the full heterosexual privilege list, they're still significant. I could, theoretically, be engaged and active on LGBT issues while "passing" as a straight ally. In some ways, it would lend me more credibility (see items 31 and 33 on the list). It would also make me feel fraudulent and dishonest. Pretty much all of the causes I'm engaged in, and all my writing, are personal to me in some way. To deny - or omit - my sexual orientation would be to deny part of who I am.
It's easy to forget, ignore and exclude bisexual people - deliberately or accidentally. I remember an instance where even Ben Summerskill, chief exec of Stonewall UK, got told off at a conference for consistently only referring to "lesbian and gay people". Those of us who are out and visible as bisexuals can help remind people that we are all still here, and that we need inclusion too!