The only bisexual in the village

I remember my first Stonewall Workplace Conference, maybe in 2006. We had spent most of the day discussing issues of “lesbians and gays” in the workplace when a woman interrupted one of Ben Summerskill’s keynotes to point out that we weren’t just “lesbians and gays” – some of us were bisexual. That was the moment I stopped feeling like a fraud for being there.
Despite the huge progress we have made over the past ten years in LGB (and to an extent T) rights in the UK, bisexual invisibility is still a huge issue. The Bisexuality Report found that bisexual invisibility, biphobia and bisexual exclusion have a profound impact on bisexual people’s lives in every area from health and crime to school and the workplace.
Fast forward to this year’s Stonewall Workplace Conference. There was a strong theme of role modelling going through most of the keynote speeches. Perhaps I am also more sensitive to it, having attended last year’s brilliant Stonewall Leadership Programme. One remark in particular, by Beth Brooke from Ernst & Young struck me: “We cannot be what we cannot see.” That sentence really rang true for me and reminded me of the woman who stood up at the same conference six years ago and pointed out that some of us were, you know, bisexual. That woman gave me a voice.
At any rate, I was delighted to see that Stonewall have produced a booklet in which they showcase 17 high-profile LGB individuals from across the private, public and third sectors, “Role Models – Being Yourself: Sexual Orientation and the Workplace”. I leafed through it on the train home after the conference, and the part of my brain that notices that less than a quarter of people travelling in business class are women, or that there are very few ethnic minority faces at an event, started ticking. When I counted, it turned out that there were eight lesbians, eight gay men, and one bisexual man profiled in the book.
I completely understand the challenges of coming out as bisexual. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you enter into a relationship with someone of a gender different to the people you’ve previously dated, some of your friends, gay and straight, may feel terribly betrayed. If you do explicitly identify as bisexual regardless of who you’re going out with, you’ll face reactions ranging from “Why are you flaunting your sexuality?” to “Don’t be stupid. You’re not bisexual, you’re married!” There is also a significant gender difference in how society views bisexual people. Bisexual women are to an extent more “accepted” but also considerably more fetishised than bisexual men. (The answer is no, I don’t want to have a threesome with you and your girlfriend.) Certainly in my experience that leads to more out bisexual women than men, but I haven’t got hugely scientific data sets on this.
I do have huge respect for Edward Lord OBE who was brave enough to take on the mantle of the one bisexual role model in Stonewall’s booklet. He tells a story that may ring true for many of us – how coming out as gay wasn’t half as dramatic as coming out as bisexual, how at least one of his friends stopped speaking to him after that, how his second coming-out was necessitated by him entering a relationship with a woman, how before that he had hidden his true sexuality “within the broader gay closet”.
It’s as good a story as any, but that’s the problem with it – it is just a single story. The booklet tells the story of the lesbian mother; the black Welsh gay man; the lesbian disability rights campaigner; the gay head teacher whose Irish Catholic family disowned him when he came out; the lesbian woman who grew up in Singapore where homosexuality is illegal; the gay soldier who with his partner celebrated the first civil partnership in the Household Cavalry’s 350-year history; the gay scientist from a northern Methodist mining family; the first openly gay peer ever; the lesbian former vice chair of the Conservative Party.
While sexual orientation is a reasonably significant part of some people’s identity (both straight and not, incidentally), it is not our only defining characteristic. Just because someone happens to be of the same sexual orientation as me doesn’t mean that their experiences are similar enough for me to be able to build a rapport with them and see them as a role model. Therefore providing a range of people with varying backgrounds and experiences is crucial if lesbian, gay and bisexual people are to find role models among the individuals Stonewall have profiled.
Equally, it is unfair on Edward Lord to cast on him all of the responsibility of being the one person that all bisexual people should look up to. That’s a role no one can be expected to play with any level of comfort. So where are the bisexual women? Where are the bisexual people in long-term relationships – the “don’t be stupid, you’re married!” ones and the “don’t be stupid, you have a civil partner” ones? Where are the ethnic minority bisexuals, the bisexuals whose families cast them out, and the bisexuals whose families accepted them? There is more than one bisexual story, and both bisexual people ourselves and those who tell us that we’re married/it’s just a phase/we’re only seeking attention need to hear those stories.
There isn’t a simple answer to all of this. For as long bisexuals continue to be invisible and face the potential of double discrimination, few of us will raise our heads above the parapet; yet unless more of us do so, we will continue to be invisible and biphobia will continue to go unchallenged. To an extent it is up to us to fix this by being more open, more visible, more honest about who we are.
Some of the responsibility, however, has also to be shouldered by Stonewall. They claim to speak for all of us – L, G and B. Yet reading the “Role Models” booklet made me feel a bit like I did back at the conference in 2006 – tokenised at best, silenced and invisible at worst. We cannot be what we cannot see.

One thought on “The only bisexual in the village

  1. Peter Emuss

    Just the other night, I was at a rugby party with some friends that I hadn’t seen in a very long time and brought up the fact that I was bi. They hadn’t heard, which effectively made it coming out. One of them didn’t genuinely didn’t understand why I’d said anything – he wasn’t being mean or nasty about it, he just genuinely didn’t understand why I’d say it when I was married.
    I explained to him that I wanted anyone who was gay or bi in our team or who joined it to not have to deal with an apparent 100% straight and potentially hostile wall. I think the problem had never, ever occurred to him.
    PJW

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