[@TwkLGBTQ] On being invisible

Look at almost any privilege checklist and you will see that a significant proportion of the items have to do with visbility or otherwise.

  • As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default. (Male privilege)
  • I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented. (Male privilege)
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. (White privilege)
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. (White privilege)
  • I do not have to fear revealing my sexual orientation to friends or family. It’s assumed. (Straight privilege)
  • I am guaranteed to find sex education literature for couples with my sexual orientation. (Straight privilege)

Dominant groups in our society construct narratives about what is right, beautiful, true or important, and those narratives are so pervasive that it is easy to mistake them for fact, for “just the way things are”. Looking at our media, cultural output, political representatives or other influential people, a statistically-minded Martian would be hard-pressed to conclude that the human race consists of anything other than white, heterosexual, cis, middle-class, middle-aged men. Looking at Tory suggestions for the brave new history curriculum, a schoolgirl may struggle to see that women have ever contributed anything of value to our society, not to mention LGBT people, brown people, or – *gasp* – poor people.
This kind of invisibility is not only a form of oppression, it is perhaps the worst form of oppression. Invisibility limits our imagination of what is possible. It makes us think that we and people like us have nothing valuable to offer. It makes us think that the things that matter to us are not valuable or important. It limits our desires and ambitions. Most damagingly, invisibility makes us doubt the validity of our own experiences.
We all have experiences that to us are a big deal. They shape us and define us. Sometimes they don’t feel quite right; sometimes we instinctively know that they are exactly right. Yet the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge them or name them. Sophia Collins makes a great point on this with regards to pregnancy. Pregnancy – something which nearly 50% of the human population on this planet experience at some point in their lives – is so marginalised that most of us have no idea what to expect until we’re in the middle of it.

Yet we relegate pregnancy to specialist magazines and the occasional feature in the women’s section. Many people will probably have skipped over this column, thinking that making future human beings is petty and parochial. Not to be compared to IMPORTANT ISSUES like the economy and politics. We marginalise pregnancy and ignore it.

An example closer to home for me is bi invisibility. Non-monosexual identities seem to really confuse monosexual people (both straight and gay), and that confusion leads to denial and erasure of our existence. Being so invisible in turn makes it incredibly easy to internalise biphobia – to think that it’s normal, that that’s just how things are. We let biphobic incidents small and large – from comments like “I just can’t imagine being attracted to both men and women” to scientific studies trying to prove or disprove our existence – slide, because in the narrative of the dominant group they are so normal that we struggle to imagine an alternative.
I am often asked – and I am guilty of asking others – to quantify the impact of biphobia and make it tangible for others; give personal examples of actions that have had a negative impact on me as a bisexual. I struggled with this for a very long time. It was only once I started talking to bisexual friends and we started comparing notes that I realised that I was not alone. I was not the only one for whom things felt slightly off, who heard these comments and thought there was something wrong with them even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly. When you’re invisible, sometimes you don’t even see that you’re oppressed.
Any effort to change the dominant narrative and to make the invisible visible is to be welcomed. Initiatives like Black History Month, Women’s History Month and LGBT History Month are invaluable to our communities. Women sharing their stories of pregnancy and abortion, rotation curation accounts like @TWkLGBTQ, and even the one dissenting voice – they all help us see that we are not alone, that we are not invisible. They show us that people like us can and have contributed something of value. They show us that the things that matter to us matter to others too. They give us badly needed role models and stories we can identify with.
Yet we need to strive for more. We need to strive to change the narrative of what is right and beautiful and important and true. We need to make sure our stories are everywhere, not consigned to one month of the year, one website, one Twitter account. We – all of us who have at one point or another been made invisible – need to make it clear that we have every right to – we expect – our stories to be told on an equal footing with those of others, we expect to be valued and included, and we expect to be listened to. Only then can the oppression of invisibility be lifted.
A few interesting thoughts from the discussion on bi invisibility over on @TwkLGBTQ.
Here’s the thing about bi invisibility: if people assume that your sexual orientation corresponds to the gender of the person you’re currently dating that’s quite a clever trap. If you’re monogamous, you’re not bisexual. If you’re polyamorous, you’re clearly a filthy slut and we will judge you for it. And as someone else pointed out, “if you’re single and not looking you may as well not exist at all, because apparently it doesn’t count if you don’t act on it.”
At least one person said bi invisibility had made growing up very difficult for them, as they knew about straight and gay people, but neither of those explained the feelings they had.
Erasure and invisibility comes from both the gay and the straight community. I don’t think I’ve been to a single LGB(T) event where at least one speaker hasn’t talked of “lesbians and gays” (most recently Yvette Cooper MP, discussing marriage equality at the Stonewall Workplace conference). This used to make me feel like a fraud – like wasn’t “gay enough” and had not right to be there.
In fact the political discourse around a lot of recent developments – marriage equality, DOMA, DADT, etc. – was brought up by a few people. It’s almost like no one thinks that any of these pieces of legislation will have any effect on bisexual people at all.
We also talked about using invisibility as a shield, because sometimes the environments we’re in just aren’t safe enough, and invisibility is the lesser of two evils.
Invisibility can also foster a climate where homophobia and biphobia thrive. A few people brought up workplace situations where people made homophobic comments which probably would not be made if the person was out. This is of course a vicious cycle – the last thing you want to do if someone’s not-so-subtly let you know that they’re a homophobe is come out.
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