Discussions of biphobia often hinge on the fact that people on the bi/pan spectrum experience double-exclusion – both from the heteronormative world and from the gay and lesbian-focussed LGBTQIA+ world. As these two sets of cultural standards exist on different plains, those who find themselves straddling both worlds because of their orientation face a double challenge.
Rejection from LGBTQIA+ spaces is painful for bi/pan people because although these spaces claim to be inclusive, biphobia can be perpetuated within them. The first part of our Bi Week series will consider how this affects bi/pan participation in LGBTQIA+ communities.
*A note on terminology: This post will not discuss definitions of non-monosexual identifiers (including bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, and queer), but use ‘bi’ or ‘bi/pan’ frequently to describe those attracted to multiple genders, for the sake of shortness. Similarly, ‘queer’ will sometimes be used to refer to everything under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. For specific definitions, click here.
The spectre of straightness
Interviewing bi/pan people, I first asked whether or not they have ever felt excluded from an LGBTQIA+ space because of their orientation, and most had incidents and anger to share.
The common theme emerged of biphobia in queer spaces as a reaction to perceived straightness. People can be perceived as straight because of their gender expression and sense of style, because of the partner they are with or their romantic and sexual history, or because they don’t explicitly and repeatedly name their queerness (this erasure can happen to anyone on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum). They are then treated with suspicion by people in the community.
One bisexual woman who has a long-term male partner says:
“I sometimes feel like I’m not gay enough, ostentatiously queer or butch enough, angry enough to be part of these spaces… I’ve found some LGBTQIA+ and particularly LGBTQIA+ adjacent spaces (e.g. feminist spaces, human rights-y spaces, PFLAG type groups) safe and welcoming but have found myself pretty much disengaging from LGBTQIA+ exclusive spaces due to how uncomfortable I feel in them.”
Amy, who identifies as bi and pan interchangeably, describes a disenchanting experience she had at a popular gay bar in Glasgow:
“I was talking to two girls outside, and told them I was bisexual. Straight away they told me I was ‘definitely straight’ and that if I wanted to fit in more in the club I would have to ‘look more like a lesbian’.”
One bi man struggles with the assumptions made about him and his long-term girlfriend at certain queer events:
“The thing that bothered me most about hearing [biphobic] things at events is that I would end up not feeling comfortable going with my girlfriend and acting like a couple with her, to the point where we would both avoid holding hands, kissing or flirting with each other so that we could prevent looking like a straight couple who had invaded this space dedicated to people JUST LIKE US. More often than not, we will just avoid these mainstream events all together because we can’t be bothered with the hassle of worrying what people are thinking. Why wouldn’t I want to go and enjoy these spaces with my girlfriend when we are both bisexual?”
Being seen with a different-gender partner is not the only way bi identities can be erased. Charlotte finds that having her trans identity recognised comes at the cost of her bi identity:
“I am trans so I think the common assumption is that I am accessing the space for that reason. There seems to be a perception that each person is just one of the “letters” when in fact we can be several.”
Passing as a privilege?
The fact that passing as straight can be a type of privilege arises as a matter of contention in bisexual discourse. The argument goes that bi people in mixed-gender relationships may not experience the fear of backlash that they do in same-gender relationships because their sexuality is inconspicuous and possibly unspoken. However this attitude assumes that bisexuals solely benefit from passing, when often the erasure of their queerness is detrimental to their sense of identity, relationships, and mental health.
One bi woman describes how much effort it takes to assert her bi identity when the world assumes she is straight:
“I find myself becoming accidentally closeted again and that’s really uncomfortable, and when I out myself some people don’t seem to get why it’s important to me because I ‘have a man’. My boss the other day said something about ‘the LGBT agenda’ to me, assuming I was straight – do I have that conversation in that moment, or in a few weeks’ time? If I wait, will he feel I misled him because I disclosed my romantic relationship status but not my sexuality? They know my boyfriend – will they ask him inappropriate questions because of my sexuality?”
My own experience of passing is mixed as a bi woman who is occasionally perceived as male. When your gender is ambiguous to others, the notion of passing as straight loses all logic. The absurdity of other people’s perceptions was highlighted for me when I was in public with a male partner and someone yelled ‘gayboys!’ from a passing car. Even mixed gender relationships can’t always help us avoid discrimination.
Rob articulates the problem with judging sexuality based on appearances:
“I think this [idea of straight-passing privilege] presupposes that any one in a heterosexual relationship will ‘pass’ purely because they are in said relationship, however I feel that in many cases as a less traditionally masculine cis man I would struggle to pass if at any point separated from my hypothetical partner solely because of the shallow stereotypes people tend to use to identify queer people from outward appearance.”
Seb agrees that it’s unhelpful to put weight on appearance alone when discussing the visibility of sexuality:
“While different-gender couples may seem conspicuous in LGBTQIA+ environments for appearing (relatively) straight, the same cannot be said for their appearance on the street or other public spaces, where they may still seem noticeably queer in comparison to the wider public.”
‘Passing’ arguments are often used as a way of silencing complex LGBTQIA+ experiences as opposed to helping people understand their nuanced privileges.
Tomorrow’s post will consider further difficulties faced by bi/pan people and ways in which things could be improved.
Words by Ellen MacAskill