I first told my friends I was bisexual when I was in Year Seven. Since then I’ve heard so many iterations and combinations of the following, from people far less accepting than my 12-year-old friends. ‘Do you want to have a threesome with me and my girlfriend?’ ‘No, you mean you’re confused about your sexuality.’ ‘Bisexuality is a cop-out. At least have the guts to come out fully like I did.’ ‘Sure, everybody’s kind of bisexual, aren’t they?’
Bisexuality is a difficult identity to inhabit. Bisexual people in relationships are read as straight or gay; there are no visible markers of bisexuality. While normative gay and lesbian scripts are performed (as well as troubled) through dress, speech, mannerisms, etc. we don’t know what a bisexual person looks like.
This is a key factor in the phenomenon that Christopher James, drawing on Adrienne Rich’s idea of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, has termed ‘compulsory monosexuality’: the assumption that people are generally attracted to one gender. Bisexual wom*n in relationships with men are assumed to be heterosexual; those in relationships with wom*n are read as lesbians. Bisexuality is seen as an unstable, ephemeral phenomenon only accessible to single individuals, devolving into the stable categories of gay or straight upon entering relationships. This invisibility permeates cultural texts, which have a critical dearth of bisexual characters — Piper’s insistence in Orange is the New Black that she ‘used to be a lesbian’, but no longer is, springs to mind.We need more films like Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour, with characters openly and consistently identifying as bisexual, rather than just confused or experimental.
It is important to note that stereotypes of bisexuality can also intersect with other aspects of identity. Bi folk are often characterised as promiscuous and hypersexualised, a stereotype no doubt heightened for wom*n of colour. They are also seen as duplicitous, fickle and indecisive — elements that also play into common misunderstandings of trans identities.
While any stereotype is inherently limiting, those constructed around bisexuality have particularly pernicious effects for folks with intersectional identities. Homonormativity pervades constructions of bisexuality, too – the stereotype of a bisexual person, probably a young, attractive, white, cis wom*n, obscures diversity. It titillates male sexuality while it conceals the need to investigate manifold experiences of biphobia, stratified by race and gender, amongst other factors.
Another factor driving the erasure of bisexual individuals is the lack of communities specifically organised around bisexual folks. Although the ‘B’ is always present and central in LGBTQIA+ nomenclature, it is often absent in communities and physical spaces. This is partly a function of the active erasure of bisexual identities and the bizarrely pervasive idea that ‘bisexuality just isn’t a thing’, a catch cry I’ve heard from both gay and straight friends. There is a lacuna of bisexual communities addressing shared and specific experiences of bisexuality, yet new groups are forming – for example, the Sydney-based Bi, Pan & Fluid Network.
April Callis, writing in the Journal of Bi-Sexuality, locates bisexuality at a critical juncture, an ‘ideal starting place for deconstruction’ of gender and sexual binaries. Bisexuality poses a challenge to queer theory, which understands sexualities as constituted by performance of cultural scripts yet largely centres the experiences of gay men and lesbian wom*n. Thus, queer theory caters largely to homonormative standpoints, whereas bisexuality undermines hegemonic scripts by embracing the fluidity and ambiguity of desire.
The term can certainly be read as problematic in its reification of the gender binary and exclusion of trans and non-binary folks as objects of desire, driving some folk to adopt the term ‘pansexual’ or the catch-all ‘queer’. I have struggled greatly with this aspect of the term, but for now, to borrow Andy Mason’s terminology, ‘bisexual’ is the pair of boots that fits me best. I just wish others would recognise them as real, sturdy, good boots, rather than discardable, flimsy and fake.