I’ve been thinking about bisexuality. Identity, visibility, queerness, truth. I’ve been thinking about these things as I read and talk, as I work and watch and sleep. It’s an attempt to come home to myself, to call back the parts I have been lonely without.
On a visit to Melbourne for a festival, I experience anew the small thrill of thankfulness and determination that for me comes with being seen as queer; with being seen. I’m surprised to find my favourite thing about the fortnight I spend there is that in Melbourne I am new to everyone I meet. I am unfettered by assumptions they might make if they had more—but not complete—information. Here I am subject to different assumptions, ones that release me to the fullness of my identity.
I visit a market garden run by a friend of a friend. For a couple of hours we pull weeds together, haul the branches of spent eggplants into wheelbarrows, and talk. We have taken a read on each other, and at one point the farmer lowers her voice and says to me, It’s tough being queer in a rural area. When she says this, though the sentiment is unhappy, joyous sparks ricochet through my ribcage. Yes, I say. I get it.
In Melbourne I go to a tattoo studio where I am asked for my pronouns on the form I fill out when I arrive. Here I am she because I say so, not just because that’s how I look. I talk with the artist as they sketch the motif I’ve requested. We learn we know people in common, are both bicycle mechanics. It’s a small world, I say. It’s a small gay bike world, they counter. I can’t help grinning, for being unquestioningly grouped with other queer bike nerds, for the world I am allowed to claim.
It’s when my partner comes to visit for a weekend that I feel like an imposter. My hair is the same, my clothes are the same, my interests are the same, but now I’m visibly coupled with a man, and I feel excised from the community I had been comfortably a part of. I bring my partner with me when I visit the farmer again, and inexplicably I feel as if I’m betraying her; that I’m not who I allowed her to think I was. Why is it still so hard to reconcile, this bisexuality?
It was during 2017’s heinous and unnecessary same-sex marriage postal survey that I was shown the liveliness and the urgency of my own sexuality, after some years of keeping it tucked away, believing in the illusion that I’d made my choice. I regularly found myself in tears—of hope and fear and frustration and love—at things I saw and heard in the late months of 2017. I cried in the mall in front of rousing pro-equality advertisements, cried reading news stories of small country towns rallying in solidarity around their queers, cried hearing that my friend’s mum had finally proposed to her partner. I also burned with fury—at a leaflet in my letterbox claiming that boys would be forced to wear dresses to school, and at radio interviews with politicians and prominent Catholic figures who dug in their heels against the change of law.
All through the campaign I was struggling to pin down this pervasive feeling—one that tasted like a deep kind of loneliness, a solemn quietude in the noise of the debate and propaganda and heartache. And at the same time, I started waking with the imprint of vivid dreams. They were sexy dreams, of being intimate with women in ways gentle and wild. Some of these dream-partners were people I had known and crushed on, kissed or dated or shared breathy, sweaty dances with at parties. Others were nameless, faceless women, their ghostlike femininity itself being what I made love to. Some of these mornings I would wake on the edge of orgasm, and I would turn to my partner, press myself up against his warm skin and with closed eyes relive the ethereal encounters my subconscious had painted into my sleep.
It was a weighty, precious part of me that was being dredged up at this anxious time. It glinted knowingly, now that it again saw light. It questioned my decision to keep out of the way of this mess—to bring love and support to my queer friends while leaving my own queerness at home. Isn’t this about you, too? it asked.
I had thought I knew what it meant for me, a cis woman committed to a cis man, to identify as queer but to never really be seen that way. But at the same time my oppression was being emphasised by the debate, it was also surfacing in me a feeling that I shouldn’t be involved. My relationship, no matter the sexuality of its members, was already sanctioned by the state. I didn’t want to claim space in this battle when for so many people I cared about, the change in our country’s definition of marriage was critical for their relationships to be legally and socially accepted.
I read Quinn Eades’ beautiful and wrenching essays in The Lifted Brow, ‘I Can’t Stop Crying …’, about surviving the survey period as a trans man with a rainbow family. He writes, ‘I’m not thinking about the outcomes, and neither are my friends: We’re too busy guarding our own edges.’ My edges, of course, didn’t need such careful guarding. My family and my body were not in the harsh and unwavering spotlight. But Eades also writes, ‘I leak tears every time I see another person campaigning for no because they’re not campaigning for no to marriage for queer folk. They’re campaigning for no queer folk.’ And I could not deny that it was here I saw myself, here that my tears sprung from too.
• • •
A couple of years ago, arch-conservative commentator Andrew Bolt published a column in the Herald Sun titled ‘Safe Schools founder: Up to half of child are gay’ [sic]. If only we could laugh. What Roz Ward said, in a Victoria University Pride Week speech, was that around 40 to 50 per cent of young people ‘are not exclusively attracted to the opposite sex’. This is backed up by surveys both here and overseas—in particular by a 2015 report about ‘Generation Z’, in which only 48 per cent of 12- to 20-year-olds identified as exclusively heterosexual.
Bolt managed to turn Ward’s reasonable assertion into both a nonsensical statement, and one that swiftly denies bisexuality, by conflating any divergence from straightness as automatically ‘gay’. When I recently revisited the rant, it had been relabelled: ‘Up to half of children have gay leanings’.
This isn’t much better. What is a ‘leaning’ here? If being gay doesn’t encapsulate being bisexual, does being half gay? Does having a gay leaning? I don’t feel that I’m teetering across to gayness from the land of being straight. I wish it could be acknowledged that there are other places to stand.
It’s taken me a long time to identify comfortably as bi, in large part because of this very erasure. The word itself holds difficulty, too. I used to prefer ‘pansexual’, as I know many others do. I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t dividing the world into only women and men, and nor were the desires I felt guided by what might be in someone’s pants. But both these words mean different things to different people. I found myself circling back to ‘bi’ as I learned how the definition had shifted, now understood as an umbrella term for attraction to multiple genders. For me, ‘queer’ feels most right. But specificity can be important too, and it’s nice to call myself ‘bi’ and be mostly understood.
Still, I hesitate to do this sometimes. I’ve long had an awareness—garnered from my experiences in mainstream and queer communities, and from my exposure to bi representations in the broader culture—that people don’t like bisexuals. It’s been a struggle to acknowledge the way I’ve incorporated harmful myths and stereotypes about bisexuality into my own self-perception. This internalised prejudice is insidious, and difficult to detect.
I don’t expect Bolt or his readers to get bisexuality, or any sexuality really. But it isn’t just right-wing shock jocks who leave bi folks out of discussions of equality (see ‘gay marriage’). When bisexuality is acknowledged among queer identities, it’s often with reference to erasure, and the experience of invisibility that goes along with it. Just as my relationship with a man suggests to many people that I’m straight, a bisexual person who partners with someone of the same gender is assumed to be gay. Bisexual scholar Kenji Yoshino conceptualises this as ‘individual erasure’. We see it when bi celebrities get married and are labelled former lesbians or having turned gay. Anna Paquin famously had to defend her bisexual identity after marrying a man, telling Larry King, ‘I don’t think it’s a past-tense thing … It doesn’t really work like that.’
Yoshino also discusses the ‘categorical class erasure’ of bisexuality. This manifests in the widely held idea that bisexuality doesn’t really exist (‘Straight, Gay or Lying’, read the title of one infamous report). It is also evident in the design of research surveys, many of which allow respondents to identify only with the L, G, B or T, leading to a statistical erasure of trans bisexuality. From the perspective of categorical class erasure, a person’s timeline of bisexual behaviour might be dismissed as switching sides, experimenting or being in denial. ‘Bi now, gay later’ is a popular catchcry.
Then there are the negative stereotypes that are commonly associated with bisexuality (‘delegitimization’ is Yoshino’s term). If we absorb the view that not only are bi people mistaken or lying about our sexuality, but that we aren’t very good people, we might start to become active in our own erasure. We don’t want to be associated with what everyone ‘knows’ about bisexuals: that we’re hyper-sexual, cheating, duplicitous, manipulative. Even for those who don’t consciously subscribe to these bisexual stereotypes, their near-exclusive portrayal in pop culture makes them feel real.
Despite all this, bisexuals make up the largest sector of the queer community—around half, according to a number of surveys (mostly from the United States). A 2011 report from the Williams Institute indicates that bisexuals make up just over half the LGB population. Thirty-two per cent of trans folks identify as bisexual or pansexual, according to the 2015 US Transgender Survey Report. A series of surveys in 2015 by online analytics firm YouGov found that almost one-third of all 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States, and almost half of 18- to 24-year-olds in Britain, identified as ‘not entirely gay or lesbian or heterosexual’ (though of course this figure could include other identities such as asexuality, as well as those who haven’t figured it out yet).
What I want is to feel subversive in the face of all this, rather than feeling silenced. Isn’t there something wonderfully radical about eluding definition thanks to the choices I make in any given moment and about upending the very idea of being attracted to only one sex? I recognise that there are privileges associated with my having a male partner—being able to hold hands in public without fear is just one small example. But still I want to acknowledge and allow my queerness—not as dictated by the two genders in my relationship, but as an honest morsel of my world view, my history and my inner life.
• • •
There is a story about coming out I have been telling myself for some years. It goes: I never told my parents I was into girls because I never told them anything about my romantic or sexual life. The only relationships I told them about were the serious ones. I would have told my parents if I’d had a serious relationship with a woman. And then, I just don’t happen to have had a serious relationship with a woman.
I can see through this story now. I can dismantle what I once understood as cause and effect; I can rearrange their order. Why did my relationships with women not turn serious? Because I never approached them with that possibility in mind. Because I hadn’t fully declared myself. Because I hadn’t learned that was a thing I could do. There are a small number of women and non-binary people in my history whom I still think about—with whom I can imagine being myself for real, if only when I knew them. My catalogue of men holds no such unexplored avenues.
Just after high school, I went on a few dates with a girl who’d been making eyes at me all year. My relationship with my first boyfriend was in its final throes (there you have it: cheating, duplicitous) when I met her for a picnic under plane trees dripping with fruit bats. A few fumbling hangs later, she asked me on Messenger if we were ‘girlfriend and girlfriend’. I was properly single by this point, but still that phrase terrified me, a neon billboard announcing my arrival at a place I wasn’t ready for. I’d liked this girl all year, stolen glances at her from across our school’s computer room. I liked the cracked dry warmth of her lips on mine. I’d taken to wearing a red silk scarf she’d left at my house one night. But with those words blinking at me from the screen, the loopy g’s and rigid f’s, I found myself telling her no. We’d just be friends (experimenting, in denial).
In my second year of uni I went on exchange to Canada, and stayed for a year and a half. I was 18, living in Vancouver share houses with self-assured people who intimidated me but soon became wonderful friends. The release of distance and of being unknown allowed me to take risks with my queerness, but I couldn’t slide all the way into it. I got heart-racing crushes on people of various genders, but usually forged instead a quiet friendship, still too shy to make a move or receive an invitation for what it was. I crept into my uni’s queer hub, Out on Campus, and felt at home behind its windows plastered over with rainbow posters. I napped on its soft white couches, leafed through some of the library’s volumes, even sat in on some meetings, but I didn’t really talk to anyone. I just listened and watched and mulled.
I fell a little in love with a new friend. She was beautiful and interesting and kind, and I couldn’t get enough of her. Together we filled our bike baskets with foraged apples and wild berries, camped in the back yard of an abandoned house, danced in the kitchen while another friend played soaring soulful songs on her ukulele. I stayed at her house one night and she asked me if I’d like to sleep on the couch or share her bed. I was paralysed, and could only stammer. I couldn’t admit my feelings to myself, let alone to her. I feared anything she might say in response. I feared losing the friendship, the innocent adventure.
In Canada I felt both freer and lonelier than I ever had. I was somewhat comfortable and open in my sexuality, but that didn’t make me any better at interacting with other people. Rather, it brought me new responsibilities that I didn’t know how to handle. When I came home to Australia I retained the awkwardness and lost some of the motivation. I was tired of coming out and being expected to know what I was doing. It was easier to go out with boys, to engage in competitions of who could care the least. When I fell in love with a gentle and wonderful man, I didn’t hesitate.
Now, from a safe distance, I can pose some questions. What if I’d had strong bi or pan role models? What if I could find reassurance that being attracted to multiple genders was real and valid? What if I’d learned, early on, an inclusive definition of bisexuality such as this one from bisexual activist and scholar Robyn Ochs:
I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.
Look at that: neither desire nor behaviour has to be equally distributed between genders over time. There is room to move here; space to understand and accept and forgive myself, and opportunity to give a name to parts of me that have struggled to fit elsewhere.
What if marriage equality, and the broader social acceptance that comes with it, hadn’t taken so damn long? In light of the homophobia I have experienced since primary school, boys and men were always the more accessible and acceptable option for me—even if I didn’t make this choice consciously. In a 2015 article for Archer Magazine, Omar Sakr describes a similarly constrained bisexual trajectory. ‘Acceptable desires, tomfoolery and fantasies cleared space for a love of women to grow,’ he writes. ‘I had none of that with boys. By the time I became aware that what I felt for them could be more than friendship, fear had already placed limits around what that could mean.’
A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that 84 per cent of the surveyed bisexuals who were in committed relationships were with partners of the ‘opposite sex’. (Trans and non-binary bisexuals were not included in this result.) While the researchers drew no conclusions from this statistic, I can imagine it being seen to affirm some stereotypes of bi folks—that most of us are straight, or that we’re going through a phase. But I choose to take a different message from this number, seeing in it the insidious and efficient nature of both biphobia and homophobia. I didn’t choose to commit to my male partner because my bisexuality wasn’t real. I chose to commit to him because we met and fell in love and we’re an excellent match. If all romantic opportunities were equally free and safe and accepted, might we see more bisexuals in relationships that look outwardly queer?
• • •
Before Detective Rosa Diaz came out on Brooklyn Nine-Nine in late 2017, I had never seen a positive and genuine reflection of my bisexuality on screen. I loved hearing Rosa say the words ‘I’m bisexual. I’m dating a woman’ without it having to be titillating or scandalous, or just a short-lived plot device. Hearing those words from a character I admired, spoken plainly and intimately, I felt a crackle of connection, an emboldening. (It is maybe a little disheartening that in the many episodes since that one, Rosa has dated a whole bunch of women and no-one of another gender, but hey—there’s no wrong way to be bi.)
Each year GLAAD surveys American tele-vision for LGBTQ inclusion. Their ‘Where We Are on TV’ report for 2017–18 shows that at the time of Rosa’s coming out on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, queer characters on the whole were underrepresented at just 6.4 per cent of television characters. Happily, this representation is fast improving. GLAAD’s 2019–20 report turned up the highest ever proportion of LGBTQ characters, at 10.2 per cent. Of these, however, bisexual characters made up just 26 per cent, the vast majority of whom were women. In Screen Australia’s 2016 survey of the domestic situation, just 5 per cent of characters in Australian TV dramas were identifiably queer. Within this number, bisexual representation was not quantified.
When it comes to bisexuality, it’s arguably not the quantity of representation that is most problematic, though; it’s the quality. Most bi characters on TV are not represented in a genuine and nuanced way, but as what GLAAD calls ‘harmful tropes’. Bi characters are untrustworthy, they cheat and lie and manipulate, they lack morals, and they use sex as a weapon. I think about the bi characters I’ve seen before Rosa. There was Alice on The L Word, who initially defended her bisexuality to her friends (‘When are you going to pick a side?’ they asked) but then declared herself a lesbian under oath. Piper on Orange is the New Black, who assured everyone she was an ‘ex-lesbian’, even as she hooked up with women. That guy Carrie briefly dated on Sex and the City, but dumped after he told her he was bi. Even Glee handled bisexuality poorly when its gay heartthrob Blaine expressed doubt after kissing a girl. His boyfriend Kurt insisted that bisexuality ‘is a lie gay guys tell themselves in high school’. The more I think about it, the more I can forgive myself the fits and starts, the denial.
• • •
I recently went walking with a close friend, who is trans, as they deliberated how to explain pronouns and identity to their colleagues. At one point, trying to impress upon me that a positive reaction is not guaranteed, even among otherwise good people, my friend said, ‘I mean, you’ve come out. You know what it’s like.’ It wasn’t a question, but I nodded. I couldn’t stop thinking about this later, though. Have I come out? Do I know what it’s like? What exactly counts?
‘Even when a person is comfortable with their self-identification as bisexual,’ says a 2016 report by QLife, ‘many bisexual people have to engage in a long and ongoing process of publically maintaining this identity, often explaining it repeatedly to the same individuals.’
I used to think that I had never come out at all. Perhaps, like bi actor Amber Heard, I felt that it wasn’t necessary. She told Ellen DeGeneres, ‘When I hear someone comment about me coming out, I think it’s funny because I was never in!’ Of course, this sentiment cutely masks its own kind of erasure. It’d be ideal if we weren’t all assumed to be straight until proven otherwise, but we are. When these assumptions are internalised, coming out becomes both more difficult and more important.
The truth is, there cannot be a single coming-out moment to satisfy ourselves and the world that we are ‘out’—often and especially in the case of bisexuality. I can recognise now that over the years I have revealed myself to others, and I have absorbed their appraisals of me. There was the acquaintance who heard a rumour (true) that I had a crush on her, and came up to me as I drank a beer in a noisy front bar to taunt me about it and flounce away. My housemate with dark lank hair to his waist told me in his deepest voice, ‘That’s really sexy that you’re bi,’ making me fidget and turn away.
Then there was the guy I dated who took my claim of bisexuality as implicit consent for a threesome with his housemate, springing it on me that night. My co-worker at a crappy shoe shop said, ‘You like women too? Looks like everyone who works here’s a lesbian!’ (And when I corrected her, ‘Okay, half a lesbian.’) Nowadays I’m more likely just to slip it into conversation, mention a pride march or a person I think is hot, trying to assert my identity in an offhand way.
I may never have sat down with my family to proclaim my sexuality, in some version of the popular idea of a coming-out scene. But I reckon I do know what it’s like, to some extent at least. I have cis privilege and I have passing privilege, but I have come out in many small and truthful moments that pile up gradually until they’re a mountain I can stand on, declaring myself shakily from its peak.
• • •
The first I learned of the bisexual pride flag—thick horizontal stripes of pink, purple and blue—was when I read that the anti-equality Coalition for Marriage had unwittingly used its colours in their logo. I had never seen the flag or really considered that there was an autonomous bi community, separate from its place under the broader LGBT banner. It was even news to me that there could be pride in bisexuality, when my minimal and stilted experience in queer communities had often left me feeling I needed to defend my sexuality, my right and need to be there.
Such experiences aren’t rare, and contribute to what social scientists term ‘minority stress’. This is the negative effect of discrimination on mental and physical health, and is well established among many marginalised communities. For bisexuals, this stress can be exacerbated by a difficulty in accessing a supportive community. As Flinders University researcher and activist Mary Heath writes, ‘Despite the token inclusion of bisexual people in the names of some mixed queer organisations and services, many demonstrate little active inclusion of bisexual people.’
This lack of community may contribute to some of the sobering findings summarised in the Movement Advancement Project’s 2016 ‘Invisible Majority Report’, an overview of current research on bisexual populations in the United States. This report found that bisexual youth and adults have poorer mental health than their lesbian, gay and straight peers, and are more likely to express suicidal ideation and behaviour. Similarly, a 2013 Pew Research Center study found that only 28 per cent of bi respondents said that ‘all or most of the important people in their life know they are bisexual’, compared with 77 per cent of gay men and 71 per cent of lesbians. A 2015 Journal of Public Health article found that fewer bisexual women were out than their lesbian counterparts. Fewer attended queer social events. More reported poor health or psychological distress. The researchers attribute this, in part, to a ‘double discrimination’, outside and within queer communities.
I still worry that I’m not queer enough, that the identity I cling to can be too easily discounted. After all, when bisexuality is acknowledged under the LGBT banner, its inherent privilege is usually the focus—particularly for those of us in relationships seen from the outside as ‘straight’—and this may explain in part why bisexuals don’t seek to claim space in queer communities. But bisexual activist and writer Shiri Eisner explains that the very idea of passing privilege assumes that bisexuals benefit from our own erasure. Passing is not always wanted or appreciated. We sometimes suffer less discrimination this way, but as Robyn Ochs has said, ‘conditional acceptance is not really acceptance at all’.
Of course, passing privilege can be real. But it might mask the particular set of difficulties faced by bisexual folks. There are ‘aspects of bisexual oppression that aren’t perceived as visible or intuitive’, Eisner writes. Her exhaustive list includes exploitation, violence, internalised biphobia, economic marginalisation, health issues and compromised personal relationships. Most of these forms of biphobia ‘work against bisexual people independent of their “visibility” and regardless of their current relationship status’, she continues.
Sometimes, passing is crucial for self-preservation. The ‘Invisible Majority Report’ details a series of focus groups held with bisexual women survivors of domestic violence. Bi women ‘reported “going back into the closet” as a survival mechanism when experiencing intimate partner violence as their bisexual identity was seen as threatening to abusive partners’, says the report. This heartbreaking and extreme case highlights the complexity inherent in equating passing with privilege.
• • •
My friend Laurie Hopkins has written about being called ‘brave’ for expressing their identity as a non-binary trans person. ‘This isn’t bravery,’ Hopkins writes in Archer Magazine. ‘I’m simply choosing to live the life that most cis folk get to live every day, without question.’ Hopkins makes the argument that being yourself is not generally regarded as optional. What makes people see Hopkins’ expression as bravery is the difficulty that we know goes along with being ‘other’. We see this as brave when we cannot imagine what it would take to do it ourselves, because for us it is not essential.
But sometimes it takes time to learn when our self-expression is essential, after all. It can be uncomfortable to claim space when we’re told we don’t require it. When the result of the same-sex marriage survey was announced, I was sitting alone in my kitchen, playing the news on my laptop. I replayed the moment of the announcement over and over, filmed at gatherings in different cities, each time puffs of glitter bursting into the sky and thousands of people kissing, screaming, crying, laughing. I wasn’t there with them, but I couldn’t ignore how important this was to me.
It’s been more than two years since that moment, and I’m ready to claim my space. Eisner writes, ‘a “man/woman” relationship with a bisexual person in it is not a “straight relationship”—it is a relationship that visually resembles heterosexuality but might, in fact, be far from it’. I am finding the strength to agree. I have bought myself a little badge that says ‘Still bisexual’. I have pinned it on my denim jacket, and now whenever I wear my jacket I am telling the world a thing about myself; a thing I have decided is important enough to tell. Still bisexual. I use the word until it no longer makes me uncomfortable.
For too long, I accepted that whom I was with could stand in for who I was. But it can’t. To me, sexuality isn’t just about who we want to have sex with. It’s a way of recognising ourselves, a way of moving through the world and interacting with other people. I know this for myself, but I want more than that. When my queerness is affirmed by others, I feel the hum of truth. I see the glimmer of community. •
Phoebe Paterson de Heer is a writer and gardener living on Kaurna land. She is deputy online editor for Archer Magazine and writes about sexuality, chronic illness and farming.