The Silent B in LGBT: Bisexuality
A year ago, I went to my first Pride event and got my first bisexual pride flag, which now lives over my bed, greeting me each morning. It was not until after many years of conflict and questions before I felt comfortable declaring myself bisexual, much less begin to feel pride for my sexuality. It might seem weird that I was so unsure about my sexuality for so long: I liked girls, and I liked boys. The answer seems very obvious in retrospect. But I, like many bisexuals, struggled with feelings of not being “queer enough.” I didn’t want to invade queer spaces and intrude where I didn’t belong, and I wasn’t sure if I did belong. I wasn’t straight, nor gay and I wasn’t sure where that left me.
In this post, I want to dispel a few myths about bisexuality and expand on my own experiences. And it’s important to note that my experiences are mine alone, and I cannot speak for all bisexuals. Bisexuality is unique, and people define their sexuality in different ways, so what being bisexual means for me might be slightly different from someone else, and that’s fine!
1. What even is bisexuality?
As I mentioned previously, bisexual doesn’t have one set definition that fits everyone who identifies as bisexual. If we look solely at the prefix ‘bi,’ the meaning may seem obvious. Bicycles have two wheels, binoculars have two lenses, and a bipedal animal has two legs for walking. So it’s natural to assume that bisexual means attraction to two sexes or genders: men and women. Not necessarily. Some bisexuals might define their sexuality as being attracted to men and women, which is fine. That’s how I describe it for myself. Others prefer to think of it as an attraction to their gender (1) and other genders (2). This definition acknowledges that there are people beyond the gender binary, and can be more inclusive. But it’s up to each bisexual person to define their sexuality for themselves.
2. What’s the difference between pansexuality and bisexuality?
This is a tricky question and one I struggled to answer for a long time. I’ve realized the distinction is just based on what someone prefers to call themselves. Like bisexuality, pansexuality can’t be defined because it means different things to different people. Looking at the prefix ‘pan,’ once again, the meaning might seem obvious. Pandemic (a word I’m sure we’re all tired of hearing) means prevalent throughout a country or the world.
So it might appear on the surface that pansexuality is more inclusive than bisexuality. It might seem that bisexuality means attraction to two genders, whereas pansexuality means attraction to ALL genders, therefore going beyond the gender binary. As I mentioned before, bisexuality doesn’t inherently exclude nonbinary people or assume there are only two genders. How I understand pansexuality is that it is attraction regardless of gender. So a pansexual person might not have a gender preference at all, and gender might not be a factor in their attraction.
For myself, at least, as a bisexual, I have a slight preference for men over women. That’s how I distinguish the two for myself, but other people might have different interpretations. Pansexuality and bisexuality are very similar, which is why they are often confused with each other. Trying to find distinct differences between them is futile, and it all comes down to the label that one chooses to identify as. Bisexuality is the term I feel comfortable with, and so it’s what I call myself. It’s important to remember that everyone chooses for themselves how to identify, and it’s not fair to try to define someone’s sexuality for them.
3. But isn’t bisexuality transphobic?
There is an all too common belief that bisexuality is somehow transphobic. It’s always seemed silly to me that some people would think bisexuality is inherently transphobic. Even if you defined bisexuality only as an attraction to men and women, that’s not transphobic. Because trans men are men, and trans women are women. I haven’t met a bisexual person who says, “I’m attracted to cis men and cis women.” Are there bisexuals who are transphobic? Absolutely. There are transphobes and TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) with every sexuality.
Bisexuality in and of itself is not transphobic, though. When I say I’m attracted to men and women, trans people are included in that. I would argue that it’s quite transphobic to assume that when I talk of attraction to men and women that trans people are not included. Trans men and women are men and women. Period. I understand the confusion, but bisexuality is neither transphobic nor exclusive to nonbinary people.
4. Do bisexuals have privilege?
This is a controversial question, and different people will give you different answers. I’m going to say my opinion alone, and I am open to having my mind changed. I think it’s a complicated issue, and my opinion could change down the line.
The LGBTQ+ community has been oppressed for centuries, and prejudices continue to this day. To say someone in the LGBTQ+ community is privileged might be odd considering this historical and contemporary oppression. But privilege in this sense is relative. Heterosexual people are privileged in the sense that they are the majority; they don’t have to “come out” or explain their sexuality. They are unlikely to be discriminated against because of their sexuality.
Some people think that bisexuals have straight passing privilege because, when they’re in a relationship with someone of the opposite gender, they might be mistaken as straight. And while I think this phenomenon is also hurtful (I’ll get to bi-erasure in a minute), I believe there is some privilege in being able to pass as straight. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household that had Fox News on all the time. My parents are homophobic, and they have no idea that I’m bisexual. I don’t have any plans on ever coming out unless I’m forced to.
I haven’t had to worry about it much because I’ve exclusively dated men simply because of access. I was able to tell my parents about the people I was dating, and I was able to attend prom with my boyfriend junior year, I wasn’t afraid to tell my parents about the people I was dating because they were men. My parents assumed that I was straight, and I never gave them a reason to believe I wasn’t. I’ve never been afraid of holding a partner’s hand in public or feared the repercussions of being open about who I was with. This isn’t the case for many members of the LGBTQ+ community.
For me, at least, I feel like I have benefitted from the privilege of passing as straight when I’m not. If I was a lesbian, I can only imagine how different my life would be growing up in the family I did. My first boyfriend and I were very affectionate in public, and everyone knew we were together. We were even the prom king and queen. People liked us and thought our relationship was cute. I can only imagine the secrecy and fear that would have been present if I had dated a girl instead of a boy in high school. However, whatever privilege bisexuals may have is mitigated by the unique challenges bisexuals face, namely bi-erasure.
5. What unique challenges to bisexuals face?
Bisexual erasure is sadly something bisexual people are all too familiar with. It inspired the title of this post because people often overlook bisexuality. Even though bisexuals may be said to have some privilege, they still face unique challenges. For example, people frequently experience the erasure of their identities, as mentioned previously. When I'm with a man, people assume that I'm straight. When I'm with a woman, people assume that I'm gay. I am neither. I am somewhere in between, and the gender of my partner does not define my sexuality.
Bisexuals are often left feeling like they aren't "queer enough," as I mentioned previously, and there is biphobia among both straight and LGBTQ+ people. When I began seeing a woman, I felt validated and empowered as part of the LGBTQ+ community. I went to one Gay-Straight Alliance meeting at my school, where a gay man said, "bisexuals are just hetero," and I never returned.
People also tend to fetishize bisexuality, particularly bisexual women. Bisexuality does not exist for your kinky threesome, or for the thrill of seeing two women making out. My sexuality is not "hot." It does not mean I am more likely to cheat on my partner or that I'm polyamorous. My sexuality is not a curiosity, and I am not "curious." I know what I am, and I am proud. It's important to note that bisexuals are subject to the same horrible things other members of the LGBTQ+ community are, like getting kicked out of their homes, being cut off from family, being physically or sexually assaulted, and being at higher risk of attempting suicide to name a few. So it would be ingenuine to act like bisexuals do not also experience discrimination and oppression.
Despite the years of confusion and questions, I wouldn't change my sexuality for anything. I'm proud to be bisexual. I hope this post was illuminating and helps demystify some of the confusion around bisexuality. I know being bi isn't always easy, and can leave people feeling like they don't have a place. Being bisexual can be a beautiful thing, though, and I think of bisexuality as, in the wise words of Hannah Montana, the best of both worlds. Happy Pride, everyone!