23rd September every year is worldwide ‘celebrate bisexuality day‘. Why, you might ask, does bisexuality require a day for people to take notice of it? In this post I will attempt to provide some answers to this question.
The first reason for celebrating bisexuality relates to the notion of pride more broadly. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) pride events happen every year in many of the world’s major cities. These often involve LGBT people, and their supporters, marching through town in a parade of different sections of the LGBT community, each with decorated floats and banner.
The thinking behind LGBT pride is that, for much of recent history, being LGBT has been associated with shame. Only in the 1970s was ‘homosexuality’ removed from the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) (which is used to assess ‘mental disorders’ in many countries), and it remained in the World Health Organisation International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a ‘disorder’ until the early 1990s. Being LGB or T has been criminalised in many countries in the past, and remains so in 80 member states of the United Nations, still being punishable by death in some. The statistics on hate crimes remain frightening for LGBT people, and trans people in particular are attacked, stigmatised and ridiculed, even in the mainstream media. The pride movement is about raising awareness of LGBT people and about fighting for right to equality.
Obviously bisexuality is included as the ‘B’ in LGBT, so you might ask why it needs its own day in addition to more general LGBT pride events, LGBT history month and the various other celebrations of LGBT lives and identities which take place.
The reason for this is what is known as bisexual invisibility. This refers to the fact that bisexuality is often excluded or neglected in all kinds of ways, both in the world in general and within many LGBT communities.
A big part of the reason for bisexual invisibility is that human sexuality is often assumed to be dichotomous: that is people are seen as either attracted to people of the ‘same gender’ or of a ‘different gender’. Bisexual people are attracted to more than one gender (the ‘bi’ in ‘bisexual’ refers to them being attracted to both people of the ‘same gender’ and of a ‘different gender’), so they do not fit into this dichotomy.
Bisexuality draws attention to the problem with this dichotomous view of sexuality because bisexual people do not fit it. Also, some bisexual people say that they are attracted to people ‘regardless of gender‘, meaning that other things are more important to their attraction than gender is. That is challenging to those who think that sexuality is all about the gender of people we are attracted to, and not about other things such as the various aspects of people’s appearance or personality which we find attractive, the sensations we enjoy experiencing, the sexual roles we like to take, the scenarios we find exciting, the fantasies we find pleasurable, and so on.
So how does bisexual invisibility manifest? Here are some common forms which you may well have come across:
- Doubt being raised over the very existence of bisexuality, for example research studies which claim that certain forms of bisexuality (often bisexual men) don’t exist, textbooks which only cover ‘heterosexuality and homosexuality’, and journalism. This is despite the clear existence of bisexual communities, and statistics on the extent of bisexuality.
- Bisexuality being seen as ‘just a phase’, or a time of ‘confusion’ on the way to a heterosexual, or lesbian/gay identity. Of course some people do identify as bisexual, or have relationships with more than one gender, before coming to identify as lesbian, gay or heterosexual. However, longitudinal research suggests that bisexuality is more often a stable identity than one which is relinquished for a different one over time.
- Figures in history who had relationships with people more than one gender being interpreted as lesbian or gay, and their other-gender relationships or sexual encounters being ignored, leaving bisexual people with a lack of available role models. Also, historical LGBT activism being reinterpreted as LG struggles despite key involvement of bisexual and trans people.
- LGBT organisations, or equality and diversity initiatives, dropping the ‘B’ so that bisexuality is included in the title but the rest of their materials default to ‘lesbian and gay’ or even just ‘gay’ and refer to ‘homophobia’ rather than ‘homophobia and biphobia‘ (bisexual people are often discriminated against specifically for being bisexual, for example in the double discrimination they can experience from heterosexual and LG communities).
Bisexual invisibility is common in the mass media where bisexual people are very rarely represented. When a soap opera character is attracted to more than one gender they are nearly always shown as going from being straight to being lesbian/gay (like Syed Masood in Eastenders), or vice versa (as in Bob and Rose). The film Brokeback Mountain was described as a gay Western despite the characters also having close and/or sexual relationships with their wives. Newspaper articles about married male politicians who have been found to have male lovers almost invariably describe them as ‘really gay’, whereas celebrity women who have lovers of more than one gender are often presented as ‘really straight’ and having female lovers for the titillation of men.
Common everyday forms of bisexual invisibility include bisexual people being told to ‘make their mind up’, being assumed to be ‘really’ lesbian/gay or straight (perhaps on the basis of the gender of their partner), or being questioned about their experiences in order to ‘prove’ their bisexuality.
‘Celebrate bisexuality day’ is one means of increasing the visibility of bisexuality as a sexuality, and of developing awareness of bisexual invisibility and biphobia. Hopefully this will help in addressing biphobic hate crime, biphobic bullying in schools, and the distress experienced by many bisexual people due to discrimination and lack of acknowledgement of their identities.
This originally appeared on www.biuk.org
Photos from many of the events held this year to mark Bi Visibility Day are on the back cover of this issue.