Still Invisible?

BiCon 2010 organiser Marcus Morgan was a guest speaker at an LGBT History Month event in Camden alongside Stella Duffy and Peter Tatchell.  He told his audience…

I wonder how many people were looking around the room earlier, knowing the speakers today are “one of each” and wondering which one was the bisexual?

My picture’s in the programme, so if you’ve read that and squinted you might have recognised me.

I’m here to talk about bisexual invisibility, so my first question is; can everyone see me?

I won’t ask for a show of hands actually. But if you were wondering which person was the bisexual, then I have some bad news for you.

Now, if anyone’s first thought was immediately “What, is he going to tell us he’s not a bisexual?” then we’re really demonstrating the problem.

The bisexual in the room. Not “I wonder which ones are bisexuals”.

I’d love to be able to come here today and wax lyrical a famous bisexual or two. To spend my fifteen minutes sharing a fascination with you about Josephine Baker or Jeremy Brett or Danny Kaye or Iris Murdoch.

But at the end of the time slot, there’d be someone in the room still thinking I was charming but deluded. Possibly handsome, if my luck was in. After all, bisexuality isn’t real.  No-one’s bisexual really.  How nice for me to have my theory that such-and-such person was a bisexual, when fans of them know they’re gay.

The problem is, we’re used to working from assumptions. We have to – our view of our lives depends on it. The sun will come up, the milk will be delivered, the buses will be running, there isn’t a tiger in my hall closet.

Just this week we’ve had no buses (though hopefully also no tigers), so some of these assumptions are flawed, from time to time. If I look around the commuter train at 7.00 in the morning I have to remind myself that not everyone is going to work. If I see a woman and a child together in the park I have to remind myself that she might not be that child’s mother.

I have a daughter.  She’s 5 now, and I’ve taken her to Pride in London and Brighton Pride a few times.  If it’s just me, her and her mother, people assume we’re heterosexual. I’ve heard of people being berated for being ‘tourists’ attending Pride with kids in years gone by. But it’s because of the assumptions – without the stroller people wouldn’t assume a man and a woman walking together were straight at Pride. Certainly if I’m marching with the daughter in the stroller and just her other dad, then people have made comments about how nice it is to see a gay family. If it’s all three parents then suddenly we’re back to being two straights and their gay friend. But which one’s the homo? We both have facial hair, so that’s no clue.

Unless that pushchair is behind the bisexual group banner, unless that male/female couple holding hands are wearing bi badges, then no-one thinks “Oh, look at that cute gay (or bisexual) man” or “Wow, that’s a great outfit that lesbian (or bisexual) woman is wearing”.

And being assumed to be bi in the street?  Walking through Soho in a bisexual t-shirt gives you a good chance, but unless you look like the genderqueer circus is in town then it’s virtually impossible to penetrate the homonormativity – the assumption that everyone who isn’t straight is gay.

Off on a tangent – people use bad ethics or flawed morality or misinterpretations of religious texts to tell us homosexuality is wrong, but no-one these days is seriously suggesting it doesn’t exist. Peter’s right – there’s plenty of people still trying to deny gays equality but they’re not saying “We don’t need to give gays actual marriages because there are no gays!”.

But they are still using bad science to tell us bisexuality doesn’t exist. They sometimes do it in subtle ways, such as looking for a biological indicator that a person is gay, which is invariably a two-state switch – DNA pairs or brain structure or even recently finger lengths. Or in more overt ways, such as deciding that when test subjects slightly favoured the pornographic images of one gender over another then that made them ‘actually’ gay or straight.

That’s the assumption – everyone who isn’t gay is straight and everyone who isn’t straight is gay. The assumption fosters beliefs.  If no-one’s spotting the bisexuals, then to be bisexual is to be alone.  Whenever I ask someone what’s so bad about being bisexual, they look a little lost – promiscuity comes up sometimes, and then we have a bit of a mumble about swingers and the 1970s.  But we’re not so sure.  Bisexuality has gotten a bad image of having a bad image.  We can’t be bisexual because we can’t be bisexual.

Some say it’s just a phase, it’s not a proper sexuality. People think of bisexuality as transient because they don’t understand the fluid nature of sexuality. At different points in their life, many people are attracted to different things; red-heads, rubber, tall people, lumberjacks, long hair, smooth chests, round tummies, cock.  And seeing the transitions as either “rebelling” or “settling down”, as either “awakening” or “selling out” doesn’t help recognise that all through your life everything is changing. Life is change.  Change is real.  Being a teenager is a phase, it’s still real.  In a sufficiently homophobic environment it can be a phase that lasts the rest of one’s life.

Jackie Clunes wrote desperately in the Guardian about how she didn’t want to see her the part of her life where she was attracted to women as a phase, as over. She begged not to be called bisexual.  She wanted to be a “hasbian” and remain a part of the gay community, not rejected for being in a relationship with a man.  Though at the same time she also was quite vehement and patronising about how coming out as being in an opposite-sex relationship meant Tom Robinson wasn’t part of the queer movement, describing him as straight and using the choice phrase, “You are what you eat.”

You are what you eat!  Under that definition, it’s very hard to be bisexual most of the time.  Odd half hours every now and then, sure.  But group sex isn’t all it’s about. No, really.

Another definition is “Equally attracted to both men and women”, and that’s a hard one too. I’m not bisexual by that definition, I’m not 50/50, I’m more 60/70. See, they don’t have to add up to 100, because they’re two separate percentages, two separate attractions.

According to the press it’s often “has had sex with both men and women”.  Brett Anderson was derided in the gay press for calling himself bisexual when he hadn’t had a “gay fling”.  But the Pink Paper would be up in arms at an Agony Aunt suggesting to Worried Teen of Doncaster that as he was still a virgin, he wasn’t gay and could dismiss the attraction.  Shag a bird, that makes you straight!

Yet another I’ve heard is “both heterosexual and homosexual” and that’s not much use either. If it was then bisexual would be a useful shorthand and there would be so many organisations saving printing costs by being bisexual. I don’t see a queue forming anytime soon. “Oh, of course the council housing helpline is for both gay and straight people, that’s why we call it the Bisexual Housing Helpline!”. We don’t have two sexualities and that’s why we don’t like the hyphen.

On that note I was involved in Countdown On Spanner back in the 90s and once got into an amazingly pointless discussion with one of the organisers of a big gay leather night about how he had also sex with SM lesbians, and so technically he wasn’t bisexual and it was homosexual sex, because everyone involved was a homosexual, a rationale which I felt had more flaws than a skyscraper. I think it’s fine to extend the definition of ‘gay’ to include opposite sex attraction if you need to identify as ‘gay’ politically, I just don’t see though how you can define ‘bisexual’ to exclude it.

What, then, is bisexuality? Bisexuality is sexual attraction regardless of gender. The dictionary definition doesn’t say “currently”, or “equally”, or “simultaneously” or “solely”.

Stella is right – coming out to people all the time is tiring. But you only have to come out to each one once, or twice if it’s your Nan. And that’s nowhere near as tiring as staying in, remembering to say ‘partner’ and ‘their’ and not using the name of the pub, or the group, or the bar, or the film, or the show you’ve just been to, in case that tips them off.

Staying in is tiring, coming out is liberating. Coming out to yourself is amazing.

For example: when I first became aware of my sexuality as a teenager, I was attracted solely to men, lots and lots of men. But also to women in pvc outfits on Top of the Pops. It was a bit specific, mainly Sister Sledge and Grace Jones. Now that’s quite gay, even in the choice of women! So I called myself gay for many years because I didn’t want to see my own bisexuality. I knew no out bisexuals growing up, I had no-one to see myself reflected in.

I did it though. I saw that in me, and I acknowledged it, I own it. I am bisexual.

And this is the greatest challenge in combating bisexual invisibility, and it is very close to home, it’s closer than “I wonder which one is the bisexual” and, even, closer than “I wonder which one of them is bisexual”.

If you are, or have been, sexually attracted to more than just one sex, regardless of when, or how many, or why, then you too are a bisexual.

And we can’t promote the label unless we’re willing to wear the label.

I’m all for accurate labelling: I am bisexual.

Aren’t you?