The Opening Speech

opening-speechWhat is bisexuality? I always start an information session about bisexuality with this question. Most of the time my audience then starts sniggering because they just think of the well-known prejudices like: being greedy, trying to have your cake and eat it too; they are sitting on the fence; they can’t decide; they are untrustworthy; one relationship won’t do for them; they  can’t remain faithful; and so on and so on. Or they bring in a statement that seems to be supporting: basically everyone is a bisexual.

This one is terrible because it kills the discussion even before it gets started! I let them come out with their prejudices, while gently smiling. Then I come out with the definition the Dutch Bi-Network applies to bisexuality: “Bisexuals are men and women that feel emotionally and/ or sexually attracted to both sexes, regardless of their actual behaviour.” Then all of a sudden my audience is silent, and I ask them why? A few people start muttering that, by this definition, they also could call themselves bisexual. I ask them if they do and if not I put their minds at rest by telling them that I won’t label anyone as a bisexual who doesn’t want to be labelled like that. Relieved by this remark my audience starts questioning me about the difference between sex with a man and sex with a woman. They ask me whether falling in love with a woman feels the same as falling in love with a man and of course they want to know whether I fancy both sexes all the time. Once I spoke to a group of gay youngsters. They asked me this question over and over again. They wanted to know exactly when I fancy women and when I fancy men. In the end I answered: “Well, it’s quite simple on even days I prefer girls and on odd days I prefer boys!” Back to the definition. It is broadly based not to ‘include’ people who don’t want to be included but to avoid exclusion of people who have no experience of sex with one or both sexes, but nevertheless call themselves bisexual because of their fantasies.

So, according to this definition we have the same preference: we feel attracted to both sexes, but our lifestyles can differ a lot! I will give you some examples:

1. A forty year old woman has lived with her girlfriend and her two children for three years. The children come from her former relationship with a man.

2. A twenty-five year old man lives alone; and sometimes has one-night-stands with men or women.

3. A man aged thirty-two, lives with his wife. Occasionally he goes out alone, picks up a man and has sex with him.

4. A male-female couple, both thirty-seven years old, have lived together for ten years. Two years ago they met a woman, aged forty-three, they both liked very much. This woman had never made love with a woman before. What started as a one-night-stand as a threesome gradually changed in a relationship triangle. At the moment they are considering living together.

Of course I can give lots of further examples, but I will leave it at these four.

All these people call themselves bisexual. Do you see the similarity between them? I will make it a bit more confusing: The woman in the first example I gave could also call herself a lesbian as she now lives with a woman. The young man in the second example could also call himself gay and explain his nights with girls as a reversion to what is called ‘normal’ in society. The reverse applies for the man in the next example, the married one with occasional sexual contact with his own sex. A lot of men who behave like that call themselves straight and don’t tell their wives about their attraction to men. In the last example one could ask if the man really is bisexual because he has relationships with two women and no relationship with a man.

I repeat that all the people I described call themselves bisexual. How do you think the outside world will see them? The outside world only sees the relationships one is having. So if you are having a same sex relationship, the outside world sees you as a gay person. And if you are having a relationship with the opposite sex, the outside world sees you as a straight person. The same applies for you if you are single! That’s strange, isn’t it? No, it isn’t, because being straight is the default value: it is the unmarked situation everybody consciously, but most of the time unconsciously, assumes until the contrary is proved.

That there is a contrary, an alternative option, we owe to the gay movement. I won’t deny that they did a great job. Thanks to the gay movement heterosexuality is less expected in the Netherlands than it was thirty years ago. But, we don’t have to thank just gay people because bisexuals have always been involved the gay movement as well. I’m sure a lot of gays are not aware of this. They think the bi’s can easily come out, now that the gays have done the hard work. But we were already there! Secondly we don’t have to be grateful because the gay movement created a perfect copy of the straight world where being gay is the default value. As a bi, one is not obviously welcome in the gay community. In the Netherlands the gay movement is changing a bit: it feels sure and strong and these are the ultimate circumstances to welcome related preferences like bisexuality as well. But in a lot of other countries including some in Europe the gay movement still has a lot to fight for. They need ‘straight’ gays: 100% pink ones and not those ‘unsure half gay maybe heterosexuals’ that we are taken for.

The dualism of being straight or being gay with no option in between, not to mention a continuum, causes about bisexuality only to be visible when one is having a relationship with a man and a woman at the same time and one openly presents both as partners. And then we run up against another problem that harms our popularity: By insisting that we have more than one partner we are breaking the rule of monogamy.  This is the reason why a lot of bisexuals don’t want to be part of the gay movement. They want their own place because they see stronger similarity between gays and straights than between gays and bi’s. For instance: a lot of gays try to bring in marriage. A hot topic that the Dutch gay movement handled successfully: from the beginning of this year in the Netherlands it has been possible for same sex couples to marry and to enjoy all the rights of traditional marriage. Congratulations! However let’s now turn to the bisexual point of view: It seems that gays try to live like straight couples in order to get accepted in society. What about people forming relationships with more than one person? They don’t fit in the marriage one by one thing. Here we touch on the monogamy discussion. I think this is work the gay movement has left for us, although I know that there are also a lot of gays and heterosexuals who live nonmonogamously. It’s the sacred cow the gay movement didn’t dare to touch.

Personally, I feel like the one who has to build a bridge between the straight and the gay world. If I go out in a straight cafe or disco, I can pay attention to my feelings for men and the other way around if I go out in the gay scene. This feels a bit strange to me. I have to deny half of my feelings all the time! A few years ago one of the Dutch bisexual girls wrote a splendid metaphor about this: “It is as if they put a border right through your house and then ask: ‘Which side of the border do you live?’” When I’m among bisexuals I am allowed to feel all my feelings and then a strange thing happens: bisexuality is no longer an issue! At least it isn’t the prominent issue any longer, it’s just there and you can talk freely with the others about all subjects imaginable. You don’t have to explain the things you normally have to explain and you can start talking from the point things are really new and interesting for you. That’s why it is so important to meet each other at a conference like we are having this weekend.

I return to the fact that only bi’s with double relationships are visible. I think this is one of the most serious problems we are facing. It separates the bisexuals into two groups: the ‘nice’ bi’s who are at least monogamous, or serially monogamous if you want, and the ‘horrible’ bi’s who are non-monogamous. We have an image problem because the ‘nice ‘bi’s are not visible. If they don’t speak up, they are automatically counted as straight or gay. So I call on all bi’s to become visible and not just during the process of coming-out; because this is the only way to achieve full acceptance of bisexuality. Because of the large differences between bi’s I think we never can have a movement like the gay movement where a few role-models are followed by the rest of the community. Moreover pursuing a strong bi movement has a large disadvantage: If you want to organise people you need a name, a logo, a mission-statement and all that stuff. And then the exclusion of people starts as happened to bi’s in the gay movement. I hope we won’t run into this trap! The bi movement (as far as it exists) should stay a place where all bi’s in all their diversity feel at home.