A few years ago, a cis-guy I dated tried to come out to me as bisexual. He casually tried to mention, “thinking about guys,” and, “I had this one experience with a guy…”
Now, keeping in mind that we only dated briefly, I don’t think it’s totally weird that I didn’t ask him more about this. But, still, it sticks with me — I was openly bi in our relationship, yet for some reason I skirted around these topics when he brought them up. He was having bisexual feelings and he thought I was a safe person to talk to them about, which was a good assumption since I was out and open with him. It was a bit of a failure on my part: I should have been there for my bi brother.
Today, I don’t think I would repeat that mistake. I’m much more comfortable with my own sexuality these days. I bring that incident up, however, as an example of the ways in which even as a bi/pansexual person, I too am prone to participating in Bi Erasure.
Bi Erasure is the process by which bisexuals are designated (usually by others) into the dichotomous categories of gay or straight, making their actual identity of bi or pansexual seem to disappear. This is done in our society in many ways: on TV and in movies, in humor, in interpersonal and romantic relationships, in relationship with ourselves and in historic portrayals of LGBTQ folk.
I think that Bi Erasure is based largely on the fallacious idea that bisexuality is a stepping-stone. That is, when a lesbian or gay person is on their way out of the closet, or exploring their identity, they might identify as bisexual. Now, let’s be really clear, if that is the case it’s totally OK. I personally identified as a lesbian when I first came out, because I thought that made the most sense given the circumstances. It took me a very long time to realize that my fluidity (bi/pan sexuality) is a solid part of who I am. But, I think the stereotyping or the demoting of bisexuality as an identity to stepping-stone status undermines it’s legitimacy. It is a form of erasure.
Of course, we learn these stereotypes culturally. Mass media is really terrible at portraying LGBT folks in general; can I really be so picky about bi folk? But, TV and movies are definitely places where a lot of Bi Erasure takes place. Often, portrayals of bi folks are based on excruciating stereotypes (mostly having to do with cis-male fantasies of bi cis women). Are there healthy portrayals of bi folk out there? It’s honestly hard for me to name any. I did a search and found this list, as well as this very thorough Wikipedia entry on the topic. However, if we are looking for accurate portrayals of the bi experience, I think there is a definite lack of representation. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a film that looks at bisexuality as more than sex and titillation but also as a journey of romantic connectedness and love?
It can be challenging as a bi person, too, to be out and open about one’s identity. Often it feels like interpretations of my identity somehow change and morph depending on the person I date. I am assumed to be straight when I’m with a straight cis guy, and assumed to be a lesbian when I’m with a cis girl. Personally, it has been a relief for me when I’ve dated transgender or gender non-conforming folks, because there is an understanding that these labels do not define us, and there’s more of an acceptance (sometimes) of my whole self. I actually dated a very open cis-bi guy once (and all too briefly), which totally blew my mind. It felt like there was a great amount of mutual support and acceptance, which made it possible for both of us to experience the full expression of our identities.
But, this idea of being pigeonholed based on whom we are dating, that is where Bi Erasure can turn into Queer Imposter Syndrome. Now, perhaps I use this a bit tongue-in-cheek, yet it really is a thing. Actually, I feel like I have experienced both Queer Imposter Syndrome and Straight Imposter Syndrome. It can feel pretty awful, as though you are pretending to be something you are not, and, actually that’s exactly what is happening. It is also super confusing as a bi person. If I feel like I’m “pretending,” in straight situations and “pretending,” in gay situations, when do I get a chance to feel like me?
This is where bi-stereotypes make life even more difficult, of course. The idea of bisexuality as a “phase,” is a tool of Bi Erasure. It was a terrible feeling for me, for all of those years, thinking I “had to choose.” It felt as though no matter what decision I made, I was screwed. Some part of me would have to remain in the closet, repressed and hidden. The way we fight Bi Erasure, I suppose, it by being out, to ourselves and to others, as much as we are able (and feel safe). I think we really need role models out there, folks we can look up to and see that having an integrated identity as a bisexual person is possible.
One of my best friends refers to me as a “Chap Stick Bisexual,” (his play on “Lipstick Lesbian”) and I actually find it really empowering. He’s a gay guy who is (and has always been) just incredibly open and accepting of my identity. Since this isn’t something I have always experienced from gay friends, I really appreciate it.
I hope that, particularly during Pride month, folks who identify as Gay and Lesbian can help out with this. Please don’t judge others at pride events (i.e. if you see a couple who appear heterosexual at a Pride event — please don’t assume their sexual orientations or gender identities and please don’t treat them as if they “don’t belong”).
I also want to say a quick word about Queer Erasure for people of color and people who are transgender. Admittedly, this is outside of my own personal experience, but I imagine a very tough thing to experience. There are folks on the LGBTQQA spectrum who very much have to consider their own personal safety day-to-day in terms of to whom and how they are out, and, whether or not they can visibly be who they are.
I hope we can all be more supportive of the diverse folks in our Queer family, and that, during this Pride month especially, to take a moment to really listen and not erase anyone’s Queer experiences.