It’s #TBT and time for a classic column. This one ran in the Philly Weekly in October of 2015.
In case you didn’t know: Philly used to have a lesbian bar, and I used to work there. At least once a week, someone would approach me and ask, apropos of nothing, “Are you gay or straight?”
“That’s the wrong question,” I’d reply, “for so many reasons.”
Bisexuals have been called a lot of cute things: day walkers, dual citizens, AC/DC, fence sitters. We’ve also been referred to as greedy, indecisive, lying, going through a phase—and even nonexistent. In pop culture, we’re commonly depicted as wacky, promiscuous hard partiers, incapable of monogamy. While that’s fairly cool as far as stereotypes go, it’s only really true for some of us. And it’s just as likely to be true for a straight or gay person.
Are you a hack screenwriter and want to make a character seem interesting? Make her bisexual, and call it a day. Not perfect, but at least it’d acknowledge we exist, which is more than can be said for many bar-goers, as well as mainstream news outlets.
Celebs dating someone of the same sex are often labeled by gossip rags as gay or lesbian, regardless of how they actually identify. A 2014 New York Times article questioned the existence of the bisexual community, and advice columnists from Dr. Drew to Slate’s Emily Yoffee have told bi-identifying people to stay closeted until they pick a team.
This is despite the fact that more people identify as sexually fluid (not being exclusively attracted to one sex) than as gay or lesbian, especially among younger generations. Bisexuals comprise 40 percent of the LGBT community, but are starkly underrepresented by queer activism groups, especially in leadership roles. NYC Pride has featured gay, lesbian and transgender grand marshals in its parade, omitting bisexual representation until just this year. Even the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has used its platform to argue against the identity, claiming that it’s trans-exclusionary. (Pro tip: You don’t get to define other people’s identities.)
Each September, Bisexuality Awareness Week seeks to combat bisexual erasure and invisibility. Across social media, people take the opportunity to come out, celebrate and shatter myths. For some, it’s about basic respect and not letting others define them. When I’m with a man, for instance, it’s automatically assumed I’m straight, negating my queerness. When I’m with a woman, we are called lesbians, which is equally inaccurate. It’s as annoying as having your name constantly mispronounced.
But beyond annoyance, there are serious repercussions for this type of erasure. Bisexuals experience discrimination, harassment and exclusion from both the straight and queer worlds. We get the degradation of homophobia while simultaneously being shunned by those gays and lesbians who consider us privileged, disease vectors or more likely to cheat.
A 2011 study conducted by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission found that, due to this marginalization, bisexuals make less money, are more likely to live in poverty than gays or lesbians and are far more likely to experience disordered eating, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Medical professionals rarely talk about sex with patients in general, much less with understanding of the specific health concerns of those who could partner with both men and women.
Various studies have demonstrated the importance of positive representations in media. Seeing a TV or movie character who shares our skin color, has our interests or shares a similar background gives us role models and affirmations of our value. If someone who is like us can be successful and happy, then we might be able to as well. Representations also have a humanizing effect on others’ biases. A good friend’s mom came around about her daughter’s lesbianism after watching a season of adorable clean-cut queer kids on Glee. Apparently, the joy of an all-gay boy cover of “Teenage Dream” can fill a heart so full, there’s no room left for hatred.
We’re getting better at finding positive, realistic portrayals of bisexuality, though at a much slower pace for men. Bi female characters often exist purely to titillate, but comprise 75 percent of depictions of bisexuals, so we have that going for us. If the assumed audience for TV is straight men, the argument goes, it makes sense to them for a female character to be drawn to another woman, but makes them wonder why a man who could be with a woman would opt for a male body. The thinking process appears to be a very nuanced “Eww! Weird! Penis! Do not want.”
Meanwhile, at parties, I’ve gathered with a room full of women to rewatch the Eric/Jason love scene in True Blood approximately 50 times. The market is out there. Just so you know.
And this weekend, as we celebrate Outfest, know that bisexuals are out there, too.