INTERIOR: DAY. The Bisexual Questions Office, a small, untidy office that looks as if it used to be a cupboard. The Duty Bisexual, a forty-ish white woman, sits at a desk cluttered with used coffee cups, copies of Bi Community News and cuddly purple unicorns. She is leafing through a copy of Biscuit magazine and humming to herself. A purple phone on the desk rings, and the Duty Bisexual answers. DB: Hello, Bisexual Questions Office, Helen speaking, how may I be of service? CALLER: 'I've been wondering why there are so many stereotypes about bisexuals?' DB: That's an interesting question, Caller. Would you like a detailed explanation, or just the headlines for now? C: Um, just the headlines, I guess? DB: Right you are. [clears throat]
- Western cultures are invested in the idea that ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are opposite ‘sides’- you’re either on one or the other.
- Bisexuality undermines this idea and makes people on both sides uncomfortable.
- To resolve this discomfort, both ‘sides’ try to discredit bisexuality by claiming that bisexuals don’t exist, are attention-seeking, are immature and untrustworthy, etc etc.
- And that’s why there are stereotypes about bisexuals.
DB: Thank you for calling the Bisexual Questions Office, is there anything else I can help you with today? C: Yes, hang on a minute! Why is bisexuality so uncomfortable that it needs to be discredited? DB: Well... [sips coffee, realises it's gone cold, grimaces]
Cultures that have stereotypes about bisexuals have a dominant way of thinking that philosophers call dualism– they like to think in terms of pairs of ‘opposites’ like good/bad, heaven/hell, body/soul, white/black, man/woman and gay/straight (1). These opposites (‘binaries’, or ‘dichotomies’) are defined against one another- so, to be female is to be Not Male, and to be straight is to be Not Gay (2). There’s also usually a hierarchy between the two sides of a binary- one term is seen as ‘better’, one ‘worse’.
Ideas that disrupt these binary categories (suggesting that there are ‘shades of grey’ between black and white), can be quite threatening to these cultures. Bisexuality is one of those ideas.
So, stereotypes about bisexuality are a kind of cultural attempt to resolve this discomfort by discrediting or getting rid of bisexuality, and sorting everyone back into those tidy gay/straight boxes. This is what’s happening when it’s suggested that bisexuals are ‘really’ gay (but closeted) or ‘really’ straight (but attention-seeking). Bisexuals are being denied their identities, on the grounds that everyone is ‘really’ either gay or straight.
C: But I DB: Anyway, [self-deprecatingly, but also reaching for coffee cup and preparing to rise from desk] I can talk about this for hours, b- C: No, wait! Don't go yet! [pause] I mean, if that's okay? DB: [sits back down again, replaces cup, sighs] Um, sure! C: Because I was wondering, if society tries to erase bisexuality because it's so threatening, why are we always talking about it? It's always popping up in the media. DB: Ah, that's because we actually need bisexuality to exist, just as much as we need it not to exist. C: I'm sorry, what? DB: I know, right? Bear with me.
OK, so our cultural ideas about bisexuality work a bit like our cultural ideas about coins. For the sake of convenience, we think of coins as having two entirely separate ‘sides’ that have nothing to do with each other. But of course, the ‘sides’ aren’t separate- they are just two faces of the same object. And a coin actually has a third surface- its edge. We tend to keep the edge thin to make the coin compact. But it’s always there, and it’s no less a part of the coin than its two sides are.
Bisexuality is like the edge of the gay/straight coin. It’s absolutely integral to the way we think about sexuality in Western cultures. Without it, there’s no distinction between ‘straight’, and ‘gay’. So you can’t get rid of it entirely. All you can do is to give it as little space as possible, just a sliver, just enough to allow it to mark the boundary between the two ‘sides’ of the coin (5). So we keep mentioning it- a celebrity comes out as bi and it makes the news, there’s a bi character in a soap opera- but almost immediately dismissing it. The celebrity has a film to plug and is just after the publicity. The soap character soon realises they were really gay all along… That’s the work that the stereotypes do- they allow us to briefly acknowledge bisexuality, and then dismiss it as inauthentic.
DB: There's more, but that's the main takeaway, I think. Does that make sense? C: I... I think so, but to be honest my head hurts a bit now. DB: Fair enough! It's complicated. C: Like, I've got more questions, but... maybe later? DB: [grabbing coffee mug, pushing chair away from desk, smiling broadly] Sure! Thank you for calling the Bisexual Questions Office, have a nice day and don't let the binary get you down! C: Don't let the binary... right. OK, thanks again. DB: [cheerily] Byeeee!
Chewy academic stuff, if you’re into the theoretical aspects of this discussion:
- This post was informed by a ton of bisexual theory, most notably Steven Angelides’ ‘A History of Bisexuality’, and Kenji Yoshino’s ‘The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure’.
- Nikki Hayfield and I wrote a chapter on bisexuality for the Palgrave Handbook of The Psychology of Sexuality and Gender, which has a good overview of the history of bisexuality in psychological thought.
- Surya Monro has recently published a great, accessible book on bisexual theories, identities and politics.
Things that are easier to digest:
- You should definitely read everything The Bisexual Index has to say about bisexuality, for it is wise.
- Purple Prose, edited by Katy Harrad, is a brilliant collection of essays on bisexuality in the UK.
- If you’re an OU student, I wrote a general introduction to the history of sexuality for the Open University module ‘Living Psychology’ (DD210). It has a sexy orange mouse called Bob in it.
(1) This way of thinking goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, and is dominant in societies informed by Judeo-Christian thought.
(2) Not convinced? Try defining the word ‘gay’ without referring (even implicitly) to the idea of ‘straight’, or the idea of female’ without referring to ‘male’).
(3) This, of course, is a lesson that the lesbian and gay movements learned from the US civil rights movement as well as the women’s suffrage movement.
(4) This assumption that there are two (and only two) ‘opposite’ genders to ‘choose’ between is, obviously, another deeply flawed binary. I’d argue that this ‘male/female’ binary exists for the same reason that the ‘straight/gay’ one does- because in a historically-misogynistic culture, men have a lot invested in not-being-female, and women’s fight for equality rests on the assertion that they are profoundly and innately different from men. But that’s a whole other discussion…
(5) And that, of course is why being bi- trying to inhabit the line between gay and straight- is often referred to as ‘sitting on the fence’.