Last October, bisexuality was in the UK news because of an increase in the proportion of young people identifying as bi. Data from the Office of National Statistics showed that for the first time, the proportion of 16-24 year olds identifying as bi (1.8%), was greater than that identifying as gay or lesbian- 55% of LGB (lesbian, gay or bisexual)-identified young people identified as bi rather than lesbian or gay. Furthermore, the ONS’s Annual Population Survey showed that the number of people identifying as bisexual (across all age groups) had risen by 45% in three years.
So, what’s this all about? Is bisexuality becoming more common? I was invited to discuss this question on Newsnight on 6th October 2016- I can’t find an official BBC clip to link to, but you can watch the segment I’m in below:
The main points I make in the clip are below (I’ve expanded on them a bit to make them clearer):
Society’s attitude towards sexuality has changed a great deal, and people in general are more confident to talk about their sexual identities and feelings than they used to be- so we’d expect to hear about more diversity than previously.
People are not so invested in identity politics as they once were. In the 1980s and 1990s, activists lobbied for equal rights for lesbian and gay (LG) people on the basis that people were born lesbian or gay. They hadn’t chosen their sexuality, so they couldn’t be blamed for it, and ought to have the same rights as anyone else.
In contrast, social conservatives were keen to establish that being lesbian or gay was Not Normal. If you weren’t straight, you were either developmentally abnormal in some way and needed fixing, or you were downright perverse, and deliberately choosing to behave badly. Straight people, on the other hand, were healthy and normal.
So, both ‘sides’- LG and straight people- had a lot invested in establishing that you could either be lesbian/gay, or heterosexual. Homophobes needed to be sure that they weren’t tainted by icky homosexuality, and LG folk needed to make it clear that they couldn’t help being different.
The idea that some people were bisexual was unacceptable to both sides, because it suggested that individuals could choose their sexuality. For the conservatives, bisexual people were particularly depraved because they ‘could’ choose to be ‘normal’, and didn’t. For LG people, bisexual people were confusing the issue- their whole argument for equal rights was based on the idea that sexuality wasn’t a choice.
Happily, although things are far from rosy for a lot of LGBT people, most of the legal battles for equality have now been won. LG identities are less stigmatised in most communities than they were 20 years ago, so people are not as worried about bisexuality’s potential to confuse the issue.
Sexuality is fluid. Bisexuals are often described as ‘going through a phase’ or ‘bi now, gay later’, as Stuart Whoo pithily puts it in the clip. But bi people’s sexualities aren’t any more fluid than anyone else’s – sexuality is just quite a fluid thing, and that fluidity is more obvious to the world if it shows up in the gender of your partners, than if your sexual tastes change in other ways. Furthermore, there are of course a lot of people who initially come out as lesbian, gay, or straight, and then come out as bi later, and plenty who identify as bi for their whole lives.
Biphobia isn’t necessarily as overt as it used to be, but research shows that bi people often struggle with a sense of feeling out of place- there are thriving bi communities in the UK but they don’t have permanent commercial spaces in the same way that LG communities do, and bi people are often marginalised in LG spaces.
Stereotypes about bisexuality persist, partly because;
As a society, we like binary categories. Right and wrong, good and evil, normal and abnormal. We like things to be ‘either/or’, not ‘both/and’.
Because of this, you can’t talk about being bisexual without using binary language like ‘male/female’ and ‘gay/straight’, which makes it sounds as if your identity is split between gay and straight ‘sides’.
Research shows that bi people experience their identities as unified, not split, but it’s hard to express that verbally, so when bi people are asked about their identities and experiences, they can sound as if they’re ‘confused’ or ‘going through a phase’.
We tend to see identities as authentic if they persist over time, and as inauthentic if they aren’t consistent. We’re used to hearing about people who had been ‘living a lie’ until they ‘finally admitted to themselves that they had been L/G all along’. Bi people can look to others as if they are still in the ‘living a lie’ part of this narrative, particularly if they have partners of different genders over their life course.
P.S. If you’re wondering what being on Newsnight was like, here’s a clip of me being interviewed by a colleague the next morning for the OU Graduate School’s YouTube channel. (You can tell I’ve had a late night, I look very tired… ). I talk about what it was like to do TV for the first time, and share some of the advice colleagues gave me beforehand:
I wrote this piece for the lovely folk at Biscuit magazine a couple of months ago, in the wake of the Ofcom ruling on the Christopher Biggins/ Celebrity Big Brother scandal. Fortunately, they chose a more sensible title than I did! Click on the image to read the full article.