This is an opinion piece written by
Rāwā Karetai, Chair of the Bisexual Committee of ILGA World,
and Luz Elena Aranda, Co-Secretary General of ILGA World.
A condensed version of this article was originally published on Openly
“Well, you’d have to choose now: is it men or women? Is it this gender or the other? You don’t get to like more than one, you know?”. Every person who identifies within the bisexual spectrum, and is out about their sexual orientation, probably has an apparent memory of hearing these words for the first time, and then many times again. It is a piercing, reiterated sting.
Trusting someone enough to come out to them, and hearing in return that picking a side is supposed to be compulsory, is unfortunately all too common. The world expects us to choose and be done with it, as if recognising in ourselves the capacity to form a physical, romantic, and emotional connection to the same, another or more than one gender would be a reprimandable attempt to mix apples and oranges. A binary vision of the world – even when it comes to attraction to others - is so ingrained that society frowns upon everything falling outside of it, or meets it with downright hostility.
Of course, we know that the reality is more diverse than that: bisexual, pansexual and queer identities are an essential part of the LGBTIQ global family, and Bisexual+ Awareness Week is here to celebrate them, educate others and accelerate acceptance and recognition – even within our communities. It is always a glorious and empowering moment. Still, we know that it only scratches the surface of what needs to be done to support a community that continues to remain largely invisible.
At the core of biphobia lies the preconception that bisexual people may choose to suppress their non-heterosexual part to live free of discrimination, or that they might be faking their queerness to ‘seek attention’ as if they would only be ‘tourists’ in queer spaces. Assuming that people can and should ‘pick a side’, however, is a form of discrimination in itself: what others may perceive as an innocent request to conform to binary norms of attraction has, in reality, far-reaching consequences.
When people keep assuming a person’s sexual orientation by the gender of their significant other, and associate harmful stereotypes to bisexuality, they create an unsafe environment for part of our communities whether they decide to come out or not. “Visibility could expose me to prejudice, continuous questioning and rejection” and “Why should I be open about who I am, or even join spaces where (micro)aggressions might be the norm?” are both sides of the same coin. A 2013 research showed that only 33% percent of bi women and a mere 12% of bi men in the United States say most or all of the critical people in their lives know of their sexual orientation – a staggering difference from the 77% for gay men and the 71% for lesbian women.
Invisibility and erasure have consequences: studies conducted across the world tend to concur that bisexual persons suffer from poorer mental and physical health outcomes compared to their peers. Minority stress can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse and sexual risk-taking. Being used to judgemental attitudes and a lack of understanding, people may feel less able to access psychological support.
In situations of particular vulnerability, this toxic mix of invisibility and prejudice can become even more dangerous. Bisexual asylum seekers, for example, may end up being dismissed as people who are “faking” their sexuality to start a new life elsewhere and seeing their claims rejected. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has noted how difficult it is to track cases of violence targeting people on the grounds of their bisexuality. Whenever data is missing, it is almost impossible to understand the scope of a problem. As a result, programming and outreach initiatives directed to gay and lesbian persons hardly meet the community’s unique needs, and often take place in spaces where bisexual people may face hostile attitudes.
And yet, despite working against considerable stigma, the bisexual community has continued to push for change and demand visibility, first and foremost. Slowly but steadily, narratives have begun shifting: media are increasingly offering positive representations of bisexuality; popular culture has opened up spaces for role models to come forward. Much as for other populations, the Internet has connected isolated individuals and communities worldwide, contributing to bust myths and to start conversations. For example, an article about Mwanga II Basammula Ekkere - a bisexual king ruling in Uganda in the 19th century – helped frame the debate on the impact that colonisations had on sexuality. Visibility for bi people has become political.
Yet, visibility cannot be the one-size-fits-all answer. Awareness of bisexual, pansexual and queer lived realities and experiences must be raised at all levels of society if we want to witness actual change.
In 2018, ILGA World brought together bisexual human rights defenders to speak at the United Nations: a historic first, when State officials could hear about the unique needs of a community first-hand. Specific research and data collection are slowly starting to emerge and find spaces to be presented – such as the Journal of Bisexuality, and the historic Bisexual Research Conferences hosted in the UK and The Netherlands in recent years. Community-led organisations are creating targeted initiatives for bisexual persons everywhere, in the face of a severe lack of funding and external support.
The road towards respecting bisexual identities is paved with education and visibility, and with spaces for the community to obtain support that is tailored to their needs. To create meaningful progress, organisations must invest in bisexual leadership and provide them with adequate funding and resources. Simply adding a “B” to the LGBTI acronym does not equal true representation: to keep it there, organisations must do actual, meaningful work that is specifically directed to the bisexual community.
But change goes even deeper than that: we need to move past heteronormative, binary ideas of how people should be and understand those sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and sex characteristics are as diverse as us - and they are all equally valid. Busting binary categories is how we will dismantle prejudice, and truly value and celebrate bisexual, pansexual, and all people in our communities every day. Our identities are not up for debate.