Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, or: 'how I came to stop worrying and like the word bisexual’, Part 2


BiTheWay4CouplesI make people nervous. Most bisexuals do.

By people, I mean many (though of course not all) straights, gays and, yes, even other bisexuals, and those who don’t conform to standard categories of sexual orientation.

By nervous, I mean “people wish we would just go away, or at least keep quiet about it.” People think we cannot be trusted. People think we are liars. People think we are devious. People think we are diseased. People have more negative or ‘cold’ feelings about us than about any other social group other than IV drug users.

Wow. I mean – damn.

It’s all quite baffling to me. Because, when you think about it, being bi isn’t really a hard concept to grasp, is it?

“When I fall in love,” as the song goes, “it will be forever.” It’s just that for me and those like me it could be with a man or a woman, a person of any sex or gender. Quite simple on the face of it. So why does it confound people so much? Why do we make so many people nervous? Part of the answer lies in the myths surrounding the word bisexual and the preconceived notions people have of anyone who would publicly lay claim to the label.

Let me settle a few of those myths right now. This is my version of the nigh-on obligatory myth-busting post that pretty much every blog on bisexuality provides:

  • Existence. Yes – we do.
  • Monogamy. Yes – we can.
  • Fidelity. Yes – we can. And – we do.
  • HIV & AIDS. No – it’s not all our fault.
  • Confusion. No – we’re really not.
  • Indecision. No – that’s not what fluidity means.
  • Greed. Yes, we can have just one piece of cake.
  • Pants. Yes – we’re as capable as anyone else of keeping our various bits in them.
  • Choice. No – we cannot choose to be straight; we cannot choose to be gay; we did not choose our sexual orientation in some thoughtlessly frivolous moment of rapacious abandon. Who does?

All human beings are a mix of a myriad aspects, some we accumulate, some we’re born with. I’m monogamous and faithful by choice, for instance, always have been, but my sexual orientation is not a whim, trendy or temporary, and it’s not antithetical to those choices. But, sadly, even in the 21st century that’s still not self-evident to most people. Bisexuals usually have to make it clear who they really are, in some way, shape or form, when the subjects of our family, friends and relationships come up. It’s very inconvenient  -- and, yes, often painful and embarrassing – to have to pause to break down myths just so we can talk freely about key things in our lives and contribute to conversations about the world. I’m not talking about just taking a moment to clarify our sexual orientation or to explain things related to our personal, social and political identities. It’s not about just saying things like, “Oh, I’m bisexual, by the way, and my partner and I were explaining our take on the American Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy to our kids the other day.”

I’m talking about always and also having to tear away at the mad, bad and dangerous stereotypes that stick to bisexual people like barnacles to a hull:

“Oh, I’m bisexual, by the way, and my partner and I…. oh, yes, my partner knows I’m bi, so no it’s not a secret, and yes I have only one partner, and no we don’t swing, so no this’s not an invitation for you to join us for a ménage à trois, and no I’m not telling you because I’m trying to proposition you for a bit on the side, and yes you can still trust me, and no I’ve never lied to you just because you never guessed, and no it’s not a dirty word, and yes you can use that word around children, and no I don’t have to stop calling myself bisexual just because I have a family now…. Anyway, we were explaining DADT to the kids the other day…”

Luckily, most bis don’t have to drop all that baggage all the time all at once! Most of us have learned to forge personal strategies to negotiate our interactions and present ourselves to our listeners in a more pithy manner. I would guess that each bi person develops their own signature style for how to handle it. Of course gays, lesbians and trans people have to do the same. But bisexuals have to tear the biphobic barnacles from the hull of the LGBT community, as well as from the straight. We have two closets to repeatedly come out of, and while challenged with defending ourselves from suspicion, ignorance or hate, we must also defend the very fact of our own unique existence, as individuals and as a community, and to myth-bust, to make it clear who we really are, again both as individuals and as a community.

Bisexual-Stick-FiguresMaking things even more challenging – bisexuals don’t always agree on how to fight this good fight (or if the fight is good or if we should fight it at all). And many people who are capable of attraction to either men or women, of loving people of any gender, refuse to call themselves bisexual. Many people don’t like the word.

I was one of those people for a long time. I didn’t use any word at all. The silence started out as a habit and persisted until it became deafening and began to erase too much of my history and to stifle the person I was growing to be.

Historically, there are a variety of reasons people have eschewed the word: [1] it’s been used to mean hermaphrodite, which is a definition that works in botany but not too well for people; [2] it’s been a synonym for swinger, which is not a reality for most people of any sexual orientation (a few bi people are polyamorous, as are some straight and gay people, but that in itself is not the same thing as swinging); [3] it’s been used to describe behaviour (usually in the sense of ‘bad behaviour’), something that people do rather than something that they are; [4] it’s seen as too restricting, partaking of prescribed sexual binaries and not descriptive of the fluid range of human desire or expression, and [5] like other LGBT people, using it could get the shit kicked out of you. For some people, bisexual is just too political a term and they don’t like politicising their sexuality or relationships. For others it can appear too divisive, supposedly detracting from the cause of overall LGBT unity.

For me, it was an issue of respectability. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a respectable girl (right now, I could give a flying fuck and a half, but that attitude only came with middle age!). Bisexual was not a respectable word in the late 70s and 80s, or even now. I got the message very early on, from books, movies, the media and people around me, that good non-serial-killing grown women just didn’t call themselves that and good teenaged girls didn’t stare longingly at movie star boobies one day and sneak behind the school bleachers to catch a kiss from a boy the next. Good girls had to choose and hopefully their choice would be the ‘right’ one. Being very liberal very early on, as I grew up and got into my own life, I worked to surround myself with people who were even more open-minded and liberal than me… so embracing LGBT rights and allowing people to think I was an ally was my first strategy for dealing with the outside world. Inside, my strategy was silence and avoidance – my own personal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

For a long time, I wouldn’t even tell myself. I mean, I made myself nervous. I absorbed all the myths and misconceptions and believed them enough to shun the word ‘bisexual’ for years and to hide my sexual orientation even from myself. I practiced the ‘No, you weren’t checking out her legs, you were just admiring her shoes’ variety of denial. As I got older, I got more confident admitting that I was attracted to women as well as men, but at the time there was no identifiable bisexual community around me, to help me feel accepted and grow into myself without derision or misunderstanding:

“Although patterns of bisexual behaviour have been documented throughout history and across cultures, bisexual men and women have gained recognition as a distinct sexual minority only recently. Bisexuals began to form social and political groups in the 1970s, but it was not until the late 1980s that an organized bisexual movement began to achieve widespread visibility... By the early 1990s, bisexuals were becoming an established presence in the organized gay movement, as reflected in discussions of bisexuality in the gay and lesbian press and the addition of ‘bisexual’ to the names of many gay and lesbian [LGB] organizations and events.”

Eventually, I grew up and got older (hopefully wiser) and stopped worrying so much. I started to like the word, to embrace it as descriptive of a community of like-minded individuals I had a lot in common with. I started to use it, historically, personally and politically. If people knew, they knew. And, yeah, it got better. Not all the time and in all ways, but being fully who I am and acknowledged for my orientation toward life and love, for my fully-fledged identity, is more important to me now than always making a ‘good’ impression or not making waves. So I blog, I vote, I sing, I sign petitions, I network, I volunteer my time, I raise my children to hopefully be caring, open-minded individuals, and whenever I can I let people in my respectable suburban corner of the universe know my mad, bad and dangerous-to-know self in all my glory and, hopefully, they (won’t kick the shit out of me and) will alter any negative impressions or stereotypes they have about the word ‘bisexual’ or the people who dare lay claim to the label.

And that’s it, really – my small bit.

“You are not alone… Become the strong, secure, happy person you are meant to be”


  1. Dear Suburban Bi,

    This is a funny, maddening, informative, dynamic, sobering post.

    Like a rainbow.

    xoxoxox Toni

  2. Thank you! Very kind and encouraging... as always. Both here and in our private talks. So pleased you keep on reading.