What is bisexual erasure?
Bisexual erasure (also called bisexual invisibility) is when the existence of bisexuality is questioned, ignored, or denied, either as an entire concept or as one person’s sexual orientation. It can be as obvious as jeeringly telling a bisexual person to “pick a side”, or as subtle as referring to all women who are attracted to women as “lesbians”.
One thing that is common of bi erasure is that it is usually man-centered. Bisexual women are told that they’re actually straight, and that they’re only performing as bisexual for the pleasure of men. Bisexual men are told that they are gay, and are only pretending to be attracted to women because they’re too scared to come out all the way as gay. Either way, it assumes that being attracted to men is the default, and is the overwhelming or dominant attraction style.
Most monogamous bisexual people experience bi erasure every time they’re in a relationship. If a bi woman dates a woman, everyone assumes she’s a lesbian, everyone calls her a lesbian, and her public identity narrows to “lesbian”, unless she constantly reminds everyone, all the time, constantly, “I’m bisexual.” This is especially painful when bi people are in relationships with people of another gender, because then the entire word insists that they’re straight, essentially denying their queer identity. And when people deny their queer identity, they can lose a queer community, which is essential for the health and happiness of all queer people.
Have you ever heard the joke (truth) that cars hate pedestrians, pedestrians hate cars, and both of them hate bicyclists? Well, the same thing happens in LGB spaces. Gay folks and straight folks both deny the existence of bisexual people, because bisexuality theoretically threatens both orientations.
Gay and lesbian communities discriminate against bisexuality because they feel as if bi people get all of the benefits of being gay, without any of the consequences. “If you get sick of homophobia, you can just go back to dating someone of the opposite gender,” they opine. “You don’t have to deal with it every day, like we do. You don’t deserve to be in gay spaces, because you get to leave whenever you want.” They feel that, because many bisexual people are in straight-passing/heterosexual-appearing relationships, they shouldn’t be allowed to be in spaces with people who have to fight just to have their relationships legally supported.
Straight people discriminate against bisexuality because they feel like if someone *can* be in a heterosexual relationship, they should. They begrudgingly accept same gender relationships when the participants are “actually gay,” because they don’t have any choice in what gender of person they date, but they hate bisexuality because it feels like a slap in the face of straight superiority. People who *could* be straight passing but choose not to.
Straight and gay people alike hate when bisexual people are loud and proud. “Why do you have to keep *telling* us that you’re bi?!” I’ve heard. “Give it a rest!” The reason that bi folks are so vocal about their orientation is *because* of that hate. Because no matter how many times Lady Gaga, Madonna, or Ani DiFranco tell the media that they’re bisexual, their relationships with men have made people say things like “she’s giving up her lesbianism” or “she was only pretending to be attracted to women for the media attention.” Because no matter how many times bisexual folks remind the queer community that they exist, their existence continues to be denied.
This even happens in fictional media!. Only recently has it occurred to show-writers that fictional characters are allowed to be bisexual. When Willow Rosenberg began dating Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she immediate began calling herself a lesbian. Now, if a real friend of mine who had dated men all her life came up to me and said “I’m a lesbian,” I’d believe her without a doubt. But Willow was written by a person – an imperfect and flawed person – who made the choice to have Willow ID as a lesbian instead of being bisexual, despite several seasons of attraction to men. And her orientation could have changed, or she could have been affected by compulsory heterosexuality when she was younger. But the fact stands that she was written by someone who didn’t even think of having her identify as bisexual.
Bisexual and queer performers are beginning to feel empowered to express their sexuality. Janelle Monáe and Stephanie Beatriz both came out in the past year -Monáe as pansexual and Beatriz as bisexual. Both felt like such victories for the bi community, that such famous and widely-loved celebrities came out so confidently, and so prepared to decry bi erasure.
In some ways, it is easier for woman to identify as bisexual than it is for men. Toxic masculinity is such a harmful force in the lives of men, and it can frequently make it very difficult to admit same-gender attraction to men. Gay men have a more driving force to move past that hurdle because their attraction to men is their primary attraction, and without admitting their homosexuality, they’d likely never have a fulfilling relationship. But men who are attracted to multiple genders have that barrier in place to stop them from admitting that they are same-gender attracted, plus they *can* have fulfilling relationships with women, which gives them motivation to ignore their attraction to men.
Women have an easier time admitting to same-gender attraction. Although the straight and gay worlds tell them that they’re just feigning interest in other women for the titillation of men, or as college experimentation, that still gives them socially acceptable ways to explore their sexuality. Plus, the media is more accepting of women’s attraction to women due to it being sexually appealing to male audiences. Gross, but a valid way for women to realize that they’re bisexual.
Bisexual people are generally the most vocal about their sexuality because they’re actively fighting bi erasure and bi invisibility every day. Just by being in a monogamous relationship, their sexuality is ignored or denied, or they’re told that they were just faking attraction to people of genders other than that of their partner. Anyone who feels like bisexuality is disgusting will of course think that no one would want to be bi, and therefore feel like anyone who says they’re bi is just faking. This leads to many bi folks feeling unable to be vocal about their sexuality, fearing discrimination, hate, or condescension.
Bisexual people have different needs than straight and gay people. Bi people have the worst mental health of any sexual orientation category, worse than straight people *and* worse than gay and lesbian folks. Clinicians and educators who consider themselves supporters of the LGBTQ community need to recognize the unique challenges and barriers faced by bisexual people, and make sure their offices and classrooms are explicitly safe and supportive places for bisexual people.
So make sure you support your bi loved ones. Make sure you’re vocal about your support for bisexual people, even if you think you don’t know any bi folks, because you probably do, and they’re wondering if you’ll accept them.