Busting Bi Myths:

A Bisexual Woman Plays Devil's Advocate

The View From Left Field: Being Bisexual In a Monosexual World
by Karen Stern

No one is really bisexual. It's just a phase.  They're either gay and they can't admit it, or they're straight and they're just experimenting.  Why can't they make up their minds?  Bisexuals can't be trusted. They'll just leave you for a man/woman.  Bisexuals can't be monogamous.  They can't be happy unless they're sleeping with a man and a woman at the same time.  Bisexuals don't have real relationships.  They're fun for a roll in the hay though.  Bisexuals are AIDS vectors, infecting innocent straight women/lesbians. They have no culture, no history.  They weren't here from the beginning, so why do they have to force their way into the gay and lesbian community now?  Bisexual women are sleeping with the enemy.  They are stealing lesbian energy and giving it to men.  They just want heterosexual privilege.  Bisexual men are all in the closet, sneaking around on their wives.  When the going gets tough, the bisexuals can't be counted on.  Bisexuals are apolitical:  they're just interested in sex. We don't have time for bisexual issues.  We didn't include any bisexuals in the study because they mess up the statistics.  Besides, we asked everyone if they were gay or straight, and no one said they were bisexual.  It's easy to be bisexual because it's chic.

These are the myths and prejudices that bisexuals must confront every day. We find ourselves constantly having to explain ourselves, and even having to assert that we exist, to straight, gay and lesbian people (a.k.a. monosexuals).  We are treated like leprechauns, occasionally "discovered" on talk shows and in magazines, only to be forgotten about again.  In the movies, we are the ones with the ice picks, sleeping with the father and the daughter, and then killing the mother.  We exist to destroy the "real" relationships that gay or straight people have.  I can count on one hand the positive portrayals of bisexuals in the media I've seen, and I wouldn't be using all five fingers.

Bisexuals face the same homophobia that gays and lesbians do; the radical right (in the U.S.) is always sure to include us in their agenda.  We experience the same violence, discrimination, repercussions for coming out at work, risk of losing custody of our children, and even losing our lives, that gays and lesbians do. Bashers don't beat us up half way because we're "half gay."  While gays and lesbians may claim we have "heterosexual privilege," really we just have the same choice that they do, to be in or out of the closet.  And I've been called "fag" more than once by homophobes who perceived me as my husband's "boyfriend."

Biphobia, however, is the unique form of oppression that bisexuals face, and we get it from both sides.  It can take the form of overt hatred and violence (yes, even from gays and lesbians), or the more subtle forms of ostracism from gay and lesbian communities we have always been a part of, and a general societal denial of the existence of bisexuality.  Bisexuals often take longer than gays and lesbians to come out, because everyone tells us we must choose gay or straight. We are told to stifle "half" of ourselves to fit in a box.  Until recently, bisexuality was not even on the map.

Where does biphobia come from?  Part of it is a fear of sexuality:  conservatives accuse us of seeking sexual pleasure, a cardinal sin in the puritan U.S.  Moreover, monosexuals are often threatened by the concept of bisexuality because it erases the line they have drawn between straight and gay, between man and woman.  It calls into question their notion of sexual orientation, and for some of them it brings up fears that they might bisexual too.  Bisexuality reveals that sexual orientation is much more complicated than most people would like to think. In short, bisexuals are an unstable element.  We can't be pinned down, and we can't be fenced in.

So what is a bisexual?  A bisexual is someone who is capable of being attracted to people of more than one gender.  Beyond that, it's hard to define bisexuality because each bi person has a unique path, history and life experience.  Most importantly though, bisexuality is a potential.  We do not need to be having sex with a man and a woman to be bisexual.  It's who we are, not who we're with.

You can't understand bisexuality unless you can give up the comfortable dichotomies of gay or straight, male or female.  Bisexuals are often accused of "batting for both teams."  If heterosexuals and gays/lesbians are opposing baseball teams, then bisexuals are off flying kites in left field.  We are playing a completely different game.

Bisexuality is often understood in terms of the Kinsey scale, with 0 being "totally heterosexual" and 6 being "totally homosexual."  Are bisexuals then the 3's, or the 1's through 5's?  We are asked how straight or gay we are, or we are accused of being "not enough" of one or "too much" of the other.  I don't experience my sexuality as something that linear or quantifiable.  More accurately, it is a different way of seeing the world.

Both heterosexuality and homosexuality, while very different culturally, are organized around gender, with a firm barrier between "the gender I'm attracted to" and "the gender I'm not attracted to."  For bisexuals, however, gender is not a limit. It is just another aspect of a person, like race or age.  Some bisexuals feel that gender is an important distinction, and their desire is very different towards different genders; others are just attracted to the individual, regardless of the plumbing.  Because bisexuals' erotic lives don't depend on that barrier between male and female, we often have a kinship for transgender people (and of course some of us are transgender).  For me, gender is a complex dance, not an on/off switch.  It is this ability to play with gender that attracts me to other bisexuals.

I do a lot of organizing in my local bisexual community, and I am a part of the small but growing International Bisexual Conspiracy, as I like to call it.  Therefore I spend a lot of my time talking to bisexuals about their lives.  What comes up again and again is the feeling of homelessness, of rejection at a very personal level.

It is on this most personal level, of relationships, sex and love, that I think bisexuals suffer the most.   Many bisexuals get caught in the heart-wrenching situation of coming out in the middle of a long-term relationship, and having a partner who flips out.  In the movies, it's always told from the poor partner's perspective, but we don't get to hear what it's like for the bisexual.  We are sometimes strangers in our own homes.

It's hard for bisexuals to find partners given the rampant biphobia among heterosexuals and gays and lesbians.  If I had a nickel for every person, gay or straight, who has felt perfectly comfortable telling me why they are prejudiced against bisexuals, I could quit my job.  A well-respected gay author was once giving a talk about the connections between the lesbian and gay male communities, and I asked him if he thought that bisexuals played a role in bridging the gap.  "I hate bisexuals," he replied.  "A friend of mine was raped by one."  Why on earth he thought that if one bisexual was a rapist then we all were, and that it was OK to say that in public and I wouldn't be offended, I don't know.

I have lots of straight female friends who lament the lack of "good men," but when I point out all of these wonderful bi men I know, they tell me they are afraid of getting HIV.  "Why aren't you afraid of getting HIV from a straight guy??!!" I scream at them.  And many lesbians feel comfortable having unprotected sex with women, as long as those women don't identify as bisexual.  The virus doesn't care what your sexual orientation is.  But most HIV prevention is aimed at heterosexuals or gay men, and it rarely acknowledges that people (regardless of how they identify) may have sex with men and women.

Fear of HIV aside, most monosexuals assume that bisexuals cannot "commit."  We are fun for a romp in bed, but not for a serious relationship.  People tell me this to my face all the time, as if I'd be flattered.  If a heterosexual man can give up all other women for one woman, then why can't a bisexual person give up all other people? And yes, most bisexuals are monogamous.  Some of us choose to be polyamorous (have relationships with more than one person), but we are the minority.

In my experience, the iciness of the lesbian community is far worse than anything a heterosexual has said to me.  It's getting better, but still there are lesbians who won't even make eye contact with me, a known bisexual.  I've had women stop mid-sentence and walk away when I mention that I'm married. They act as if I've tried to trick them, but they are the ones who assume that I am a lesbian.  I always come out as bisexual at the earliest opportunity.

When I came out in the late 1980's in Ithaca, New York, a small, hip college town, there was an active gay and lesbian community.  I was a member of the Lesbian and Gay Task Force, and the treasurer was also an out bisexual.  One day I was stuffing envelopes for them for a dance, which invited the "lesbian and gay community."  I asked if bisexuals were invited too.  "Oh no," I was told, "we don't have room for your issues."  "Well then why the hell am I stuffing your envelopes?" I wondered.

On the other hand, there is the myth that bisexuality is somehow more acceptable to heterosexuals than being gay.  My parents sure didn't think it was cool when I came out to them after college. Like many parents, they went through the "Why are you doing this to us?" phase.  They couldn't understand why I would be with a woman if I could be with a man.  (I was actually wondering the opposite at the time!)  They were also convinced that my bisexual husband was going to give me AIDS, because their image of a bisexual man was someone romping around in the woods having unprotected sex with hundreds of men.  In reality, he's only managed to have sex with a few men, and practices safe sex, as I do and as everyone should.  It's taken my parents many years to start to have a comfort level with my 
bisexuality, and they  still seem surprised sometimes when I bring it up, as if I would have forgotten about it when I got married.

I've also had my share of conservative Christian colleagues tell me I'm going to burn in hell, and the occasional male coworker who thinks I'm a "hot bi babe" who of course wants to fulfill his fantasies.  For the most part though, people are pretty accepting at my workplace, although some of them just seem confused by me.

Now I'm a well-seasoned bisexual organizer, but I don't know how to approach the topic of bisexuality in the classroom.  I tell my students I'm married, and so they think I'm straight.  I've come out as bi a few times, with mixed reactions.  I feel like I'm doing it in a vacuum though.  While some ESL/EFL texts now mention gays and lesbians (rightly so), I have never seen the word bisexual in one. In my 8 years of teaching ESL, I've only once had a student who knew what "bisexual" meant.  She was Latina, and she explained that a bisexual is a man who is the "active" sexual partner, as opposed to the gay, who is "receptive" (to put it euphemistically).  I understand that this is a common definition of bisexuality in Latin America, and that most Latin men who have sex with men identify as bisexual.  However, I, her Anglo bisexual female teacher, did not fit into this paradigm at all.

My students' ignorance is part of the larger invisibility of bisexuality.  We have been erased from history.  When a historical person's same-sex attraction is documented, s/he is claimed for Lesbian and Gay History Month.  However, many of these famous people (like Sappho and Shakespeare) had male and female lovers.  While we cannot determine how they would identify today (sexual orientation is a pretty recent concept), I want to know about the whole scope of their erotic lives, not just the "gay part."

All of this is not to say that it's miserable to be bisexual. I absolutely love it and I wouldn't trade it for anything.  I am lucky to have a support network that includes a wonderful bisexual husband, lots of bi friends, a reasonably tolerant family and workplace, and a somewhat organized bi community.  I love being around bisexuals because I feel that I can truly be myself, without having to explain everything.  Besides, most bi folks I know are really interesting, creative, fun individuals whose lives have not followed the beaten path.  I wish that every bisexual could have what I have, but most of them don't.

While there has been a flowering of local, national and international bisexual organizations in the last decade, most bisexuals are still very isolated from each other.  I think that's for several reasons, one being that many bisexuals have put their energy into other movements, like the gay and lesbian community, AIDS activism, anarchism, science fiction fandom, feminism, etc., and we often don't feel entitled to create a space just for ourselves. Another reason is that bisexuals tend to be ornery individualists; organizing us is commonly compared to herding cats.  Finally, I think that the majority of bisexuals spend a lot of time and energy trying to create a personal life for themselves that works.

The bisexual movement is still young, but it's coming of age.(1)  While there have been pockets of bisexual activity in many artsy/progressive communities (Bloomsbury for example), the current U.S. bisexual movement only got organized recently.  Cutting their teeth on the lesbian/feminist and gay liberation movements (and later AIDS activism), bisexuals formed the first local bi groups in the 1970s. In 1990 the first national conference on bisexuality was held, and BiNet USA, a national organization that does bi organizing and lobbying along with national gay/lesbian groups, was formed. The bisexual movement is certainly not limited to the U.S. though. The 6th International Bisexual Conference was held in August 2000 in England.  The Bisexual Resource Guide 2000 lists "over 300 bi groups and 1750 bi-inclusive groups in 56 countries." (2)

If you are bisexual and you want a community, you have to build it: start your own group or get involved in what's already out there.  And come out wherever you can.  If you are not bisexual but you want to be an ally, then open your heart to bisexuals.  Don't assume you know what our lives are like, what we want out of a relationship, or what we have experienced.  Take the time to really get to know some bi folks (you probably already know some), and read one of the many good books now available on the subject, or check out a bi website.  You'll find that the view from left field is worth the trip.

Copyright  © 2000 Karen Stern. All rights reserved.

About The Author: Karen Stern is an English as a Second Language Instructor and Technology Specialist in Philadelphia, PA.  She is a founding member of the LGBTF Caucus of TESOL.  She has done bisexual organizing since she came out 12 years ago, so it's probably not just a phase.

Contact The Author: iguana@voicenet.com

About The Article: This article originally appeared in Outside In, the Newsletter of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Friends Caucus of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), Fall 2000.

1. For a detailed history of the U.S. bisexual movement, see Udis-Kessler, Amanda, Identity/Politics:  A History of the Bisexual Movement" in N. Tucker, ed.  Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions. Harrington Park Press.  Binghamton, NY.  1995.

2. Ochs, Robyn, ed. Bisexual Resource Guide 2000.  3rd ed.  Bisexual Resource Center, Cambridge, MA. 1999.  (The 2001 edition will soon be available from the Bisexual Resource Center.)

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