Yes, I am bisexual. No, that doesn’t mean I want to have a threesome with you and your
crusty boyfriend – nor does it mean I’m even into threesomes at all. But when bisexual people aren’t busy being fetishized, we’re busy being invalidated. Bisexual women really aren’t just ‘freaky straights’; our purpose is not to get off with girls in clubs because that’s – you know – so hot. Bisexual men aren’t necessarily semi-closeted gays who ‘aren’t quite there yet’ in their own understanding of their sexuality. Trans people absolutely can identify as bisexual without it undermining their gender identity. There really are no rules here: bisexual people are simply human beings who are attracted to two or more (yes, or more) genders. We are the ‘B’ in LGBTQ+ and we are real.
Rather than specifying ‘for straight people’ in my title, I chose ‘non-bisexuals’ because biphobia (sadly) does exist within the LGBTQ community. To clarify, I don’t write this with the intent to beef my straight, gay or lesbian friends. This is about initiating a dialogue between bisexual and non-bisexual people to help those in the bi-community feel seen whilst demystifying many of the aspects and language surrounding bisexuality which often confuse people. By no means is this a lecture – it’s more a helpful guide on how to be a good ally!
Before launching into the conversational do’s and don’ts, here are some useful terms to bear in mind when having conversations with your bi friends, or just about bisexuality in general:
Bi-erasure: This is probably the biggest form of biphobia many bisexual people experience in the day-to-day. It’s not just the sheer lack of representation of bisexuals in popular culture, it’s people responding to people’s bi label as ‘oh, but they’re probably just gay/straight,’ or ignoring someone’s bisexuality once they’re in a monogamous relationship.
Straight-presenting: When someone who identifies as bisexual is in a heterosexual relationship – or even just dating a member of the opposite sex – they might be said to have a form of straight privilege. The same is true for bisexual people who aesthetically present as straight (i.e. bisexual women dressing very femme/non-alternative, or bisexual men dressing very masc.).**
**This is much more complex than how I’ve put it, but I could do an entire essay on straight presenting and the problematic relationship the term has with bi-erasure and the idea that bisexuals are simply ‘50% straight.’
Pansexual: A sexual orientation in which gender doesn’t matter; pan people may refer to themselves as ‘gender-blind’ – also a very valid sexuality, but not one to get confused with ‘bisexual’ (more on that later).
Queer: The ‘Q’ in LGBTQ that functions as a blanket term for people who do not identify as cis-gendered or heterosexual. It was, for a while, offensive and therefore contentious, but has been reclaimed in recent years and is a term myself and other bisexuals I know have felt comfortable using.
This barely scrapes the surface of the overwhelming mass of terminology, but I hope it helps to cover some of the basics. So, now that we are all armed and ready with some fun words (because what Oxford student doesn’t like jargon?), I’m going to list some of the questions to avoid for when you’re sat around at the pub (or anywhere) chatting to your pals about bisexuality:
What are your man:woman ratios like?
When people have asked me this, I’m not sure if they’re asking for a full statistical breakdown or a colourful infographic detailing the numbers of women vs men that I have slept with over the years- or if they’re asking for my preference. Either way, it vexes me (and a lot of bisexual people) that we are expected to have an overall preference, or be able to put a number on it. Sometimes we like men, sometimes we like women. We are not 50% straight, 50% gay – we are 100% bisexual and asking about ratios tends to undermine the wholeness of our sexuality as an entity in itself.
Have you slept with any members of the same sex yet?
Obviously, this question is rarely phrased in such a fraught way; normally it’s girls/boys – whichever is the ‘same sex’ as the bi-person in question. That bisexual people are expected to qualify their sexuality with a sexual/romantic encounter with a same-sex partner is ridiculous. Straight people are allowed to be straight without having shagged anyone ever. One of the most exhausting things about being bisexual is feeling as though you constantly have to qualify your sexuality to others. I often feel like I can’t go on a date with a man without then having to follow that up with a date with a woman simply to remind the world that I’m bi, not straight. I even didn’t come out for a long time simply because I hadn’t slept with a woman and that that lack of experience might disqualify me, or exclude me from the LGBTQ community.
Aren’t bisexual people more likely to cheat?
This is something someone might ask whilst they muse on the pros and cons of dating a bisexual person. There really are straight and gay people out there who won’t date bisexual people because we are believed to be too sexually promiscuous/confused/greedy (take your biphobic pick) to commit to a monogamous relationship. I’m not going to give a lengthy explanation into why this one is not okay, because it doesn’t deserve it.
Aren’t you pansexual?
The pan/bi debate is a long-standing one. ‘Bi’ as a label went through a phase of being demonised (particularly on 2014-2016 Tumblr) as transphobic and exclusionary of non-binary people. However, the idea that ‘bisexual’ excludes transmen and transwomen perpetuates the actually-very-transphobic idea that transmen and transwomen aren’t real men/women – which they obviously are! I think there is a lot of fluidity between pan and bi, and I suppose it is this overlap which creates confusion. But I think bringing someone’s sexuality, or their chosen label, into question can be stressful for the other person – especially given how difficult coming to terms with and coming out as bi or pansexual can be. Whilst I’m comfortable enough to discuss the nuances between the two terms, many bi or pan people might not be, so it’s best to not question it and allow people to identify however they feel best!
I hope this helps us to approach bisexuality with a little more sensitivity and a lot less confusion. I don’t believe biphobia often comes from a place of malice; I think many people are still unfamiliar with the terminology and the general do’s and don’ts surrounding bisexuality thanks to a lack of bi visibility throughout society. I understand that I cannot speak on behalf of all bisexual people (and that not all will agree with what I have to say), but I nevertheless think that one voice is better than none!
If anyone has any follow-up questions regarding anything I’ve said here, or anything related to your own bisexual experiences, please do shoot me a line via the ‘Ask Me Anything’ form here.
With illustration by Emily Perkins (Instagram: @emp3_art)