biphobia
There’s a reason for the “B” in LGBT. (Illustration by Rachel Glucksman, Rhode Island School of Design)

Why Bisexuals Can’t Catch a Break From Erasure

You might not realize it, but biphobia and homophobia are wildly different sides of the same coin.

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biphobia

You might not realize it, but biphobia and homophobia are wildly different sides of the same coin.

In recent years, American society has come a long way in its treatment of the LGBT+ community. From the federal legalization of same-sex marriage to the popularization of gay characters and storylines in the media, we live in the most accepting era of our country’s history. But despite raised awareness and pushback against homophobia and transphobia, one form of bigotry targeting the community too often goes unmentioned: biphobia.

Biphobia is defined as an aversion toward bisexuality, and it entails behaviors or beliefs that perpetuate an array of negative stereotypes about bisexual people. Bisexuals are often deemed greedy, indecisive, “easy” or “going through a phase,” and they have long faced accusations of sexual deviancy or faking their identity, from both straight and queer communities. People claim that, since they can’t be satisfied with one partner or one gender, bisexuals as more likely to cheat. And, thanks to real-life tales of bi-identifying people later coming out as gay or lesbian, many people mistakenly interpret bisexuality as merely a stepping-stone to accepting one’s “true” orientation.

Here’s the truth. Bisexuality is, indeed, a legitimate sexual orientation, and it comes in many forms. One thing homosexuality and heterosexuality actually have in common is that they’re both monosexual identities; that is, it means they’re attracted to only one gender. Unlike these orientations, bisexuals have the potential to feel attraction to people of more than one gender. If you picture sexuality as a spectrum, with loving women at one side and loving men at the other, you might expect bisexuality to fall in the middle. But that mental image isn’t quite accurate.

For one thing, not every bisexual likes men and women equally. A bi person could go through most of their life only experiencing attraction to men until, suddenly, one woman shakes up their entire world. Others might switch between partners of different genders but maintain a preference. Still others could go through life only engaging with one gender, but knowing they’ve also fancied others.

Moreover, the prefix “bi” is misleading, since bisexuality isn’t confined to just men and women. Gender, as we now understand it, is different from biological sex and exists on a fluid spectrum, much like sexuality, and plenty of bisexuals can also be attracted to nonbinary gender identities.

Other people identify as pansexual instead of, or along with, bisexual to represent this fact, and some consider it to be a more inclusive term. However, both identities are valid, and the Bisexual Resource Center defines “bi” and “bi+” as umbrella terms, which is how I’ll continue to refer to the orientation and its variations.

So why is biphobia an entirely different beast from homophobia? They both stem from fear and misunderstanding of the unknown, or from prejudice and closed-mindedness. But gay people can be just as biphobic as straights, whether it’s excluding bisexuals who are currently in “heterosexual” relationships from the community, or refusing to date someone bi because they’re “just experimenting.” And that’s largely due to the prevalent erasure of bisexuality and denial of its existence in our culture.

Research in the ‘80s actually labeled bisexuality “secondary homosexuality.” Dominated by bias toward monosexuality, researchers presumed that heterosexuality and homosexuality were the only legitimate orientations; therefore, anyone claiming to be bisexual was either a closeted gay clinging to heterosexual norms, or just experimenting beyond their actual preference.

Today, biphobia plagues much of the media we consume. The news not only invalidates famous women’s girlfriends by labeling them “gal pals,” but it also regularly sensationalizes celebrities “turning gay.” Remember when Kristen Stewart started dating girls after Robert Pattinson (and other male relationships) and suddenly, somehow, became a lesbian? In a 2019 interview, she admitted to feeling a ‘“huge responsibility’ to define her sexuality” amid the immense pressure to just “say one way or the other.” She finally feels confident enough to simply describe herself as “sexually fluid,” but that doesn’t stop tabloids from taking the honor of applying labels upon themselves.

More recently, Miley Cyrus made headlines for being seen with a woman after her split from Liam Hemsworth. Even though she came out as pansexual in 2015, the news stunned fans and haters alike; it’s almost as if people associated her declaration of her sexuality with her “wild” phase, back when she released “Bangerz,” and as soon as she got back together with Hemsworth, she was “straight” again. Though she’s reiterated multiple times that her relationship with Hemsworth never cancelled her queer identity, news sources still invalidate her fluidity by demeaning her current relationship with Kaitlynn Carter.

If the news perpetuates the erasure of bisexuality, you can be sure that fictional media does, too. Though it’s a bit outdated now, “Sex and the City” undeniably played a major role in early 2000’s pop culture; the fact there’s still rumors of another movie proves the series’s staying power. And it’s got its own moment of biphobia; in Season 3, Episode 4, Carrie Bradshaw learns that the guy she’s seeing dated a man a few relationships before their own. This deeply upsets her, and she and her friends share their terrible opinions about it. In the end, she declares she doesn’t think bisexuality exists, describing it as “just a layover on the way to Gaytown.”

Even the more recent “Orange is the New Black,” a show that boasted one of the most diverse and inclusive group of female characters, failed to acknowledge the lead character’s bisexuality until the seventh season. That’s over five years of misidentifying a character who was confirmed to have had relationships with both men and women — five years of side characters (and even her girlfriend, Alex) remarking about her “turning” lesbian or straight, without the show ever clarifying the validity of her bisexuality, until a throwaway comment in one of the final episodes.

“Orange is the New Black” isn’t the only case of popular shows and movies tiptoeing around the b-word. But for a series proclaimed to be wildly progressive in its depiction of the queer community, it’s telling that they seemed to forget there’s four letters in LGBT.

There is hope, however. From Rosa Diaz from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to Oberyn Martell from “Game of Thrones,” Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series and Annalise Keating from “How to Get Away with Murder,” openly bisexual characters who are more than stereotypes or tokens are becoming more commonplace in popular media. We are finally seeing examples of badass bisexual characters who aren’t reduced to their sexuality and, with any luck, this upward trend is only going to grow exponentially. And with proper representation nearly always comes more widespread acceptance.

For so long, the idea that everything must fall into a binary has governed mankind’s understanding of the world. Night or day, science or religion, human or animal, male or female, gay or straight, Democrat or Republican. Anything that deviates isn’t natural, isn’t in balance. But, time and time again, we’ve proven ourselves far too quick to accept the universe in black or white terms.

If we know that evening and dawn exist, that science can bolster religious beliefs, that humans have a lot more in common with animals than not, why don’t we question whether other contingencies lie on a spectrum as well?

We like easy. We like definable. Biphobia and bi erasure prove our aversion to complex matters. But with more people identifying with a form of bisexuality than ever before, it’s time to embrace the grayscale.

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