The 23rd September marks Bi Visibility Day. I’m bisexual, and I’d like to talk about what bisexuality, visibility and inclusion mean to me.
A word on language to start with. Language is dynamic, and dictionaries are descriptive of usage rather than directive. In my case I use bisexual to indicate that I can be attracted to more than one gender (or sex). It doesn’t mean that this attraction is always the same, or that it’s equal. My bisexuality, however, is trans, non binary and intersex inclusive. Pansexual is another word which is often used to describe people like me. There are many (many!) nuanced definitions of both words and anyone who tells you they can tell you what any of these words absolutely mean is, well, at it!
You only need to leaf through the pages of any national newspaper to see why trans, non binary and intersex rights and inclusion is something I will never tire of shouting from the rooftops. But I’m not trans, intersex or non-binary so I would suggest reading Codi’s blog to find out about their experiences as a really good starting point.
Back to my sexuality. As a bisexual, cis (i.e. ‘not trans’) man, married to a woman, my sexuality is not immediately obvious. To the casual observer we are look like a cisgender, heterosexual nuclear family, with a dog: in many ways normal, but that all depends on what normal is for the observer.
Why is that an issue? Well, I’ve spent most of my career (and unless I live to a ripe old age, most of my life) never quite being ‘out’. It’s not that I’m ashamed or secretive about my sexuality – it’s just that I’ve just been in more relationships with women than men, so many people assume that I’m heterosexual. Most of these assumptions are silent, though. I can correct what I know, but if the assumption is in someone else’s head, it stays there uncorrected and unchallenged.
I like to think of it as being Schrödinger’s Bisexual. If I’m observed in a relationship with a man, the observer thinks I’m gay. If I’m observed in a relationship with a woman, the observer thinks I’m straight. This analogy breaks down a little if I’m observed in a relationship with someone who isn’t a man or a woman, but the point stands, that what the observer sees leads them to draw a conclusion which isn’t correct. I don’t blame them – they may not have (knowingly) met many bisexuals before, and they’re very unlikely to have ever really discussed it. I’ve been guilty of making similar assumptions – being part of the LGBT+ community doesn’t make you any less susceptible to this kind of thinking.
I first came out to friends in the mid 1990s. I knew at that time I wasn’t ready to tell my parents, but I didn’t think that nearly 30 years later I’d still be in the process of coming out. A good example of this is the fact I only recently got round to coming out to my parents last year. Between their increasing age, and COVID’s increasing spread, I became aware of their mortality and mine, and I didn’t want to leave things to be the fodder for future regrets. I had the real privilege of knowing I wouldn’t be shunned our outcast (a comfort many LGBT+ youth don’t have, even now). If anything, my sibling coming out as queer years ago stole my thunder! My mum was lovely, as expected, but my dad’s reaction was mostly confusion – why this big announcement now after so many years of marriage? He was fine – in his own way – just perplexed. I decided that I could probably leave enlightening him about non-monogamy for another day.
While I don’t make a big secret of my sexuality these days, many people assume my wearing of the Scottish LGBT+ Police Association lanyard and badge is me trying to performatively show how ‘woke’ I am. I am happy to talk about it if it ever comes up, and I can’t deny that there is little bit of fun in collecting confused looks when I confound expectations in conversations about the attractiveness or otherwise of celebrities (Dan Levy, I’m looking at you!). That approach is limited though – while joining in a conversation about the various reasons why Schitt’s Creek was the best lockdown discovery ever... constantly engineering conversations where to go on about people you find attractive would get very creepy very fast. I’m just fed up with feeling I must come out. I can’t drop my boyfriend or my husband into the conversation as subtle indicators. It’s not that I want a bigger fuss – there’s no need for a full-page ad in press. It would just be nice if people didn’t always assume that I am their version of normal.
To be able to come out in a safe and secure environment is something that too many people in the world today cannot take for granted. For too many people this decision would expose them to violence, to abuse or to homelessness. In some jurisdictions it would place them on the wrong side of the law – risking state-sanctioned violence, imprisonment and even death. I know I’m very lucky in my suburban straight-passing relationship to have the choice to come out safely.
Bisexual erasure (the opposite of bi visibility) is real too though. Research by Stonewall shows that bisexual (and pansexual) people experience unique challenges – including prejudice from within the wider LGBT+ community. While an encouraging 74% of gay/lesbian people are out to all their friends, that figure shrinks to 36% for bi people. From the same research 57% of gay/lesbian people were out to all their colleagues – only 22% for bi people. I can really understand those figures. Even in our values-driven workplace, being out – being your authentic self – isn’t always an easy choice.
There are simple things you can do to help, though. Firstly, try not to make assumptions – and challenge them when you notice that you have done. Believe people who tell you they’re bisexual – it’s all-too-often written off as being a phase, or indecision. Watch your language too! Prejudice isn’t just about throwing insults and slurs at people. Language can cause harm when it’s not inclusive. Straight/Gay are not the only two options – so be careful not to make it seem that way in the language you use. Finally, remember that a person’s sexuality is unique to them, and private to them. Your words and deeds can help to make your friends, family and colleagues feel more comfortable talking to you about their sexuality, but that’s their choice not your right. Pointed questions aimed at trying to work out someone’s sexuality will rarely be welcomed.
Ultimately while I do want us bisexuals to be more visible, whether the person (colleague or customer) who sees me wearing my rainbow-festooned lanyard assumes I’m gay, I’m bi, I’m trans, intersex or non binary, or if they think I’m a straight ally… what matters is that they know to expect a supportive and understanding response if they speak to me about LGBT+ matters. Whatever your authentic self looks like, make sure that’s your vibe.