Is the election over? OK, time to get back to business.
First off, the inevitable words about terminology. Homophobia and the words that have derived from it, biphobia and transphobia, are words that describe hostility, discrimination, and hate, not clinical “phobia”.
Homophobes throw punches rather than have panic attacks (or introduce legislation to “define marriage as between one man and one woman because that’s what the Bible says”).
Biphobes don’t run screaming from the room when I walk in (they usually patiently explain to me that I’m really gay or pansexual because I’m either afraid of myself or of trans*folk).
Transphobes don’t huddle into fetal balls and whimper when they see someone claiming rejecting the gender they were assigned at birth (OK, sometimes they do before telling trans*men that they need to cross-dress as female at Thanksgiving because explaining Uncle Bill is just too hard for the young cousins to understand, as if children don’t have an intuitive grasp of the fluidity of identity and the power of claiming your own true name).
Homophobia is a clunky word, but it’s what we’ve got – and the words that came from it likewise. It’s derived from xenophobia, which is a word that describes hostility and hate borne of fear rather than overwhelming fear itself. Hint: the etymological fallacy strikes again.
There is a pressure to deny the existence of biphobia, especially internalized biphobia. You hear it called “A combination of homophobia and misogyny” sometimes. As a bisexual man, that one gets my goat a bit – it’s biphobic in itself, and particularly erasing male bisexuals. We’re not even worth mentioning, as usual.
When a bisexual person (or a queer person who supports inclusion) calls out an instance of biphobia, we have a tendency to be minimized with classic derailing tactics. We’re accused of playing the Oppression Olympics, told to “just wait, once we Gay and Lesbian people get caught up with the straights we’ll see about including you”, told to check our heterosexual privilege at the door – these are just some of the tactics. So I’m going to go into a bit more detail on some of the low points, and try to show some root causes at the end.
TL;DR: Biphobia is real, it’s expressed through stereotypes and myths, and it exists because it is xenophobia directed at people who are different.
Part 1: Straight Privilege
I live in Minnesota, and we tell lots of Ole and Lena jokes here. There’s one that comes to mind, slightly modified, whenever I hear this particular criticism.
Ole was sitting up on the hill crying. His old buddy Sven sat down beside him and asked what was wrong. Ole waved his arm at the town and said, “I built half of dose houses wit my own two hands. Do you tink dey call me Ole de Builder? Before de county paved de highway, I smoothed it an laid gravel every fall, do you tink dey call me Ole de Roadmaker? I made shoes an boots for 30 years, do you tink dey call me Ole de Cobbler? No, you blow one Lutheran…”
Check your privilege. That’s the battle cry of those who say that because I happen to be married to a woman that I have straight privilege. Here’s the crucial part that they don’t understand, or have conveniently forgotten.
Privilege is not seized. It is thrust upon you. I didn’t choose to fall in love with a woman in order to better assimilate with heteronormative society, I (by accident or fate) met the person who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and the genetic dice had rolled in such a way that she’s a ciswoman. It doesn’t make me someone grabbing at straight privilege with both hands.
It makes me someone whose attraction to a particular individual, out of the broad spectrum of people I have attractions to, coincidentally fits something that society approves as the normative model. That’s all. Do I have straight privilege?
For decades, I enjoyed the privilege of the closet – a dubious privilege at best. I currently enjoy the privilege of a societally accepted monogamous civil union (the exact same privilege of a gay or lesbian person in a country that has marriage equality). I don’t deny that. But neither did I ask for it. The proper response to privilege is not to deny it, it is to use it to extend it to those who have not been given an unasked-for leg up.
Saying bisexuals enjoy straight privilege is like saying that same-gender spouses in states and countries that have marriage equality enjoy straight privilege. What it’s really saying, when you unpack it thoroughly, is simply, “you can duck into the closet easier”.
Being in the closet, whether by choice or because people put you in one by making unwarranted assumptions, is not privilege. It is the opposite of privilege. Look, just because I happened to find myself in a relationship where marriage is a legally recognized option doesn’t mean I don’t support marriage equality.
If you’re bi, most people in the straight world who exhibit homophobia just express their homophobia on you and don’t bother with the subtleties of biphobia.
(There are some notable exceptions, such as Kyrsten Sinema’s Democratic primary opponent who was lauded as a supporter of gay people but decided it would be appropriate to cast her as unelectable due to her bisexuality [and the biphobia of the gay community that rallied around him as an ally rather than around her as a member of the community or at worst staying neutral], or the people who are against marriage equality on the grounds that if we recognize gays and lesbians, we’ll next have to legalize group marriage to accommodate the bis who cannot be bi unless they have multiple simultaneous partners. A note: I don’t have a problem with group or line marriages – my marriage is a group of two. Marriage equality is a big fight that I don’t see as the cure-all for queer issues, I view it as a top-down approach that will happen naturally as we become more accepted for who we are. Decades in the closet taught me to distrust assimilationism as the best mechanism for equality.)
There are few people in the straight world who are saying “Oh, bisexual people? They’re way better than gays and lesbians” (exception: people who try to claim that everyone is bisexual, erasing us in a different way as “open-minded straight people”). No, the usual straight reaction to someone’s declaration of bisexuality is either homophobia or “so, threesomes every night, eh? nudge nudge wink wink”
Part 2: Be Patient, We’ll Get Around To You
This one doesn’t seem prima facie biphobic, but it does, in fact, reflect a biphobic attitude. Bisexcellent, a Twitterer of my acquaintance, recently posted links to a discussion by the board of the Sydney Mardi Gras (which had been the Gay Mardi Gras, and then the Lesbian Mardi Gras) back in 2000 when there was a bi purge going on. What’s a bi purge, you ask? It’s something I have seen more than once, where bisexuals are removed from an organization either formally for being not gay enough or by simple erasure.
The Facebook page now called WOF did it to us, after many members of the bisexual community stepped up to fight for WOF when they were banned by FB. You can tell where the power is, by the way, when you look at who is purging who – the big gay organizations regularly remove bisexual and transgender people from the equation, such as when the HRC expressed blatant transphobia. And who stood up on behalf of inclusion of trans*folk? You guessed it – the bisexual community. Not exclusively – we were not the only segment of the LGBT community to push for full inclusion – but we also were not the segment fighting against inclusion.
In the case of the Mardi Gras issue, one of the arguments was that gay had originally included everyone (the way queer is used now), and it was the separation of lesbian from gay that led to the erasure of bisexuals – when we were all gay, they said, it wasn’t a problem, but once the fragmentation started, it turned into the Oppression Olympics.
“Just use the word Gay. Once we get rights, we’ll see to it that you are included.”
Look at the power dynamic here. You who we already consider to be different from us, exert your energy to get equality/power/representation for us, and once we get it, we’ll in turn help you. You know what? That last stage never seems to come. Here’s the most clear and telling example. Bisexual activist Brenda Howard was instrumental in creating the modern Pride movement. Go to your local Pride Fest/Parade/Event and see where the bisexuals are. The representation for what might be as much as half of the “gay” community is tucked in a corner and underrepresented on the board. There have been some that were notoriously bad – and through the efforts of contemporary bisexual activists, some of these have improved. But Brenda and the other bisexuals who were there from the beginning have been erased either through gaywashing or by simply not being mentioned at all.
Finding out about Brenda Howard changed my life. Do you know why? Because here in one person was the simple and powerful refutation of the idea that bisexuals have been uninvolved bench-sitters. The B in LGBT is not just a way of saying “and the less gay”, it’s intended to be a recognition that while we share a lot of the same issues in our relationship with heteronormative society, we also have some different struggles than the L, the G, and the T – and while the overlapping areas are huge, the areas of difference are important.
The big takeaway from the Mardi Gras flap, however, is this observation by Bisexecellent: “[It’s a mistake to accept] ‘gay’ means LGBT’…because people will later say ‘it’s called the *GAY* _____’ to defend exclusion of other queers.”
If the label “Gay” is insufficient to fully describe lesbian experiences and transgender experiences, it’s insufficient to describe bisexual experiences.
Erasure is biphobia. Telling someone to “help us now and we’ll help you later” is defining an unequal power relationship from the start. Attention: Gay people who are saying “we’ll help you with your issues once we achieve equality”? You are quite simply lying to us. We know this, because every time that you exclude us, you’re not being neutral, you’re pushing us down while simultaneously using us. If your construction of “we” is “you and us” as separate rather than as “I and Thou” together, then you’re excluding the very people you expect help from.
When bisexual activists work on issues that affect the entire LGBT community, such as homophobia and heterosexism, we don’t separate the interests of the gay community from the bisexual community and the transgender community. We don’t celebrate Bi Pride day on September 23d as something to do other than more general Pride days, but as something in addition to. I would bet there is no one who celebrates Bi Pride Day who does not also wholeheartedly celebrate the larger Pride events.
We are not saying and have never said, “Let’s secure the rights of people who are attracted to both the same and other genders first, and then we’ll see to it that people with only same-gender attractions are included.” When we march for marriage equality, we march for marriage equality for everyone. When we stand up against homophobia, we don’t act like it’s something that doesn’t profoundly affect us.
And that brings me to one of the most common criticisms of bisexuals by the rest of the queer community, the place where biphobia really rears its ugly head.
Part Three – the Oppression Olympics
(If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, it means “measuring your oppression against others, generally to support a claim that you’re worse off.”)
Where biphobia really comes into its own is in the gay and lesbian community. People like Dan Savage, and the innumerable people who wield the myriad (but interconnected) myths about bisexuality as if these lies are the Sword of Truth. People who think that the actions of one person (even if that person is themselves) are a complete descriptor and predictor of all bisexuals.
There’s a meme making the rounds right now, featuring Denying Privilege Girl, that is captioned “My girlfriend cheated on me with another woman, but she’d just one person: my girlfriend cheated on me with a man, all bisexuals are cheaters.” The response to this rather clever lampooning of the myth that bisexuals are incapable of commitment has included some outrageously biphobic statements by people who don’t get that they are the ones being tweaked – or maybe they do.
Any time that bisexuals speak about biphobia, mention that in addition to homophobia there is another closely related but distinct set of prejudices and stereotypes that are directed at us by both the straight and the gay community, we get told to shut up and sit down and quit “playing the Oppression Olympics”.
These statements are invariably followed by attempt to win said Olympics. The words in brackets are the [unsaid but implied or supported by later comments] words.
“You have straight privilege so us [real] queers have it worse.” I already talked about that one, in part. Calling out bisexuals as not existing generally enters debates that start with this, though, because obviously we can’t really be gay because we play with nasty fish/sleep with the enemy. One funny part about this is that these people who try to say we aren’t real simultaneously deny our experience while claiming that we’re denying their experience. I’d laugh, if it was funny after the millionth time.
“Trans*folk have it much worse than [transphobic] bisexuals.” OK, number one, where was the trans* supporting gay community when the HRC threw the T under the bus? Who were the people calling trans*folk “trannies”? Clue: not bisexuals. Not all gay people either, but a significant number. Number two: why are you assuming that trans*folk are necessarily not bisexual? Gender identity and sexual orientation are not related. Is a person who identifies as transmale and bisexual oppressing himself, or if genderqueer, oppressing hirself?
“You’re just trying to have it both ways, be gay when it suits you.” Sister, I have exactly as much choice in my sexual attraction as you do. I was born this way too. Brother, why in the name of Harvey Milk would a man in his 40s deliberately identify as queer if he wasn’t, especially when you’re setting the bar so high? When you’re telling me that it’s so horrible and oppressive to be gay in today’s world? I know that there is prejudice against gay people. There’s prejudice against every stripe of the rainbow. It’s not news to me.
I know that there are challenges to being gay. Guess what – bisexual people face exactly the same challenges, plus struggling to be recognized by our own community. On the grand scale, the oppression we face is no more quantifiable in intensity than the oppression you face – it’s all oppression. What we’re trying to tell you is, cut it out. We not only have a right to be here, but we’ve earned the right to be here. And we shouldn’t have had to earn it. Queer is supposed to be the place you can go when straight doesn’t want you. There shouldn’t be a test to get in.
Thought experiment: You are a gay man of the physical type sometimes referred to as a “twink”. You’re in a new city where you know no one, have no friends or even acquaintances. You pay the cover charge, walk into a gay bar, and as you work your way to a stool, you realize that it’s an establishment for Bears. Bear flags, framed pictures of Bruce Vilanch and Richard Hatch. Conversation stops, and then you find yourself in the midst of a bubble of turned backs and snide comments. How would you feel? Would you feel like you were being rejected? If you said so, would you think it was in any way fair for the bouncer to tell you that you don’t have real problems as they deposit you none-too-gently on the curb? Now what if you find yourself on the curb next to another person who is unwelcome there, and they let you know that every gay bar in town is a Bear Bar, but, there’s this guy who sells moonshine out of the back seat of his car to people like you, if you can find him as he drives around. Would going back to the bar and saying, “Hey, guys, can I just get a drink and a few minutes in a place where I don’t have to worry about getting called f****t and beat up? I’m just like you in very important ways, and I feel like you’re leaving me out in the cold because I don’t fit a rigid model” constitute Playing The Oppression Olympics?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
It hurts like hell to be told by gay people that they don’t want us either, especially when it’s founded on the same overall problem that brought them together as a community – xenophobia from the heteronormative world.
Because that’s what it all comes down to. Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia – it’s all just xenophobia. The fear of the different, leading to hate and intolerance (and even sometimes to mere tolerance – and word up, “tolerating” someone, even “accepting” someone, is a far cry from embracing someone).
Each of the four letters has individual issues to deal with as well as the overall problems of all queer people. That’s why there are four letters – gay men face problems lesbians don’t, lesbians face extra discrimination (from, in some cases, gay men. Don’t look all innocent, now, you know there are misogynistic gay men), trans*folk get crapped on from every imaginable direction regardless of their sexual orientation. Asexual people are still being pathologized by the medical establishment as well as the queer community — I’ve been criticized more than once for saying “Perhaps telling someone who is asexual that they need to go to the doctor and get their libido readjusted isn’t really supporting them.” And bisexuals have some unique issues too.
Stating that a population has some problems that are particular to it does not constitute whining about “having it worse.”
Biphobia exists. It’s not just a combination of homophobia and misogyny. It’s not something we made up so we could feel properly oppressed like some privileged wealthy white Connecticut teenager going to the salon to get dreadlocks so he can justify rebelling against his parents while expecting them to continue to pay his room and board.
People who claim biphobia doesn’t exist are saying that we’re just making it all up. That we’re lying about – hmmm. Wait a minute. Where have I heard that before?
Bisexuality by its very nature disrupts. It breaks down the gender binary, for one thing — people who claim it reinforces are people who have opted to listen to people who in reality don’t want the binary disrupted. Think about that while I’m working on the next article.