Pride is upon us. And while we’re busy rocking our rainbows and watching virtual parades, Pride is also a good time to talk about some of the deeper issues facing the queer community, including the issue of bisexual erasure.
The first Pride march was a protest against mistreatment by police of queer and gender nonconforming people in New York City’s downtown gay bars. As a result, Pride is not only a time to celebrate (although it certainly is that!) but also a time to fight for our rights and push for the changes we want to see in our community.
Bi erasure is when someone’s bisexual identity — or bisexuality in general — is either questioned or denied outright. It happens every time a bisexual person is told that it’s “just a phase” or that they’re not “really” queer if they’re currently dating an opposite-sex partner. It’s discrimination against bisexual people by the queer community because they don’t believe they’re truly attracted to their same gender. And then it’s discrimination again by the straight community because they're viewed as “actually gay."
See the problems there? Bi erasure is other people telling bisexuals what we are and aren’t; who we’re attracted to and who we aren’t; and sometimes even telling us that we’re not even real! And if being constantly questioned about your identity wasn’t already annoying enough, it’s also theorized that bi erasure contributes to some of the very serious health disparities bisexual people face.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, bisexual people are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems, more likely to be suicidal, and even more likely to have common health problems like high blood pressure or cholesterol. Those are just a few of the many ways that bisexual people’s health is more likely to suffer than people of other sexual orientations. It's because bi erasure keeps them from sharing their sexuality with their healthcare providers, which can result in incorrect care. And the isolation and rejection of it all can lead to or worsen mental health issues.
Jake, 32, has experienced bi erasure both in the queer community and in his own family. At his first Pride march, he was harassed by other queer people for being bisexual and didn’t go again for “at least a decade.” And, ever since he married a woman, his identity as a bisexual man is constantly questioned by other people. For example, one time he was talking with family members about dresses, when his aunt told him it was a “girls only” conversation. Jake said he disagreed and that, as a queer man, he felt he had something to contribute.
“And she goes, ‘You're married to a woman, you're not queer. You can't be queer whenever it's convenient for you,’” Jake tells Bustle. “I was like, ‘When the f*ck was it ever convenient?!’ Like was it when I was getting beaten up and called a f*ggot or was it when I had every partner other than my wife have an insane complex about my sexuality not being real?”
I’ve experienced that type of bi erasure myself, as a cisgender bisexual woman in a long-term relationship with a man. So I try to push back, in small ways. I refer to him as my “partner” instead of “boyfriend,” because it’s gender neutral and I want people to consider the fact that I could be a with a woman. I publicly identify as queer. And when my dad recently told me that I “used to be” bisexual, I calmly explained that just like he didn’t stop being attracted to other women when he married my mom, I didn’t stop being attracted to women when I started dating my partner.
Luckily, I have a cool dad and he got it immediately and apologized. But other people aren’t so lucky. Jake says that he once had to spend hours convincing an ex-girlfriend that he wasn’t gay.
“We had literally just had sex,” Jake says. “We'd been together two years. And I had told her plenty of times I was bi and that I had exes who were men. Literally took me two hours to convince her I still was sexually attracted to her.”
One of the most frustrating things about bi erasure is that bisexuals are the biggest group of LGBTQ people. According to the Williams Institute and HRC Foundation's research, we make up a full half of the entire community, which is why it's so important we aren't glossed over.
A 2013 Pew Research Center survey of LGBTQ Americans found 40% of respondents said they were bisexual, while 36% identified as gay men, 19% as lesbians, and 5% as transgender. But, even though bisexuals make up the biggest group in the queer community, they're least likely to be out. Only 28% of bisexuals said that the most important people in their lives know that they are LGBTQ versus 77% of gay men and 71% of lesbians.
A 2018 poll from YouGov asking people to put themselves on the Kinsey Scale — with 0 being completely heterosexual and six being completely homosexual — found a 9% drop in the number of people who considered themselves “completely heterosexual,” when compared with data from the same poll in 2015. When they broke it down by age, they found that 34% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 identified as “not completely heterosexual" — which could mean some are bisexual, queer, or any of the other terms people use to identify their sexual orientation.
Not only are bisexuals the biggest group in the LGBTQ community, we're also seeing less people identify as 100% heterosexual these days. So it’s time for bi erasure inside and outside of the community to stop. We’re not confused. It’s not a phase. Or, as Jake puts it, “I’ve had enough genitals in my face by now to know if I had a preference."
UCLA School of Law Williams Institute. (2011, April). How Many People are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender? Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/how-many-people-lgbt/