Bisexuality occupies a strange position in society. It manages to be mainstream and visible (a whole quarter of the ‘LGBT’ acronym!) at the same time as being very difficult to label and pin down. Of all the letters in the extended LGBT+ alphabet soup, ‘B’ might be the most nebulous. Anyone looking at film, TV or celebrity news with the eyes of a desperate bisexual looking for representation, as I do more often than I’d like, can tell that there’s an awful lot more bisexual behaviour around than there are people using the actual word. So while attraction to multiple genders is getting more visible, but not discussed using the right vocabulary, it seems to be the specific word ‘bisexual’ that seems to be a dirty word.
After a lot of wondering why that might be, I think it comes down to the very simple matter of a lot of people just not knowing what the word means.
We should probably begin with the important but more difficult than you’d think matter of defining bisexuality. The idea that it means attraction to men and women is now generally thought of as out-dated in a climate of growing awareness of non-binary gender identities. Though it is often pointed out that ‘bi’ means ‘two’, the definition that makes the least people angry seems to be attraction to people of your gender and people of other genders, keeping the ‘two’ that is so important to amateur etymologists and recognising the experience of many bisexual people who are capable of attraction to more than the binary genders.
Given the enormous amount of debate it’s taken for people to struggle to that definition, it’s likely that there will never be one that makes everyone happy. The one we’ve got seems to be mostly true and not to inspire great crossness, but it does make bisexuality and pansexuality very difficult to distinguish. With such similar definitions, it mainly seems to come down to personal preference for what people want to identify as. Some people say there’s a difference between pansexual total disregard for gender as a part of attraction, and bisexual attraction to all genders while recognising the distinctions between them. This difference works for me, and is the reason I go with bi instead of pan, but there are members of both communities who reject these definitions and sometimes go as far as to put them the other way round. But since no one really understands this and space is limited, let’s move on.
Bisexual erasure is all over the place in storytelling. Look at Orange is the New Black. Despite Piper’s insistence in episode one that sexuality ought to be measured on a Kinsey scale rather than thought of as black and white, and then going on to show attraction to more than one gender, watching the show crawl agonisingly towards an awareness of its protagonist’s apparent sexuality is like pulling teeth. In three seasons, the show has never yet managed to use the word ‘bisexual’. A dirty word indeed. Equally, the gay community’s (particularly the gay male community’s) adoration of Brokeback Mountain is very quick to acknowledge the validity of Jack and Ennis’ same-gender relationship, but not either of their different-gender relationships. With both fictional and real people, the public is quick to leap dramatically from gay to straight and back again without considering the b-word in the middle.
As with Jack and Ennis, so with real life. People’s assumptions about multiple gender attracted fictional characters illustrate a lot about people’s misconceptions about bisexuality in the real world. One of the most widely spread myths is that all bisexuals eventually ‘pick a side’ when they end up with someone of whatever gender. How many shows have we all seen where the kooky girl has a relationship with a woman as part of a grand will-they-won’t-they romance with a man, only to have her same-sex relationship completely ignored by the writers, the characters and the audience after she gets together with her one true love? I know I’ve seen enough.
This all feeds into the cultural assumption that bisexuality doesn’t really exist, that multiple gender attracted people always end up settling into heterosexuality or homosexuality. I’ve seen a lot of this first hand, as a bisexual woman currently dating a man, with my only other long term relationship having been with a woman. Am I secretly straight? Gay? Dreadfully confused? I’ve been accused of having every sexuality under the sun in the year or so since I came out as bisexual. There are a lot of pervasive cultural ideas about bisexuals, particularly bisexual women (from what I’ve seen, there’s fewer specific stereotypes about bisexual men who, for better or worse, are totally brushed under the carpet rather than just being gossiped about). Bisexual women are just slutty, just doing it to impress boys, just trying to look interesting – and if I ever have another discussion with a random bloke in a pub about whether I’m more likely to cheat on my boyfriend (I’m not) or be up for threesomes (not for you to hear about even if I am, random pub man), then I could well end up hurting somebody.
The ultimate answer to whether ‘bisexual’ is a dirty word, then, comes down to people not understanding it, the word or the concept. Nobody wants to use a word they don’t really understand, particularly when it describes a concept that might not even exist. For bisexuals, that means an awful lot of defining things to people, repeating the same definition over and over again, hoping against hope that people will get the hang of it. It’s difficult and it’s bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustrating, but maybe cultural climates surrounding sexual identity are starting to change, and you can tell yourself that every question you answer is you helping society move on a little bit. Whether you believe that or not is up to you.