Why We Need To Talk About Bi-Erasure
It's not 'just a phase'.
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Here Louise, a bisexual woman, shares her thoughts on bisexual erasure...
How would you define bi-erasure? What does it mean to you?
Bi-erasure or bi-invisibility can mean different things to different people. A lot of people outright refuse to believe that bisexuality exists, brushing off the experiences of bisexual people as ‘phases’ or ‘experimenting’ - my own mother included, though thankfully she’s since learned.
Still, inside and out of the LGBT+ community, when a bisexual person ends up in a same-sex relationship, others will assume they were gay all along and just had trouble accepting it. Or vice versa, if someone ends up with an opposite-sex partner, they can find themselves being told ‘it was just a phase’.
Either way, it’s condescending and somewhat hurtful to have people in your life dismiss your past experiences. I’ve heard my fair share of it throughout my life, but I try not to let other people’s lack of awareness effect how I define myself.
Where do you encounter bi-invisibility most?
The media is definitely the worst contender for bi-erasure and bi-invisibility. There is so little exposure for bisexuals in media for younger people trying to understand their own feelings and sexuality. The ‘just a phase/experimenting’ narrative is much more prominent which can lead people to doubt themselves or what they are feeling.
Even in shows hailed for their LGBT+ representation, you will often find characters romantically involved with more than one gender skirting around the word bisexual, instead stating that they ‘just don’t like labels’. Having sexually fluid characters is aimportant but when it’s consistently used to avoid labeling a character as bisexual, it is incredibly disheartening. In my experience, writers seem to find it easier to label a character as bisexual if they are using their bisexuality to imply promiscuity, particularly to make a female character more romantically available to a male.
You’ll be even harder pressed to find labeled bisexual male representation in mainstream media. Even newspapers and magazines struggle with this, often referring to openly bisexual celebrities as either gay or straight depending on their current relationship status.
When reporting on subjects such as marriage equality, marriages between one or two bisexual people will still be referred to as a gay or lesbian wedding. It can be hard to know which terms to use when all the media you consume can’t quite grasp the concept of bisexuality, I’ve certainly been guilty of bi-erasure myself when referring to other people. I’ve noticed the terms ‘Woman-Loving-Woman’ (WLW) or ‘Man-Loving-Man’ (MLM) being used to refer to people and couples as these terms encompass a broader range of gender and sexuality.
This misinformation and lack of representation can lead to biphobia even within the LGBT+ community. It is not uncommon to hear perpetuated negative misconceptions about bisexuals: they’re promiscuous; they’re unfaithful; they’re just going through a phase, they will eventually leave you for someone of the opposite gender.
How does bisexual invisibility affect how you feel about yourself, and your own sexuality?
I feel like bi-erasure is something that affects you before you even know what it is. I’ll never know quite how much the lack of bisexual representation in mainstream media affected my confidence because it is what I grew up with.
I feel a lot of the insecurities I had surrounding my sexuality when I was younger came from a lack of visible bisexual role models. Feeling attracted to both women and men meant I was constantly second-guessing myself, my place within the LGBT+ community and worrying about the sincerity of my feelings. I didn’t understand that you could be anything other than gay or straight until a friend came out to me as bisexual herself. I’m confident that if there had been better bisexual representation in mainstream media and culture, I would have understood myself a lot earlier and could have saved myself a lot of grief!
What’s an assumption that people make about your sexuality?
In a weird way I’m slightly privileged in this regard, depending on how you look at it. I’ve been a relationship with my girlfriend, who is also bisexual, for 3 years now. When people assume we are both lesbians (which they very often do) it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as being presumed straight does.
I feel very sure of my place in LGBT+ society, something I don’t think I could say if I were in a relationship with a man. However, on the other hand, the rest of the world would be a much safer place for me if I had a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend so I guess being more accepted in LGBT+ spaces is where that privilege ends.
What do you think about labels when it comes to identifying your sexuality? Do you think they're important?
I’m not entirely against labels; finally having a word to cling to and define myself with helped me a lot when I was younger. Finding out there was a word to define how I felt meant that there had to be others who felt the same way, otherwise why would there be a word for it at all?
As I have become more comfortable in myself and in my relationship, I’ve found that I personally feel less reliant on the label. But I can’t help but feel this would be a completely different story if I were not in a long-term same-sex relationship. I strongly believe that if I were in a relationship with a man I would cling more fiercely to my identity as a bisexual woman. But perhaps my decreasing reliance on labels has only a little to do with my relationship and a little more to do with being more comfortable in my own skin.
Personal connection to labels aside – it’s still very important to see people vocally identify as bisexual in the media. For younger bisexuals to have role models to learn from and to know they are not alone, to spread awareness to those who are uninformed and for those unsure of their own sexuality. It is important to remember that how a person identifies themselves can change at any point in their life, even several times. This is a normal experience and the person’s identity is still perfectly valid.
Do you have any advice for young bisexual people who are feeling lost and confused about their place?
Learn about LGBT+ history as much as you can, you don’t need to be an expert but try to keep informed; it is important to know who has fought and paved the way for you. It also helps to know where certain terms come from and how they change along with society. Loneliness is so common in LGBT+ people and I would really recommend trying to find friends before you find partners. When I accepted that I was bisexual all I could think about was finding a girlfriend.
For a while I felt like a fraud, like somehow I was being bi only in mind and not in practice! But finding friends you can connect with that will have similar experiences is so helpful; I wish I’d known that when I was younger and tried to be more patient.
Online communities can really help with this, particularly smaller ones. Try searching for communities surrounding more niche topics like ‘lesbian and bi cartoonists’, ‘bi Harry Potter fans’ or something similar.
Having a common interest will help you feel more comfortable and smaller communities tend to be a little less intimidating. Above all, try not to worry too much about the labels others place upon you or the ones you give yourself – it is more important to be comfortable and happy with who you are, however long it takes.
Words by Louise Dolan