By Pip Williams
Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!
Bi erasure occurs when bisexual people are systemically invalidated and underrepresented in our society. This usually occurs through assumptions that everyone must be either gay or straight, often depending on the gender of their partner(s).
“Gay icon” is a common phrase in the public lexicon, but when was the last time you heard anyone talk about a “bisexual icon”? Plenty of so-called gay icons—from Freddie Mercury to Oscar Wilde—are or were actually bisexual. Even Sappho wrote poems about both men and women. Surprised? That’s bi erasure for you.
Singer Frank Ocean provides a more modern example of bisexual erasure, with both LGBTQ folks and straight people alike often mistakenly labelling him as exclusively homosexual. Then there’s Cynthia Nixon, the bisexual actress and candidate for governor of New York, who was recently dubbed an “unqualified lesbian” by former council member Christine Quinn. While Quinn’s attack made headlines, few seemed to notice the major inaccuracy. Again, we can see bi erasure in action.
There is, of course, the flipside, where queer relationships are written out of the lives and histories of bisexual people altogether, leaving us with a falsified picture of them as heterosexual individuals. From Virginia Woolf to Kristen Stewart, the world seems determined not to see these household names in their full bisexual glory. No matter how often chart-topping singer Halsey reminds us that she is bisexual, she’s still subject to scrutiny and attempts to straight-wash her image. It may be functioning in the opposite direction to my previous examples, but this is still bi erasure.
So, now that you know what it is, how can you avoid contributing to bi erasure? First up, just remembering that bisexual folks exist is a good start! Not everyone dating someone of the same gender is gay, and not everyone dating someone of a different gender is straight—and someone’s dating or sexual history may not reflect the entirety of their sexuality. Once you’ve got that in your mind, it will help you to stop making assumptions about the people you meet and sorting them via a likely inaccurate straight/gay binary. If we keep spreading this mindfulness when discussing sexuality, hopefully we can eradicate bi erasure altogether some day!
While the concept of bi erasure might be a complex one to tackle head-on with your kid, it’s still something you can address indirectly with them. Confronting bi erasure in your own home will make it a safer, more validating environment for a bisexual child or teen, and it’s super easy to do! When talking about LGBTQ issues, be sure to mention bisexuality too. Find examples of bisexual role models that your kid can look up to. Correct each other if you notice family members calling bisexual people “straight” or “gay”.
• You can tell someone’s sexuality just from meeting them.
As a bisexual person, my sexuality is always perceived as either gay or straight, unless I explicitly state otherwise. Without my partner, I’m constantly assumed to be heterosexual. With my partner, I’m read as half of a lesbian couple, even though neither of us identify as lesbians. While I’m always pleased when I’m recognized as queer, it makes me sad that my true identity is so rarely acknowledged. We need to stop making these binary assumptions about people’s sexuality and let them define their own identities if we want to tackle bi erasure at its root.
• Bi men are really just gay, and bi women are really just straight girls faking it for attention.
Often, bi erasure boils down to the assumption that all bisexual women are actually straight while all bisexual men are actually gay. These beliefs are rooted in both biphobia and harmful gender stereotypes. Is it really so hard to believe we could also be attracted to women!?
It’s important to listen to and believe bisexual people when they are open about their sexuality. Even if someone’s identity doesn’t seem to align with your first impressions or gut reaction, we have to trust that bisexual people know more about their own sexuality than we can ascertain just by guessing.
• Bisexuality is just a stepping stone to coming out as gay.
It’s true that many people do come out as bisexual before later revealing that they are exclusively gay. Even though bisexual identities can be a point on a journey for many people, that doesn’t mean that static and fluid bisexual identities can’t coexist. One person who previously identified as bisexual coming out as gay doesn’t suddenly mean we’re all gay!
• Bi erasure doesn’t matter because it doesn’t hurt anyone.
Actually, bi erasure does hurt people, and this is why we need to take a stand against it. Bi erasure makes it harder to come out to people when there are no cultural touchstones for the identity you’re sharing. It’s harder to find role models, resources, and community when both straight and gay folks alike seem determined to homogenize our identities into their own. It’s nearly impossible to address the specific barriers and oppressions bisexual people face when we we fail to center them in our organizing—either by simply tacking them onto “the gay community” as an afterthought, or forgetting them altogether.
If your kid is bisexual, it’s possible that they’re experiencing the negative impact of bi erasure on their life. Ask them if they feel their identity is validated and respected by their family and their peers, and if not, ask them what needs to change. Resist any urge to “simplify” their sexuality to “straight” or “gay”. Speak proudly about your bisexual child (with their permission, of course), and encourage others to do the same. The antidote to bi erasure is bi visibility, and having allies who champion us is an absolutely vital part of that.
Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!
Pip lives in London, UK where they study Veterinary Medicine alongside their work as a journalist and editor. They are passionate about cats, bisexuality, pop music, and rejecting binaries, and can be found online as @pipsuxx.