When I was in first grade, my world was just opening up. I was a curious kid, picking up different sports and interests on a whim. I didn’t really know if I was a tomboy. I distinctly remember one afternoon tanning lazily in an inner tube after a long day of playing in the sun, debating in my head. I couldn’t decide if I really liked “boy things” over “girl things.” On the last day of school, I was forced to reevaluate my blasé attitude around gender. Before we were allowed to start signing yearbooks, I noticed all the girls teasing my friend and a girl in our grade. After he explained to me what “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” stood for, my understanding of the world shattered. I realized that dating and romance would become a threat to my way of life, and I decided to avoid it at all costs.
After years of confusion and ambiguity, I am now openly bisexual, and I find fulfillment and affirmation in that label. I’ve looked back on that yearbook memory several times during my process of self-acceptance. Was that the moment I decided to suppress my entire sexuality indefinitely? Could a hyper fixation on some tame classmate teasing be enough to close someone off to the idea of love? Of course not. My deep discomfort and insecurity around crushes, intimacy, sex, and love were reactions to messages I received in the culture around me. Messages from not just one experience, but the many others which later affirmed and expanded upon the first. At first, I couldn’t fully understand those messages, but they had their desired result. Intuitively, I felt unwelcome, isolated, and odd.
What is Bisexual Erasure?
Erasure is difficult to notice; omission is harder to spot than blatant lies. The Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World defines bisexual erasure as “the tendency to omit bisexuality in history, the media, and other discourses.” They go on to say that in its most extreme form, bisexual erasure can “manifest as a denial of the actual existence of bisexuality.” Some would argue that the idea that everyone is at least a little bisexual invalidates the identity in a roundabout way. Bi erasure is pervasive and often subtle, so I want to take this opportunity to outline some common facets.
Erasure as a distinct political identity
Lack of/stereotyped media representation
Minimization and invalidation
Tense relationships with both straight and gay communities, leading to a perceived lack of belonging (also, bisexual issues and community building rarely prioritized)
Scapegoating and attribution of unflattering qualities (confusion, indecisiveness, selfishness, untrustworthiness, mental instability, hypersexuality, immaturity, being “tainted” by partners of an undesirable sex)
Openly bisexual public figures often misrepresented as straight or gay
Cultural anxieties about sex and gender relations are at the core of bisexual erasure and discrimination. One simple reason that bisexuals face marginalization in both “gay” and “straight” spaces is that we introduce a caveat to the monosexual world. It makes things more complicated, and who has the time to consider someone else’s experience? Even when bisexuality is represented or referenced in media, the facets listed above warp it to entertain a presumed-straight audience. This results in fictional bisexuals who function as symbols, foils, or narrative tools serving the primary storyline, instead of fleshed-out characters who embody a distinct human experience.
The Magical Hedonist Bisexual
In addition to under-representation, what little content we do have is reductive, unrelatable, and often harmful. The few tropes we see again and again reflect our culture’s insecurities with bisexuality in interesting ways. In her video “The Magical Hedonistic Bisexual Tropes,” Verity Ritchie outlines three common tropes most bi characters fall under: the evil bisexual, the hedonist bisexual, and the magical bisexual. The evil bisexual is the oldest of the three. Unambiguously untrustworthy, sociopathic, violent ---- they represent a threat to the normative way of life, and they look sexy doing it. Includes Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, Patrick Hockstetter in IT, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy of DC Comics, Mystique of the X-men comics, the evil Mirror Universe bisexuals in Star Trek, and Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl.
Now, we have two new bisexual character models that reflect shifting collective attitudes. The hedonistic and magical bisexuals are more sympathetic than their evil sibling, ranging from morally ambiguous to aspirational. The hedonist bisexual is defined by a personal philosophy of reckless pleasure and excess. They might teach the protagonist to let loose and enjoy life, possibly as the romantic interest. A dark side of substance abuse and general overindulgence often accompanies this trope. Includes Dorian Gray in A Portrait of Dorian Gray, Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Oberyn in Game of Thrones, Ilana Wexler in Broad City, Jules in Euphoria, and Elise Wassermann in The Tunnel. The magical bisexual is innately different from the “normal” people who surround them. Often from another land, planet, or dimension, they are confused by the small-minded monosexual world. Perhaps the ability to “see past gender” is just one of the magical bisexual’s many otherworldly powers. Includes River Song and Jack Harkness in Doctor Who, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time, Tara Thornton in True Blood, Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show, Korra and Asami in Legend of Korra, and Wonder Woman of DC Comics.
Don’t get me wrong… so many of these characters are sources of pride, belonging, and admiration. But at this point, it’s impossible to ignore that these fictional bisexuals were written, first and foremost, with a straight audience in mind. The network may be banking on my fellow bisexuals and me to tune in, but none of this is truly in our interest. I don’t relate to the magical bisexual. I don’t want to have to be magical for people to stop questioning my sexuality. I don’t want to be responsible for society’s gender anxiety; I never asked for that. The Magical Hedonistic Bisexual is not concerned with whether or not they are accepted. They never struggle with insecurity or internalized biphobia. They never seem to be affected by any discrimination in life. If anything, they are light-heartedly puzzled by other people’s small-mindedness.
There’s this widely held belief that bisexuality is totally socially acceptable today. That there’s nothing for us to fight for, and we should be thankful that it’s not worse for us. This is a lie. This kind of thinking back-handedly praises us for our ability to “pass as straight” and would prefer that we settle down in a heterosexual pairing in the end. It is limiting. I’m not satisfied with being allowed to quietly exist. I wish that I had access to my community at a young age. I wish there was more space for me and others to process our vulnerable bisexual feelings in this world where we are made to feel like oddities. And for the record, I don’t think I’ve ever passed as straight.
My Confusing Bisexual Experience
My sexuality was not something I firmly, naturally, unquestioningly embodied from the get-go. I felt nothing but insecurity and invalidity in that area for years, to the point that I suppressed any kind of attraction, even the socially acceptable kind. At the time, I didn’t see this as a problem. I saw coupling up as a compromise of one’s individuality. My personhood couldn’t be ignored if I remained single and pursued my interests unencumbered. So I threw myself into whatever I was doing ---- school, art, work, my quirky little hobbies ---- completely unaware that fear was freezing me off from an entire part of myself.
I had a few awkward adolescent encounters with boys, which didn’t exactly convince me that I was heterosexual. I also had a series of passionate, committed best-friendships with girls I admired very much. Those years were almost excruciating. I remember when a girl hit on me in the girls’ room in high school, I struggled to get the words “I’m straight” out of my throat. She looked at me funny. Everyone must have known except me. C’est la vie.
As an undergrad in art school, I watched the reboot of One Day at a Time. Seeing Elena struggle with compulsory heterosexuality and ultimately follow her intuition deeply resonated with me. It clicked. I finally became aware and comfortable with my attraction to women. It was such a relief. I gained confidence, knowing that I could relate to a community of people who understood my experience and wanted the best for me. I told a few people I was a lesbian but ultimately didn’t feel comfortable with that label. Mostly, I’d say “I like girls,” or something ambiguous like that. I was feeling myself out. Cringingly soon after this, I met a man who was very interested in me.
We had an Intro to Screenwriting course together. We both spoke up in class and liked each other’s opinions. I showed him my precious short script exploring my newly conscious sapphic feelings. He used his own bi-curious feelings as a pretext to talk to me. Smart. He could tell I wasn’t really interested in men at the time. We stayed in this realm for a while. He gave me advice on picking up women, which never worked. Then, he began to push my boundaries. Our hangouts became more intimate, and I let my guard slip. I had said, “I like girls,” I’d kept it open. I caved to the pressure, and in a rushed and slimy way, I came to terms with my attraction to men. This period has been a source of shame for me. An uncomfortable gray area, in which I tearfully came out as not-straight to my parents over the phone, while in bed with my secret male lover. I finally came out to myself as bisexual.
Over time, all of my timid boundaries dissolved... to stay platonic, not to label it, to stay undefined. I was in a compromising position. Until that point all I had known was uncertainty. Liminality. Lack of security. He presented me with a “safe” relationship, where I was free to be my bisexual self, and yes, threesomes were on the table. I began to feel like a sexual tool, an avatar that he could project onto, or use to play some role. It wasn’t sustainable. And fortunately, it ended.
My whole life, the girl world intimidated me. I couldn’t always relate to my female peers, and it became clear over time that I stood out as a little different. Sometimes, I felt like I was out of the loop, like they were speaking in a secret code. Within female friendships, so much information is conveyed subtly, imperceptible to an awkward kid like I was. At the same time, there is an expectation for female friendships to be more intimate and emotionally involved than male ones. Maybe this is an extension of the idea that women are inherently more emotional/romantic than men. I questioned my sexuality multiple times in my adolescence, and during those years I became obsessively paranoid. “Am I reading into this?” “Did I take it too far?” “Am I being predatory?” “Was that just a friendly touch?” “Did that mean the same thing to her?” The fear of overstepping and looking like a fool vastly overpowered any desire to explore those feelings.
In time, I moved from a predominantly straight world to a college town where gay girls and femmes were out and proud, and they easily clocked me as one of them. Just being surrounded by others like me allowed me to feel safe and empowered. Sadly, a host of new anxieties bubbled up as I began to actively pursue shes and theys. I was socialized in a heteronormative culture that reinforces gender roles in all aspects of life. I knew how to play the role with men. Here, I had no scripts to go off of… There were awkward bi girls like me. Women whose signals went over my head... I felt like I wasn’t qualified, or really allowed to participate. I also felt pressure to downplay my attraction to men. There was a girl I liked who complained about “fake” bisexuals who are just straight girls trying to experiment. She put me on the defensive and led me on an entire summer. Long story short, my emotional walls and a mix of external and internalized biphobia continue to come between me and any second dates.
The Impact of Bi Erasure
Rates of mental illness and suicide among bisexuals are significantly higher than those among gay, lesbian, and straight people. According to the Bisexual Research Center, 40% of bisexual people have considered or attempted suicide, compared to roughly 25% of gay men and lesbians. Bisexuals reported to the HRA double the rate of depression compared to heterosexuals. This contradicts the narrative that ability to “pass as straight” shields bisexual people from the effects of sexual discrimination. While bisexuals make up about 50% of the LGBTQ+ community, only 28% of bisexuals are out of the closet to those closest to them. Is it possible that our invisibility is part of the problem? Art, media, and academic works about bisexuality, especially by bisexual authors are suppressed and ignored, while more palatable, attractive, exoticizing stories about bisexuality are amplified. These stories other us and police our behavior. Essentially, our narrative is routinely rewritten without our consent. Our shared experiences and rich history are hidden, and we are made to feel culture-less.
My path to embracing my sexuality was uncomfortable, lonely, and yet intensely bisexual. I passed through life like a ghost, as if an invisible force had me trapped in another plane. I struggled to materialize myself, and I was vulnerable with no solid foundation. I tried to single-handedly make a path for myself, not knowing that so many have done the same before me. Not knowing that I was walking into traps and tropes that have existed for centuries. I didn’t need to suck it up and get over my insecurity. I needed support. Today, my strong friendships with other queer people, especially other bi women, are a source of solidarity and comfort. We need each other. And despite the way things often look, we’ve always been here.
Aspirational characters are fun, but they aren’t enough to sustain anyone. We need true community, true connection. We need support from our forebears, from each other. We need characters who explore our shared experiences intimately, in a way no one else could. Here are some specific suggestions on combatting bisexual erasure.
Understand that Bisexual Erasure sends a message that we are not welcome. Pay attention and do your best to minimize this effect in your daily life
Listen to and uplift bisexual voices and stories. Tell our stories with specificity and authenticity
Bi people; find each other! Talk about, compare, and bond over your experiences
Acknowledge works on the topic of bisexual as a political identity, because they often go ignored