Bi Erasure or Why Presidential Hugs Don’t Mean We’re Visible

This week was historic. For the first time a national bi leader was on the podium at the signing of an executive order affecting LGBT people employed by the government. Faith Cheltenham, chair of BiNet USA, stood closest to President Obama and even caged a hug when he turned around and greeted each of the representatives standing behind him. That was pretty great.

What wasn’t great was the coverage that talked about the historic executive order protecting gay and transgender federal employees. raises hand Excuse me…feeling a little erased there! Gary North wrote a great comment about it at this NPR story.

If you know who Faith Chletnham is, then you knew that we had bi representation at the signing. And she was standing with some pretty important people, which gave her great access to continue the ongoing project to get bi awareness training to all the organizations she can. But if you don’t know who she is, you would never know if there was bi representation there or not. In fact, I’m sure most people thought she was a lesbian because that’s what we do. Even a room full of bisexuals gets it when you show photos of two men or two women and ask, what are you seeing? Retraining your assumptions to allow for non-monosexual representation is work, even for non-monosexuals!

So when a person who has been problematic with regards bi erasure in the past posts on FB that he is “done being patient with people whining about being erased” I feel pretty done with assholes who didn’t understand the problem to begin with and now think everything is fine because a bisexual person stood near the president. [Sorry, I had to paraphrase that because the OP has been pulled down]

Bi erasure is complicated. It is done to us when bisexuals are relabeled as gay, lesbian or straight by the media or historians. It is done to us when headlines, event announcements and “inclusive” pride parades don’t say bisexual. We do it to ourselves whenever we allow someone to assume that we are straight, gay or lesbian.

It’s that last one that is the most insidious. I was recently having a very good conversation about this very topic. We were discussing how you decide when to come out and when you just let things lay. Coming out can be exhausting and can feel really disruptive in some ways. When my kid starts a new school do I walk into a PTA meeting and announce, “By the way, I’m bisexual?” How about at my local community theatre when I’m doing my crew orientation? I find it a little awkward to insert “Please don’t assume I’m lesbian because I’m married to a women; we’re both bisexual.”

It’s awkward because no one else is talking about their sexual orientation. No one else has to be so blunt about explaining something that is 99% irrelevant to how to focus a stage light. Sure, people might mention the gender of their partner as we work, or talk about an event they’ve been to that will signal that sort of information, but they don’t have to come right out and say it.

Trust me, after being out for 25 years, I have a whole bag of tricks that let me get out of making those awkward pronouncements while still getting information out that I’m bi. However, I know that every time I walk in public holding my wife’s hand the vast majority of people who see us assume we are lesbians.

Bi erasure is not just about making sure the right words are used or people don’t get “gay-washed.” It’s also about how individuals are or aren’t willing to retrain the way they think about what they are seeing. What do you see?