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?




Coming Out Bi

In the Spring of 1990, I was a freshman in college. I had friends of all orientations but I had never questioned my own hetrosexuality. Late in Spring semester, I was asked to moderate a discussion on sex and sexuality sponsored by the campus LGBT organization. I agreed and it went well. We all enjoyed having a space to discuss our thoughts and feelings on sex and sexuality. For many of us, these were changing a lot in our first years away from home. We decided to start a weekly discussion group and it ended up attracting a wide variety of people, including non-students. Our discussions explored personal as well as social and political topics. We learned from our older members, shared new experiences we were having and we all became close. However, I still never questioned my own hetrosexuality.The next fall, a couple of months into my Sophomore year, I was having a very difficult time with a number of issues. One was I realized that although I could talk comfortably about sex and sexuality in general, I had a very unhealthy relationship with my own sexuality. I was thinking a lot about my past relationships and trying to figure out where I’d internalized a whole lot of negative ideas about sex. Among other things, I realized I’d never enjoyed sex the way I thought I should. In a leap of logic that still amazes me, I decided I was a lesbian but had been socialized to think I was straight.

I was a biology student and I did have evidence to support my hypothesis. As a kid I’d been fascinated by back issues of Playboy I had found stashed in the restroom at my mom’s office. I thought about my cousin introducing me to the idea of guy watching when I was a junior in high school. She had been amazed I’d never really looked at guys before. I felt I was a very suggestible person who was too rooted in what was expected of me, including the influential science fiction by Robert A. Heinlein I’d devoured as a teenager. I had enjoyed kissing a girl over the summer. Obviously, I had learned to feel and act straight because that was what was expected of me. I must really be a lesbian!

Being a lesbian lasted two weeks. It ended when I realized I was attracted to the guy who sat next to me in French class. I felt silly about my over reaction to figuring out I was attracted to women. I had friends who were bisexual, I knew I didn’t have to pick between being attracted to boys or girls. I’d just spent the last 6 months having weekly discussions about sex and sexuality that included plenty of information on all different orientations! Luckily, I hadn’t come out to very many people in those two weeks so I didn’t have to correct too many misunderstandings.

I did burn one bridge during that time. A past boyfriend who I hadn’t spoken to in months had the misfortune to call me during those two weeks. I told him I was a lesbian. He had been the first guy I ever had sex with and he took my revelation very personally. We didn’t talk again for many years.

That little detour does give me a good story to tell when talking with people about bi-phobia. “I come out as lesbian for two weeks, but I got over that,” never fails to get a laugh. How often have we been told our bisexuality is a phase or something we have to “get over?” The irony is delicious.

I had some panicky moments as I got used to the idea of dating women. Late one night one of my closest friends, and the first person I ever came out to, had to reassure me that even if I ended up finding a woman to spend the rest of my life with, I could still have kids, a dog and the house with a white picket fence that I wanted. It was a new idea for me but he was right. Twenty years later the fence is brown but my house has dogs, kids and a wife.

Even back then, people claimed bisexuality was just a fashionable thing for young women at co-ed liberal arts colleges. We would get over it. I was left speechless one day when an otherwise liberal-minded friend confided in me that he wasn’t worried about his girlfriend’s attraction to other women. He said as soon as she graduated, she’d stick to guys.

However, I knew I really was attracted to women, not just responding to my environment. Although my powers of deduction had proven faulty, I had a reason for believing this. I had realized I had a huge crush on one of my best friends from high school. I had had it for a long time and just never realized it for what it was. She was at a different college but we’d stayed in touch after high school, so I called her. I told her I had had a realization about myself that was really important and that had to do with her, too. I didn’t think she’d take it badly, but you never know with these things. I’d heard plenty of bad coming out stories from friends. I confessed my crush and my newly discovered bisexuality with butterflies in my stomach.

She replied, “I know, I’ve had a crush on you for years. I’ve just been waiting for you to realize how you felt.” Damn her, she’d beaten me to it! So we giggled and talked and agreed if we were ever living in the same city and unattached that we would try dating.

That Spring we both attended a conference and had a chance to tell our story while sitting together in a room full of other LGBT college students. What an empowering experience! Everyone clapped and the session leader asked if we had had a chance to try dating yet. At that point I was sure we would. I had transferred to the university in our hometown and I knew she was coming home for the summer. We were both single, what could possibly not work?

As it turned out, we never did get a chance to date. Her very strict Catholic parents found out how we felt about each other by reading a letter she had left in her desk. They threatened to kick her out of the house, not support her education and never let her see her sisters if she ever talked to me again. She managed one quick phone call to tell me why she couldn’t talk to me again and we had one awkward day when friends conspired to have us both join a road trip to an amusement park a couple of hours away.

That day my heart broke for both of us. Until then I’d thought we might have a chance when she went back to college, but she’d changed. I hated seeing how fear had crushed her spirit. That day at the amusement park she told me she was seeing someone. The night her parents told her never to talk to me again, she went and cried on a friend’s shoulder. This was a  friend she’d previously sworn she had no interest in being romantically involved with. One thing led to another, as these things do. I felt like she’d taken refuge with him rather than chosen him because she loved him. I later heard they married.

I lost track of her soon after that road trip. She went back to college and her parents moved out of town. Even after she was back at school I guess she wouldn’t risk contacting me. Every once in awhile I Google her maiden name to see if anything comes up. I have never known her married name. My hope is that somewhere out there she’s made a good life for herself and fulfilled the potential of the wonderful girl who realized how she felt about me and was smart enough to wait patiently while I caught up.