In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences navigating monosexism in contemporary society. Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts, this is zir first blog.
Earlier this week, Dr. J Sumerau posted on Conditionally Accepted and this blog about the disjuncture between lived experiences and academic definitions of bisexuality. Specifically, ze wrote about how the definitions generated by academics, often with little or no experience interacting with bisexual people (that they know of) or living bisexual lives, are then used to enforce and regulate what is “really” considered bisexual. In this post, I am going to reflect on what it is like for me to move through the monosexual world (i.e., a world defined by sexual binaries) as a bisexual person and bourgeoning sexualities scholar.
Some of my earliest memories about bisexuality came from high school. I often heard my classmates joking about bisexuality (or “bicuriosity” as it was often reduced to). In the hallways, at the lunch tables, in the parking lot after school, such pejorative comments ended up reducing bisexuality to some “true” gay or lesbian “nature” (often in far less neutral language) and were always followed by hysterical laughter. In addition to these comments, my male heterosexual peers often leered at groups of teenage girls, audibly fantasizing about how “hot” it would be if one of them were bisexual so that she would presumably engage in a threesome with one of them and another “hot chick”.
I observed this trope of the “hot bisexual girl” (never a “hot bisexual woman,” only ever a “hot bisexual girl,” reducing adult bisexual women to an infantilized position) expand into my college years, as many of the teenage and young adult heterosexual men I met mused over the possibilities of finding the “right bisexual girl” that would be “down” for a threesome with him and another woman. At one point, I witnessed one of my female college peers follow up this statement with the question, “Well, why don’t you engage in a threesome with a bisexual guy? Maybe your girlfriend would prefer that!” This particular guy responded with, “Fuck no. I’m not having sex with a homo.” Following his blatantly homophobic, biphobic, and monosexist remark I asked, “Would you ever want to date a bisexual girl that you theoretically would have this threesome with?” He paused for a second, “Nah, I don’t date sluts.”
It was at this point that the messages about bisexuality I heard up to that point (from heterosexual people) congealed into a clear dichotomy – the hot, sexually available bisexual girl that you only have threesomes with, but never date contrasted with the always-already “truly homosexual” male who can never actually be bisexual because of the “one act rule” that is particularly pervasive in dominant heterosexual paranoia around males who sleep with other males. I even remember this theme coming up in interactions with some of my early heterosexually-identified boyfriends when they begged me to watch “bisexual girl porn” with them to “get in the mood”. This always made me uncomfortable, a feeling I attributed at the time solely to my discomfort with the sexist objectification in much of mainstream porn. While this was surely a large component of the equation, the fact that I also experienced bisexual desires (that I had yet to acknowledge) was likely another.
Despite the overwhelmingly derogatory lens through which I learned to view bisexuality from my heterosexual peers, I began to openly identify as bisexual during my last year of college. During this time, I did a great deal of research on the Internet and managed to find more positive messages about bisexuality in the form of online conversations among self-identified bisexuals. Additionally, after the negative experiences I had talking to heterosexual people about bisexuality in the past, I was encouraged by the presence of what I understood to be a fairly radical scene of activists and lesbian, gay, and “queer” individuals in the community where I resided at the time. I eagerly hoped that shifting my peer circle from a predominantly heterosexual and sexist scene to a supposedly “queer” scene would be a refreshing start to fully embracing my bisexuality in a positive and supportive environment.
You can imagine the disappointment, then, when a conversation like the following ensued:
At a coffee shop I frequented, some people that I knew were discussing the Occupy movement (this was in the early days of its existence, and many of the activists and “queers” in the place where I lived were planning a similar demonstration locally). The issue of sexuality came up and the conversation slowly veered away from Occupy and towards a conversation of sexual politics. At one point in the conversation I identified myself as bisexual, still a relatively new phenomenon for me, so much so that speaking it out loud felt disingenuous even though it wasn’t. The conversation lulled, some people’s lips pursed, one person pulled out his phone, another took a deep inhale of their cigarette. Finally, the quiet broke when one of the women sitting near me who I was accustomed to seeing rotating in this circle took a large gulp of coffee and then ardently informed me that:
“It’s actually pretty offensive that you use that language. After all, you’re limiting the existence of everyone to either men or women and there’s a lot more gender identities that exist beyond that. Just, like, politically try to be more aware.”
I was stunned, particularly because (unbeknownst to her) I was also reconciling my own non-binary gender queer existence at the time and did not at all see my bisexuality as an invalidating force in that regard. I was perplexed at how she arrived at the conclusion that the “bi” in “bisexuality” only meant “men and women.” From the hours of research that I did on the Internet, on bisexual community pages and Facebook groups, this was not at all the consensus. In fact, I read through a multitude of conversations of self-identified bisexual people reflecting on the beautifully multifaceted fact that “bisexual” can mean one’s own sex and other sexes, men and women, cisgender and transgender, intersex and non-intersex, or no preference for bodies and/or gender identities whatsoever!
I was beside myself trying to sort out why a college-educated supposedly “radical lesbian queer” individual would assert such a myopic view on the meaning of bisexuality. Yet, this was a circle I was fairly new to, so I did my best to disappear from the rest of the conversation (unsuccessfully based on the condescending looks of disapproval directed at me for the next half hour, what are also referred to as “microaggressions”).
In the midst of all this, I could not shake the questions running through my head: if the implication of bisexual attraction and desire supposedly means that I am saying only “men and women” exist, then why is it that no one interrupted the self identified gay male to my left when he discussed his sexuality? Wasn’t he suggesting that only men existed and that there was some “essential” type of being called “man”? Why was bisexuality the sexual identity and set of (extremely diverse) practices solely responsible for reinforcing the problematic and essentialist gender binary? Also, how did these people, a group of supposedly “radical activists, and members of a lesbian, gay, and queer community” not see that they were engaging in a kind of erasure that was not so dissimilar than what they experienced from heterosexuals? I was crushed and disappointed to learn that not only did I not belong in this space either, but also that my existence was offensive.
Be “hot” or be “offensive.” As a bisexual, what I first learned from heterosexual and lesbian/gay people was that I could not be considered fully human with ideas and desires of my own.
A few months after this interaction, I moved to a large city for school and hoped that I would find a more welcoming space for bisexuals in a big city (unlike where I previously lived). I started going on dates, primarily with self-identified lesbian women, in hopes of getting a chance to meaningfully engage this component of my desire and attractions (and also because I had no clue where to find other bisexuals). After the interaction I had with the woman at the coffee shop, I was apprehensive to disclose my bisexuality to anyone – straight, lesbian, or gay – and attempted to avoid talking about my sexual desires other than the ones that would be immediately relevant in that situation (while, ironically, cultivating an interest in studying sexualities). On these dates, I became acutely aware that not only was I offensive (as the woman at the coffee shop had informed me), but that I was also not to be trusted, since, as one woman put it, “bisexual girls can’t make up their minds,” (here, again, bisexual girls can’t make up their minds, reducing bisexuality to childhood not unlike the heterosexual males at my high school).
Eventually, I began to meet other bisexuals and became entirely frustrated with the notion that I was just not “gay” enough, and I began openly identifying as bisexual again (sometimes). Yet even when I did this, I found myself sitting around tables and making sure that those near me knew the story that I fashioned to shield myself from any potential judgment – that I was “like 85-90% gay, though,” generally followed by a laugh and a sip of whatever I was drinking at the time with the hope of concealing my profound discomfort and disdain for this practice of “quantifying” just how bisexual I really was just to avoid negativity from straight, but predominantly gay and lesbian people. In time this did not prove to be much better of an approach than entirely obscuring my desires altogether.
This dissonance was buttressed by the fact that, despite the multitude of ways I tried to present myself while navigating the changes in/with/to my gender, others most commonly read me as a lesbian woman. This was most clearly relayed to me in an interaction I had with a man one day while purchasing a pack of cigarettes at a corner store in the city.
“Congratulations!” The man behind the counter exclaimed as I walked through the door.
I looked around, unsure of whether he was addressing me, or someone familiar that he knew who happened to enter right behind me. I quickly realized there was no one else in the store and since all I had done that morning was get out of bed and walk to the corner, I inquired about the reason for his congratulations.
“Oh, well now you can get married!”
Setting aside the reality that I did not, in fact, have a partner at this time, I quickly realized that, in this man’s eyes, I was a lesbian woman and the day before our interaction the former governor of our state signed gay marriage into law in the state where we lived. Not only was I apparently a lesbian woman, but one who would, of course, automatically want to marry. His assumptions not only erased the fact that I, actually, could have been married to some of my partners long before this date, but that perhaps marriage was not something I had any intention of engaging in regardless of my partner choice. Alas, this man not only reflected his limited familiarity with only the most “respectable” of “LGbt” issues for many straight people, but also the erasure of bisexuality completely from potential “intelligible” forms of existence.
All of these encounters are just a sampler of my experiences navigating bisexuality in a monosexual/monosexist social world. In my adolescence and college years I primarily confronted the dynamics of heteronormativity (and still do). Yet, heteronormative regulations are only one side of a monosexist coin, the other side of which involves navigating the imperatives of homonormativity. For many bisexuals this is a phenomenon all too familiar. We are either too straight, or not straight enough. We are not gay enough either, or we’re really just gay and waiting to “pick a side already.” We’re hot, offensive, untrustworthy, a specter of danger, and volatile. Yes, we are destabilizing for homo and hetero normative assumptions in the most fluid of ways. This is a reality I continually have to work to embrace while navigating hostility from lesbian, gay, and straight others.
While I have often heard – from straight, gay, and lesbian people alike – that bisexuals have it easier because we can “just choose to be closeted” I want to stop and interrogate this assumption –especially since recent reports reveal that bisexuals suffer from more severe health complications than straight, lesbian, or gay people, and because the same assertion was made against lesbian and gay people not so long ago. Additionally, one of the most cited difficulties that bisexuals report is lack of community support. Monosexism is not just inconvenient for bisexual people, it is a form of violence, and it is quite real in its consequences, particularly for bisexual people who already occupy other marginalized structural positions.
My hope in sharing this information is to continue dialogue concerning how we define “bisexuality” in our own communities compared to the academy. I am hoping that perhaps we might opt to challenge where we see monosexism in our own classrooms, writing and research agendas, and community engagement projects.