Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Safe spaces in the LGBTQIA alphabet

Written by

Sexuality is not binary, it's not defined by others and it's not yours to judge. 

Like any good lesbian (or person in general with excellent taste in television), I have been excitedly watching the newly released second season of Orange is the New Black, a Netflix series set primarily in a women’s prison. The first season delighted me, mostly by allowing me to experience such a varied smorgasbord of characters in every episode. It is not often that you get to watch a show featuring mainly women. It is not often that you get to watch a show with a high representation of non-white characters (with arguably much more interesting stories than the white characters). It is not often that you get to see a trans character played by a trans person (Laverne Cox, marry me), and it is certainly not often that female sexual pleasure is seen in the mainstream, especially female sexual pleasure delivered by another woman. All of this was and is great, and I applaud the show and hope that more television and movie creators follow their lead.

However, when the second season was released, I noticed a lot of people on Twitter and Tumblr bursting with excitement and making ‘about time’ type remarks surrounding the use of a word they had all been waiting for. Piper, the show’s main character, had been depicted as someone who has fallen in love with and had relationships with both men and women over the course of her life. However, during the first season, others exclusively referred her to as ‘ex-lesbian’ or a ‘straight girl’. The one word that a lot of people had been waiting to hear for so long, with bated breath, was ‘bisexual’. When it came, it was in the form of a dismissive comment from Piper’s ex, and it was the word ‘bi’. Not even the entire word was said. Even so, people were still very excited to hear it. And do you know why? Because it hardly ever happens.

The concept of ‘bisexual erasure’, the notion that bisexuality is diminished and dismissed, is hard to ignore. When celebrities like Maria Bello come out as being in a same-sex relationship, the headlines scream ‘Maria Bello comes out as gay’, ignoring the fact that she has been in relationships with men, and never labelled herself one way or the other. Actor Allan Cumming is consistently identified as being a gay man, when he is a self-identified bisexual man. Singers like Freddie Mercury and Ani Difranco are held up as queer icons, and assumed be gay. Mercury did have relationships with men and may well have identified as gay by the end of his life, however he also had a long-term relationship with Mary Austin (whom he called the love of his life), a relationship that is quite often minimised or ignored. Ani Difranco is assumed by many to be a lesbian, when in fact she has written songs about being bisexual her whole career, has been married to two men, and has a baby with her current husband.

Speaking of marriage, when we call it ‘gay marriage’, we are discounting the possibility that one or both parties might not be gay; they might be queer in another way. As a lesbian who grew up relatively isolated, I have an understanding of what all of this feels like. I know the feeling of grasping for any representation, any positive depictions of your identity. I know how hard it is to be young and to be ignored by the mainstream, how hard it is to have nobody to identify with, how awful it is to be relegated to the sidelines. And yet, I now feel kind of lucky. I am lucky to know that decent heterosexual people accept me. I know that I am accepted into the queer community without question. And I understand that, shamefully, this isn’t always the case for my (self-identified) bisexual friends.

Throughout my lesbian career (I need a raise), I have heard various kinds of insults and stereotypes about bisexual people. There is the stereotype that bisexuals are greedy, because they might want to date both Jake AND Maggie Gyllenhaal (this just seems like good business practice to me). There is the stereotype that they will always cheat on their partner because they are attracted to both men and women (but that doesn’t mean they need to be with both at once, idiots, just like you are probably monogamous with one person in your relationship). Then there is the idea that they are ‘fence-sitters’ who enjoy heterosexual privileges and don’t want to give that option up (because obviously there are no downsides to being bisexual). However, the most pervasive and disturbing argument is one that I’ve heard time and time again, from lesbians, gay men AND heterosexuals. It is the idea that there is actually no such thing as a real bisexual person.

Now of course we know bisexuality is real and that bisexuals exist, because people tell us that they are bisexual. They aren’t Bigfoot. We need to trust people with their own identities, whether they identify as bisexual, asexual, gay, straight, queer, moving fluidly to a different label each month, or wanting no label at all. The gay/straight binary doesn’t work for everyone, and people at all points should be appreciated. Argument over, what’s next on the agenda? For whatever reason, this garbage argument about people who label themselves as bisexual somehow persists.

It claims that all men who claim to be bisexual will definitely turn out to be gay, and end up with a man. And that all women who claim to be bisexual will definitely turn out to be straight, and also end up with a man. What a funny happenstance that in a world still defined by patriarchy, it is assumed that people who claim to be bisexual are lying to themselves, because there is no doubt they MUST really actually want to be with a man when it comes down to it. Isn’t that a funny coincidence and definitely not related to the underlying patriarchal system?

It would be one (still terrible) thing if these kinds of arguments were coming just from the heterosexual community, from people who haven’t experienced discrimination because of who they love and may be ignorant to the challenges queer people face.

But the fact that it also comes from the queer community, my community, makes me even more despondent. I have heard my bisexual brethren talk about being scared to be themselves with their gay and lesbian friends – having to claim that they are gay to avoid the judgment and derision they would receive if they announced that they are actually bisexual. What a strange and terrible position some people must be in, feeling like they have to pretend to be straight with some people, and gay with others.

It is so important that we allow people to be their authentic selves, without judgment. I have heard lesbians say that they would never date a bisexual woman, and I have seen bisexual men excluded and insulted by gay men. So not only do people face the same discrimination and marginalization from the heterosexual world, they also have to face discrimination and marginalization from US. From people who should understand, from those of us who should definitely know better.

Derision and exclusion comes at them from a community that should be inclusive and full of safe spaces for all the letters in the LGBTQIA alphabet (there is an entire other article to be written about the treatment of our trans family). The fact that this isn’t the case yet is totally unacceptable, and we have to do better.

Rebecca Shaw

Rebecca is primary caregiver and confidant to Tippi, the best cat in the world. She also likes writing bad jokes on twitter @brocklesnitch