Now that I’m finally here, I’m making it Bi Visibility Day every day.
It’s Bi Visibility Day today, as it has been every September 23rd since 1999. “Visibility” is a funny concept when you’re talking about people’s lives. Bisexual people make up the largest group under the LGBTQIA+ banner, and every single one of us is – as far as I know – corporeal and visible to the naked eye. Everywhere you look, you’re probably seeing a bi+ person or two. You just might not know it.
The thing about bisexuality (which, for me, I understand in the way that bisexual activist and writer Robyn Ochs defined it) is that it really can be entirely invisible. An inherent tenet of bisexuality is that it is possible to fall in love with a person traditionally regarded as “the opposite sex”. If that is how your life happens to go, you will more than likely be assumed to be straight and you are under no obligation to correct or question that assumption. It can work the other way too – you can happen to date people of the same sex and people will assume you’re gay. Either way, “bisexual” is rarely people’s first thought.
I recently read the delightful book Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. In it, the eponymous Simon asks the question: “Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it shouldn’t be this big awkward thing whether you’re straight, gay, bi, or whatever. I’m just saying.” Reading this in the light of Albertalli’s recent self-outing under pressure from accusations of profiting from a community she is not part of was… interesting. While I’m not sure I agree with Simon’s idea that it should be an enforced declaration, I have found that when people are happily able to share previously-hidden parts of themselves, it can be affirming for everyone around them too. As Captain Holt put it on Brooklyn 99, “Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.”
Before I began questioning my own sexuality in my late twenties, I had never heard of Bi Visibility Week. All I knew about bisexuality was vague recollections of the emo scene of my youth and jokes on Friends and Sex and the City that reinforced the idea that it basically wasn’t real. I knew I wasn’t gay, because, well, I knew that I was attracted to men and that I was a woman. So I was straight? I guess? There was always a tiny inkling in the back of my mind that maybe there was something more going on but it was so small, so quiet, that I thought it didn’t mean anything. I thought everyone had it.
Then I made some queer friends and had some conversations. I began to understand that maybe the moments I’d written off as meaningless, or pushed deep down as embarrassing evidence of some kind of brokenness inside me, could actually just be, you know, liking girls. And that’s not only normal and okay, but surprisingly common. A 2017 survey carried out on behalf of the BBC found out that just 71% of millennials (those aged 23-37 at the time) identify as exclusively straight, falling to 66% of 16 to 22-year-olds, with 3-4% of both groups identifying as exclusively gay/lesbian. That’s a heck of a lot of people who are somewhere in the middle.
As soon as I started doing some reading up on the subject of bisexuality, I came across an encouraging trend. For every anxious thought I had or journal entry I wrote detailing all the reasons I was lying to myself, or mistaken, I found someone else describing exactly the same feelings. It became apparent that not only was I indeed probably bi, but I was also kind of a textbook case. I read more and more articles online describing similar stories: people who didn’t realise their queerness until long after the usual teenage coming-of-age experiences we see in the media. A lightbulb moment for me – although it was a couple of years before I was able to understand why – was in the season three finale of Schitts Creek, when David (who is out as pansexual) and Patrick (who we don’t know all that well, but who has maybe just been on a cute first date with him) share a chaste goodnight kiss. Patrick says, “I’ve never done that before with a guy.” It was so profound to see a happy, well-adjusted, full-grown adult person who has got to that point in their life without realising or acting on their queerness. Not because he kept something hidden, or lived a life up to that point that was full of angst and secrecy, but just because he hadn’t quite got there yet. In the end, Patrick came out as gay, but the point remains: visibility matters.
In the world of “compulsory heterosexuality” (the assumption that the only “normal” relationship is between a man and a woman), bisexuality can present a unique challenge: there is always the possibility of “passing” as straight, not only to other people but also to yourself, something Gillian Morshedi discusses in her illuminating essay Adult-Onset Bisexuality and the Passing Dilemma. Obviously – and this is really important – nobody, anywhere, for any reason, owes anyone an explanation of their sexuality. If people only ever come out to themselves, they are just as valid as any of us. But with the added confusion of bisexuality and the way that you can go ahead and date the gender you’re expected to, it is not uncommon for people to come to understand or accept their sexuality slightly later in life when they may already be in a long-term committed relationship. Or they may have known and accepted it all along, and not felt the need or desire to share the information with anyone.
According to the UK Government’s National LGBT Survey in 2017, just 38% of bisexual people were out to all or most of the family members they lived with, compared to 54% of gay/lesbian people. It can be harder justify coming out as bisexual when you feel like you don’t necessarily “need” to. It can also be harder to justify taking up space in the queer community when you are shielded from some of the challenges by virtue of the relationship you happen to be in.
Sydnee McElroy, co-host of the podcast Still Buffering with her sisters, Teylor and Rileigh, came out as bisexual in an episode from June 2018. She articulated her concerns around coming out while married to a man who she intends to be with for the rest of their lives.
“I’ve always felt like it was unfair of me to say anything … because I don’t ever have to face anything else from society. I can keep everything that I am inside inside and no-one ever has to know different, and I felt like maybe that’s not being honest, maybe that’s not being true to who I am because I am a bisexual woman. It feels unfair because I’m married to a man and I don’t want to claim some special recognition…”
When I came out, I was single (and still am, heeeey). I was assumed to be straight, sure, because I’d never told anyone otherwise and I’m pretty femme, but I now had a wide open space in front of me when it came to dating. Since I am open to having a relationship, coming out felt scary both in a “this genie will never go back into that bottle” way, and in a “this will make me weird and different to other people” way. But every time someone claims their bi+ identity, it makes it slightly easier. Seeing Lili Reinhart discussing bi erasure on BBC News a couple of months ago, with the literal headline “Being bisexual is not just ‘a phase‘” was thrilling. Coming out when you feel you don’t “have to” is maybe one of the bravest things of all. It’s not taking up a space you don’t deserve, it is moving the chairs back and widening the dancefloor for everyone at the party.
The data is loud and clear: being attracted to more than one gender, to some degree, in some way, is far more common than I ever realised. If I had known this all my life, I might have spent less time trying to rationalise feelings I had that didn’t fit into my “straight” self-identity and more time skipping blissfully away from heteronormativity. It’s not that deep: as your little sister’s favourite influencer Florence Given puts it, “maybe it’s a ‘girl crush’, maybe you’re queer.”
Bi Visibility Week is important because I didn’t know about it three years ago. The louder and prouder we can be, perhaps the tiny voice in the back of someone’s mind somewhere will hear and whisper back a response. Just letting people know that it’s an option, it’s real, and it’s completely valid is revolutionary.
Bi+ people are not invisible. We are everywhere you look, sometimes even in the mirror.