Bi erasure is real — and more damaging than you think
My best friend of 12 years regularly insists I’m a lesbian. Though his assertion often exasperates me, I usually just laugh and change the subject, choosing to shrug off the sting of a statement that, frankly, sometimes makes me feel devalued as a person, as a woman and as a member of the LGBT community.
Here’s the thing: I’m actually bisexual, a label I only embraced a couple of years ago and one that has resulted in a surprising amount of confusion for the people closest to me.
Of course, I can see why he (and pretty much everyone I know) assumes I identify as lesbian. For the last eight years, I’ve been in a committed relationship with a woman to whom I’m getting married in October. Even my fiancée occasionally struggles with why I describe myself as bisexual. “You’re marrying a woman,” she’ll say. “Doesn’t that mean you’ll never be with a man again?” The answer is yes, but my never being with a man again doesn’t change my status as the “B” in LGBT.
Even so, what’s the big deal? Why do I feel the need to correct people who call me a lesbian? I’m a soon-to-be married woman, so it shouldn’t matter how I describe myself, since I’ll never again date someone new… right?
Wrong. Because it encourages the existence of what's called bi erasure, when the experiences and identities of bisexual people are ignored or invalidated. “Bi erasure is the binary assumption and understanding that people are either gay or straight, with nothing in between,” according to Kristen Martinez, a psychotherapist specializing in LGBT-affirmative counseling at Pacific NorthWell in Seattle. “By doing this, we are wholly erasing an entire community of folks.”
Such attitudes have been documented in various studies demonstrating how bisexuals face disproportionate levels of discrimination, not just from heterosexuals, but also from their peers within the LGBT community — despite the fact that more people identify as bisexual than as gay or lesbian.
“The stereotypes of bisexuals as promiscuous, going through a phase, hypersexual or confused (i.e. ‘pick a side’) are all biphobic in nature,” Martinez added.
A 2011 report released by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission called bisexuals “the invisible majority” and noted various assumptions at the core of bi erasure, like the claim that bisexuals are incapable of monogamy or the expectation that two women in a romantic coupling are, by default, lesbian (ding, ding, ding!).
I don't think my best friend or my partner is trying to hurt my feelings when they refer to me as a lesbian. I’m the first to admit I’ve been pretty lucky with how friends and family have responded to my dating history. I’ve had relationships with both men and women since high school, and it was never really a surprise to the people closest to me. My only struggle was choosing a label I felt accurately described my sexual proclivities.
However, not everyone has been as fortunate. The truth is that inaccurate and harmful perceptions about bisexuals are among the reasons we’re at an increased risk for poverty, violence and suicide compared to lesbians and gay men.
“Bisexual people can experience negative self-talk, self-doubt, internalized biphobia and homophobia, depression and anxiety,” said Martinez. “Additionally, they may face isolation from friends and family who don't fully understand or legitimize their bisexual identity. Bisexual men and women and bisexual people of color may face these issues on top of pressures from larger systemic forces, including masculinity and patriarchy, racism, misogyny, sexism and classism.”
While I've never endured the pain of being isolated from loved ones and I don’t have to brave the varied threats other bisexuals might suffer at the hands of friends, family, employers or strangers, I do feel an absolute responsibility to call attention to stereotypes, especially when they hit close to home.
So yes, I will continue correcting the people around me — even my best friend and my soon-to-be wife — who make incorrect statements about my sexual orientation or about bisexuals in general.
I’m not so high-minded to think my actions can make any difference in the lives of my brothers and sisters who bear the brunt of bisexual stigma. I just keep remembering something Martinez said: “Imagine how difficult it might be to explore coming out as bisexual when no one sees any support systems around for them.”
I can imagine it. Can you?