This is the second part of a blog published in October. In the first part of this series, we introduced Mark* (asexual, biromantic, and genderfluid, originally from Sri Lanka but residing in the UK), Renu (28, non-binary, gender fluid and bisexual, from Argentina), Tabitha (28, cis bisexual/pansexual woman, from the UK), Gem (17, pansexual, from the UK) and Unai (27, bisexual/queer cis man, from Spain). In this second part, we continue to explore their experiences, looking at the the interconnections between multisexuality and discrimination, public sexual harassment and intersectionality.
What common misconceptions do people have about you?
Misconceptions about bi+/multisexual people are common and widespread, but they can have different manifestations.
Tabitha explains how, in her experience as a cis bisexual woman, relationships or sex between women have never been seen as legitimate, but rather as a product made for the consumption of others - particularly men. She recalls an experience in her late teens/early 20s where a boyfriend said he didn’t care if she hooked up with other women, as it “didn’t count” (this is, it wasn’t seen as an infidelity). This is a common experience for some bisexual women: their relationships are minimised or dismissed, and when they’re acknowledged, they are often thought to exist for the titillation of men.
Gem’s experience in secondary school was quite traumatic, with groups of boys harassing and name-calling her because she was queer, something that the school did nothing about and caused her great suffering. However, now that she’s with a boy, she’s “constantly told that she’s straight”. As a cis bisexual man, Unai has also had his sexuality repeatedly questioned, told that he’s “confused”, or like Gem, has had people assuming his sexuality depending on the person he was with at the time.
“Straight passing” in relationships where the two members are (or are perceived to be) a cis woman and a cis man is often called a “privilege”, as it can potentially shield you from some of the violence and harassment that other queer people experience because of their gender presentation or relationship status (where the people in the relationship are immediately identified as queer). However, like in Gem’s, Tabitha’s and Unai’s case, being told that your relationships with other women “don’t count”, that you’re straight even after enduring biphobic abuse, or that you’re “confused” is less of a privilege and more of another type of oppression: erasure.
Have you ever experienced discrimination for who you are?
“Erasure and misunderstanding, rather than discrimination” has been Tabitha’s experience, “especially for those who can pass as straight”. Questions like “Do you really have to go around saying you’re bisexual?” or “Does it really matter?” have been common for Tabitha due to her straight passing. Unless they can be fetishised for the consumption of others, relationships between bisexual women and other women are seen as unnecessary, not worth mentioning, and the bisexual experience is once again invalidated. This has also been Renu’s experience: “if you’re with woman you’re a lesbian, if you’re with a man you’re straight”, she said.
Even inside the queer community, bi+/multisexual people experience specific challenges:
Gem, who previously identified as bisexual and now uses the label pansexual, was told by another pansexual person that being bi was transphobic. This was likely because of the early definition of bisexuality, which referred to attraction to men and women only. However, the term has evolved a lot since then, and Gem was also, at the time, in a relationship with a non-binary person.
Some lesbians can also be “hesitant or suspicious about bisexual women”, in Tabitha’s experience and, in the same way, Unai has encountered “gay guys who don’t trust bisexual men”. In both cases, it is assumed (or feared) that the bisexual person will inevitably end up abandoning a visibly queer relationship in favour of a straight-passing one.
Renu has also encountered resistance around bisexuality in the politicised and militant spaces they’ve been a part of. “If you’re bisexual, you’re not dissident enough”, especially if you’re “cis-presenting”. In this sense, “there are still stereotypes and hegemonies that are reproduced by people in the community”.
According to a Stonewall report, 43% of the bi+ people interviewed vs. 29% of gay/lesbian people interviewed have never attended an LGBTQ+ space or event. 18% of bi men and 27% of bi women reported experiencing discrimination from others in the community, vs. 4% of gay men and 9% of lesbian women.
Have you ever experienced public sexual harassment or street harassment?
Public sexual harassment (PSH) is tricky for bi+ or multisexual identities. Not because it doesn’t happen, but because, once again, bi+ people are often read as either gay or straight in public. However, being “invisible” at times does not mean that you don’t experience harassment. Misogyny and the hate of those perceived as “feminine” are also big factors in the way bi+ folks are treated and are able to express themselves in the public space.
As Unai told me, “I’m perceived as a gay man, bisexualitty doesn’t exist”. In every place where Unai has lived the response to his perceived “gayness” has always been the same: stares, slurs, and even threats. Tabitha, Gem and Renu have also experienced PSH when they were in public with women, and they themselves were perceived as women. Like Unai, Renu says it’s difficult to pinpoint if they’ve experienced PSH for being bisexual, “because I think I was read as a lesbian”. Gem has been filmed kissing and felt the need to hide when holding hands with a girl. The same was true for Tabitha, who received unsolicited comments from men in the street, particularly “as straight-presenting women”.
The same Stonewall report highlights that 31% of the bi+ people interviewed have experienced a hate incident in which they were “insulted, pestered, intimidated or harassed”.
Do you consider your other identities have conditioned how you experience and express your sexuality?
Sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and how we’re able to live it is determined, or at least influenced, by our other identities like race, class, culture, religion, ability, etc. When asked about this, most of the people I talked to agreed this was the case.
In Mark*’s case, in their religion (Islam), “the LGBTQIA community is heavily questioned and somewhat looked down upon”, which means they haven’t been able to share their true self with their family, even if they’ve done so with “everyone else”. In Sri Lanka, where they’re from, homosexuality is still illegal with sentences of up to 10 years in prison due to an article in their penal code dating back to colonial British laws.
Unai identifies particular challenges around being a bisexual man. Whilst bisexual women “appeal to the fantasies of straight men” (through processes of fetishisation, as we’ve seen), bisexual men don’t have any space in their ideology. Bisexual men, like gay men, challenge the concept of hegemonic masculinity, but also question the binaries of sexual orientation (you’re either gay or straight), which can be extremely hard for some straight men to wrap their heads around, and in the worst cases, can lead to violence.
Being able to travel and having an international background has shaped how Unai has been able to live his sexuality: he’s always been the person he wanted to be, and has been able to start over if he needed to. In the same way, Renu also identified that going to University and having more “cultural capital” and access to information influenced how they’ve been able to live their gender and sexuality.
Growing up, Tabitha was surrounded by harmful myths and misinformation around bisexuality and queerness, which continued into adulthood in the form of erasure and fetishisation. However, some of her other identities have enabled her to “express her sexuality from a position of privilege”. As she told me:
“Erasure and fetishisation are difficult to deal with, but feeling in physical danger walking down the street [or] being routinely discriminated against in access to jobs and healthcare is more difficult to deal with. That is not something that I, as a straight-presenting white woman, am dealing with. And that’s a privilege. While it doesn't take away from issues that you might deal with, I think it’s important to keep it in context. I don't think that all oppressions are equal. I think there is a hierarchy of needs: things that threaten your livelihood, the roof over your head and your physical safety do come above things like erasure or validation”.
*Fictional name to protect the identity of the person featured in this article.
Disclaimer: These accounts do not aim to represent those of the whole bi+/multisexual community. A range of diverse experiences was attempted, however, more experiences from people of colour, people with disabilities, working-class backgrounds, older people, different religions and cultures, and from geographically diverse locations should be explored.
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All illustrations courtesy of Karolina Jonc Buczek (@jajonc on Instagram)
Laura Roca Diaz
I’m Laura (pronouns ella/she/her) and I’m originally from the Basque Country in Northern Spain, currently based in Brighton. I speak Basque, Spanish and English - and hoping to learn Portuguese next! I work as Digital Communications Specialist for WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Organizing and Globalizing), an international workers' rights NGO. Previously, I also worked in digital communications in the charity sector, and before that I completed a graduate training programme with UN Women’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean in Panama, working as Campaign and Communications Analyst. I have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of the Basque Country (Spain), a master’s degree in Neuromarketing from the International University of La Rioja (Spain), and an MA in Gender Studies from the University of Sussex (UK). In my dissertation, and as part of my last MA, I explored the links between queer identity and media representation in the Spanish context, and was awarded for Highest Overall Performance. My interests include feminist/queer theory and activism, worker organising, and migrant’s rights, among others.