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“I’m not about being men’s sexual dream-come-true”

Olivia Messer and Joan Moses investigate bisexual experience and identity

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“Don’t fucking call me biphobic,” says Sarah*. We’re outside Café Santropol, where we’ve just spent the afternoon drinking soy lattes and chatting about her sexual identity. Sarah is a self-identified queer woman studying Physics at McGill, and though she’s attracted to both men and women, she’s uncomfortable using the term “bisexual” to describe herself.

She explains that she’s not against the principle of calling oneself bisexual, per se. But she does feel that “bisexual is a term that went with these girls who were maybe kind of crazy and slutty or experimenting” – a term that just didn’t seem to apply to her. “The way that it’s portrayed by the media and really largely in society is just really different from how I see myself,” she says.

It turns out Sarah is not alone in feeling this way – far from it. Many women with romantic partners of more than one gender are reluctant to use the term “bisexual.” There’s a stigma attached to the word that’s emblematic of larger misconceptions about gender and sexuality.

In our interviews for this story, we spoke to self-identified bisexual women in their late teens and early twenties about their sexual identities and experiences. We decided to focus on female bisexuality, as male bisexuality is associated with a distinct set of stereotypes and experiences (that would take a whole other feature to delve into). While the lives of all the women we spoke to were distinct, several common themes emerged from the interviews.

The Term

Robyn*, a female self-identified queer studying Geography at McGill, echoes Sarah’s concerns about the word. When speaking of her identity, she says, “usually I just say queer, but if I had little checkboxes [and queer wasn’t an option], I would definitely check the bisexual option.”

Still, she says that she feels more comfortable with queer; perhaps, she admits, because of “how I’ve internalized the stigma about bisexuality and what the word brings to mind, for myself and for a lot of other people.” Like Sarah, she has seen bisexual as a label that signifies “high school girls who make out with their friends at a party and then the next day are like, ‘Oh, I’m bisexual, but I actually only date boys.’”  For her, it doesn’t conjure up the image of someone who genuinely desires people of more than one gender.

Robyn concedes that she justifies her reluctance to use the label, “by saying that, ‘Oh, I don’t believe the gender binary, so I don’t like the bi part.’”

But, she admits, “it’s really less about that than just self-consciousness.”

This is precisely in line with Margaret Robinson’s research. Robinson, Director of the Bisexual Mental Health Project in  Toronto, found in one of her studies that a quarter of the bisexual women she interviewed preferred to identify as queer rather than as bisexual, “because they saw it as both more political and more socially accepted.”

The Stereotypes

The stigma around the term bisexual, though, seems to be only a facet of a larger problem. The tropes associated with the term bisexual do not remain on the level of language; they cling to the lives of those that have desire for individuals of more than one gender. The stereotypes of promiscuity, experimentation, and sexual frivolity affect bisexual women in a specific way, impacting their relationships and their experiences of sexuality.

“At their root, stereotypes of bisexual women as experimenting, or attention-seeking, or hypersexual are also homophobic since they assume that young women’s sexual experiences with other women are less important than those with men,” Robinson wrote in an email.

Taylor*, an English Literature major, speaks to how these stereotypes are played out in her experiences with different communities. “I’ve heard, ‘She’s not bi, she just doesn’t know she’s gay yet.’ There’s also the ‘She’s just a straight girl playing gay.’ And, ‘It’s just a phase’ – that’s something that comes from both the queer and straight community.”

Cheryl Dobinson, a bisexual and feminist advocate, writer, and researcher based in Toronto, spoke to this when we interviewed her by phone. According to her, the tropes surrounding the gender and sexual identities of bisexual women may interact to form a sexualized image of these women.

Dobinson says that this has been perpetuated by mainstream culture. “Female bisexuality is really sexualized through pornography, through ideas of it being something that’s there to please men, and not something that actually could have to do with women wanting to have relationships with other women.”

Indeed, Dobinson even describes herself as “feminist in relation to bisexuality” in order to reinforce the fact that she does not fit this stereotype. “I am a feminist bisexual,” she affirms. “I’m not about being men’s sexual dream-come-true. I’m about something [else], another kind of bisexuality.”

This notion of bisexuality being linked with promiscuity  impacts personal relationships too, she says. “I’ve certainly had the classic experience of lesbians who don’t want to date bi women and think, ‘Oh, that’s no good for a relationship,’ and some straight guys, too, think that bi women are good for sexy-fun but not to settle down with.”

The Binary

The socially constructed binary of gay and straight identities, so often taken for granted, can shape the acceptance or dismissal of bisexual identity. This notion of an either-or sexuality has deeply ingrained itself into our culture, and can make it difficult for bisexual women to recognize or accept their attraction to other women.

Sarah, for example, says that she had been attracted to women in high school, and had been “the type of girl that would go to parties and be very willing to make out with other girls,” but that she had not seen this as a serious part of her sexuality. “Up until recently I’ve never considered myself as having a crush on a girl.”

She continues, “I think that’s just the way that our daily social habits affirm things. When you’re going around the playground in fourth grade, and they ask you, ‘Oh, which boys do you like’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, well, Steven was looking kind of cute yesterday’ and then they ask, ‘Oh do you like him? Are you going to talk to him?’ And then, the next day in class, someone comes up to you and goes, ‘Oh, Steven’s looking at you’, and you’re like, ‘Oh. Man, that’s awesome. I kind of like him.’ And so it’s constantly affirmed.”

Meggie, a bisexual woman and an undergrad at McGill, explains how this has played out in her own life. She was mostly confused by the fact that she could be attracted to women, yet still experience feelings for men as well. “When I was confused in high school, I think the main thing I was trying to do was pin myself down.  I thought about it for ridiculous quantities of time – I remember sitting and reading erotica and thinking, ‘How am I reacting to this? How am I reacting to that? What does this mean? I’m just reacting to everything, oh my god.’ I’d fixate on it, you know?”

Meggie wonders if this idea of a restrictive binary isn’t also relevant to other sexual minorities.  “It’s just like gender. People are raised to conceive gender as being male or female – and no in-between space.” Meggie continued, “Somebody who’s been raised to believe that there are only men and women in the world, and then they meet a [non-binary gendered] person, it can be hard to wrap your mind around because you’ve never been exposed to the idea that there’s more than just two genders. Bisexuality could be similar in that way.”

Margaret Robinson explains that bisexual women often encounter the misconception that bisexuality is a stepping-stone to an identity that fits within this binary. As Meggie explains, “A lot of people that I know identify as gay now, identified as bisexual at some point. Its just frustrating that people don’t see that it can be an endpoint also.”

For some lesbian women, bisexuality is a stage in the coming-out process. But, for many, bisexuality is a stable and permanent identity. The assumption that bisexuality is a stage is “an expression of biphobia in that it assumes bisexual identity is less real or authentic than lesbian identity,” Robinson says.

Pressure from both communities

The way that bisexuality troubles this socially-enforced binary can also make it difficult for bisexual women to gain acceptance from either straight or gay and lesbian communities.

It seems that both place unique pressures on bisexual women. Taylor explains that she has always had a hard time deciding which label to use. “Even when I was coming out, I was still questioning if bi was the right term to use, if I should just push it and say that I was gay even though I was unsure, just to seem more legitimate.”

Taylor did, in fact, come out to friends and family as bisexual in first year, but her identity wasn’t always taken seriously. “I’ve been recently talking to the same friend that I first came out to in the tenth grade – and he told me that, until I entered into my current relationship [which is with a woman], nobody really took me seriously as bi. So, there’s this lack of legitimacy in defining as bi. I mean, you’re either perceived as promiscuous by the straight community or illegitimate by the gay community. There’s really, like, no in-between – you’re screwed either way.”

Meggie expands on the idea that there’s a kind of double-edged sword. “Within the straight community, especially amongst men, it’s one of those ‘that’s so hot’ things, which is very frustrating sometimes because I’ve definitely told guys before and had that response and been like, ‘You’re not taking my identity seriously.’”

However, Meggie also feels like the lesbian community has a hard time accepting her bisexual identity. “Within the lesbian community, oftentimes bisexual women can be viewed as sort of ambivalent or as sort of shifting and untrustworthy – I’m not saying that’s everyone – but it’s often a fear that [a bisexual woman] will leave another woman for a man because it’s ‘easier’ or because they aren’t really serious about women.”

Bisexuality can also be seen in these communities as a politically incorrect choice, says Dobinson. Although she explains that this is changing, lesbian communities still feel the “after-effects of a kind of lesbian feminism or lesbian separatism” – a theory “coloured by the idea of if we can choose to be with women, we should just do that, so that we can be more politically aligned to a lesbian kind of politic.”

The coming out process

Bisexual women, unlike lesbian women, have the unique situation of being able to “pass” as either straight or queer, depending on their relationships and surroundings.

Accordingly, the coming out process is anything but simple. Because of the binary of straight and gay, parents and friends may not understand their bisexual identity.

Meggie, for instance, is back in the closet at home. She just hasn’t discuss the subject with her parents since she came out at 17. “[My parents] didn’t understand why I was in a relationship with a woman if I could be in a relationship with a man – I think it’s one of the things that people don’t get. It’s like, ‘Why are you making life harder for yourself?’ But it’s not like – obviously, I mean I’m going to sound like some kind of self-help book – but it’s not a choice, right? You fall for somebody and you just want to be with them.”

Meggie feels like her experience was very different from her partner’s, in this sense. Because she’d expressed interest in men, her parents never would have guessed her sexuality. “I feel like they didn’t pick up on it at all – or barely – and then when I actually did come out, they were having trouble with the idea that I’m comfortable with things going either way. Which is something that’s different than coming out as a gay person. My partner is gay, so for her, it would be like telling her family, ‘This is what it’s going to be, and this is all its going to be if I’m going to be happy,’ whereas for me, it’s sort of like, ‘Well, either way I could be happy,’ which is a really weird thing for parents to accept.”

Coming out to uninformed straight friends can be equally difficult, partially because of the confusion about what a bisexual or queer identity means. This coming out may take, in Robyn’s words, “a lot of explaining.”

“I remember coming out to a straight friend from home,” she says, “and she was like, ‘So, are you bisexual?’” When Robyn explained she preferred the term queer, her friend replied, “Isn’t that a bad word?”

However, despite the challenges of coming out, Meggie explains that she still feels like it’s important that her partners, and everyone else, recognize that all aspects of her sexuality are still intact. “Even when I’m in a relationship with a woman, sometimes I feel like the straight part just sort of dies away or people don’t notice it as much. I feel like it’s important to be open with my partner about the fact that that still exists and not to let it, sort of, fall off a cliff – because it is a part of me.”

“One way or another,” she adds, “it’s frustrating for people to perceive you incorrectly.”

Spaces of acceptance

Despite the challenges of maintaining a bisexual or queer identity, there are spaces where the binary of gay and straight can be broken down, and where bisexual or queer women can find acceptance.

For Sarah, this acceptance comes from her friends at university. She speaks of one bisexual-identifying friend who assuaged some of Sarah’s doubts about her own sexuality.

She explains that she had been feeling curious about girls, but worried that it was just a phase. Her friend told her, as they sipped two-for-one pints at Gert’s, that “no, it’s not a phase, it doesn’t have to be a phase, I felt that exact same way.’”

“That was affirming,” Sarah continued, “to just know that it was ok to have these feelings.”

Moreover, the larger queer community seems to be growing more accepting of female sexualities that break down the binary of straight and gay. Dobinson says that “I feel like there’s more acceptance of bi people in queer communities than there was even ten years ago.” But she maintains that “we’re still experiencing biphobia,” and that there’s still a need for creating an accepting and supportive social space.

Robyn is an optimistic and active participant in this evolving and accepting queer community. She finds the Montreal and McGill queer communities, “the explicitly queer communities, at least…to be pretty open about these things.”

Despite the progress that has been made, complete female bisexual acceptance – in both the queer and straight communities – has yet to be accomplished. As Meggie says, “the idea of bisexuality as a solid, permanent identity is still very far away.”

*Names have been changed