A man standing alone is often assumed to be straight. A man holding the hand of another man is often assumed to be gay. You don’t have to look very hard at our society to realize that it’s obsessed with binaries. You’re either good or bad, a man or a woman, straight or gay. There is no in-between.
Or rather, there is, but the people who lie either in between the two “real” options or outside of the binary altogether are often forgotten or dismissed as a small, unimportant minority.
Lately, we’ve seen a lot of progress being made for the LGBTQ+ community: the introduction of a bill that could ban conversion therapy, the coming-out of a new transgender icon, and, perhaps most notably, the spread of legalization of same-sex marriage.
On May 17th 2004, the day that Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Robyn Ochs and Peg Preble got married. Their marriage, though, became known not because it was one of the first same-sex marriages in the state, but because it was a prime example of bisexual erasure.
Though the widely-read article by The Washington Post labeled the women as a lesbian couple, Ochs is, in fact, bisexual (and a notable bisexual activist, at that).
Same-sex marriage is a huge victory for the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s only celebrated as a win for gay and lesbian people. What about all of the people who aren’t gay or lesbian, but are also finally able to have their marriages to someone of the same gender recognized by the State?
The Post’s assumption of Ochs’ sexual orientation is only one small example of bisexual erasure. There is not one national LGBTQ+ organization in the United States that includes bisexuals in their title, aside from the ones dedicated specifically to bi rights. (There’s the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, but not one with the word “bisexual.”) “Same-sex marriage” is used interchangeably with “gay marriage,” which ignores the fact that not everyone who is attracted to the same gender is gay. And, of course, there’s the ultimate form of erasure: the denial that bisexuality is even a real and valid sexual orientation.
Bisexual erasure isn’t just something straight people do; it happens both within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community (some gay and lesbian people don’t even believe bisexuals have a place in the community). But despite all the attempts to make them disappear, bisexuals are still very much real. (There has been little research to prove this fact, but scientists are still on a quest to do so.)
It’s possible that the exclusion of bisexual people from “gay marriage” is simply a case of forgetfulness, but there’s also the possibility that it’s the result of other forms of biphobia. There are people who believe that bisexuality doesn’t exist, and then there are people who believe that it exists, but only until a bi person enters a monogamous relationship; then they magically become either gay or straight. There are others still who think that bisexuals are just lying, that either they’re closeted homosexuals or they “just haven’t found the right person yet.”
Maybe it’s this belief that bisexuality is temporary or doesn’t really exist that makes people think bisexuals don’t need to be included in marriage equality. Or maybe it’s the other biphobic idea that bisexual people are “super sluts”; they’re so promiscuous, there’s no chance they’d ever settle down anyways–so why include them in the discussion?
No matter the reason, the exclusion of bisexuals from the marriage equality discussion and from LGBTQ+ rights in general remains an unresolved problem. Bisexual and people of other sexual orientations that are marginalized even with the LGBTQ+ community are being excluded and ignored.
The exclusion of bisexual people from the conversation about marriage equality might seem small and irrelevant to some, but it’s part of a much larger exclusion, one with detrimental effects. Biphobia segregates bisexuals from the LGBTQ+ community, as well as from the heteronormative world. This separation not only makes anxiety and depression more likely for bisexual people, but also creates a feeling of isolation that can have a profound impact on mental health.
Biphobia also negatively impacts social justice movements, particularly the feminist movement and the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Ignoring the voices and experiences of a significant portion of either oppressed group can only negatively affect our progress.
Ochs has since become an even more notable bisexual activist involved in many different activities, from writing for Bi Women Quarterly to working with a Massachusetts organization that focuses on advancing LGBTQ+ rights. And Ochs isn’t the only one making strides. Brenda Howard, also known as the “Mother of Pride,” played a role in organizing the first Pride events and is an organizer for BiNet USA, a national bisexual network, to name just a few of her many achievements. Faith Cheltenham, the president of BiNet, uses her platform as a writer to further her activism.
What can you do?
- Unlearn the binary. It’s difficult to stop thinking in opposites and start thinking about “the in-betweeners,” and it might be a lifelong process. Take small steps. Remind yourself that there are more than two options, and that neglecting those other options can ultimately be harmful to people’s mental health and sense of self.
- Don’t make assumptions about other people’s identities. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about someone’s sexuality, but you won’t really know until they tell you.
- Be careful about your language. Doing something as simple as saying “same-sex marriage” instead of “gay marriage” makes an impact. Speak up when other people use language that erases bisexual and other marginalized people.
- Read up on the experiences of bisexuals and people of other marginalized sexual orientations. If you haven’t thought much about the people who lie outside of the gay-straight binary–or about people who lie outside of other binaries, for that matter–listening to their voices is a good place to start.
Correction: June 29, 2015
This post stated that there are currently no organizations that include “bisexual” in their title. However, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has recently changed their name to the National LGBTQ Task Force.