Bisexuality was first used, as sexual attraction to men and women, in 1892 by American neurologist Charles Gilbert Chaddock, though it didn’t gain popular traction in Western culture until the 1970s. In 1987, when we were starting to understand more about gender, major bi activist Lani Ka’ahumanu defined bisexuality as “attraction regardless of gender,” and the 1990 bi manifesto says to not assume that there are only two genders. These are important when it comes to defining bisexuality today, as many people still hold the belief that we exclude trans/non-binary people, which simply isn’t the case. The bisexual flag itself has colours which represent this. There is also this idea that bisexuality is for people who care about gender, and pansexuality is for people who care about personalities. In actuality, bisexuality is made up of both people who have a gender preference and people who do not. We are not sex crazed maniacs obsessed with genitals, so let’s stop pretending that people fall in love with gender identities instead of personalities. Although bisexuality has been around since the 19th century, it has managed to adapt its meaning over time to stay inclusive — but for some reason, bisexual stigma is still quite prevalent, which often causes us to be sidelined and undermined.
As privilege is a very topical subject in our current societal climate, it seems apt to talk how other issues bisexuals face come from this concept of “bi privilege.”
Bi privilege is assigned to bisexual people who are in “straight passing” relationships and there are two specific arguments that usually come with this. The first is that we do not experience homophobia and the second is that we are able to feel more included in mainstream heterosexual culture. However, these points are harmful to bi people and prove that many people do not understand our sexuality. This misunderstanding unfortunately results in bi erasure and biphobia.
Most bi people will tell you that it is not a privilege to have our identity erased. We are proud to be bisexual and we want people to know. It can be a struggle to be seen as either ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ when we’re in a relationship, instead of people seeing us as bisexual, and this is a nuance that many people don’t think is important or don’t think even exists. To say we are straight passing also assumes that bi men and bi women in a relationship fall into the same binary dynamic as straight people do — but bisexuality actually challenges the preconceived dynamics and gender roles in these relationships.
The idea that bi people in straight passing relationships don’t experience homophobia is absurd. We sure do. We even have our very own term: biphobia. We still see and hear homophobia or biphobia around us, especially from people who might feel safe to express their prejudiced views to us if they think we’re straight. Bi people still experience biphobia when we’re single and it doesn’t go away when we date someone, even if they are of a different sex/gender to us. We’re also not purposefully pretending to be straight in order to gain special perks — doing this is basically forcing us to stay in the closet, which isn’t a secret privilege we get to enjoy.
For some bi people, straight passing may not even be applicable at all. For example, a bi woman may have a preference for women and only date women, so she would not “benefit” from this idea of bi privilege. In addition to this, bi people might be straight passing because they haven’t “come out” yet. How come it’s called “bi privilege” for us, but for gay men and lesbians, it’s rightfully called “being in the closet”? Lots of people also refrain from coming out because it’s not safe for them. There’s a huge misconception that bi people can easily hide or that bisexuality isn’t as big of a deal as being gay is. But we are either forced to stay in the closet, which is not a privilege, or we risk sexual and physical violence. The CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 61.1% of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner — that’s 26.1% more than straight women and 17.3% more than lesbians.
The claim that bi people are able to feel more included in mainstream heterosexual culture is not as straightforward as you may think. Not seeing bisexuality (or femme lesbians) represented in media directly caused me to not feel comfortable with my sexuality for many years. While we can relate more to heterosexual culture, we usually have to look at straight relationships or gay relationships. Bi people are much less represented in media than gay men and lesbians, and when we are, we are usually doused in negative stereotypes such as cheating, promiscuity or being forced to “pick a side.” I wrote about bi representation in cinema last year for Film Daze, which you can check out here. Trying to relate to gay and straight characters isn’t enough as bisexuality is a whole identity and not ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ pushed together. We want actual bisexual characters. Being grouped in with gay and straight people means that issues affecting bi people as a whole also get dismissed or overlooked. Shout out to Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman in Orange Is the New Black (2013–2019) for finally allowing me to accept myself and the subsequent positive bisexual representations this series triggered.
The only “privilege” we have in straight passing relationships is that we don’t face abuse when holding hands with or kissing our partner in public. However, I don’t think this needs to be singled out as some form of privilege, especially as this doesn’t mean we’re less likely to face abuse overall as previously mentioned. The 2010 study by the CDC also found that 46% of bi women have been raped, compared to 17% of straight women and 13% of lesbians. And 47% of bi men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 40% of gay men and 21% of straight men. So straight passing does not give us this magical privilege that seems to come up whenever bisexuality is mentioned.
Gay men and lesbians aren’t constantly asked if they want to have a threesome, accused of being more likely to cheat, or asked for their sexual history as “proof” — but we don’t call that “gay privilege,” so why do we have bi privilege? The very concept of bi privilege stems from the misconceptions of bisexuality and results in bi erasure and biphobia. We should not be assigning any type of privilege to an oppressed group (bisexuals) within an oppressed group of people (the LGBT community). It’s incredibly unnecessary and reductive, especially when biphobia is strong both inside and outside of the community. Bi people get to see others act like transphobia and homophobia are serious issues, but biphobia is just discourse. So please stop attaching this weird privilege to us when we are the most misunderstood and most stigmatised sexuality under the LGBT umbrella. I’ve found that the idea of bi privilege mostly comes from gay men and lesbians and it is often simply just bi erasure. Please educate yourselves on bisexuality. You do not speak for us.