Content notes for mention of rape, biphobia, abuse, including therapeutic abuse, and bierasure.
I had the great pleasure of attending the Pink Therapy annual conference this spring. Entitled beyond Gay and Straight it focused on the experiences of bisexual people in a variety of contexts. Some, such as the worse mental health outcomes for bisexual people, was familiar territory to me, other aspects, such as the seminar on gay men who marry straight cis women were thought-provoking and challenging in the best way.
There was too much covered in the day to give a seminar by seminar break down, fortunately Pink Therapy has put videos from the conference on You Tube. I was struck by a theme of trusting self-identification of both gender, and sexuality running through the day, and how much resistance there is to this.
Picking a side
Many bisexual people report being treated as if their sexuality is just a stepping stone to their “true” sexuality, that after a period of experimentation they will decide if they are gay or straight. Unfortunately, this is even sometimes the experience with lesbian or gay therapists, who have absorbed the biphobia which can be strong within the L&G community. There is a push for bisexual people to say where they belong, rather than accepting that bisexual is a valid identity. On top of this comes erasure of bisexuality dependent on who someones current partner is. It’s a strange transference where sexuality is determined not by someone’s own sense of self, but by their relationship with another, be it partner, or therapist.
This push to pick a side can lead many people to hide their bisexuality, from both straight and gay people, in order to have some, tenuous form of acceptance, as this post movingly discusses. I am intrigued by how threatened people feel by this refusal to “pick a side” as if bisexuality in some way dilutes the experience of gay and lesbian people. Is there an element here of the old “born this way” argument (a reductive and medicalising defence of homosexuality which I would have hoped would have disappeared in the 21st century) Do those insisting bisexuals pick a side fear that they too will have their side challenged? Of course when you dig into this the illogical nature of it becomes clear. If bisexual people could just chose not to be bisexual, then actually it opens the doors to those homophobes who argue gay and lesbian people could choose to be straight. So perhaps its more than a perceived threat to someone’s own identity. Biphobia also carries within it many other stereotypes. Bi people are seen as greedy (regardless of how many sexual partners they have) sexually voracious, only bi because they want to have sex with anyone who comes along.
Interestingly so many of these stereotypes are exactly the same as those historically thrown at gay men, seen as sexual predators who the rest of society needs to be protected against. I cannot help wondering if some form of projection is going on, if those people (gay or straight) who describe bisexual people in this way are subconsciously putting their own wish fulfilment into play, whilst, like all projection, maintaining a self-image which would never countenance such unacceptable behaviour?
Whatever the causes, this denial of sexual or romantic identity, and erasure of bisexuality as a valid part of the LGBT spectrum causes immense distress to so many bisexual people.
It’s not what you do…
We seem as a society to be wedded to the idea of sex acts determining identity. Even spaces which claim to be LGBT speak of “gay sex acts” and there have been a plethora of articles on straight men who give blow jobs. Of course for many people sex is an important part of who they are, and the gender of the person they have sex with matters. We must be careful, especially as LGBTQ therapists not to present heterosexuality, or monogamy as somehow less evolved positions. A concrete example of this comes in the use of rape to humiliate and even punish straight cis men. Sex acts can carry an aura of being a determiner of sexual identity, even forced ones. This can lead to self-disgust and hatred when someone is the victim of a sexual assault by someone whose gender differs to their own sexual identity. This process can also be seen in the use of “corrective rape” against lesbian women which occurs in some cultures. This identification of a sex act with a sexuality comes largely from a societal attitude towards sex acts, rather than any particular sex act having an innate sexual identity.
The strength of the belief that doing, wanting, or being forced to do a certain sex act determines sexuality is so strong that it can be a huge part of a client’s therapeutic journey. Absorbed societal and cultural beliefs (and a client’s own cultural background in respect to homosexuality can have an often overlooked impact here) have deep roots. To separate an act from a sexuality is made even more difficult by the perpetuation of the idea that some acts make one gay, or straight. This all of course also impacts on bisexual people, who can be expected to prove their bisexuality by engaging in sex acts that they do not desire. It’s also worth mentioning biromantic and asexual people here, who are so often ignored in discussions of bisexuality. Someone may want relationships, of a non sexual nature with more than one gender, but the over sexualisation of bisexual people means this is not even acknowledged to exist.
Towards a fluid future
This post may have explored a lot of negativity, with good reason, however there is also a growing belief in the validity of self-identification of both gender and sexuality. With this comes a rejection of imposed ideas of what it means to be gay, or straight, or bi, or trans. The discreet, neat, boxes for those four identities contained by LGBT have been widened by the inclusion of the other identities which make the beautiful acronym QUILTBAG. Which is not to say we have reached some wonderful ideal world where people determine for themselves what their gender and/or sexuality is and the world accepts this without demurring. There is a growing acceptance though that people do not always fit into neat boxes, and that the attempt to force a fit is itself a harmful process. This will hopefully mean in the future bisexual people will no longer be as stigmatized, or ignored, and their own sense of who they are attracted to will be respected, rather than challenged.
As therapists perhaps we need to remember the golden rule, the client is the expert in their own experiences. Far too often this rule is forgotten, as we seek to become a guru or self-declared expert in how another should be. Or as I often say to clients, the worlds most toxic word is should.