Biphobia: The Author Strongly Argues That Bisexuals Face Their Own Discrimination, Especially from Straight Populations
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/nazlisart
Excerpted from Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.
Oddly enough, the issue of biphobia, or monosexism, is one of the most hotly contested territories in bisexual politics, and certainly one of the least understood. A term much-feared and slightly frowned upon, biphobia has often been dismissed even by the most avid bisexual scholars and activists. Some insinuate that bisexuals don’t actually suffer oppression that is separate from homophobia or lesbophobia. In fact, very often, simply raising the issue of biphobia (in any setting) is perceived as an affront to gay and lesbian politics and is ridiculed, often with the ubiquitous “bisexuals are privileged” argument.
Before I refute the argument that bisexuals don’t suffer from a unique type of oppression (biphobia), let’s examine where this argument places bisexuality and bisexual people: To look at the first part of this argument, we will soon discover the old and familiar “bisexuality doesn’t exist” trope. To claim that bisexuals do not experience oppression differently from gays or lesbians is to subsume bisexual experience into homosexuality, thus eliminating its unique existence. For if no unique bisexual experience is to be found, then certainly the category of bisexuality itself is null. The second half of the argument (“privilege”) acknowledges the existence of bisexuality, but connects it with the notion of privilege and thus oppressor status, again nullifying the unique oppression that bisexuals experience and the need for specific attention to it. In this way, bisexuality is here spoken about on two levels: first as a nonexistent other, and second as an oppressor (presumably of gays and lesbians). The notion that bisexuals are only oppressed as a result of homophobia and lesbophobia erases the need for a unique bisexual liberation struggle and places bisexuals as “halfway” add-ons to the gay and lesbian movement.
I feel the need to emphasize this, as people often see (when they do see) biphobia as a series of straightforward, direct personal attitudes and behaviors, rather than as a structure. In fact, biphobia is often defined in exactly that way—for example, the Wikipedia entry on biphobia defines it as an “aversion felt toward bisexuality and bisexuals as a social group or as individuals,” and the STFU Biphobia blog defines it as “fear or hatred of bisexuals, pansexuals, omnisexuals, and anyone who doesn’t otherwise fall within the binary gay or straight.” In her article “Biphobia: It Goes More Than Two Ways,” Robyn Ochs cites prejudicial behavior, discrimination, and stereotyping as characteristics of (biphobic) oppression. A widely publicized online list titled “What Does Biphobia Look Like?” (but perhaps more accurately described as “biphobic things that people do”) cites a list of biphobic behaviors, such as “assuming that everyone you meet is either heterosexual or homosexual,” “thinking bisexual people haven’t made up their minds,” and “feeling that you can’t trust a bisexual because they aren’t really gay or lesbian, or aren’t really heterosexual” (all emphases mine).
Another problem with discussions of biphobia is that they overwhelmingly focus on biphobic stereotypes, as if stereotyping (and stereotypical thinking) is the only biphobic phenomenon in existence and the end-all of biphobia in general. For example, Ochs dedicates much of her article to discussing the ways in which bisexuals are perceived by biphobic people (in other words, stereotyping), the Wikipedia entry on biphobia likewise patterns itself on listing biphobic stereotypes, and the “What Does Biphobia Look Like?” online list also consists of descriptions of behaviors or beliefs that are likewise based on stereotypes. A Google search I performed for the word “biphobia” showed fifty links over the first five pages, of which 60 percent focused on stereotypes (or other such “people think bad things about us” varieties), whereas only 20 percent dealt with other forms of biphobia (mainly bisexual erasure). This overwhelming reference to stereotypes in the context of biphobia creates the impression that stereotypical beliefs are the near-only origin and form of biphobia, and that direct personal mistreatment is the only (or main) result thereof.
Studied accounts of biphobia also overwhelmingly focus on personalized attitudes or mistreatment experienced by bisexual people (for example, in anthologies such as Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out or Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, and Visions) and especially by gay or lesbian communities. For example, out of five studies of biphobia cited by Ochs, only two deal mainly with heterosexual (or “general”) biphobia. Even Ochs herself dedicates four times as much space in her article to discussing biphobia in lesbian and gay communities as to discussing biphobia in heterosexual communities. Considering the fact that the overwhelming majority of biphobia and monosexism originates not from gay and lesbian communities but from heterosexual structures, it seems like the bisexual movement, as a whole, is focused on the wrong aspect.
This overwhelming focus on gay and lesbian biphobia creates a false impression that, as a commentator recently put it on my blog, “[bisexuals are] perfectly justified saying we get worse treatment in the gay community [than in straight ones].” In turn, this notion contributes to the beliefs that bisexuals do not, in fact, experience (as much?) oppression by heterosexual society and that our “real problem” lies not within heteropatriarchy but within gay and lesbian communities (that is, scapegoating). Another side effect of this unfortunate cluster of meanings is the phenomenon I mentioned above, in which talking about biphobia is perceived as an affront to gay and lesbian politics, community, and movements.
On a side note: To answer the question of why bisexual discourses, as a whole, have maintained such a focus on gay and lesbian biphobia, one need only look at bisexual people’s (and especially bisexual activists’ and writers’) lived experiences. Most bisexuals come out not to bisexual communities but to gay or lesbian ones, seeking the same acknowledgment, acceptance, and support that gay and lesbian people expect to—and indeed do—receive there. However, as opposed to gays and lesbians, bisexuals often encounter erasure, exclusion, and biphobic responses within those communities. This experience is particularly painful, since gay and lesbian communities are where we often come seeking help, and where we subsequently become heartbroken and even betrayed, as this rejection seems to come from where we least expect it—where we came for support. This feeling of pain and heartbreak is not only real but might also be thought of as a central component in many bisexuals’ lived experiences, in the formation of bisexual identities, and certainly in forming bisexual politics, as evidenced above.
In her article “GL vs. BT,” Jillian Todd Weiss criticizes the terms biphobia and transphobia for being too clinical and implying a psychological and personal problem rather than a social structure. Instead she suggests the use of the term heterosexismto imply structural oppression working against all LGBT people. While I perfectly agree with the first part of Weiss’s criticism, the latter part unifies four types of oppression into a single mold and erases the differences between them. Though all LGBT people are indeed oppressed by heterosexism, using it as a single term leaves out the structures of heteropatriarchy, cissexism, and monosexism—all equally shared by LGBT people but often erased as a result of these power structures themselves. As an alternative to Weiss’s suggestion, then, within the frame of discussion on biphobia, the term “monosexism” is a tool that can be used to examine and deconstruct the underlying power structure at the basis of biphobia.
On par with other terms such as heterosexism, cissexism, sexism, or racism, I define monosexism as a social structure operating through the presumption that everyone is, or should be, monosexual, a structure that privileges monosexuality and monosexual people, and that systematically punishes people who are nonmonosexual. I define monosexualityas attraction to only one sex and/or gender.
The use of monosexismis not meant to completely replace the use of biphobia, nor indeed deny the reality of biphobia in people’s lived experiences. Nor is it meant to locate gay and lesbian people as oppressors of bisexuals. In fact, my goal is quite reverse: to look upon monosexism as a social structure first and foremost originating from and upholding heteropatriarchal structures, to examine it as a form of oppression shared by everyone (not just bisexual people), and to add an additional perspective through which to examine biphobia. Using the concept of monosexism might provide us the option to examine a structure not necessarily or directly linked with named bisexual identity or with explicitly biphobic behavior. It might allow us to read between the lines of culture in order to delineate where it is that bisexuality is forbidden, denied, or erased, and why. It might also allow us to examine how monosexual people are themselves influenced—and indeed oppressed—by monosexism, as well as to examine what privileges they might enjoy by virtue of this structure, all by way of deconstructing it.