Bisexual — It’s Time to Reclaim the Word
By Lewis Oakley
July 14, 2016
Photo credit: Unsplash/Romain Vignes
If you're bi, you're no stranger to the connotations that word holds to both the gay and straight community. To us, it simply means attraction to more than one gender; to others, it can mean "lying", "gay", "confused", or simply "going through a phase". Where has this misunderstanding come from and how can we as bi people reclaim the word's meaning?
Confused Gay Men
Confused gay men are probably the biggest road bump. Let's face it, even in today's modern world, coming out is a hard and terrifying step. For decades now, some gay men have used the term bisexual as a convenient stepping stone to test the waters before finally realizing or announcing that they are in fact gay. This has had a knock-on effect for bi people, as it means that many people mistakenly view bisexuality as transitional rather than something people are all of their lives.
I personally have had many gay men tell me that they used to say they were bisexual. They conclude, incorrectly, that I must therefore also be doing the same. They tell me I just need to be confident and tell the truth. But I am!
I've never understood the motivation behind such comments. Perhaps they do genuinely believe that I am gay and want to help me through the struggles they went through. A lot of people assume their own personal limited experiences are somehow universal. But that's not true; people are different. Just because that was their experience doesn't mean it's mine. They simply do not understand sexuality outside of their own experience. Regardless of where it comes from, the underlying fact is that a large portion of gay men do not accept bisexuality as a credible orientation.
Of course, many straight people with gay friends also see bisexuality as transitional. They have seen firsthand their gay friends adopt the bisexual title only to switch it out for the gay crown later on down the line. This has lead to much skepticism in the straight community, which also affects our dating lives. I know first hand that some women have been put off dating me because my bisexuality makes them nervous.
Regardless of the motivation, the fact is that, although perhaps unintentionally, gay men have spent decades discrediting bi people. It is imperative to moving forward that we find a solution.
The Rush to Define Oneself
At the heart of this problem is the way labels are used. We are a generation that loves our binary labels, and all the assumptions they carry: married or single, team Edward or team Jacob, gay or straight. The problem is, when it comes down to it, sexual orientation, like most things, is not black and white. There are shades of grey, and we have a word for people who fall somewhere in that grey spectrum: bisexual.
From my personal experience, I wouldn't have defined myself as bisexual until I was around 20. I needed time to explore and to discover what relationships and sex were like before I could feel confident that I understood my sexuality. One problem our society faces today is that there is not a good term (not one that's widely used at least) to describe these years of exploration. There is so much pressure to "choose a side", to "pick a team". I had to deal with the labels people gave me, gay, bisexual, confused, slut. Now, 24, I can honestly say that I am definitely bi. It feels great to celebrate the fact that I have the magic gift of bisexuality. It is an amazing orientation and one that is sure to keep life interesting, allowing me to see the world in a way many others can only dream of.
Labels are important, they are a quick way of explaining the situation to people. One challenge bi people face, unfortunately, is that due to all these misconceptions the bisexual label seems to always need further explanation. Ask any bi person, and they will tell you that when they tell someone about their orientation they are then subjected to a Q+A session. How many girls have you been with? Which one do you prefer? Don't you miss men when you are dating women? It's a series of loaded questions designed to trick you into admitting that you're not really bi — because nobody is bi. It's very frustrating.
Bisexual People in Monogamous Relationships
I am often asked: If I'm dating a man doesn't that make me gay? To which I always respond "No. It changes my relationship status, not my sexuality". The problem I think many bi people have is that when they settle down with a partner, they are usually pigeonholed by friends and family right back into that black and white/gay or straight false dichotomy. And since most of us have other things to think about than the fight for bi visibility, I think many bi people just give up and take the easy route. They are monogamous, "so why bother", they tell themselves. Leave that fight for younger bi people who are still in the dating scene.
The temptation to give up is great when constantly faced with those offensive, bigoted leading questions. But those of us who can stomach it should, even after we settle down into a relationship. We need more bi people in monogamous relationships to keep talking about their bisexuality. It's essential in order to ensure that people do not define their orientation by the relationship they are in. For all those out there wondering "if bi people exist, why don't I ever meet them"? You do. You meet them every day, but you just don't see their bisexuality. How could you?
As many men who have taken the time to explore their sexuality know, kissing a boy doesn't necessarily make you gay or bi. In my opinion, the term bicurious should be far more widespread than it is. It is a great way to signify those years of sexual exploration. It would also solve the problem of people thinking genuine bisexual people are lying or that bisexuality is a transitional sexuality. If bicurious people would call themselves bicurious, rather than jumping straight to bisexual, then those gay people who are "transitioning" and those straight people who are "experimenting" would find their way to a solid understanding of their sexuality without giving true bi people a bad name along the way.
Some people are too quick to call themselves bisexual (or gay or straight) and change their mind down the line. This makes things significantly harder for actual bisexual people to be taken seriously. Being "bicurious" would be a welcomed distinction to improve the understandings of what people are actually feeling.
Being bisexual isn't a phase, but being bicurious can be. Bisexual people aren't confused, but it's ok to be confused about our sexuality while we are still figuring it out. My hope for the future is that bicurious will be used more widely, where it's appropriate — so that the word bisexual can be represented by people who have moved past that experimental stage and graduated to #FullBi.
How can we accomplish this? You can help by spreading the word (literally). We need to put the word bicurious in the public's vocabulary. Only then will we be able to reclaim the term bisexual as the credible and lifelong orientation it is and always was.