Friends, hie thee unto Twitter, for it is the most beautiful day of the year: Bisexual Visibility Day. And lo, the bisexual community is celebrating as only bisexuals can, via the #bivisibility hashtag and an unrelenting stream of witty commentary.
Two things delight me about Bisexual Visibility Day (which is part of the larger Bisexual Awareness Week).
1) Bisexual people are screamingly funny.
Okay, sure, lots of people are funny, and plenty of other people in the LGBQTIA community are also funny. But for some reason, bi people take to this event with the kind of relish and zest that I bring to chocolate cake, going all in, both fists, balls to the wall, whatever metaphor you want to use. Bi visibility tweets are reliably hilarious, and they come with a sharp side of bite, too, because when people joke about being invisibilized by society, they're also challenging people to rethink their assumptions and reconsider the way they think about the bi community.
2) Bisexual people talking about their own lives and experiences raise awareness about bi-specific issues.
This one seems like a gimme and it's the whole point of this international holiday, but it really does bear repeating. This is an organic awareness campaign driven by and for bi people, and they're the ones controlling the narrative. Since bi people are repeatedly erased from the social and cultural landscape, taking control for once is incredibly empowering.
Everyone under the LGBQTIA umbrella faces different social challenges and stereotypes, and this isn't a game of Oppression Olympics. But it is important to recognize that many people unthinkingly drop the "B" in favor of focusing on other things, because no one really seems to know what to do with bisexual people.
They're not gay or queer enough for some tastes, because sometimes they have relationships with people of opposite genders*. They're not straight enough for other tastes, because sometimes they have relationships with people of the same gender. As a result, everyone sort of throws up their hands and gives up, shuffling bi people under the carpet.
This — biphobia — is a big problem socially and culturally.
On a social level, many bi people still aren't out, and report consistent housing, employment, and health care discrimination directly related to their sexuality. While all LGBQTIA people are at risk of this kind of discrimination, bi people can face some specific problems, many of which are related to widespread stereotypes about the bi community—such as the notion that bi women are promiscuous, or that bi men spread HIV to heterosexual women.
Many bi people find that their sexuality is repeatedly invalidated by the people around them on the basis of who they are dating at any given time, and the belief that they "can't make up their minds." If a woman's dating a man, or married to one, she must be heterosexual, no matter how she identifies. If a man's dating or married to a man, he's gay, even if he's explicitly out as bi. There's a notion that unless you are dating someone of every gender you're attracted to at the same time, you must be lying about your sexuality...
...which brings us to the myth that bisexual are promiscuous cheaters. Some bisexual people are in fact polyamorous or nonmonogamous and have multiple partners of multiple genders in negotiated, consensual open relationships. We are somehow supposed to believe this is a bad thing, and, furthermore, to think that being bi "causes" nonmonogamy. Plenty of bi people are monogamous and not interested in adding new partners to their lives, illustrating that sexual orientation and relationship orientation are two different things.
Bisexual people are often accused of using their sexuality as an insulator or buffer to hide from their "real" sexual orientation. They must be experimenting — "lesbians until graduation," anyone? — or they're refusing to admit that they're gay. They're going through a phase. They're attention seeking. It genuinely doesn't occur to people that perhaps people are bisexual simply by nature of being...bisexual.
To be bisexual, Shiri Eisner says, is to be "constantly passing," to be forcibly read by the people around you as something you probably aren't. We live in a heteronormative culture that is only beginning to accept the idea that some people actually prefer people of the same gender. The notion that multiple gender attraction is also a valid identity is something that many still struggle with, which is why Bi Visibility Day and other awareness actions to counter biphobia are so important.
That said, every Bi Visibility Day, I do see a trend that disturbs me, and one that needs to be addressed: The retroactive assignation of bi identities to historical figures and more recent deceased individuals, or to living public figures who have not publicly stated that they're bisexual.
Here's the thing: Human sexuality is, as I hope we all know, incredibly complex. Cultural concepts surrounding human sexuality, including how people identify, have varied throughout history, and they also vary across the world. Bisexuality wasn't always a concept in Western society, and it's not a worldwide sexual identity either. Just because someone dates both men and women doesn't mean that person is bi.
Every year, I see people proudly labeling people like Sappho as bisexual (while she's commonly labeled as a lesbianism due to her erotic poetry, she had a husband and children, and clearly had both male and female lovers), or implying that there's evidence to support possible bisexuality in the Shakespeare household. I also see discussion about celebrities and media figures now who haven't specifically said "I'm bi," but still end up on lists of famous bi people.
Forcible labeling is a problem. Many of the people labeled as bi are fantastic people, but that doesn't mean they'e bi — and trying to force that association is dubious. It's enough to celebrate those who have explicitly identified themselves, because remember, this is a day about visibility: Not about invisibilizing the sexual orientations and experiences of other people by insisting on claiming them as your own.
* I often see bisexuality defined as "someone who has sex with both men and women," but many bi people also recognize the existence of a gender spectrum, are attracted to a variety of genders (not just two) and still consider themselves bi, defining bisexuality as attraction to more than one gender.
Photo: Tim Evanson (Flickr/CC)