In Defense of Bi-Phobia
I’ll probably get called a self loathing bigot apologist for writing this, but that’s nothing new. The thing is, liberals have only one story when it comes to bigotry — that you accept people for who they are, or else YOU ARE A BAD PESON. They also only have one corrective method for bigotry — you yell at bigots until they stop talking. And like, maybe that’s effective. However, the results seem mixed, especially after the election of our orange commander in chief.
But, one thing the liberal shaming method doesn’t do is address the toxic internalization of the mainstream/bigoted view (for the sake off this blog post, internalized “bi-phobia.”) In fact, often all this shouting seems to reaffirm the bigoted viewpoint, because if the bigots really were wrong, we could shut it down with rational means. When we need to resort to coercive shaming to convince others of our point of view, doesn’t it kind of imply our point of view may be wrong?
I remember reading this conservative blogger years ago (I wish I could find his blog, but I’ve forgotten it now) and he was writing about feminists. Underneath all the feminist cries that “women are just as good as men” is the secret fear — what if they’re not? I had just started my first programming job after college, and it was as if this conservative motherfucker had peered into my grey cubicle and pulled out my deepest insecurity for the world to see.
What if, after devoting decades of my life to the pursuit of math, science and technology, I will be forever destined to mediocrity because of my gender? What if my thoughts will never be as insightful as my male peers’ because of my second rate female mind?
Any time I voiced — no matter how meekly — such concerns to anyone with a feminist leaning, they’d go into full shouting mode. WOMEN ARE JUST AS GOOD AS MEN, YOUR GENDER IS NOT A HINDRANCE, ANYONE WHO
TELLS YOU OTHERWISE IS A MISOGYNIST, etc. And, I daren’t raise such concerns to “traditionally” minded people, but I expect their advice would have been “accept men and women are different, you’ll find happiness when you stop trying to be a man and embrace the feminine role.”
Thing is, neither of them were right. Ultimately, I found my peace through my experience, by doing well on my tests in college, and by outputting good code at work over and over again, for years. I don’t know if women on average are as good in STEM fields as men are, but I know many women (myself arrogantly included) who outperform many of their male peers in their technical fields. However, all the women were subjected to an additional shake down; all of us had to conquer the secret doubt that maybe we wouldn’t be as good because we were female. And, I’m sure STEM loses a lot of good women that way, but as a woman once you get to the other side, you get to a place of peace.
I’m not insecure that my gender has impeded my intelligence anymore because I have years of evidence to the contrary.
And, I had to go through a similar journey with my bisexuality. The reason it was so fucking painful when someone used to ask are you really bisexual, or are you just doing it for attention? was that part of me was afraid I wasn’t bisexual. I even had a therapist — a fucking therapist who specialized in LGBTQ issues — ask me if I was really bisexual, or just attached to the identity of bisexual. In fact, for about 3 months after that, I identified as straight but was so miserable I decided to change my identity back to bisexual “even if it was a lie” because I was happier that way.
Years later, I would also briefly identify as a lesbian, and assumed that my prior attractions to men had been due to the heteronormative brainwashing of society. Falling in love with my first girlfriend made me doubt every other time I’d fallen in love, and after dating her I went for years without even a glimmer of attraction to a man. But, that ended too.
What I eventually saw, was that our relationships are tempered by the expectations of society. For me, when dating men, there’s always this push toward the traditional life (get married, have kids, get a house in the suburbs and work respectable corporate jobs) and feeling on the path to hitting these markers would give me feelings of satisfaction and success, but those feelings weren’t love. I dated so many men when I was younger because I liked the secondary feelings of dating men. I was afraid to give up those feelings, the feeling like I was “going somewhere” and the validation at being beautiful in the male gaze, that I looked a lot like a straight girl from the outside.
When I started dating a woman, I wasn’t on the path anymore. At the time of my first girlfriend, legally we were not able to get married and she didn’t want kids — and, I asked myself the question am I willing to blow everything up to be with this woman? And, yes, yes I was. I felt like, with her, I really loved her, but with all the men in my past it seemed like I had been pretending to love them to get those secondary benefits. That’s why I started thinking I might be a lesbian, I thought I’d been confusing the feelings of satisfaction at heteronormative conformity with love.
And then. I started being attracted to men again, but instead of liking the feelings of heteronormative conformity, I was afraid of them. They no longer felt like “success,” but more like ominous harbingers of depression. Yet, I noticed that I was capable of affection for men even without enjoying the feelings of heteronormative conformity. Unfortunately, most straight men themselves enjoy feelings of heteronormative conformity, which often creates an unreconcilable tension in my relationship with men. Of course, many lesbians also enjoy feelings of queer conformity, which was a thing I hadn’t really noticed until getting more involved in the lesbian community, but also creates irreconcilable tensions. And, don’t even get me started on non-binary people, who consider my very identity as bisexual to be an assault to their gender. I’m attracted to non-binary people sometimes, but none of them have ever been attracted back, which I guess is fair enough.
See: why I’ve spent a lot of time being single.
But anyway. I guess where I’m going with this, is I sort got to the point with my bisexuality where the bi-phobic things people said stopped hurting because I knew myself completely.
To go back to gender again; once I accepted my own competence in tech, and when I was no longer blinded with fear, I could analyze the men (and, it is nearly always men) who looked down on my intelligence. What I saw, was that they wanted to be smarter than me. Their reasons varied —sometimes men attracted to me were trying to display their superiority in an effort to win me over (did not work.) Other men are simply always trying to demonstrate their mental superiority, and while they would do so with both men and women, they were willing to exploit the vulnerabilities of feminine stereotypes when engaging with women. And some men view rational intelligence to be a signifier of masculinity, and will try to prove their intelligence over women to feel like more of a man.
Regardless of the reason, what I have realized, is it’s not usually about me when a man speaks down to me. It’s usually about him. So, instead of thinking I’m dumb when a man calls me dumb, I wonder what is it about this man that makes him want to feel smarter than me? Pro tip: it’s often because he’s actually afraid he’s not as smart as me. As it turns out, sexist men have the exact same fears as feminist women. Who knew?
A very similar thing happens with bi-phobia, but it tends to have far more diverse set of reasons. When I finally landed, with full confidence, in my sexuality, I began to see the motivations of others. One of the initial things I focused on was the bi-phobia of lesbians. At the time (and, this probably wouldn’t fly now) many lesbians held events that excluded bisexual women from them. Why, I wondered, would they feel the need to do that?
Because they feel inferior to men! They won’t articulate it, because it’s shameful, but deep down many lesbians worry that they won’t be able to provide for their partner like a man can. I’ve felt it myself; I remember standing at the opulent wedding of a friend I’d had a crush on, and thinking to myself I could never have given her all this. It’s a horrible feeling, and its natural to want to push away someone that triggers that in you.
On the other hand, straight men tend to dismiss or eroticize my sexuality. Why? Because they don’t understand what would make a man attractive to a woman. Deep down, many straight men don’t believe women are really attracted to them, but rather women are interested in the feelings of success that come with heteronormative conformity that I mentioned earlier. Men try to convince themselves that, for women, the feelings associated with heteronormative conformity are the important ones, not the sexual ones of innate attraction, because men have been raised only to have the skills to cater to the former.
Or, to phrase it another way, what’s more likely — that women are attracted to money, or that women are willing to sacrifice true desire in order to live comfortably? I suspect the later, and I think most men suspect the later, and this drives men to be terrified of true female sexuality. One consequence of this is that many men play down female sexuality as unimportant, because if a woman was driven by her sexuality many men are convinced they would have nothing to offer. They have to convince everyone, themselves, their partners that this whole “feminine lust” thing is no big deal. Yeah, another woman may turn you on, but I have what you really need. What’s that? They’ll pretend it’s the D, but I think we all know it’s cold hard cash.
Some non-bisexual trans people fear bisexuals because we can’t provide the type of gender reassurance they’re looking for. A trans woman in a relationship with a bisexual may always wonder if their partner is really attracted to her as a woman. A trans woman dating a lesbian would probably feel more secure around that. Non-binary trans people, on the other hand, will be sensitive to issues around erasure and — as mentioned earlier — will sometimes even object to the term “bisexual” itself, under the assumption that the “bi” refers to the “male and female” binary. Many bisexuals are trying to reclaim the term, but I take the simpler view if my identity bugs you, deal with it. You get to choose what you get called; you don’t get to choose what I get called. Don’t try to stop cis men from calling themselves “normal” men, just if you’re a trans man, feel free to also call yourself a “normal” man.
Straight women often react to female bisexuality with fear of sexual inferiority. While I find bi-phobia to be less frequent with straight women than other groups, it does come up sometimes, and it’s often in the form of “she’s not really bi” or “she’s a slut.” Effectively, straight women view bisexual women as a type of hyper-sexual competition for the attention of straight men, and try to limit the damage by cutting off the source of the perceived hyper-sexuality (“not really bi”) or by turning to the tried and true method of sexual repression through slut shaming. Unfortunately, this points to the straight female tendency for a woman to only value her own sexuality in so far as it increases her desirability to men. A lot of women struggle with receiving sexual pleasure for the benefit of themselves, and find bisexuality mystifying because of it. Why would a woman ever sleep with another woman if it wasn’t to please a man? The societally imposed goal of pleasing men runs so deep it often transcends consciousness in women, especially (but not only) straight women.
Anyhow: you will note one thing all this has in common is other people’s bi-phobia has nothing to do with my feelings and everything to do with the insecurities of others. The fact that straight guys will be all “hawwwt” when I say I’m into women says volumes about them — that they have trouble empathizing with female attraction to men, that they’re trying to be sexual with me by injecting themselves into something that doesn’t include them — and nothing about me or how I feel about women.
That doesn’t mean it’s not annoying, or not oppressive. It is. And, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work against it. We should. But, how can I blame people for having the exact same gender insecurities as I do? How can I blame lesbians for fearing competition with men when I feel this same fear myself? How can I blame trans people for needing their gender to be reflected back to them, when I have my gender reflected back to me every day? How can I blame straight women for only seeing bi women though the lens of the male gaze, when I am also struggling to break free of the eye of patriarchy?
The hard truth is, if I was straight, if I was trans, if I was a man, etc. I might act towards bisexuals exactly the same way all these people acted toward me. We are so fucked about gender in our society that everyone is carrying deep scars, even cis people, even straight people, even men. And, we can’t fix bi-phobia without fixing all these other problems.
The one time I really felt a reduction of bi-phobia in the queer community was when gay marriage passed. When lesbians were strengthened, with societal support, in their ability to provide for their female partners, resentment at bisexual women seemed to drop. Maybe I’m imagining it, or maybe gay marriage passed during a time when there was more queer awareness overall, but it kind of makes sense. If gay women aren’t driven by the secret fear that their partners would be materially better off dating men, then bisexual women aren’t threatening. I think when society provides women the same tools men have to care for their female partners — through marriage, through pay parity, through queer acceptance — bisexuality will cease to be a thing in the lesbian community.
Which… brings me to an interesting place. While queer people certainly need to work on self acceptance, most queer people are generally aware they need to work on self acceptance and there are large societal movements in this direction. One of the biggest obstacles queer acceptance still faces in general society is the self acceptance of straight people. While the heteronormative narrative is very damaging for queer people, it’s also damaging for straight people. In fact, people in queer relationships tend to be happier than people in straight relationships, and straight men are more depressed than out gay men.
The allure of the heteronormative narrative is strong, but it doesn’t ultimately bring deep joy. Knowing yourself, knowing what you want, and doing the things you want to do and being the person you were supposed to be is what bring you joy. If you’re straight, and all you’ve ever known was straightness, it can be very hard to parse out what your own heart is calling you to do as opposed to the feelings of satisfaction that come with conforming to societal expectations. The satisfaction that comes with conformity tends to be loud and overt, but the pull toward your true self tends to be soft. As Steven Spieleberg said, Listen for the Whisper. Listen to the small voice that says this is right or this is not right. Because, as long as straight people or privileged people keep selling out to maintain their privilege, they will keep resenting people who were able to live their truth.