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Why is bisexuality still so misunderstood?

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JESS BROHIER
WORDS BY DASHA Romanowski

“I’m certain that a key driver is the common biphobic narratives we see played out again and again in popular culture.”

When I reflect on my life so far, it’s clear to me that I’ve never identified with heterosexuality. I still remember the electricity that sparked within my body at age eight when I first saw t.A.T.u. making out in their ‘All The Things She Said’ music video, and how my adolescent grunge obsession was defined by crushes on both Kurt and Courtney.

By the time I was a teenager, I was certain of the fact that I was attracted to a variety of genders, but I was also overcome with shame and confusion. I hadn’t really encountered any meaningful representations of bisexuality in the TV shows or films I consumed.


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The narratives I’d picked up from my peers at school and the media told me that bisexual people were just attention-seeking nymphomaniacs – or that bisexuality was, in the words of Carrie Bradshaw, “Just a layover on the way to Gay Town.”

It’s not like I didn’t have queer people I was close to in my life. My older sister came out as a lesbian to our conservative parents when she was 18, but I was too anxious to broach the topic of sexual orientation with her despite our good relationship.

I was shepherded through high school by a group of queer kids two years above me, who took me under their wing and taught me so much about gender and sexual identity – and yet I was still too ashamed to discuss my sexuality with them because I felt dirty and inauthentic.

It was with them that I attended my first pride street party, and amid the joyous throng of drag queens, sequins and rainbow flags, I started crying. I felt that I was taking up space that wasn’t meant for me. Was I just an attention-seeking straight girl wanting to appear more attractive to men? Was I just going through a phase?

Over ten years on from that event, I can confirm that my attraction to more than one gender wasn’t just a phase. I now also understand that the sense of displacement I experienced at the street party stemmed from internalised biphobia, which is when a person who falls under the bisexual umbrella (which includes terms like pansexual, polysexual and fluid among others) absorbs negative stereotypes about their sexual identity and starts to believe them.

Even at the young age of 15, the hurtful messages I’d gathered about bisexuality started to impact me and manifest as self-hatred, anxiety and a constant feeling of shame – something that I continue to struggle with today, because these damaging cultural narratives sure as hell haven’t gone away.

I was reminded of this as recently as June when the ABC’s 2021 Australia Talks survey results showed that a massive 44 per cent of respondents were ‘not at all open’ to romantic involvement with someone who is bisexual. While the reasoning behind this statistic wasn’t explored, I’m certain that a key driver is the common biphobic narratives we see played out again and again in popular culture.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to digest is that biphobia doesn’t just come from heterosexual people: it’s often perpetrated by those in the queer community too, leading to ‘double discrimination’ and even multiple discrimination when you account for race, class and gender identity.

There are dozens of studies exploring stigma held by gay and lesbian people towards bisexuals, who are stereotyped as untrustworthy, in denial about their sexuality, lacking the courage to come out as gay or lesbian or ‘disease carriers’.

With these kinds of messages circulating from both straight and gay and lesbian communities, it’s unsurprising that only 19 per cent of those who identify as bisexual are out to all or most of the important people in their lives, compared to 75 per cent of those who identify as gay and lesbian.

Given that all members of the LGBTIQ+ community experience harm from discrimination, biphobia may seem like an insignificant problem. However, countless studies have documented that bisexual people have higher rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide than heterosexual, gay and lesbian people.

Bisexual women are more likely to experience sexual and intimate partner violence than other orientations, with bisexual trans women being the most at-risk group in the LGBTIQ+ community. Biphobia is harming people, and it’s still misunderstood and largely unacknowledged.

I believe that a reason for this misunderstanding is because people perceive elements of bisexuality as a privilege. I’m a cisgender White woman who’s currently dating a cis man, and so I’m ‘straight-passing’ – I can choose to conceal my sexual identity to protect myself, an option that many gay and lesbian people don’t have.

But I’ve also learned that these ‘privileges’ come with corresponding traumas and function as a double-edged sword. The very act of ‘passing’ reinforces my invisibility. By repressing a key part of my sexuality, I’ve spent years of my life in a hyper-anxious state, feeling confused and alone.

I feel like I constantly have to prove myself when I do disclose my sexuality to others, as though a part of my identity and history has been erased because it’s not presently reflected in my choice of partner. As though I’m expected to produce a comprehensive list of everyone I’ve dated and slept with to prove that my sexuality is real.

I’ve also learned to cherry-pick which parts of my identity to share among certain groups to feel safe or accepted. When I was dating, telling straight cisgender men about my bisexuality was a big no-no, because far too many of them had fetishised it in the past by pushing for a threesome with another woman.

I downplayed my relationships with men around lesbians so they wouldn’t view me as someone too scared to ‘fully come out’ or a traitor to the LGBTIQ+ movement. I still try to avoid discussions of my sexuality around straight women in case they might be worried I’ll hit on them or their male partner. It’s exhausting, demoralising and unsustainable.

I’m at the beginning of a long process in unlearning my internalised biphobia, and so far, it’s been confronting and heartbreaking. But, while I know that I personally can’t dismantle the cultural misconceptions surrounding bisexuality, I’m learning to acknowledge my own narrative – and, in the process, breaking the silence that previously defined my life.

For one, I told my sister about my sexuality, who validated my experience and shared a story of a bisexual friend who expressed many of the same concerns as me. I’ve finally understood that I’m not any of the stereotypes that have been forced upon me: I’m bisexual, and I’m not afraid to admit that anymore.

If you’re experiencing biphobia, try this advice.

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