Bisexual erasure or bisexual invisibility is the tendency to ignore, remove, falsify, or reexplain evidence of bisexuality in history, academia, the news media, and other primary sources. In its most extreme form, bisexual erasure can include the denial that bisexuality exists. Bisexual erasure also includes the assertion that all bisexual individuals are in a phase and will soon choose a side, either heterosexual or homosexual. This comes from the belief that bisexual individuals are distinctively indecisive. Gross misrepresentations of bisexual individuals as hypersexual erases the sexual agency of bisexual, effectively erasing their true identities as well. It is often a manifestation of biphobia, although it does not necessarily involve overt antagonism.
According to scholar Kenji Yoshino, there are three main investments that motivate both self-identified homosexuals and heterosexuals to seek to culturally erase bisexuality. These motivations are firstly, sexual orientation stabilization. This relieves people of the anxiety of having sexual orientation questioned, an untenable position since it is in fact unprovable. There is a belief that bisexuals are simply undecided, and that they are fundamentally homosexual or heterosexual. This isolates, marginalises and makes bisexuals invisible within the community. Secondly, the maintenance of the importance of gender, which is seen as erotically essential to monosexuals while this notion is challenged by the existence of bisexuality. Thirdly, the maintenance of monogamy since for mainstream Americans, a pair bond is preferred. However, bisexuals are generally assumed by monosexuals to be "intrinsically" non-monogamous. Juana Maria Rodriguez adds to Yoshino's argument and posits that bisexuality breaks down traditional understandings of sexuality and the gender binary. Thus, individuals both in the dominant culture and in the queer community resist bisexuality.
In an article written for the 10th anniversary of Yoshino's piece, Heron Greenesmith argues that bisexuality is in fact inherently invisible in the law, beyond the reach of deliberate erasure. Firstly, she says it is because bisexuality is legally irrelevant with plaintiffs presumed to be monosexual unless outed and secondly, that when bisexuality is legally relevant it is erased within the legal culture since it complicates legal arguments that depend on a gender binary nature of sexuality.
American psychologist Beth Firestone writes that since she wrote her first book on bisexuality, in 1996, "bisexuality has gained visibility, although progress is uneven and awareness of bisexuality is still minimal or absent in many of the more remote regions of our country and internationally".
Richard C. Friedman, an academic psychiatrist who specializes in the psychodynamics of homosexuality, writes in his essay "Denial in the Development of Homosexual Men" that many gay men have experienced sexual fantasies about women or engaged in heterosexual sex and that many straight men have experienced sexual fantasies about men or engaged in homosexual sex. Despite being bisexual in fantasy and activity, these men identify as "gay" or "straight" rather than as bisexual. This erasure of bisexuality is sometimes caused by denying the significance of an erotic encounter in order to maintain a person's sexual identity and sense of community; a man might downplay having had sexual fantasies or encounters with a woman in order to maintain his identity as a "gay man" and his membership in the gay community, or a man might downplay having had sexual fantasies or encounters with a man in order to maintain his status as a heterosexual man in heteronormative society.
Writing for Bisexual.org, author and columnist Zachary Zane cites a study showing that 20.7% of straight-identified men watched gay pornography and 7.5% reported having sex with a man in the past 6 months, while 55% of gay-identified men had watched heterosexual pornography and 0.7% reported having sex with a woman in the past 6 months. He argues that some of the straight-identified men are actually gay or bisexual but are erasing their bisexuality due to internalized biphobia and denial in order to claim a straight identity label. Pointing out that the majority of gay-identified men watched heterosexual pornography but few had recent heterosexual sex, he suggests that many self-identified gay men have sexual fantasies about women and in an ideal world would be openly bisexual and freely explore sex with women, but society pressures gay men to "pick a side" so those men "subsequently have picked being gay".
Bisexual author and activist Robyn Ochs has argued that gay men are less possessive of their "gay" label than lesbians are of their label. She argues that there is less hostility to bisexual men who identify as gay than bisexual women who identify as lesbian, that there is a great deal of sexuality fluidity between "gay" men and "bisexual" men, and that consequently more gay-identified men openly admit to being attracted to and having sex with women. However, Ochs claims that many bisexual men identify as gay in order to politically align themselves with the gay community. She claims that since coming out is so difficult for gay men, many don't want to come out a second time as bisexual; the existence of male bisexuality can be threatening to some gay men because it raises the possibility that they themselves might be bisexual.
The gay male activist Carl Wittman, writing in his "Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto", argues that gay men should identify as "gay" rather than as "bisexual", even if they sleep with women. Stating that gay men should only become bisexual once society accepts homosexuality, he writes that:
"Bisexuality is good; it is the capacity to love people of either sex. The reason so few of us are bisexual is because society made such a big stink about homosexuality that we got forced into seeing ourselves as either straight or non-straight. Also, many gays go turned off to the ways men are supposed to act with women and vice-versa, which is pretty f---ed-up. Gays will begin to turn on to women when 1) it's something that we do because we want to, and not because we should, and 2) when women's liberation changes the nature of heterosexual relationships. We continue to call ourselves homosexual, not bisexual, even if we do make it with the opposite sex also, because saying "Oh, I'm Bi" is a copout for a gay. We get told it's OK to sleep with guys as long as we sleep with women, too, and that's still putting homosexuality down. We'll be gay until everyone has forgotten that it's an issue. Then we'll begin to be complete."
- Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto I.3
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Straight and gay people who engage in bisexual erasure may claim that bisexuals are either exclusively homosexual (gay/lesbian) or exclusively heterosexual (straight), closeted gay or lesbian people who wish to appear heterosexual, or are heterosexuals who are experimenting with their sexuality. A common manifestation of bisexual erasure is a tendency for bisexuals to be referred to as heterosexual when they are intimately involved with people of the opposite sex, and to be labeled as homosexual when they are involved with people of the same sex.
In the LGBT communityEdit
Bisexual erasure may stem from a belief that the bisexual community does not deserve equal status or inclusion within gay and lesbian communities. This can take the form of omitting the word bisexual in the name of an organization or event that serves the whole LGBT community, including it as "bi-sexual", implying that there are only two authentic sexual orientations, or treating the subject of bisexuality in a derogatory way.
Historically, bisexual women have had their sexuality labeled by lesbian feminist circles as an "apolitical cop-out". Bisexual women have been seen as "not radical enough" because of their attraction to cisgender men. Rodriguez asserts that bisexuality was regarded as anti-feminist by many lesbians because of the implied "desires for penetration, sexual dominance, and submission," and gender roles. Bisexual vilification and erasure by the community may not be as open and prevalent today, however, identifying as bisexual can still lead to exclusion and erasure in many lesbian spaces.
In 2013, a study published in the Journal of Bisexuality surveyed thirty people who identified as part of the lesbian, gay, queer or bisexual communities and their individual experiences with coming out. Ten of these people reported that they claimed the label of bisexuality first, and later came out again as lesbian, gay, or queer. The theory that emerged in this study introduced the concept of the "queer apologetic", in which one attempts to reconcile their same-gender attraction with the social norm of heterosexuality.
Bisexuals have been overlooked in the same-sex marriage debate: Where same-sex marriage is illegal, those campaigning for it have failed to highlight the inconsistencies of marriage laws in relation to bisexuals, whose right to marry depends solely on the gender of their partner. Secondly, when same-sex marriage is available, a bisexual partner will generally be referred to as lesbian or gay. For example, one of the first people to take part in a same-sex marriage in America, Robyn Ochs, was widely referred to in the media as a lesbian, despite identifying herself in interviews as bisexual.
1991 saw the publication of one of the seminal books in the history of the modern bisexual rights movement, Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out, an anthology edited by Lani Ka'ahumanu and Loraine Hutchins, but this anthology was forced to compete (and lost) in the Lambda Literary Awards under the category Lesbian Anthology. In 2005, Directed by Desire: Collected Poems, a posthumous collection of the bisexual Jamaican American writer June Jordan's work, had to compete (and won) in the category "Lesbian Poetry". However, BiNet USA led the bisexual community in a multi-year campaign eventually resulting in the addition of a Bisexual category, starting with the 2006 Awards.
Theoretical analyses and literatureEdit
Alternate approaches to the concept of bisexuality have been developed that expand the definition of sexual identity outward from a "this or that" mentality to a "this and that" mentality. Jenée Wilde presents the idea of what she calls "dimensional sexuality" in an article for Sexual and Relationship Therapy, a theoretical framework in which gender is not the primary factor in sexual attraction, rather it is one of many axes. These other axes of attraction can include the desire for either monogamy or polyamory, and the fluidity of desire for the various gender(s) in a partner over time. Wilde uses her framework to broaden the scale of sexual identity from a simple binary spectrum from "mono-sexual" to "bisexual", and to establish relationships between these identities; these relationships would not alienate individuals without a single "fixed object" of attraction.
Viewpoints like Wilde's have been applied by scholars such as Laura Erickson-Schroth and Jennifer Mitchell to pieces of pop-culture and literature; Steven Angelides also produced a book on the place of bisexuality in research and societal awareness throughout history, using a similar framework. Both pieces aim to achieve more inclusive readings of sexuality and allow for the re-designation of literary figures and real people as bisexual, rather than continuing with the assumption that any same-gender activity, explicit or implied, is homosexual, and any opposite-gender activity heterosexual.
An example of a viewpoint similar to Wilde's is D.S. Neff's reading of Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which finds that the poem is ambiguous in its mentioning of "concubines and carnal companie" as well as later parts of the work; Neff finds these ambiguities to be implications that both male and female lovers were had by the protagonist. This bisexual portrayal is supported through Byron's real-world interactions with lovers of multiple genders, and the culture of his literary affiliates at Cambridge condoning those interactions in the midst of the 19th century's moral panic around same-gender desires.
Erickson-Schroth and Mitchell's 2009 article in the Journal of Bisexuality performs a similar analysis of Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson and Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall; the assertion behind these scholars' work is that bisexual experience has existed all throughout the history of humanity, and while it has only recently been acknowledged even in queer and LGBT circles, it is in no way an exclusively modern phenomenon.
There are also interpretations of literature that focus on the symbolic expressions of bisexuality rather than its explicit mention. Linda K. Hughes' analysis of Alexander Smith's A Life-Drama contends the atypical nature of the heterosexual courtship in the poem stands in place of the romance between the main character's "intimate friendship" with another man. Other analyses use the subtextual practices and common allusions of the Victorian period/19th century that referenced bisexuality or homosexuality to show the presence of bisexual themes in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.
Erasure in academic literatureEdit
Bisexual individuals have largely been overlooked in academic literature. Hemmings posits that bisexual erasure is essential in queer studies to keep lesbians and gay men as the main subjects of study. Bisexuals are often included under the umbrella of LGBT+ in academic studies. However, data specific to bisexuals is lacking. Historically, academics began to study bisexuals in relation to HIV and AIDS. These studies contributed to the mythology that bisexuals have a higher chance of transmitting HIV and AIDS.
Some media outlets have portrayed bisexual behaviors in ancient and non-Western cultures, such as ancient Greek pederasty or Native American Two-Spirits, as proof that homosexuality has been widely accepted in other times and cultures, even though it can also be seen as proof of the existence and acceptance of bisexuality.
In both the gay and straight media, individuals who have kept their sexual identity unknown have been portrayed as either gay or straight even when they engage in romantic or sexual relationships with both men and women. The same has occurred even with people who identify themselves as bisexual. Examples include Robyn Ochs, a bisexual activist, who was publicly misidentified as a lesbian on the day of her wedding; Ani DiFranco, whose 1998 marriage to Andrew Gilchrist was portrayed in both gay and mainstream media as renouncing lesbianism even though she had been out as bisexual since the very beginning of her career; Cynthia Nixon, who faced public criticism in 2012 when an awkwardly-worded interview quote about her bisexuality led many to believe she was saying she had chosen to become a lesbian; Madonna, who has called herself bisexual in interviews and has frequently engaged in public acts of same-sex intimacy with other female celebrities, but is typically portrayed by media as a heterosexual woman who dabbles in lesbian imagery for pure shock value, with any possibility that she might be genuinely bisexual being discounted entirely; and Lady Gaga, who is sometimes labelled as either "gay" or "straight" in the media even though she has publicly identified as bisexual.
Bisexual women specifically are subject to both hypervisibility and erasure. Bisexual women are over-represented in pornography, reality television, and music videos as part of the male gaze. However, representations of bisexual women as agents in their own sexuality are lacking. Erasure of sexual agency for bisexual women of color is prevalent within the media as well. Bisexuality stereotypically implies a sense of uncontrolled sexual desire, this is then intensified for women of color who are already hypersexualized.
On December 30, 2009, MTV premiered their 23rd season of the show The Real World, featuring two bisexual participants, Emily Schromm, and Mike Manning. Although Manning himself identifies as bisexual, many bloggers and commenters on blogs claimed that he was in fact gay. Furthermore, while a behind-the-scenes MTV Aftershow and subsequent interview revealed that both Manning and Schromm had had encounters with both men and women while on the show, the show was edited to make it seem as though they had only been with men.
Individuals identifying as bisexual have been absent from dialogue during discourse about LGBT-rights and litigations. Examples include the early use of the term "gay marriage" as opposed to "same-sex marriage" or "marriage equality" as well as the lack of mention of bisexual individuals during briefings or in opinions handed down by the courts despite having several bisexual litigants. Arguably individuals identifying as bisexual face even more erasure in civil rights discourse than individuals identifying as transgender (another group under the umbrella term "LGBT" that become invisible when the focus is placed on gay and lesbian populations) because of a growing recognition of gender identity as a protection of gender discrimination law. This growth is in spite of little progress being made to protect sexual orientation (including bisexuality) under federal employment discrimination law. This is particularly important in the U.S. legal system where case law is established and not mentioning bisexual identities in decisions does not just result in erasure, but in remaining unprotected by law. Nancy Marcus uses the monumental Obergefell v. Hodges case that granted same-sex marriage rights as an example of nearly complete erasure of bisexuality despite efforts by legal organizations such as BiLaw and outreach to the plaintiff's legal team.
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