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 belief that bisexuality does not exist.
Bisexual erasure may include the assertion that all bisexual individuals are in a phase and will soon choose a side, either heterosexual or homosexual. One reason for this is the belief that bisexual individuals are distinctively indecisive. Gross misrepresentations of bisexual individuals as hypersexual erases the sexual agency of bisexuals, effectively erasing their true identities as well. Bisexual erasure is also often a manifestation of biphobia, although it does not necessarily involve overt antagonism.
Another common variant of bisexual erasure involves accepting bisexuality in women, while downplaying or rejecting the validity of bisexual identity in men.
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 homosexuals and heterosexuals 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 homosexuals and heterosexuals 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 heterosexual or homosexual 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 sex with women and that many straight men have experienced sexual fantasies about men or engaged in sex with men. 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 six months, while 55% of gay-identified men had watched heterosexual pornography and 0.7% reported having sex with a woman in the past six 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 sexual 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 also argues that many bisexual men identify as gay in order to politically align themselves with the gay community. She says that since coming out is so difficult for gay men, many do not 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.
Gay male activist Carl Wittman, writing in his "Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto", argued 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 wrote 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
Deterring accusations of homophobia from psychologistsEdit
While there have been reports from bisexual men and women about feeling unwelcome in the gay and lesbian communities due to accusations of homophobia for a long time, there is a recent increase in reports from bisexual men (more so than from bisexual women) about accusations of being predisposed towards homophobia that cite psychology and statistics. One example is biphobia that cite penile plethysmograph statistics that appear to show a concentration of bisexual genital responses specifically in homophobic men. Members of the bisexual community as well as some scholars argue that this skews the studies towards a self-fulfilling prophecy in which non-homophobic men with genital responses to both men and women (both truly bisexual men and merely nonconcordant men) are deterred from taking part in the studies out of a fear of being accused of having a predisposition towards homophobia.
This is argued to be a cause of bisexual male erasure that gives an appearance of bisexuality being rarer in men, especially in non-homophobic men. These open bisexuals and scholars reply to the objection that the theory of a link between male bisexuality and homophobia is population level and not to every individual by pointing out that ethics informed by population level statistics do affect individuals who are told to live by the ethics, arguing that just as statistics that appear to show a link between theories of immutable sexuality and acceptance of homosexuality are used to declare criticism of such immutability theories to be unethical, statistics that appear to show a link between bisexual orientation and homophobia can just as well be used to declare the condition of simply having a bisexual orientation unethical, resulting in biphobia.
It is argued that similar self-fulfilling prophecies apply there (non-homophobes who do not think that sexuality is immutable being pressured by social false dichotomies and few-choice polls to falsely claim either that they believe in immutable sexuality or that they have something against homosexuality which may increase the number of members in homophobic groups by forcing non-homophobes to claim homophobia), citing that many past attempts to "cure" homosexuality relied on hormonal medication which is incompatible with the claim that those who tried such conversion believed in social environmental determinism. It is also cited that bisexual men report even more fear than gay men due to not being accepted in either heteronormative or gay communities and argued that waiting for a purported "society as a whole" to accept homosexuality is futile due to dichotomous societies being inherently polarized.
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Heterosexual (straight) and gay people who engage in bisexual erasure may claim that bisexuals are either exclusively homosexual (gay/lesbian) or exclusively heterosexual, 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, but 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.
For many years, the Lambda Literary Awards did not have a category for bisexual literary works, which was finally established in 2006 after lobbying by BiNet USA. Although some bisexuality-related works, such as the anthology Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out, were nominated for the awards prior to the creation of bisexual categories, they competed in gay or lesbian categories.
Theoretical analyses and literatureEdit
Alternative 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 engaged in romantic or sexual relationships with both men and women. The same has occurred even with people who openly identify themselves as bisexual. Ani DiFranco's 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 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 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. Lady Gaga is sometimes labelled as either "gay" or "straight" in the media even though she has publicly identified as bisexual. Freddie Mercury, who according to his obituary was a "self-confessed bisexual," is often depicted as gay by the media.
The media in both communities also often refers to the "gay and lesbian" community, ignoring bisexual and/or transgender people. There have also been examples of media outlets referring to "lesbian, gay and transgender" issues while still excluding or ignoring bisexuals.
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.
Erasure from LGBT rights and litigationEdit
Individuals identifying as bisexual have been absent from dialogue during discourse about LGBT-rights and litigation. 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 bisexuality in briefs or in opinions handed down by the courts.
A survey of relevant terminology in LGBT-rights cases found that, minus a brief period in U.S. Supreme Court history when bisexuals were mentioned alongside gays and lesbians bisexuality has not been mentioned in Supreme Court opinions or briefs in major LGBT rights cases, which too often describe gays and lesbians as exclusively affected by sexual orientation discrimination.
While courts have begun to more frequently used the term same-sex in litigation involving sexual minority groups, this term is still often used interchangeably with gay, lesbian, and homosexual, therefore erasing the bisexual contingent. 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, including an amicus brief to the Supreme Court and outreach to the plaintiffs' legal team. This is important in the U.S. legal system when law is developed through case law, since not mentioning bisexual identities in legal decisions implies a "secondary" status of bisexuals within the LGBT community, with the judiciary appearing to give the imprimatur to the relegation of bisexuality to a lesser, or completely ignored, status.
Marcus states that misunderstanding and erasure of bisexuality within the US legal system results in tangible harm to bisexual litigants, including the increased likelihood of losing parental rights and the probability of being denied asylum from anti-LGBT countries. Custody issues arise due to the belief that bisexual people are too unstable to be parents, while bisexuals seeking asylum from countries hostile to LGBT individuals are viewed with suspicion, including not being "gay enough." This is due to a common assumption within the legal community that a person can only be legitimately attracted to one gender; therefore a bisexual asylum-seeker is more likely to be considered a fraud.
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