During a recent show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the performer included a segment which she aimed at “straight women”, which was about the dynamics of women and men in relationships.

On the one hand, I find it gratifying that this acknowledges that not all women are heterosexual. This distinction would have been vanishingly rare until recently and even now, many would have focused on all women, as if all of us by nature of our sex have an interest in pursuing relationships with men. At least with this phrasing, she avoided the age old erasure of lesbian identity and experience.

On the other hand, I felt oddly and specifically excluded as a bisexual woman. From the content, I’m sure the segment was aimed at me as much as it was aimed at completely heterosexual women; it didn’t feel intentional or for some reason unique to their relationships with men. It was just a verbal shortcut, which happened to cut me out.

It is not surprising that bi women are often missed out. In a recent blog post, stavvers struggles to think of fictional characters who are explicitly identified as bi, and when figures in the public eye come out, it doesn’t take long for somebody to suggest that they are actually gay or straight but they need to maintain their fanbase/are in denial/are doing it for attention (delete as appropriate).

For all non-straight and non-cis people, if we choose to come out, we soon find out that coming out is continual, not just that first time that counts as your coming out story. For bisexual people, the lack of general understanding or acceptance of bisexuality can be a barrier; when the sexual orientation you identify with is commonly dismissed in its entirety, what reaction can you expect? I struggle to come out as I am a femme with a boyfriend (far from unusual) and for most people I meet, my sexual orientation seems irrelevant or defunct – but I feel it’s important to be as open as possible given that I am in a position to do so, because I want to fight that invisibility.

Therefore, I want to consider how to use language to be bi-inclusive. While I would quite like there to be collective nouns for bi and heterosexual women/men/people and bi and gay women/men/people (any suggestions?), for now language has to be context specific. In the example mentioned at the start, because the performer was specifically talking about relationships with men, it would have been fine to define the group by this, by talking about “women who have had relationships with men” or “women who are attracted to men”. In a lot of instances, this is likely to be an option, as the reason to specify sexual orientation is often because of the relationship being referred to.

But that’s not always the case and if it isn’t, then defining bi and heterosexual women by our relationship to men feels somewhat reductive. Technically, those words may be intended to indicate where our attractions lie, but identities are complex and personal things. They can variously capture our experiences and culture as well as sexual and romantic inclinations. When talking about our identities or diversity, then using chosen labels is likely the most appropriate course; if that means adding the two character word “bi”, I hardly think this makes phrasing so wordy to be unwieldy.

However, while the world is getting more progressive, it is also getting snappier. Being more inclusive and accurate is up against fitting into tweets and suiting the flow of a clickbait headline. Perhaps what we really need is a linguistic revolution. If verbal shortcuts are going to be made, can we have shortcuts that actually imply what they intend to mean? Is there a new vocabulary we can use to include bi people rather than assume they’ll know to be straight or gay depending on the subject matter? I’m genuinely asking. If you have a better way to remove the invisibility cloak of a language where heterosexuality is primary and binaries are better than scales, I’d love to hear it.

The photo used is by Erich Ferdinand and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a person outside; they are blurred so their characteristics are impossible to make out.

Comments From You

D H Kelly // Posted 28 August 2015 at 12:29 pm

This is a really important conversation.

We have a particular problem with “bisexual” because, as you say, the word is both a technical description (alongside homosexual or heterosexual) and a political and culture experience (alongside straight and gay). Folk do use gay as a broad sweep (e.g. “gay marriage”, “gay penguins” etc.), but with bisexual, it’s the same word – in Stavvers’ otherwise excellent post, she falls foul of this by describing folk registering a number other than 0 or 6 on the Kinsey Scale as people who “fit the description of bi, but do not apply it to themselves”. Other media coverage of the same poll was even worse, compounding the entire middle ground with a sort of open-mindedness about sexuality. Bi-erasure is a major problem, but some folk do have occasional bisexual attraction (or can’t rule out the possibility) while being entirely comfortable in their identities as straight or gay.

I think our only option is to try to be as accurate as possible, while bearing the mind the difference between technical description and political and cultural experience. I’ve sometimes used “gynophile” to mean everyone who is attracted to women – a category so often reduced to straight men (usually referred to as just “men”). There’s also androphile, although no easy option for those of us attracted to genderqueer people. However “people who are attracted to women” isn’t a complicated phrase, neither is “women partnered with men” if that’s what the comedian you saw really meant.

Related to all this, there’s a really good post by Jeanne de Montbaston about the way women’s perceived bisexuality is compounded with fluid sexuality, “bi-curiosity” and so on. (Putting the link here as I think system keeps rejecting my comment when it’s an html link: https://readingmedievalbooks.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/the-self-evident-truth-project-lily-rose-depp-and-the-never-ending-media-fuckup-of-discussing-womens-bisexuality/ )

trentley // Posted 31 August 2015 at 11:56 pm

I find it amazing (and somewhat frightening) that its such a big can of worms for just two little letters.

yes, I’m bi too – for me those two letters are as quiet as a mouse or as jaw dropping as Laurence Olivier’s “oysters and snails” speech in Spartacus

and yes, I’ve been bi on a private level, my experience with men furtive and so far unfulfilling (I put it down to fear of embracing that “side” – crap its not a side, its me! – due to child sexual abuse as much as not wanting casual flings and hiding myself away)

hasn’t been an easy road and I’ve been through loving relationship as borderline abusive and anxious by not facing facts or being me, and while there’s heartbreak in my present relationship as I’ve made my choice leave, its a little scary with the world I’m about to face:

what’s this cissexual word I see? As far as I’m concerned, its pointless 1337 (leet) jargon for those on the gender spectrum (if there’s no orientation binary, there’s no gender binary, and I think trans/intersex is as awesome as guys/girls)

everything else is an existential thing. In a “binary” world I’m an amorphous blob, but even a hetero/homo relationship comes with shape changing to mould ourselves with our partners – and that doesn’t work.

my biggest fear is having to prove my existence to people who believe I might be lying, or confused (nope, I like oysters and snails), in hiding (I love that white label remix of Kosheen’s Hide U!), slutty (my big hang up, and why I feel the need to connect to a man before being vulnerable)

but its also what I’m ready for, because our existence as bi can be proven by a simple poke: if you can see and touch me, I exist, therefore I prove that bi-invisibility is a myth.

bisexuality is pretty Descartes in its simplicity: I feel, therefore I think, therefore I am. And just like “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” so too are we bi.

its also the fun of being subversive, a proper fifty shades of grey (not some rich mummy’s boy into 6 hits of the belt) in a world trying in vain to be black and white.

Basically, I see orientation (gay to straight), gender (female to male) promiscuity (asexual to addicted) and relationship ideal (monogamous to polyamorous) as continuums or scales crossing the same central point of HUMANITY, along with myriad other emotions and beliefs, and we are free to be wherever we want to be or are on those scales.

Maybe that’s the answer, rather than arguing for our position as bi we should welcome others into it. I propose a simple way: we ask a person what their orientation means to them, and then say what bisexuality means to us.

the best part is, like everything else in our lives, that bisexuality is personal. I’m bi in my way, you in yours, and that’s best for both of us. It just happens I want my next romantic connection with a man, to mean something and not be furtively casual, and that’s natural to me.

And drop this “cissexual” claptrap, its deliberately confusing jargon, and at the end of the day, were all red-blooded homo sapiens sharing an X chromosome no matter what label we give ourselves.

hope this adds something and thanks for listening/letting me vent a bit


trentley // Posted 1 September 2015 at 1:18 am

Sorry few words missing, meant to say of moulding for relationships *doesn’t ALWAYS work.

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