Biphobia, queer communities, & “conversion therapy”

I.

There are so many places I could begin.

I am 14 and I think I might like girls.  Then I think I’m just trying too hard to be interesting, because I know I like boys.  It is months before I settle on “bisexual.”  I search the nascent internet desperately for images of people like myself, but I barely find any.  I read all the Dykes to Watch Out For I can get my hands on; at least it’s something.

I am 15 and the whole school knows that I’m bi, even if I get called “dyke” a lot.  Other girls find me after school, on weekends; they whisper to me about the girls they want to kiss to but can’t.  None of them want to kiss me, though.

I am 16 and a senior in high school.  I tell my parents, who have been telling me for the past five years that they don’t care if I bring home boyfriends or girlfriends, that I’m bi.  At graduation I’m excited to be seated next to one of the hottest guys in my class.  My mom tells her best friend: “I knew she was really straight.”

I am 17 and a freshman in college.  I wear my Pride rings everywhere and all the other queer* kids want to talk to me—until I start dating a guy.  I’m not one of them.

I am 18 and working on a campus women’s event.  One of the other participants comments on my shaved head: “If you weren’t dating that big guy, people might think you were a lesbian.”  I tell her that I’m bi.  She says: “Oh.” She stops talking to me.

I am 22 and a graduate student in Wisconsin.  All winter I wear a giant rainbow scarf that I crocheted myself. A lesbian classmate stops me in the hall and jokes: “What are you wearing?! You straight people can’t just steal all our queer symbols!”  I tell her that I’m bi.  She laughs: “Whatever.”

I am 25 and teaching Intro to LGBTQ Studies for the first time.  I notice that students talk about being gay or lesbian, but they never talk about being bi, even when they write about it in the papers that only I see.

I am 26 and I say something in casual conversation with a faculty member about my ex-girlfriend from college (the first person to ever truly break my heart, but I don’t say that, because it’s not very casual).  She blinks: “But you date men!”  I tell her that I’m bi.  She changes the subject.

I am 27 and teaching Intro to LGBTQ Studies for the third time.  I start telling my students that I am a bisexual woman on the first day.  Some of them start openly identifying as bisexual or pansexual in class.

I am 28 and I marry a straight man, because I love him and I want to.  People call our relationship “straight,” as if its very existence trumps mine.

I am 31 and I am tired of people posting links on Facebook to an article by a lesbian complaining about straight women invading queer spaces like bars—she doesn’t allow for even the possibility that some people aren’t straight OR gay.  I make my own post about the problem of bisexual erasure, because I don’t want to hijack anyone else’s discussion about the real problems of appropriation and identity tourism.  A gay man with whom I have worked and socialized for years is outraged.  Why am I making a big deal about this, he demands: “You wouldn’t try to do this!  You know you don’t belong in queer spaces!”  Of course, he’s right.  It has been a very long time since I thought there was any room for me in “queer” spaces.

I am 31 and I get mad.  Really mad.

I am 31 and a bisexual man with whom I’ve been friends for years asks me if I want to start an organization for bisexual, pansexual, and otherwise non-monosexual people** in the state of Wisconsin.  I say: “Yes. Count me in.”  People have been pushing me into closets for 17 years now and I am pissed.

I am 32 and I want more than just the right to exist, although that would certainly be nice.  I want my queer family: the one I was promised by Dykes to Watch Out For, the one I never got because there was never a “queer space” that welcomed us, the one I couldn’t build because we couldn’t find each other.  We are looking for you now.

 

II.

Many people have produced relevant criticims of “It Gets Better” as a flagship campaign for mainstream LGBTQ activism, and the root problem for many of them is that the adult “LGBTQ community” welcomes some people much more than it does others. If you’re bisexual or pansexual, or if you are poor, a person of color, disabled, or otherwise marginalized on multiple axes, that “community” that you’re supposed to seek out in the magical Some Day often turns out to be a mirage.  (This is not to equate those experiences, but to note that there are some similarities.)  Pride parades are pretty until you realize that in ten blocks you haven’t seen a single person claiming an identity like yours.

Not everyone wants to move to urban areas, or can.  But when bisexual women do,*** many of us operating under the assumption that finally we’re going to belong, it’s not just that things don’t really improve.  They actually get worse.

Lesbian and bisexual women experience similar levels of mental distress in nonurban areas, but when they move to urban areas, while lesbian women’s distress goes down, bisexual women’s distress actually increases (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al. 2010).  These places with, presumably, relatively large “LGBTQ communities” don’t help bisexual women.  They hurt us.

When I present this research finding in lectures and talks, many people are astonished.  They can’t figure out why this would happen.  A large proportion of them think that bisexual and pansexual people are just Lesbian Gay Lite, with all the same problems and issues except 50% less intense.  Or they think we’re just “basically straight,” with no problems or issues at all.  Either way, we obviously have nothing to complain about when lesbian and gay people have it worse—except they don’t.

Like trans people, bisexual and pansexual people actually make “average outcomes” of various kinds for the “LGBTQ community” worse.  Our rates of mental illness, substance abuse (Green & Feinstein 2012), and suicidal ideation are all higher than those of lesbian and gay people (Kerr et al. 2013; Fredriksen-Goldsen et al. 2010), which are higher than those of straight people (trans people, who can of course also be bi or pan, have higher rates than we do).  Bisexual women with monosexual partners—whether they are straight men or lesbian women—experience domestic violence at higher rates than lesbian or straight women (Walters et al. 2013; San Francisco Human Rights Commission 2011).

Bisexual people earn less than lesbian and gay people of the same gender, and we are more likely to live in poverty (Badgett et al. 2013; Albelda et al. 2009; Badgett et al. 2007), despite being less likely to be out at work—though it’s hard to say exactly what that means, when people routinely ignore or deny our own identity claims.  By the same token, we are less likely to be out to our healthcare providers (San Francisco Human Rights Commission 2011).

All the scary numbers that LGBTQ groups use to drum up support include bisexual and pansexual people.****  But those groups rarely direct any of that support towards us, even though bisexual and pansexual and otherwise non-monosexual people make up a majority of the US LGB community (Herbenick et al. 2010).  They very rarely acknowledge that on more and more measures, as researchers begin to distinguish in data collection and analysis between lesbian and gay people and non-monosexual people, it is becoming apparent that bisexual and pansexual people are doing worse than lesbian and gay people.

To add insult to injury, when we’re in different-gender relationships, many people call those relationships “straight.”  They tell us that we may be queer (maybe), but we have straight privilege so we shouldn’t start thinking we have problems.

There are certainly social and institutional advantages to being in (perceived) different-gender relationships, particularly those that are legally recognized as marriage by the state.  But of course, there are also advantages and privileges conferred by being White, cisgender, middle- or upper-class, abled, thin… For some reason, though, few people in the mainstream “LGBTQ community” would suggest that White cisgender middle-class gay men’s queerness somehow counts less because they have race, cisgender, class, and gender privilege.  (I owe this general line of analysis to Emi Koyama, who breaks it down brilliantly in reference to racism and trans exclusion in feminist and LGB communities.)

Nobody says that closeted lesbian and gay people have “straight privilege.”  In some cases, they may suffer from internalized homophobia, but the key word there is “suffer.”  Most of us would accept that even closeted conservative politicians, who may hurt more vulnerable queer people very badly indeed, are to some degree hurting themselves, toonot to excuse their actions, but to understand them as including self-harm.

Bisexual and pansexual people, so often forced into closets whether we like it or not, do not have “straight privilege.”  We may occupy a lot of privileged positions in our lives, but that isn’t one of them.  Biphobia does not benefit us.  Erasure is never a privilege.

 

III.

When I teach Intro to LGBTQ Studies, we talk about identity, community, and how social context necessarily shapes these things.  We also talk about what it means to say that something is “socially constructed,” and perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t mean—in the words of Imogen Binnie, discussing gender as a trans woman:

“Eventually you cant help but figure out that, while gender is a construct, so is a traffic light, and if you ignore either of them, you get hit by cars. Which, also, are constructs.” (Nevada, p. 26)

So identity is a construct, but that doesn’t make it any less real.  Once you figure out how who you are, you can’t change it just because you’d rather be someone else.

We talk about “conversion therapy” and the “ex-gay” movement, and how harmful they are.  There’s a reason that virtually every major professional organization related to psychology and counseling, as well as the orld Health Organization, has denounced them: “conversion therapy” does not change sexual orientation, but it does cause increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.  The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks “conversion therapists” just as it does other prominent hate groups.

This isn’t news to most of my 18-22-year-old students, regardless of how they personally identify.  It makes sense to them that trying to force a person to fit a particular community’s idea of acceptable consensual sexuality—of acceptable personal identity—is ultimately ineffective and extremely damaging to the person in question in the meantime.

And yet, while my students find this intuitive and the evidence is in fact so compelling that some states have now criminalized “conversion therapy” when practiced on minors, I still hear from people like the woman who attended one of my talks about bisexual/pansexual inclusion in the classroom and approached me later to tell me, her voice never rising above a whisper, how she has hidden her current romantic relationship with a man because she knows that her “community,” made up primarily of lesbian women, would ostracize her if it were known that she is dating a man.  She knows because she has seen what happens when women who openly identify as bisexual or pansexual try to find a place for themselves there.  The community doesnt want them.

We know that attempts to force lesbian and gay people, even those who may seek out such attempts, to identify as straight are doomed to failure and that their mental health effects are negative and severe.  And yet, when I talk about how bisexual women experience an increase in mental distress when they move to areas with a relatively large “LGBTQ community,” many people are shocked.  They ask how and why that could possibly be.

If we know that “conversion therapy” is violence against lesbian and gay people, then we have to understand that the rejection of bisexual and pansexual people, the assumption that we are “really straight” or “really gay,” the conditional lesbian and gay acceptance of us only as long as we don’t actually have significant, visible different-gender relationships—all of that is violence, too.

We often lack community because the community that was supposed to be ours rejects and denies us—has in fact convinced many of us, just as I feared at 14, that what and who we are isn’t real.  Bisexuality and pansexuality are often rejected as fake or inadequate queerness: something we have to “grow out of” or “get over.”  Straight people tell us the same thing, certainly, but we’ve been taught to expect straight resistance to queer identities.  Many of us have had to learn on our own, painfully, that other queer people may resist our existence just as much.

That withholding of community, that refusal to acknowledge our identities as something other than veiled straightness or gayness, that ultimate understanding of us as, for one reason or another, not to be trusted on even our own selves, isn’t so different from “conversion therapy” and the worldview that embraces it.  It breaks us down and leaves us more vulnerable to institutional and personal abuse.  It teaches us that we are fundamentally unlovable, unacceptable, unworthy.

We are real.  And we need our queer family, too.

 


*I use the term queer here as an umbrella term and because I have often felt most comfortable with it myself.  I recognize that not everyone under the LGBT umbrella feels comfortable with the word or would self-identify with it.

**While it pains me to use language centered around non-membership in another group, there’s little agreement on a good blanket term at the present time.

***Please note that when I reference specific research studies, I often restrict my claims to bisexual people, or only bisexual women; this is because the limits of these studies require it.  “Pansexual” and other non-monosexual identity labels are not typically used by researchers, just as for a long time, bisexual people were not analyzed separately from lesbian and gay people.

****They also include trans people, and similarly often fail to provide any resources or support to actual trans people.  I hesitate to draw too many comparisons here because I don’t want to equate bi/pan experiences with trans experiences.

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