Bisexual Erasure – What it is, and how it can affect your mental health
Trigger warning: Biphobia and bi-erasure mentions, including harmful and false comments as well as statements taken from sources.
Bisexual is defined as “romantic or sexual attraction towards more than one gender.” Bisexuality might seem like a modern concept, but really it’s not. It’s been around for a long time, in many cultures, from the Ancient Greeks to Native Americans. Throughout history though, whilst bisexuality has existed, so has bisexual erasure. This can be documented back to Sigmund Freud, who once declared “A man’s heterosexuality will not put up with any homosexuality and vice versa.”
What is Bisexual Erasure?
Bisexuals make up over 52% of the LGBTQ+ community, however sadly despite this their experiences are often silenced by the public, media and even the queer community. Bisexual+ people will often talk about feeling stuck, being “too gay” for the straights, and “too straight” for the LGBTQ+ community.
As a result, we get bisexual erasure. According to The Bisexuality Invisibility Report, bisexual erasure “refers to a lack of acknowledgement and ignoring of the clear evidence that bisexuals exist.”
Over the years, especially in the early 2000s, the word ‘gay’ became synonymous with the things that most young boys are taught (by society) to fear: weakness, sensitivity, failure, lack of physicality. These harmful stereotypes made not just gay men fearful of their sexuality, it also affected bisexual men too. When a boy (especially one who everyone ‘assumed’ was gay previously) came out as bisexual+, many assumed he was in fact gay, but not ready to admit it. In a video titled ‘Basically I’m Gay‘ from 2019, Youtuber Daniel Howell described this experience in detail.
Young bisexual women are often labelled as “attention seekers” if they kissed another girl, and immediately deemed more promiscuous as well.
Here are some examples of how biphobia presents itself
- Mislabelling bisexual+ celebrities as lesbian, gay or heterosexual.
- Assuming that if a bisexual+ person is with a person presenting as a different sex that they’re straight, or if they’re with someone presenting as the same gender, that they’re gay.
- Denying that bisexuality exists as a legitimate orientation, such as saying “It’s just a phase.” Or saying that bisexuals are ‘experimenting’ before coming out as gay or straight.
Bisexuality (and biphobia) in the Media
Bisexuality is rarely properly represented in the media according to an article published in September 2020 in Men’s Health concluded with it’s “not easy to find a movie with bisexual+ characters” and even harder to find one “that offers a positive and authentic depiction of bisexuality.”
According to GLAAD’s ‘Where We Are on TV’ 2021-2022 report, bisexuals characters make up 29% of all the LGBTQ+ characters on broadcast, cable and streaming television. This is a 1% increase from the year before, however the number still “heavily favours women” with 124 bi+ women, compared to only 50 bi+ men, and 9 bi+ non-binary characters.
Despite a small increase in representation in the media, harmful tropes continue to exist, such as:
- Treating a character’s attraction to more than one gender a temporary plot device which moves an episode, or a short run of episodes, forward and is then never referenced again.
- Depicting bisexual+ characters as inherently untrustworthy, adulterous, scheming, obsessive or having self-destructive tendencies.
- Bisexual+ characters whose identities are treated as invalid by their romantic partners, a plot which has cropped up particularly around bi+ men who date women in recent years.
- Bi erasure, including bi characters and stories which are never explicitly labelled or discussed as bisexual. While some people do prefer not to use a label, the outsized number of bi+ characters who never get to own their own story or use a specific word for themselves (whether it be bi, pansexual, queer, fluid, or another) is a long-running problem in media.
Erasing bisexuality in the media is not only teaching those who watch it harmful messaging, it’s also invalidating a bisexual+ person’s experience with their own sexuality.
A well-known example of bisexual erasure was shown in TV show ‘Glee’, see below.
The Mental Health Consequences of Bisexual Erasure
Biphobia and biphobic comments are a form of stigma, and it’s well documented that any form of stigma is bad for mental health. According to the Mental Health Foundation, “Mental health problems such as depression, self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse and suicidal thoughts can affect anyone, but they’re more common among people who are LGBTQ+. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t cause these problems. But some things LGBTIQ+ people go through can affect their mental health, such as discrimination, homophobia or transphobia, social isolation, rejection, and difficult experiences of coming out.
A 2017 study published in The Journal of Sex Research showed that bisexual+ people have higher rates of anxiety and depression than heterosexual, lesbian, or gay people. The researchers determined that bisexual invisibility and erasure was one of the key potential reasons for this.
If bisexual erasure is itself erased, the isolation that many bisexual+ people feel could be reduced, lowering rates of mental health issues like depression.
The Mental Health Foundation also notes, “It’s important to note that embracing being LGBTQ+ can have a positive impact on someone’s wellbeing too. It might mean they have more confidence, a sense of belonging to a community, feelings of relief and self-acceptance, and better relationships with friends and family.”
How to Support Bisexual+ People and Combat Biphobia
One of the best things you can do the be an ally to bisexual people is to believe them. As discussed in this blog, bisexual+ people exist and all bi identities are valid.
Here are some other things you can do to support bisexual+ people:
- Make no assumptions about someone’s identity based on their current or previous partner(s). Take their lead on the language they use to identify themselves.
- Uplift and support marginalised bi people. BAME, trans and POC bisexual+ people are doubly underrepresented, erased and discriminated against.
- Use inclusive language. Think about who you’re talking about, you can easily erase bisexual+ people when using terms like ‘gay’ as a general term.
- Support bi organisations and campaigns, such as BiPhoria, Pride UK and Stonewall.
- Make sure your workplace, university or school is inclusive.
- Support bisexual people when they ‘fit the stereotype.’ Biphobia can become ever-present when, for example, a bisexual person has multiple romantic/sexual partners. This is seen as ‘proof’ of the ‘greedy bisexual’ stereotype and might be accused of making up their identity. Support your bi+ friends, affirm their lives and relationships.
- Celebrate bisexual people! Amplify bi+ people’s stories, engage with their content and give space for their experiences.
Bi+ people deserve the same respect, support, and visibility other members of the LG community receive. Their identities are valid, and as these common myths are deconstructed, their life experiences will get the visibility they deserve.
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