Agony aunts cause howls online…
Online magazine the Slate hit bi controversy this summer when “Dear Prudence” agony aunt column Emily Yoffe was asked for advice about coming out by a monogamous, married woman who had recently realised she was bisexual. The answer was unhelpful and ignorant – advising her to keep quiet about her sexual orientation unless she planned to leave her husband for a female partner.
The answer is aggravating on a number of levels.
“Let’s say you discovered a late breaking interest in plushophilia, or you now realized you were turned on by being a dominatrix.”
First, the way the article dismisses bisexuality as a niche interest like plushophilia or a titillating fantasy like a female dominant. (I am not dismissing any of those things, providing they are consensual but the sneering tone is pretty clear in the Dear Prudence column). Emily Yoffe also immediately links bisexuality to ‘sexual exploration’ even though the questioner is monogamous because of course, being bisexual is always and only about sex.
Binary ideas of gender and sexuality mean that lots of people assume a gay man is almost a different species from a straight man. This is not true and it is one of the things that makes coming out/changing your sexual orientation so confusing and stressful. But at least that view recognises that experiencing a change in sexual orientation is a profound change in how you see yourself. It can lead to many other changes in your life, even if it has no impact on your sexual behaviour. For me, it lead to a re-engagement with social and political activism. But to Emily Yoffe, if there is no sexual exploration happening, there is nothing happening and nothing to talk about.
“The rapidity with which society has accepted, even embraced, gay sexual orientation is a glorious phenomenon. But you are confusing your personal sexual exploration with a social imperative.”
Second, the advice pretends to be supportive of LGBT people but quickly orders us to shut up and stop banging on about it. There is a sense of world-weariness. Straight people are so bored of LGBT people talking about sexuality and homophobia. We are all SO enlightened now, we’ve all know about the LGBT thing, we are SO accepting now … and any negative reactions you receive must be your own fault for making so much fuss.
A gentler version of this is when people respond to someone coming out by saying it doesn’t matter and they don’t care. It’s well intentioned but misguided. It’s good to hear that the person’s feeling towards you have not changed but coming out is a big deal. It’s still a scary, homophobic/ biphobic/transphobic world out there and LGBT people can’t rely on our otherwise lovely friends, partners and colleagues being accepting of us. Coming out is an act of trust and that should be honoured.
“I agree with your husband that making a public announcement about something so private will not be illuminating but discomfiting.”
Thirdly – it seems significant that it is a married, monogamous woman who is told that she should keep quiet about her sexual orientation. There is a deep-seated cultural belief that a woman’s sexuality belongs to her male partner. Her talking openly about being attracted to someone else, even in theory, is taken as demeaning him and suggesting he is not able to satisfy her. I can’t help wondering if this is behind how uncomfortable Emily and her husband both seem to be about her talking about her sexuality at all.
Fourthly, it misses all the really useful discussion points on the subject of coming out. Is it safe to do so? Do you have support? You don’t need to come out to everybody and you don’t need to do it all at once. For some people, it is a private matter and they prefer not to discuss it unless it’s relevant and that’s OK too. It may be worth testing the waters first to determine how much homophobia/biphobia you will get and it’s definitely worth (I’d say) reading something like the Bisexual Index to prepare yourself for stereotypes and misconceptions you may have to deal with. At BiPhoria, we tend to recommend telling people in a low-key but positive way, rather treating as Terrible and Important News.
Finally, this socially-enforced closeting of bisexuals feels like a political act, even if Emily Yoffe is not aware of it. We know that bisexuals are marginalised in straight and LGBT spaces – less likely to be out to family or work, more likely to suffer mental health problems and addictions, less likely to access LGBT support services. There is biphobia and bi-erasure even in the comments to bi-positive articles in the LGBT press. The excuses given for this marginalisation are often that there are not many of us or that we are not visible compared to the gay and lesbian population.
This invisibility is maintained by insisting that there are legitimate ways to be a bisexual and failing to live up to these means you are not really bisexual. Being bisexual is relentlessly about what sex you are having with who. Being out as a bisexual is an offer to have your sex-life audited by strangers. You must have been sexually active with multiple genders or you cannot truly know your own identity. You must have sex regularly with people of different genders or you are assumed to have made up your mind and chosen a side. If you admit to a preference for one gender, you are really straight or gay. If you choose a straight partner after dating a gay or lesbian person, you must have been using them people for sex.
Handily, if you do conform to this version of bisexual acceptability, you fall into other traps. Sex-obsessed. Shallow. Unable to commit. Cheaters who cannot be trusted. Defined by our assumed promiscuity and therefore disease-spreaders. Being driven away from an unwelcoming LGBT scene is proof that you prefer the comfort of presumed heterosexuality. You become invisible to LGBT service providers who can’t be expected to market themselves beyond Pride. Whatever you do, it’s conveniently our own fault.
If you tell people that being bisexual is a bad, shameful thing and tell people that they can only identify as bisexual if they behave in certain ways then you will be able to prove that very few bisexual people exist and there is no need to provide them with support.
Can you tell this makes me angry? It does. I use that anger to motivate me to help create and support bisexual spaces where bisexual people can find acceptance, support and encouragement. I encourage bisexuals to speak out for themselves, as real, varied, complicated, individual people. As part of that mission, I come out to people, when I feel safe to do so. I encourage other people to come out, if it is safe to do so. I will not shame people who do not come out, who chose not to fight the battles I choose. Coming out and staying out as a bisexual is an act of bravery and Emily Yoffe’s barely hidden contempt for bi people shows why that bravery is still necessary.