* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We need to move past heteronormative, binary ideas of how people should be and understand those sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions are as diverse as us"
Rawa Karetai is chair of the Bisexual Committee at ILGA World and Luz Elena Aranda is co-secretary general of ILGA World
“Well, you’d have to choose now: is it men or women? Is it this gender or the other? You don’t get to like more than one, you know?” Every person who identifies within the bisexual spectrum, and is out about their sexual orientation, probably has an apparent memory of hearing these words for the first time, and then many times again. It is a piercing, reiterated sting.
Trusting someone enough to come out to them, and hearing in return that picking a side is supposed to be compulsory, is unfortunately all too common. The world expects us to choose and be done with it, as if recognising in ourselves the capacity to form a physical, romantic, and emotional connection to the same, another or more than one gender would be a reprimandable attempt to mix apples and oranges. A binary vision of the world – even when it comes to attraction to others - is so ingrained that society frowns upon everything falling outside of it, or meets it with downright hostility.
Of course, we know that the reality is more diverse than that: bisexual, pansexual and queer identities are an essential part of the LGBT+ global family, and Bisexual Awareness Week is here to celebrate them, educate others and accelerate acceptance and recognition – even within our communities. It is always a glorious and empowering moment. Still, we know that it only scratches the surface of what needs to be done to support a community that continues to remain largely invisible.
At the core of biphobia lies the preconception that bisexual people may choose to suppress their non-heterosexual part to live free of discrimination, or that they might be faking their queerness to "seek attention" as if they would only be "tourists" in queer spaces. Assuming that people can and should "pick a side", however, is a form of discrimination in itself: what others may perceive as an innocent request to conform to binary norms of attraction has, in reality, far-reaching consequences.
A 2013 study showed that only 33% of bi women and a mere 12% of bi men in the United States say most or all of the critical people in their lives know of their sexual orientation – a staggering difference from the 77% for gay men and the 71% for lesbian women.
Invisibility and erasure have consequences: studies conducted across the world tend to concur that bisexual persons suffer from poorer mental and physical health outcomes compared to their peers. Minority stress can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse and sexual risk-taking. Being used to judgemental attitudes and a lack of understanding, people may feel less able to access psychological support.
And yet, despite working against considerable stigma, the bisexual community has continued to push for change and demand visibility, first and foremost. Slowly but steadily, narratives have begun shifting: media are increasingly offering positive representations of bisexuality; popular culture has opened up spaces for role models to come forward. Much as for other populations, the Internet has connected isolated individuals and communities worldwide, contributing to bust myths and to start conversations.
For example, an article about Mwanga II Basammula Ekkere - a bisexual king ruling in Uganda in the 19th century – helped frame the debate on the impact that colonisations had on sexuality. Visibility for bi people has become political.
Yet, visibility cannot be the one-size-fits-all answer. Awareness of bisexual, pansexual and queer lived realities and experiences must be raised at all levels of society if we want to witness actual change.
But change goes even deeper than that: we need to move past heteronormative, binary ideas of how people should be and understand those sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and sex characteristics are as diverse as us - and they are all equally valid. Busting binary categories is how we will dismantle prejudice, and truly value and celebrate bisexual, pansexual, and all people in our communities every day.
Our identities are not up for debate.