Soon after I got together with my current partner, I met up with and old friend from mothers’ group at a playground. We’d been through a lot of milestones together. First teeth, first steps, first bout of postnatal depression. Like many other women who meet through mothers’ groups, we’d also spent a lot of hours commiserating about the impact of parenting on our relationships. She complained about her husband just as much as I did; but I guess she meant it less, because her marriage survived. Mine didn’t.
I wasn’t the first mum from our original group to split with my partner. But I was the first - I think, only - one to repartner with a woman.
Not wanting to be unsupportive, my friend told me she was keen to meet my partner. As we pushed our kids on the swings, she asked polite questions about her career and family. She said she was happy for me.
And then, she asked me if I was a ‘lesbian now’.
So I found myself in the middle of busy playground, dodgy errant toddlers and helping my daughter climb the rock wall, trying to explain my sexuality. ‘But if it doesn’t work out with your girlfriend, will your next partner be a man? Or a woman?’ she wanted to know. My response, that it could be either, didn’t satisfy. Other parents started to shoo their kids away from us, and we ended the conversation without reaching any understanding.
Bisexuality is still, in many spaces, taboo. Bisexuals are seen as predatory, promiscuous, untrustworthy, adulterous and confused. We’re vilified as fence-sitters, or just plain greedy. In my line of work I’m in contact with young people all day. It’s easier to reassure colleagues and parents that I’m respectable when I’m seen as a lesbian in a steady relationship. But if I try to describe myself as bisexual—well, for starters, it sounds more sexual. Strangely, it also sounds more mythical; there seems to be a societal paradox where bisexuals are assumed to be simultaneously dangerous and non-existent.
I’m not alone in feeling stressed about the stigma associated with bisexuality. Studies have shown that bisexuals experience poorer health outcomes than lesbian, gay and heterosexual people. In one such study, Oxford University researchers concluded that “bisexual women may be more likely to experience social stress due to the ‘double discrimination’ of homophobia and biphobia.” The researchers noted that even when people are not ‘out’—for example, if their current relationship is a heterosexual one—they may internalise negative feelings about their experiences of same-sex attraction. In fact, bisexuals who are in relationships with someone of a different gender can find themselves feeling quite alone, as they might not feel welcome at queer events but may also recognise that heteronormative spaces are painful to navigate. This was certainly my experience as someone who was invisibly queer for many years. There is a privilege in passing as straight, but there is a cost, too. The knowledge that you’re only being treated well, or equally, because part of your self is concealed is a difficult burden to carry.
Painfully, biphobia happens even in lesbian and gay spaces. As Rebecca Dominguez, president of Bisexual Alliance Victoria puts it, “bisexuals cop biphobia from all sides, from our own community and from straights... the reason it’s easier to identify as lesbian than bisexual is that lesbians don't get any homophobia from within the LGBTI communities.” What’s more, when we reveal our queerness to heterosexual people, outright hostility can be the result. One former acquaintance tried to taint my career opportunities by writing to my manager to out me when she found out that I was seeing a woman. In her mind, I had masqueraded as straight, and wrongfully gained her trust, when really I was naturally duplicitous. Thankfully my manager saw this attack for what it was; discriminatory and bigoted, and the letter was put in the bin. But not every queer person is as lucky as I was, and there is no doubt that coming out as bisexual can be a difficult process. That is, if we’re allowed to do it at all. Bi-erasure is still the norm.
Media reports of women who repartner with other women after a divorce generally call us ‘late in life lesbians’. Recent revelations that Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert is in love with her female best friend seemed to baffle many commentators, who couldn’t quite grasp that someone who had written about passionate love with a man could also come to passionately love a woman. I’m not sure how Elizabeth Gilbert identifies but, reading about her story, I couldn’t help but be frustrated that the possibility that she is (and has always been) bisexual was ignored by most journalists.
Times are changing. Advocacy groups like Bisexual Alliance, along with researchers, are helping to educate the LGTIQ community about the ‘B’ in the rainbow. Perhaps even more rapidly, young people are rejecting rigid sexuality labels and embracing fluid identities. Less than half of people under 20 identified as completely heterosexual in an oft-quoted 2016 study. It seems that admitting to attraction to more than one gender is no big thing for young people, just as embracing gender-neutral pronouns is increasingly accepted.
Odds are, those kids I was tripping over in the playground in my haste to explain my sexuality that day will never understand what all the fuss was about. Love is love, after all.
Elizabeth Sutherland is a Melbourne writer and teacher. Follow her @MsElizabethEDU