Everyone makes assumptions. We make assumptions about everyday things like our cars starting in the morning, the subway making us late to work, or the restaurant we frequent having our favorite dish on the menu. When it comes to people, though, we have an impulse to assume who they are based on virtually anything: tattoos, interests, clothing, hairstyle, skin color—you name it. Those same kinds of assumptions play into our perceptions of a person’s attraction orientation or sexual identity. And these are the kinds of assumptions that have made Bisexual Awareness Week (September 19 – 26) necessary.
More often than not people will assume they know your sexual identity based on who you’re with and what you’re doing with them. Even more so, you’re assumed to be either straight or gay based on those factors. A classic case is the National Football League’s Odell Beckham, Jr., a wide receiver for the New York Giants. Social media has gone viral with chronicles of his very playful, traditionally non-heteronormative activities like dancing with his male friends, hanging out with them in hot tubs, and having tickle fights in the most unapologetically joyous way possible. However, the backlash he’s experienced from these expressions of joy and comfort with himself call into question his sexual identity; it’s deemed “suspect”—in other words, suspiciously gay. But he could just as likely be bisexual, or simply a straight man not bound by traditional expressions of masculinity.
This kind of reaction is never limited to unapologetic expressions of camaraderie and joy, such as Beckham’s. When someone is seen being affectionate with someone of the same gender or sex, the question raised is invariably whether they’re straight or gay—but seldom (if ever) whether the subject of curiosity is bisexual. This raises a huge issue with bisexual folks because our visibility becomes inherently tied to who we are with. This assumption in the perception of other people contributes to the ongoing issue of erasure that bisexual people experience in social interactions.
In my own experiences as a Bi+ black man (”Bi+” being the designation I use to express inclusion of people who do not adhere to the gender binary), I have been assumed to be gay by many of my family and friends simply because of my attractions and relationships (and even because of some friendships). On the other side of this, I’ve been told by people who know I’m bisexual that I’m the first person they know to “do bisexual identity right,” after taking note of my involvement with folks of the opposite sex and/or gender. In other words, to their eyes, my bisexual identity is validated by the fact that they have seen me be affectionate with women. This is just as problematic as the assumption made by others that I’m gay, because it hinges on this idea that, in order to be visible, bisexuals have to habitually exhibit their sexual identity for the world to see.
The demand for this kind of hard-evidence-based proof of someone’s attraction orientation puts Bi+ folks on the back burner not just socially, but politically as well. Instead of being viewed as an independent community, bisexuals have been served as an identity attached to the broader LGBTQ community. Many independent communities within the LGBTQ community (including intersex and asexual people) fall prey to the phenomenon that I call “rainbow-washing.” Rainbow-washing is the explicit pioneering of causes and conversations by the gay community. Three classic examples are “Gay Marriage” (more appropriately, same-sex marriage), “Lesbian/Gay & Bisexual” (statistically speaking, Bi+ folks outnumber gays and lesbians), and WSW (women who have sex with women) & MSM (men who have sex with men). This adds up to a kind of political and social belligerence that muscles other communities to the back of the line, Bi+ folk especially.
Even in the fields of sexual and reproductive health, and HIV studies, most empirical data concerning bisexuals is reduced to a tagline appended to research on lesbians and gays. Statistically, bisexuals experience higher rates of mental illness (especially depression and anxiety), higher rates of suicide, and higher rates of sexual assault compared to our monosexual counterparts. However, studies will describe the cohort being studied as “Lesbian/Gay & Bisexual,” when in reality it’s always going to be the case that the needs and experiences of each constituency are distinct and different.
Rainbow-washing Bi+ folks under the rhetoric of gay politics only contributes to the political agenda of the gay community, stealing the opportunity for Bi+ folks to effectively take a political stance for the needs of their own community. The fact of the matter is that the gay community is ill-fitted to do such things. Just as the trans community could not stand for Michelle Rodriguez (an openly bisexual actor) to play a role meant for a trans actor, the Bi+ community cannot stand for the pioneering of our needs by the gay community.
A fundamental dignity and right of each community within the LGBTQ+ community is to not be curtailed to the coat tails of the gay community. In honor of Bisexual Awareness Week, it is imperative that we assure that the resources and needs of Bi+ folks are met in listening to our voices, our stories, and dismantling the way we view sexual identity as something determined by what we see. It is imperative to remember that Bi+ folk represent the fluidity and liberation of attraction and sexual identity; that, in my humble opinion, is what makes the Bi+ community truly revolutionary and more than worthy of celebration beyond Bisexual Awareness Week.