Bi identity: obstacles and paths

This article is adapted from a presentation I gave at the "LGBT Health Summit" in London on 19 June 2006. Thanks again to the organisers for inviting me to this fab event!


No-one really knows how many bisexual people there are in the world. But what we do know is that lots of bisexual behaviour goes on without the people ever calling themselves bi.

The tip of the iceberg is bi identity, the iceberg is bisexual behaviour

Am I saying that anyone with any kind of bi history ought to call themselves bisexual? No.
(a) Not everyone thinks about sexuality in the same terms as white Western culture, so a bi identity as we think of it would just be irrelevant to some people.
(b) Plus, as far as I'm concerned, it's everyone's privilege and responsibility to choose their own labels.

My theme here is the obstacles to claiming a bi identity, and how difficult that can sometimes be.

Obviously one factor to overcome is homophobia, which affects any kind of queer identity. But what about the obstacles specific to coming out as bi? Here are three key ones.

1. Binary boxes

The first obstacle stems from binary categories.

Women who fancy men go in one box; men who fancy women go in the other one

If straight men and straight women are the only categories in your model of the world, you're almost bound to be homophobic, or at least heterosexist. There is no place in this model for anyone other than straight people.

Then if someone doesn't fit one of these two boxes, the idea is they ought to at least pretend that they do, and not "flaunt it".

So some of the problems from that model got solved by inventing this model:

Four boxes:  gay men, straight men, gay women, straight women

Male or female, straight or gay, giving four categories in all.

It's probably fair to say that this is the default model in the UK in 2006 for thinking about sexual orientation. There are probably very few people, bi people included, who never find themselves thinking along these lines.

I remember my first night at my local bi-women's group: part way through I found myself trying to guess who was straight and who was gay. "Hang on a minute!"
I knew that the people there considered themselves bi, but somehow my brain was still working from the old categories.

So where is bisexuality in the 4-box model, and how does this model influence the ideas people have about it?

a) First of all, obviously: no box for us. Hence bi invisibility, and the one about how "bisexuals don't really exist".

b) You could put bisexuality along this line:

A line appears between the two boxes on the "gay side" and the two boxes on the "straight side"

Hey, we're "sitting on the fence"! Ho ho.

Not much room to move around there - it'd be a lot more comfortable in the boxes.

c) On the other hand, you can add together two of these boxes, and consider bisexuality as a "gay side" added to a "straight side":

Bi men are seen as gay men added to straight men;  bi women are seen as gay women added to straight women

That double-box model of bisexuality is behind a lot of stereotypes.

And so on.

So all in all, the 4-box model isn't very bi-friendly.

There are two ways in particular that this prevailing model can manifest as an obstacle to bi identity.

One is the way it informs other people's responses. If you call yourself bi, you're almost certain to run into people who either simply don't believe you, or they'll helpfully explain to you that you're only bi temporarily, along the way to fitting into one of the real identities.

The other way is that to whatever degree you've got this model yourself, you're not going to be even thinking about claiming a bi identity in the first place. Your attention's going to be on trying to work out whether you're gay or you're straight.

2. The 50/50 fantasy

The second obstacle is a stereotype which you might call the "50/50 fantasy".

On the scales, 50% attraction to women balances with 50% attraction to men

This stereotype says that you only count as "really bi" if your attractions to women and men are in some way equal - 50/50.

Maybe you have the same history with women and men. Maybe you're seeing a woman and a man at the same time. Or maybe if you balance a certain number of shags against being in love, it somehow comes out the same.

As soon as it's, like, 40/60, you've either gone straight or you should be coming out as gay.

On the scales, 60% attraction to women tips the scales over to one side

On the scales, 51% attraction to men tips the scales over to the other side

And even at 49% versus 51%, you might question a bit whether you really qualify. (Well, OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit there.)

So in this world view, there are bi people, but the qualifications are so strict that hardly anyone qualifies to be one!

And the fantasy is that the "real bi people" meet this 50/50 criterion, and the rest of us don't qualify.

Only the 50/50 bi person is allowed to stand inside the tiny territory of bisexuality - everyone else is outside

Whereas in fact, I'd draw the UK out-bi community more like this:

A dotted line surrounds many people with different degrees of preference for women or men, and others are outside

It includes people with all kinds of different histories, and different reasons for calling ourselves bi.

Some people aren't thinking in terms of balancing a gay side and a straight side at all. They'd probably talk more in terms of qualities that attract them, regardless of gender.

Their model of "kinds of people" might be something like this:

Three figures: one labelled male, one labelled female and one without a label

Unlike the 2-box and 4-box ones above, this model can include people who identify as neither binary gender.

And if you want to know whom any of these people are attracted to, you know you have to ask them. You can't just go "Oh it's two blokes together, that means they're gay".

A dotted line surrounds many people with different "percentages" of preference for women or men, and others are outside

Also, in my "map" of the bi community, you can see that the boundary to the identity and the community is permeable and not really policed. At bi events, it tends to be that what people care about isn't "how bi are you", it's "are you bi-friendly".

Of course some of our partners are lesbian, gay or straight, and they're also in a sense part of the community.

3. Political meanings and messages

The third key obstacle comes from the social and political meanings you associate with the various identities. What message are you sending by claiming that identity? And what message do you want to be sending?

That question as a whole is relevant to anyone coming out as anything. The obstacle is a stereotype whereby bisexuality is only about sex, and inherently apolitical.

Obviously, I disagree.  :-) Of course identifying as bi is a political statement.

But if you want to make a political statement, and you think a bi identity is a purely sexual statement, you're probably going to look elsewhere.

And if you've already developed a Lesbian or Gay identity which means far more to you than who you have sex with, then moving away from that could be a great loss if it weren't replaced.

So I've named three obstacles:

And yet...

But despite all those obstacles, and homophobia, and all the other obstacles, amazingly enough some people do identify as bi.

I'll briefly name two factors which help to make that possible.

1. Good information

First: good information. Getting past the stereotypes into the real lives of the out-bi people - whether that be in person or via writing.

See for instance
Bi Community News, the UK's magazine
BiCon, the UK's annual bi conference/convention
BiFest, a one-dayer which like BiCon migrates around the UK

Map of the UK showing locations of past bi events

... or some of the many books* on bisexuality...

Half a dozen book covers featuring bisexuality

* note: there are lots more - this pic is biased towards my faves.

2. Reinvention/reclaiming

The second factor I'll name - which overlaps with the first - is reclaiming and remaking the bi identity for ourselves.

Personally I'm not a big fan of the word "bisexual". (See "Queer vs bi identity".) But if I'm going to be labelled bi, then I don't want to spend my energy rejecting that label - I'd rather reclaim it. And it's useful for finding some of the other people who think like me, even if they don't use the label themselves.

Finally, a quote. It's from a poem by Ann Decter in the book Plural Desires.

Straight, bent, curved.
How you fight not to betray yourself.
To be exactly who you are and make the definitions fit you, not vice-versa.

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Doing your own presentation using these graphics

In case you want to make up your own version of this talk, I'm also making available the main pages of the Powerpoint file I used when I was doing it, containing the above graphics invented by me. Anyone is welcome to download it and use it for bi-educational purposes.

As it stands, the Powerpoint file also contains some blank pages (for the talking in between illustrations), a collage of Bi Community News covers (whereas here I've simply linked to the BCN site itself), and a credit page.

You can change it around, add bits or skip bits if you want - just please make sure that at some point you include the credits that come at the end.

Powerpoint file with graphics for bisexual identity talk (713kb)

(Note that it was actually prepared using OpenOffice, and will work fine in that too, although I've saved it in PowerPoint format here.)

If you do that, I'd also be interested to get email about how your presentation went. Good luck!