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Three levels of bi erasure

I’m thinking let’s talk more about bi erasure. Here, I attempt to put into everyday language some ideas from Kenji Yoshino’s excellent essay on the subject, The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure (PDF).

Illustration: a hand with a rubber labelled "bi erasure" is rubbing out the B of "LGB".

The under-representation of bi people is often spoken of in terms of “bi invisibility”. September 23, International Celebrate Bisexuality Day, is also known as Bi Visibility Day.1

But as Marcus of the Bisexual Index said earlier this year in a good rant:

Bisexuals are not invisible. We are erased. Invisibility is an active effort – making oneself hide or taking on a disguise. We aren’t doing that. We’re being deleted.

Yes! Here I am, all year round. And I’m not misreading myself as straight or gay. If I’m not visible as bi, it’s because other people are assuming things.

Erasure and stigma connects up with why bi people, on average, do worse on a lot of health & social measures than straight people, and worse even than lesbian & gay people.2

Marcus went on to ask:

But what can be done about it?

I’ve been thinking about this.3

What I would like to encourage is: more and more, we phase out talking in terms of “bi invisibility” (except where that really is the only way of putting it which makes sense), and more and more, describe things in terms of “bi erasure” instead.

I’m not saying that’s The Answer That Will Solve Everything. I just think it’s heading in a good direction. I think it helps to make more visible the processes of erasure… which I suspect is likely to help with challenging and undoing them.

A key resource

A valuable resource in this area is Kenji Yoshino‘s paper The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure (PDF).4 This dates from 2000.

For some reason, I never found out about it at the time. And then when I did, I was like “wow, this is excellent, why did I never see it before?!”

I suspect probably part of why it’s not more famous is that it’s quite long, and written in academic style. It includes a fair bit of “carefully step by step making the argument watertight”, in keeping with its original legal-research context.

Ever since I first read it, I’ve had in mind that a helpful next move would be: distil out some key bits and put them into more ordinary language. This would help us to start deploying the ideas more often – in bi politics, and potentially also in other areas where erasure is a factor. And that’s what this post is mostly for!

Before I get onto that, a quick tangent: Bi-specific erasure isn’t the only source of bi invisibility. Queerness in general is erased at times (“the love which dare not speak its name”). There are also social rules limiting all discussion of sexuality.

These other factors are worth thinking about too. But here, I’m focusing on the types of erasure which affect bi people in particular.

Yoshino’s 3 levels of bi erasure

In Yoshino’s analysis, there are 3 levels of bi erasure. They work in a kind of layered stack, so that if one fails, the next one activates. Putting them into everyday language:

  1. There’s no such thing.

  2. OK, then, there is, but you’re not one of them.

  3. OK then, you are – and here’s what’s wrong with you and your kind.

Yoshino calls these, respectively, “class erasure”, “individual erasure” and “delegitimation”.

You’ll notice that the third one, “delegitimation”, isn’t exactly a type of erasure in itself. Its main role in the overall system of erasure is to make it less safe for people to challenge the first two.

More than one of these “levels” can be operating at the same time. But first I’m going to zoom in on each one separately.

1. Class erasure: There’s no such thing

Class erasure can be either explicit (said in words) or implicit (e.g. via words you avoid saying).

Explicit class erasure is things like “bisexuality doesn’t exist“.

Oh, honey. Nobody’s really bi. People just say that until they figure things out. So which is it gonna be?

- gay friend in inadvertentfeminist’s story of growing up bi, well worth a read.

Other good examples include this set of quotes, and some well-known badly-done research about bisexual men.

Implicit class erasure is people repeatedly leaving out the word & idea “bisexual” where it would make sense to include it. “Blah blah gay and straight”, “heterosexual and homosexual”, “gay and lesbian”.

This way of talking and thinking links up with mistaken logic such as: “Is so-and-so gay?” “No, he’s straight – I know his girlfriend”. Or “Is so-and-so gay?” “Yes - I’ve met his boyfriend”.

Unintentional, unthinking erasure of this implicit kind is very common in present-day mainstream culture. It’s even done by bi people ourselves by accident sometimes. It can take work to unlearn the habit: first, making a conscious decision not to erase / forget / ignore bi people any more, and then practising and failing, failing and practising, till it becomes more usual to remember.

The idea “Bisexuality is fashionable” can arguably also fit into the “class erasure” level, even though it doesn’t erase bisexuality 100%. “Bisexuality is fashionable” says something like: “Bisexuality can exist, but only temporarily, so we needn’t count it properly”, or “People in this category are only playing, not for real”. That kind of erasure doesn’t entirely rub out the category; instead, it makes it kind of wobbly and unsatisfactory, in contrast to lesbian, gay and straight which are shown as “real”.

Yoshino says about that:

A more subtle strategy of implicit class erasure is the description of bisexuality as “bisexual chic” … As the phrase suggests, bisexuality is here made visible as a phase, fashion, or fad – its appearance is inscribed with its imminent disappearance.

2. Individual erasure: You’re not one of them

Examples of individual erasure include:

  • When the other person reckons they know you better than you know yourself. “But don’t you think you’re just a bit confused?”

    She told me that I was a fake and was lying about who I was. … I felt so uncomfortable that I decided to repress myself and never talk about it, never look at other girls and whenever I felt something for them, send those feelings to the back of my head, because I thought I didn’t deserve to like them if I also liked men.

    - Nadja, in comments at Empathize This

  • The idea that you have to “prove” your bisexuality by having some particular sexual history – e.g. people nosily questioning “so have you ever been with a woman?”, and/or talking as though it’s up to them to decide whether your history “counts”.

    Two "stick people". Person on left says "I wanted to tell you something, as a friend...". Person on left says "I'm bisexual!" Bi person looks happy. Friend looks puzzled and has a question mark over their head. Friend says "Hold on a minute..." Friend is rummaging in a cupboard. Friend is now sitting behind a sort of posh table and settling a Judge's wig onto their head. Bi person is taken aback. Friend dressed as a judge says "So... tell me your evidence for thinking that...", while smiling. Bi person looks sad. Friend, still sitting in judge's role, looks pleased with themself.

  • As one variety of that, the idea that only a sexual history with equal numbers of women and men is enough to “prove” someone’s bisexuality – never mind what opportunities you’ve actually been offered in reality, or how you feel.

  • Rewriting or mislabelling bi characters in fiction.

    an upcoming television adaptation of Constantine‘s adventures will portray him as straight.

    - Owen Duffy writing recently about bi erasure in fiction and in life

  • Labelling famous and/or historical figures as gay or lesbian, when in fact they’ve had other-sex relationships which were evidently important to them, and they didn’t use those words themselves.

    (I’ve written already about what happened when Tom Daley fell in love with a man and dared to not immediately box himself into the box labelled “gay” – how keen other people were to do it for him. Whether or not Tom D would’ve eventually chosen that label himself, other people doing it for him is bi erasure at work.)

  • When gay & lesbian people refer to bi people as “allies”, implying that we’re really straight.

  • And one of the most common: Suggesting that someone’s bisexuality is a passing phase, linked with immaturity, cowardice or lack of insight. “You’ll grow out of it”, “one day you’ll come out properly“, “sitting on the fence”, “bi now, gay later”.

    (In reality, that road goes both ways: some people are “gay first, bi later”. This change can arise from realising you’re feeling an attraction you never expected to feel. Or it can simply be that calling yourself gay feels safer or easier at first for whatever reason – indeed, possibly because of bi stigma. Monique Thorpe and J C Bernthal have recently written about this firsthand.)

    Self-described bisexuality is thus seen not as a stable individual identity but a place from which a stable monosexual identity is acknowledged or chosen. …

    The belief that bisexuals are protohomosexuals is a particularly prevalent one among gays.

These common moves don’t erase the whole idea of bisexuality. But they continually, relentlessly, undermine people’s ability to claim it and have their claim acknowledged.

Individual erasure also contributes to class erasure: the fewer people “allowed to count” as bi, the smaller the group. (By some “definitions”, almost no-one qualifies.)

3. Delegitimation: Here’s what’s wrong with you and your kind

Examples of delegitimation include:

  • Words such as “greedy” and “traitor”: these are not normally compliments.

  • Deciding that the “right” number of people to have sex with is “not very many, and definitely only one at a time”, plus assuming that bi people all have lots of sex with lots of different people, or at least want to. This links us with stigmatised terms such as “promiscuous” and ”slut”.

  • Talking about bi people as transmitters of HIV from “dirty” men to “pure and innocent” women.

  • The idea that we’re naturally unreliable, untrustworthy, “unable to commit”.

The more these stereotypes are “how people will see you”, the less safe it is to come out or speak up.

I feel incredibly sad and hopeless when gay and lesbian people call me insulting names. If gay and lesbian people don’t understand me – having been on the receiving end of hate themselves – then how will anyone else understand? … Pride is supposed to be a celebration, but it hasn’t been for me on many occasions.

- @applewriter‘s story at Empathize This, Prejudice at Pride

Combinations

One word or situation can include more than one of these ingredients. Examples:

  • “Confused” and “greedy” are put-downs (level 3).

    Each of them can also be used to brush away bisexuality as a valid label to choose: “you’re just greedy”, “you’re just confused”.

    “Just”?

    With the word “just”, the sentence is swopping out the category “bi”, and swopping in the label “greedy”. It’s as if to say “There are no bisexuals as such, only greedy people”. So I think these accusations can be a subtle kind of individual or class erasure (levels 2 & 1), on top of the more obvious put-down.

  • The idea that bi people are “latecomers” to gay liberation. This can be a kind of put-down, suggesting we’re lazy and ungrateful (level 3) – we “haven’t done the work but want the rewards”. But it originates from the erasure of bi people from history (level 2), or the erasure of their bisexuality (level 2), or telling gay liberation stories as if bisexuality didn’t exist then (level 1).

    For example, Brenda Howard was a Gay Liberation Front activist in the US, and one of the original inventors (back in 1970) of what we now know as “Pride”. Many people either have never heard of her at all, or didn’t know that she was also one of the leaders & creators of bi community activism in her day.

  • “Pick a side” could be implying the “bisexual side” isn’t good enough (level 3), or that the person is “lagging behind” normal development (level 3). Or it could be implying there simply isn’t a bisexual side (level 1).

I like the idea of, when we encounter bi erasure, stopping for a moment to analyse which levels are at play, and getting more familiar with the way it works as a system.

What’s driving it?

Often it’s bi and gay people getting lumped together, and experiencing similar oppressions. So it could seem odd that mainstream culture and gay culture hold similar stereotypes about bi people. Why is it that both groups tend to edit us out of the picture in strangely similar ways?

Yoshino’s essay includes some theories about that – including that for gay people, bisexuality complicates the neat political justification of “We were born this way, we can’t help it”.

The phrase “epistemic contract” means the ways in which mainstream culture and lesbian & gay communities “seem to agree” about ways to erase and stigmatise us (even though not all the motivations overlap).

For now, I’m not going to get into the various reasons people might have for feeling uncomfortable about our existence. For now, I’ll just flag up that there are incentives for not recognising and not acknowledging us. It is often easier for people to refuse to deal with how we mess up people’s neat and wrong ideas about the world. So the system of erasure didn’t just come from a little mistake, and people won’t necessarily respond with “oh oops, very sorry, will always remember and include you in future”.

In other words, it’s not the kind of thing which is likely to reverse instantly or quickly. But noticing what’s happening is always a good foundation.

Hopes for what next

What I’d like to see going forward is an increasing number of us feeling increasingly confident in pointing out when bi erasure is happening. With or without the level of detail described here, I think there’s something powerful about naming it.

Every time we redescribe invisibility in terms of the erasure which led to it, we re-focus on how things got to be this way… and maybe also on solutions.

My favourite writing from this year’s ICBD included this:

Bi Visibility Day isn’t about bisexuals having to out ourselves. It’s asking people to look around & set aside assumption of gay or straight

- @bisexualindex

And this:

Assume people are straight until you ‘suspect’ they’re gay? Today, just for today, consider all strangers bisexual

- @bisexualindex

Those invite people to notice the so-called “invisibility” where it is: in the eye of the beholder.

1. “International Celebrate Bisexuality Day” vs “Bi Visibility Day“: In fact, reading online stuff on the day this year, I was noticing that “Bi Visibility Day” currently seems to be considerably more popular than the original name. Perhaps that’s partly because it’s shorter for hashtagging… perhaps also because it lends itself to ironic jokes about superpowers and suchlike :-)

2. Doing worse on average: See The Bisexuality Report (UK) and Understanding Issues Facing Bisexual Americans (USA). The statistical differences are a pretty good hint that bi people aren’t actually “only oppressed when acting gay”, or “only half as oppressed as gay people”.

3. A coincidence: Oddly enough, the very day I saw Marcus’s rant, I’d just that morning put the Yoshino article handy, thinking “I want to read through this again before I write about it”. Maybe this means that noticing & reversing bi erasure is an idea whose time has come? :-)

4. Thanks to Kenji Yoshino for doing the useful thinking I’ve drawn on here, and thanks to everyone else who’s been writing about bi erasure – and thanks readers for reading this!

Here, have an index…
Three levels of bi erasure
A key resource
Yoshino’s 3 levels of bi erasure
1. Class erasure: There’s no such thing
2. Individual erasure: You’re not one of them
3. Delegitimation: Here’s what’s wrong with you and your kind
Combinations
What’s driving it?
Hopes for what next

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