Bisexuality and Pansexuality- Homogenizing QUeer Narratives
One night when I was 17 years old, I found myself crying in the kitchen of my friend’s 18th birthday party.
I had quite recently discovered that someone who had been a parental figure, a mentor, a friend and even a love interest for me when I was 14-15 was (unsurprisingly, given the amalgamation of these factors), a paedophile. It was a difficult situation for me to process and, after a couple of drinks, the feelings had spilled out against my will. I had found a quiet corner in which to let my emotions pass when my friend’s father approached me, seeming concerned.
Her father informed me that he knew why I was “so unstable” right now. Vulnerable and distressed, I stayed silent as he informed me that I was upset and volatile because of my sexual orientation. He was, of course, alluding to an incident he witnessed where his daughter had kissed me at a previous party and I had reciprocated the interest. He explained to me that I would never feel truly stable and happy until I “chose to either date boys or girls.” I finally tried to explain to him why I was feeling so upset- an act of emotional labour which only served to drain me more- but he wouldn’t listen. To him, my anxiety and trauma could only be resolved by me “maturing and choosing one gender or another”.
This is a story which, for many queer individuals, will be unpleasantly familiar. Questions surrounding the authenticity and validity of queer identities are pervasive throughout much anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, but this questioning of authenticity and validity can occur within the LGBTQ+ community too- we see this in bi and pan erasure.
The erasure of bisexual and pansexual individuals can manifest in multiple forms- largely, this erasure centralises around accusations of impermanence (the suggestion that an individual will eventually ‘pick a side’) and sexual promiscuity- which is often tied to presumptions of immaturity. The stereotype of the confused, sexually overt and/or morally defective bisexual is everywhere in our media and entertainment- The Body is Not an Apology have written an excellent article on bisexual stereotypes and good examples of well-represented bisexuals in television, which I strongly recommend. Bisexuality and, to a lesser extent (due to a lack of visibility), pansexuality, have often been used to create a spectacle of characters instead of providing any depth to them- the supposed deviance and taboo nature of their behaviour was utilised to invoke awe, amusement, or arousal. I’m sure I’m not the only bi/pan individual who has been inappropriately propositioned for a threesome (after all, my ability to be attracted to more than one gender must mean that I exist for the pleasure and the gaze of a man).
I wanted to write a more personal piece on bi erasure and pan erasure because, as a pansexual person, it is a term that I’ve had to use as an asterisk upon my coming out narratives- I came out as bisexual to my family, because at 15 I feared that the nuances of gender variance would only serve to invalidate my claim as I tried to assert my identity. It was one battle to come out; another battle entirely to deconstruct the myth of the gender binary with my relatives. At 23, I feel the anxiety of potentially having to come out again- I have been involved with women and other non-males since my teens but have only been in long-term relationships with men since my first real break-up with my girlfriend at 16. Existing as a bisexual or pansexual person can feel like spinning a plate- you will have to continually assert that you are queer enough through your involvement with or interest in other people in order to for your identity to not be deemed a phase.
For other individuals under the ‘bi’ and ‘pan’ terms, such as biromantics and panromantics, this assertion of identity can be even harder. Even within the queer community, many of us demand the consummation of queerness through sexual acts in order to validate that individual’s identity- but many of those who would expect this consummation would be deeply offended by the suggestion that our virginal selves were never truly gay or lesbian. There is a presumption within both gay and lesbian and heteronormative circles about what an authentic and valid queer narrative looks like; the sequence of events and realisations which must occur in order for an individual to be deemed ‘queer enough’. Introspection and self-assessment must lead to a period of exploration and discovery, which is often expected to be sexual in nature. After a transitional period from presenting as a straight individual and through a period of doubt, anxiety and even shame, an individual appears on the other side, unequivocal in their queerness with a certainty about being attracted to one specific gender. Perhaps this attraction to one gender is deemed indicative of consistency or a disavowal of the gender they were ever expected to be attracted to.
The ability to be attracted to individuals of multiple genders is labelled as confusion at best- that interim period before ‘true queerness’ is achieved- and duplicitous at worst. The in-group out-group perspective some gay and lesbian individuals have towards bi and pan people can leave bisexuals and pansexuals feeling like traitors to their queer community when they become involved in ‘hetero-presenting’ relationships. This idealisation of a perfect queer narrative is used to gatekeep queerness for other individuals too- it is not just the hetero & cisnormative communities which expect transgender individuals to be able to ‘pass’ as their gender in order to be deemed valid. The completion of transition- from ‘straight’ to gay, from assigned birth gender to visibly and unmistakeably one’s true gender, is supposedly essential in order for that individual to be validated by hetero/cisnormative circles and queer circles. Anything transitional, intermediary, unquantifiable and resistant to categorisation is either not straight enough or not queer enough.
In presuming that attraction to one gender is reflective of mental stability, self-awareness and maturity, we not only dismiss the importance of that period of self-discovery that queer individuals go through as we navigate our identities as individuals existing outside of the norms of gender and sexuality, but we also assert our sense of self through how we share our emotions and bodies with other people. Queerness is not an identity which must reflected upon an individual through the body of a sexual or romantic partner- it germinates internally, organic and independent of the influence of others. The expectation that one must prove how queer they are through their engagement with another person is disempowering for all individuals within our community and undeniably plays a part in the erasure of asexual and aromantic individuals too. There is no ‘settling’ to be done for bisexual and pansexual people- we do not need to ‘choose a side’, or ‘make up our minds’- in the same way that no gay, lesbian or straight person loses their ability to be attracted to other people on some level simply because they are in a healthy and monogamous relationship with another person.
When we attempt to control the narrative of queerness we reduce it, homogenize it, strip it of dimensions and create a progression of events which is more palpable, more acceptable, for heterosexual audiences. Queerness has, as a concept, always found roots in being a resistance to those expectations. We, as a community, owe it to our bisexuals and pansexuals to honour and acknowledge the validity of their identities- as queer children, queer adolescents and queer adults. Bisexuality and pansexuality are not impermanent states of self-doubt; they are an honest expression of identity borne from the same introspection and engagement with the self which identifying as gay or lesbian requires. There is much to be done regarding how heteronormative society perceives bisexuality and pansexuality, and solidarity as a queer community will empower all of us to enact that change faster, for queer generations to come.