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Article • Bisexuality: Invisibility (as a) Means (to) Freedom

28 February 2018
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☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].

Translated by Karolina Roman

June 2017. Pride in Bordeaux is in full swing. As I approach one of the mobile kiosks, I notice that, although the bear and transgender pride flags hang next to the classic rainbow flag, the bisexual pride flag is nowhere to be seen. My curiosity piqued, I ask the vendor about it, who admits that he is not familiar with that flag.

I had similar experiences with all of the vendors at the event. This was not, however, the only thing to catch my attention: among the 2,000 – 5,000 participants attending the event, I counted approximately ten bisexual pride flags (Fonteneau, 2017). Were there no bisexual people at the event? I doubt it. According to the lastest extensive study on sexual behaviours, conducted by Contexte de la Sexualité en France in 2006, 4% of women and 4.1% of men between the ages of 18 and 69 say they have engaged in sexual behaviour with a person of the same gender, while 0.8% of women and 1.1% of men identify as bisexual (Bajos and Bozon, 2008). Quantifying such practices is, however, difficult, so it is important to be careful when citing figures on the subject (Grosjean, 2010). Nevertheless, one can wonder why bisexual culture—in sociology, “culture” is defined as “the set of behaviours, beliefs, and practices common to a particular society or social group” (Étienne et al., 2004)—seems so invisible. While awareness of gay men and women is on the rise in many countries (Lerch, 2013; Brancourt, 2017)—illustrated particularly by the acquisition of certain rights such as same-sex marriage—the topic of bisexual people seems to be strangely absent from the conversation. In this article, we will go beyond these collective issues and look at the causes of this invisibility and at how it is transcended by certain individuals.

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Bisexual pride flag.
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Some authors still consider bisexuality to be the “final taboo” (Mendès-Leite, 1996). It has thus far been absent from the “Sexual Revolution,” and its absence shines a light on certain areas of tension in our societies, especially when it comes to emotional exclusivity. I, however, put forth the hypothesis that bisexuality is not so much the “poor cousin” of the LGBT+ family (insofar as it has been excluded from its demands), but rather a window into the changes of conjugal and emotional bonds currently underway.

While conducting research at the University of Bordeaux in 2015 and 2016, I became interested in bisexualities, specifically, their place on the continuum between homosexuality and heterosexuality (Kinsey, 1948, 1953; Klein, 1993; Dusseau, 2015). My research began with a series of long biographical interviews with 28 individuals aged between 18 and 47, residing mainly in urban and suburban areas. A content analysis of these interviews revealed a high diversity in their romantic and sexual behaviours, oscillating between envisioned and fully embraced bisexuality, which varied considerably depending on the subject’s age and social context. Based on my research, I have found that a bisexual person is more likely to reside in cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants, as was the case for 58.6% of the women and 62.3% of the men in my study. They also seem to be more likely to be educated: 6.2% of women and 6.6% of men between the ages of 18 and 69 who say they have engaged in sexual behaviour with a person of the same gender are graduates from a post-secondary educational institution, compared to 3.5% and 2.4%, respectively, of people without a diploma of higher education. The core of the discussion in this article will be based on this study and, more precisely, on a qualitative analysis of the above-mentioned interviews.

The purpose of my article will be to demonstrate that if bisexualities are invisible (in terms of practices and identities), they are so for mainly historical reasons: they have merged into gay and lesbian movements, and they do not have their own set of clearly identified cultural references. This lack of strict framework, however, has allowed a number of individuals, who may or may not consider themselves to be bisexual, to construct their own sexual identity, which, in turn, has led to new ways of self-determination (Goffman, 1974).

The Unimportance of Coming Out as Bisexual

Coming out, or the act of voluntarily revealing one’s homosexuality, has long been a symbol of bisexual persons’ invisibility. This cultural practice, a way of asserting one’s identity in a very definite way, is widespread among gay men and women (Chauvin and Lerch, 2013). In fact, this social ritual can be as important to the person coming out, as to the people they are coming out to. It can also be a way of integrating oneself into a social movement, although the practice has evolved over time (Chauncey, 1994; 2002). But what about coming out as bisexual? According to one of our interviewees, a 41-year-old man living in a large urban area of France, the event is completely unnecessary:

“I don’t think you really need to come out as bisexual, the way gay and lesbian people do—and let’s not forget, not everyone does. [...] Here’s the thing (and this happens often): you walk into a gay association or a gay bar, and the first thing they ask you is if you’re “out.” ‘Cause if you aren’t, then you must not really be gay! Which is totally idiotic, just really dumb, right? Either you are, and you know it, or you’re not. No need for all that… It’s like a rite of passage everyone has to go through, almost like hazing at initiations [...] Like, sorry, but we need to stop forcing people into these things.” Man, 41 years old.

This testimony underlines the social importance of coming out as homosexual, but it does not address what role it plays for bisexual persons. What is more, since they have historically blended in with the gay and lesbian rights movements, there are very few organizations for the defense of bisexual rights in place. This can make it difficult for a bisexual person to feel connected to a group or collective that shares a history and struggle. These factors culminate to push bisexualities further into invisibility, which can be a difficult experience for bisexual persons searching to be a part of an existing normative and structured framework. Many of the interviewees do in fact report learning the rules and ways of “being bisexual” in isolation, without a group or social circle (Deschamps, 2002). For example, a man in his forties reported that although he recognizes the importance of such groups for some people, so as to not feel isolated, personally, he had not felt the need to join one. In fact, none of the other interviewees considered the lack of spaces where they could socialize and have their bisexuality acknowledged to have been a significant hurdle for them to overcome.

Bisexualities are therefore structurally invisible, especially in a society that values the duality between heterosexuality and homosexuality (Mendès-Leite, 1996), even monosexuality (Alarie, 2011).

Nonetheless, this invisibility is not always perceived as a disadvantage by the people interviewed. Rather, it represents a refusal to be pigeonholed.

Rethinking How We Assert Our Sexual Identity

My research led me to discover that the bisexual experience is highly variable, depending on age, social context, but also in terms of behaviour, which ranges from simple attraction or fantasy to sexual and romantic relations with persons of the same and other genders (Deschamps, 2002).

Given the difficulty of evaluating the full spectrum of bisexual behaviours and identities when faced with such diverse references, invisibility seems to be in order.

This invisibility seems to be experienced as individually as it is collectively—given how taboo bisexuality is in our societies (Alarie, 2011; Mendès-Leite, 1996). As far as individual invisibility is concerned, it does not seem to be a way for individuals to protect themselves from possible discrimination—although discrimination does occur (Degbe, 2017)—but rather a way to reappropriate the verbal expression of their sexuality, or their “said-xuality” (Deschamps, 2002). In doing so, a number of interviewees expressed that they did not feel the need to name what they consider to be a personal matter.

“So either bisexual people get this “bisexual” label without asking for it, or they were just doing the shit they wanted to without being bothered, and someone had to go and give them this… “Oh, you must be bisexual,” and they’re sitting there like, “Oh? Bisexual? Am I really?” All that just ‘cause they had some fling with two people of some other gender. And, like, all this stuff gets annoying for bisexual people, ‘cause suddenly, you’re walking on eggshells like an asshole thinking, “Ummm… And where does this person fit in?” Woman, 20 years old.

For most interviewees, feelings, attraction, and desires seem to be more important than a social label. This seems to be a delicate subject in the study of bisexualities. “Bi-said-xuality” (i.e. the verbal expression of one’s bisexuality), depends more on a person’s representation of themselves than on a movement that can speak on behalf of every person’s unique path. The work done by such organizations may have been recognized by the interviewed individuals, but those who do not subscribe to this militant framework do not seem at all bothered by some possible measure of invisibility:

“When a woman lives with a man, we don’t stop to ask ourselves if she could potentially fall in love with a woman. If she’s with a woman, we say she’s a lesbian, not that she could have been with a man. Obviously this makes bisexuality invisible, ‘cause it’s not written all over their face.” Woman, 41 years old.

Since we perceive monosexuality as the norm, people are de facto classified as lesbian or heterosexual and their bisexuality is rendered invisible. Nonetheless, the person interviewed did not seem to be uncomfortable with the state of things. They simply considered them matter-of-factly: their bisexuality is invisible not because it makes people uncomfortable, but because it is undetectable at first glance. Once more, a person’s bisexuality is invisible unless they choose to reveal it, which not all do. Invisibility can also be a matter of choice:

"I don’t feel like being treated like a “bisexual,” so I don’t say that I am. Very few people know that about me: only those who’ve seen me in action or with whom I’ve shared this aspect of myself. It’s not that I’m ashamed or feel like I have to hide it, I just don’t think that my sexuality is anyone’s business but my own.” Woman, 20 years old.

Easier Done Than Said

The passage from “being” according to a certain sexuality, specifically, behaving in line with one’s sexuality to “said-xuality,” is also a contributing factor to whether a person will express their sexual identity (Deschamps, 2002). Although sexualities used to be classified according to their “sexu-act-lity,” 19th century medicine has reappropriated the concept, classified and medicalized it, and given us sexual orientations as we know them today (Foucault, 1994). As a result, some intellectuals, like Karl Maria Kerbeny, jumped at the occasion to use the term “homosexuality” (Mengel, 2009), not to devalue the practice, but rather as what Florence Tamagne has called an “identity founding act” (Tamagne, 2012). This gave way to “said-xuality:” the necessity for individuals to verbalise their sexuality. The interviews conducted for this study have revealed that bisexual persons—who are free to navigate between behaviour, desire, and relationships with people of the same or another gender—do not seem to feel the need to define themselves in relation to the binary. It is in fact their duality, be it sexual or emotional, that they wish to have acknowledged, without necessarily advertising it. Seeing as the facets of this duality seem to be tied to their individuality and independence, acknowledgement can be described as social acceptance without the need for any particular type of advocacy. In this way, in the age of open expression (of one’s identity and relationships), invisibility is not necessarily a weakness, but can be a way of protecting oneself from potential discrimination and of remaining open to any and all relationship opportunities. In fact, few of the people interviewed believe they have really experienced discrimination.

The singularist character of bisexual trajectories highlights the difference between the historical approach taken to sexual minorities and the nuances that have been added to the discussion over the past couple years (Martuccelli, 2010). Though bisexualities seems invisible, discretion on the part of bisexual persons presents some advantages: first, the promotion of fluidity in our relations; and second, the idea of a culture transcending tradition, surpassing the homo-hetero sexual binary:

“For a long time, until recently, we had straight bars and clubs, gay bars and clubs, and lesbian bars and clubs. All separate, I might add. And the three communities were pretty self-contained [...]. There are a couple of straight-friendly places popping up though. You know, places that let straight people in, but they don’t participate; they just party with us, are open towards us, etc. So I wouldn’t say that there exists such a thing as bisexual culture, but rather… a metrosexual one.” Man, 41 years old.

Beyond Binary

The absence of bisexual culture highlights individuals’ strategies and questions regarding the acknowledgment of sexual identity. Although there have been some efforts made over time to constitute a distinct bisexual culture—celebrities “coming out” as bisexual, the bisexual pride flag, etc. (Garber, 2000)—the many ways of being, acting, and defining oneself as bisexual make the development of a tangible and accepted bisexual culture difficult. Moreover, this outcome may not even correspond to the will of bisexual people, who see their invisibility as a way to define themselves independently, or even as a way to call into question the current ways of defining sexuality. In this way, despite the invisibility of bisexualities, my research has led me to consider that the daily interactions of bisexual people tend to disseminate new emotional, sexual, and relational practices into society that change our ways of thinking in a longer lasting manner than advocacy.

The situation isfar from ideal, and it is important to note that bisexual persons are still incredibly likely to experience discrimination (Degbe, 2017), namely at the hands of homosexual persons (Kaelblen, 2017). Indeed, according to the latest annual report by SOS-Homophobie, 32% of people who identify as bisexual say they have been victims of biphobia (SOS-Homophobie, 2017), for example. Although none of the people interviewed as a part of my study related such an experience, it is important to keep in mind that bisexual persons regularly experience discrimination, even at the hands of homosexual or lesbian persons, as a report by Bi’Cause has shown (though the methodology used may be subject to critism) (Bi’Cause, 2015). What is more, as philosopher Hannah Arendt has noted, an individual is entirely dependent on the other to have their identity acknowledged (Arendt, 2005). As such, it would be interesting, if not necessary, to put in place practices and policies in educational establishments in order to offer students a comprehensive foundation in sexual education. These programs, taught by the establishments themselves or by outside institutions, would not take a prescriptive approach to what bisexualities are or are not, but would rather work to offer students a broader idea of the possible relationship options available to them. All this, in order to allow individuals to take control of their lives in their daily interactions and, just as the bisexual people in my study seem to, reject the identitary moulds that have imprisoned us.

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References
France, coming out, bisexuality, bisexual trajectories, LGBT, invisibility, sexual orientation, sexual identity, discrimination, marginalized population, Félix Dusseau

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