“Sometimes men like women, and sometimes men like men. And then there are bisexuals but some say they’re just kidding themselves.”
A line from one of Phoebe’s famously quirky songs in Friends, this actually doesn’t strike far from the mark in terms of how bisexuality is viewed both inside and outside of queer communities.
People like to joke that bisexuals have the best of both worlds. In actual fact, the reverse is often true. They face the same prejudices in their same-sex relationships (along with their own particular set of challenges, because they have to deal with folks who don’t understand why they can’t just ignore their “gay” side). At the same time, they do without widespread support from other queer people, who scorn bisexuals for their easy access to heterosexual privilege (or, to put it another way: bisexuals get to turn out for Gay Pride and then go and date someone they can hold hands with in public without being stared at).
Two weeks ago I talked about the shortage of lesbian characters on television. When it comes to bisexual characters though, the situation is even more grim. In fact, the only character who comes readily to mind is Alice from The L Word, who has so far dated only one male (who identified as a lesbian man, to much ridicule from just about everybody else on the show) in the show’s six-season history.
We do see the odd character who dates men and women, but the switch is always presented as a dramatic changing of sides. Case in point: Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who declares herself to be “gay now” once she falls for Tara — a state of affairs that leaves mysterious her obvious love for and attraction to Oz, the boy-werewolf she dated for two years.
And then there’s the episode of Sex & The City where Carrie dates Sean the bisexual. Miranda takes the opportunity to point out that all the bisexuals she knew in college, male or female, ended up with guys, and concludes that she just doesn’t “buy” it. Later, Sean introduces Carrie to his friends, all of whom have dated or hooked up with one another, implying that all bisexuals are terribly modern and sexually indiscriminate.
The show’s gay characters, by contrast, are portrayed as uniformly conservative and traditional, as anxious to settle down and buy property in the Hamptons as the straight couples.
What is most interesting about all this is that the scant data we have suggests bisexuals are proportionately vastly under-represented. The 2003 Canadian Community Health Survey, the largest survey of its kind to include a direct question about sexual orientation, reported that 1% of Canadians identify as gay or lesbian, and only slightly fewer (0.7%) as bisexual. Interestingly though, among women there are actually more bisexuals than lesbians (0.9% compared to 0.7%).
Maybe part of the reason bisexuals get overlooked is that they are rendered invisible as soon as they start dating, because as soon as it turns serious they’re perceived to have “picked a side.” Try marrying or settling down with someone of the opposite sex and holding onto your bisexual identity in the eyes of everyone you know. It sure didn’t work for Ani DiFranco, whose queer street-cred has never fully recovered from her marriage to Andrew Gilchrist.
Ultimately though, the issue comes down to good old-fashioned prejudice. There wouldn’t be the same pressure to “pick a side” if bisexuality was recognized in its own right, rather than as a stop between more legitimate stations.
Cate Simpson is a freelance journalist and the web editor for Shameless magazine. She lives in Toronto.