Bisexual Erasure

Danielle Eppard is often asked to participate in threesomes. The invitation usually comes a few moments after the 22-year-old University of Oklahoma student tells someone she’s bisexual. It’s the first in a long line of questions: What type of sexual experiences have you had? Have you ever been with both genders at the same time? How many partners have you had?

One question she’s usually not asked: How does all of this make you feel? “Oh, objectified,” Eppard says. “Like my identity as a human completely went out the window as soon as I said I was bisexual. I was no longer a person who loved chemistry, and drawing, and playing guitar. I just became an object.”

That feeling of complete objectification is the norm for those who are attracted to more than one gender. It’s so normal, in fact, that it has its own name. Bisexual erasure occurs when individuals, media, and society itself ignores bisexuality or imposes strict stereotypes upon the orientation. We see it on screen, when “Orange is the New Black” avoids openly attaching the label to the main character, Piper. We see it on the news, when Larry King treats Anna Paquin’s bisexuality as a phase that ended when she married a man. We see it in Danielle Eppard’s life, and the lives of others like her, who are reduced to nothing more than an opportunity for a threesome. We see it in the questions about whether bisexuality exists at all.

For people who identify as heterosexual or homosexual, binaries are convenient ways to make sense of the world. But for the millions of people who fall somewhere in between, the pressure to fit into these constructs—to identify as either gay or straight or risk being disregarded—is more than just an inconvenience. It’s erasing, and it’s dangerous.

Feeling Excluded

Bisexuality is a slippery topic, perhaps because there are so many different ways to define it. Some bisexuals self-identify, while others may have relationships with various genders without taking on the label. Still others feel attraction toward more than one gender, but do not act on it.

These gray areas mean that the percentage of the US population who identify as bisexual can range from 1.2 percent to 16 percent. However, include each of these definitions, and suddenly bisexuals make up the largest group in the LGBT community—40 percent, according to Pew Research Center’s Survey of LGBT Americans in 2013.

Yet many bisexuals say the “B” in LGBT is ignored. Why would gay men and women neglect the single largest portion of their group?

Camille Holthaus, who serves as chair for the Bisexual Organizing Project in Minnesota, attributes homosexual people’s tendency to ignore the bisexual community to a common misconception.

“If you have a same-gendered partner, then clearly anything that was being done to help gays and lesbians would serve you,” Holthaus says. “And if you had an other-gendered partner, well, then you didn’t have any problems.”

It’s an assumption that for years seemed supported by data. Sexuality surveys lumped homosexuals and bisexuals into one category. While convenient, this mathematical move fueled the belief that bisexuals could benefit from advancements made in the gay and lesbian community while simultaneously enjoying privileges offered to heterosexuals. Recently, however, researchers have made an effort to solely explore the bisexual experience.

BiNet USA is the oldest advocacy group for bisexuals in America and has chapters scattered throughout the country. Their 2013 fact sheet shows that bisexual men are four times more likely to consider suicide than gay men and seven times more likely to consider suicide than straight men.

Similar numbers apply to bisexual women when comparing them to lesbians and straight women. Along the same vein, bisexuals exhibit higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders than both homosexuals and heterosexuals.

The numbers come as a shock to those who believe bisexuals are living in the best of both worlds, but not to bisexuals themselves. Holthaus recalls being called a “traitor” by the lesbian community when she was younger and explains that these microaggressions can have detrimental effects.

“Most bisexuals don’t feel connected to the greater LGBTQ community, and unless they find a bisexual community, they often feel isolated,” Holthaus says. “That leads to increased rates of depression. When you can’t be honest with people about who you are, it creates a lot of stress that expresses itself mentally and physically.”

Even today, Holthaus says she feels uncomfortable entering gay or lesbian spaces. “It’s not that I think the gay and lesbian community has more discrimination,” Holthaus says. “It’s that it hurts more from them. I don’t really expect straight people to get it. But gay and lesbian people? It really hurts when they discriminate or deny our existence.”

Feeling Erased

“I feel like I’m a multi-dimensional being living in a world in which most people can only see in two dimensions,” says Herukhuti Williams, Ph.D., a clinical sociologist in New York City who identifies as bisexual. “People who can only see in two dimensions can only see certain aspects of you, and they’ll gauge you and treat you based upon their perception of the universe, which is two dimensional.”

Many people are unable to imagine what life as a bisexual would be like, and that often causes them to deny its existence completely. “In order to fit in their two-dimensional world, you have to try to contort yourself to that world, or remove yourself,” Williams says. “This is one of the reasons we have such high rates of suicidality among bisexuals, because the other choice is to fit into a world that limits you.”

Eliel Cruz, who writes about his experiences as a bisexual man for “The Huffington Post” and other media platforms, agrees that his status as a bisexual made him feel invisible. At first, he laughs when asked about certain limiting stereotypes.

“They say I’m kind of a slut,” Cruz says. “That’s the biggest one. They say I’m indecisive. That I’m going through a phase. That I’m really just gay, or I’m really just straight. That I’m delusional. It’s frustrating to have people question your sexuality. I don’t exist. Me personally.”

The invisibility began during adolescence. He remembers being crushed when members of his church community shunned him and his family when he came out as bisexual. He was kicked out of Christian high school. He dwells on the memory of his childhood pastor refusing to shake his hand in a Wal-Mart.

“When I was younger, I worried about coming out constantly,” Cruz says. “Because when I did come out, I felt a distinct pushback. I had to subdue parts of myself to make life easier. I ended up having a lot of mental health issues.”

Cruz admits that his depression and anxiety are not purely born from his bisexuality, but points out that the added stressor didn’t help. “It has happened before where I’ve dealt with biphobia from gay people and fellow journalists, and it brought me a lot of anxiety figuring out how to address it or whether to address it,” Cruz says. “It adds up, dealingwith microaggressions. It’s exhausting.”

Laced through Cruz’s story are what Williams calls “psychological scars.” He says that environment impacts our inner-lives. “If you live in an environment in which you feel structural violence, you experience systemic inequality,” Williams says. “That has an impact upon your mental health, your well-being, your resilience, your ability to have a sense of agency and advocacy.”

Advocacy, ultimately, is the factor that allowed Cruz to reverse the erasing process. Through his writing, he has become a bit of a celebrity in the bisexual community and says that remaining invisible is no longer an option. “I’m so out,” he says. “Just Google me.”

Feeling Objectified

Eliel Cruz felt invisible, but Danielle Eppard feels erased in a whole different way. “It immediately becomes all about my sexual experiences, not me as a person,” Eppard says.

She recalls a movie that became popular in her high school, “Jennifer’s Body.” In the movie, actress Megan Fox plays a girl who identifies as bisexual. Fox’s character is a sexually-charged monster who goes on erotic killing sprees. Eppard remembers feeling that a key part of her own identity had been made demonic. Her humanity was stripped away and would be again and again with every stereotypically sexcrazed bisexual on screen.

Eppard says that blatant stereotypes in the media have stopped people from recognizing her as a person. “The media and a lot of people portray bisexuals as people who are just completely promiscuous,” Eppard says. “They’re just experimenting with their bisexuality and don’t have any actual affection toward people. And that’s not the case at all. You feel very belittled and almost dehumanized when people say things like that.”

The messages hurt Eppard’s ability to participate in healthy, loving relationships. “It was like everything I felt was invalidated,” she says. “It made me question what it even meant to love somebody. I kept to myself and didn’t really have a whole lot of friends growing up because I was cynical of relationships.”

Even when Eppard left for college and felt more comfortable with her sexuality, she still experienced barriers. She went on several dates with a girl, but the budding romance ended abruptly when Eppard revealed her sexuality.

“As soon as I said I was a bisexual, she said, ‘We’re not going to work out, then,’” Eppard says. “A lot of gays are uneasy with the idea of dating someone who claims to be bisexual because they feel like they’re just experimenting, and it’s not actually part of their identity. So I think in her eyes, I was just a straight girl who was experimenting with her.”

Today, Eppard is in a relationship with a man, and she’s happy, despite the constant assumption that she’s now straight. “It’s like, with the straight community and the gay community, they want you to be one or the other,” Eppard says. “It’s completely dependent upon who I’m seeing at the time.”

And she’s still struggling to navigate that stereotype. “I have yet to figure that out, as to how to tell people that I’m not just trying to experiment with a male, or a female, or a nonbinary.”Eppard says. “That’s something I need to work on.”

But Williams says that the bisexual community cannot defeat the stereotypes on their own because binaries are so culturally ingrained. He points out ways in which we depend upon simplicity, from declarations of “You’re either with us or against us” to the preference for tabloid news over nuanced stories. “We’re taught to believe in the rigidity of things and to stake our safety in it.”

He says that lesson needs to be unlearned. “Society has to be able to hold and appreciate when something is neither this nor that,” he says. “When it doesn’t quite fit into an easy definition or a simple soundbite. When it doesn’t easily fit into this box or that box. We have to reconcile our relationship with fluidity.”

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