In April, bisexual nonprofit BiNet USA used its popular Twitter account to threaten businesses that use the bisexual flag, claiming that it owns the copyright for the flag and its signature pink, purple, and blue stripes. It was an explosive moment for the bisexual internet, but by and large, their message was considered a massive overstep. The backlash was so swift that BiNet elected to delete its Twitter account, which has since been reinstated, as platform users mocked and critiqued the statement, calling it “embarrassing and shameful,” a “clusterfuck of epic proportions,” and the exact opposite of the support that bisexual people need and deserve from bi organizations. While it’s believed that activist Michael Page, who once volunteered for BiNet, created the bisexual flag in 1998, BiNet continued to put its foot down. It felt as if the organization, which has existed since 1990, had ruined its reputation with a single tweet.
It was not the first time that social media has inflamed divisive discourse around bisexuality. Anyone who’s part of the digital bisexual community is well acquainted with the never-ending spirals that take place across every social-media platform. In 2018, writer Andrea Long Chu wrote an explosive tweet: “[straight] married bi girls are like those kids who studied abroad in college and five years later are still somehow weaving it into every conversation. like we get it christa you lived in Madrid.” People fought about Chu’s tweet for weeks. That same month, bisexuals debated about whether or not queer actor Rowan Blanchard’s biphobic after she liked the aforementioned tweet. Her boyfriend, Frank Ayzenberg, posted on his Instagram Story that the word “bisexual” istransphobic: “There is only queer, there is only love,” Ayzenberg wrote before claiming that he had been hacked.
However, the BiNet debacle was one of the most galling, given that it wasn’t just a single user deciding to kick up biphobia online for the sake of discourse, but a once-respected organization trying to wield its power in a way that harmed its own community. But the intensity of the pushback was par for the course. What’s most interesting about so-called bisexual discourse is that it comes so swiftly, is seemingly never-ending, and takes place largely within the community.
A quick search on any platform will introduce nonbisexual users to a slew of conversations about bisexuality: bisexuality versus pansexuality, straight-passing bisexual privilege, do bisexuals date trans people or does that require another term, are you bisexual or just gay, why won’t you just choose a side, am I a bisexual if I’m dating someone of the same gender as me, am I bisexual if I’m dating someone of a different gender, you can’t be bisexual if you largely only date one gender, you can’t be bisexual if you date men, you can’t be bisexual and be a part of the queer community.
Trying to figure out if you’re bisexual or not is a process that can be just as convoluted as the above discourses. I’ve been out as queer since college and I still have no idea if I’m really bi or if another word would make more sense. I don’t always feel as if I know what words I have access to or what communities I can be a part of. There’s something about bisexuality specifically, and online bisexuality that causes the knives to come out. I’m interested not only in finding the answers, but in archiving these conversations in the hopes that, if we’re going to keep having them, we can at least reflect on just how long we’ve been fighting the same battles, and often one another.
“If this was a few years ago, I would say me being bi on the internet was this huge, looming thing,” Gabrielle Alexa Noel, bisexual influencer and author of the forthcoming How to Live with the Internet and Not Let It Run Your Life, told Bitch. “Especially on Twitter, the discourse would reach my particular corner and it would become a campaign of users locking on to a take. I’d tweet something about being bi, and then people would respond [in droves] and it was debilitating, even to my journalism, and my activism, which was focused on bisexuality.” The pressure led Noel to think differently about her social-media use, especially how it relates to bisexuality. “Now that I’m an older user, I recognize that those campaigns of users trolling you on that level is intentional.” Noel’s reflection feels true to what I’ve seen during my own scrolling through Reddit, the various queer discourse Instagram accounts, and different lesbian forums. “There was this idea of me being an ‘infiltrator’ of LGBTQ spaces and that I’m building a brand without being queer,” Noel said. “Now I just don’t post about bi activism anymore. I weigh the risks before I post and only post if it’s especially nuanced or adds to the discourse.”
Much of the explosive nature of bisexual discourse stems from the way that social media functions. Platforms reward posts that are engaged with, and many posters have found that recycling the same aggressively divisive arguments will reward them with high engagement rates. Social media rewards rage over thoughtfulness, and quick-hit hot takes over careful back-and-forth. It’s much easier to drop a biphobic statement on Twitter with, “Thoughts?” and watch the retweets roll in than it is to pose a careful question or even discuss your own experiences—minus blanket statements or bad-faith arguments—and have a meaningful conversation with strangers who share a single identity. Although social media can feel violent for some bisexual people, it remains especially important to the community considering how isolating it can be to be bisexual—even in 2020.
“Only 28 percent of bisexuals are out of the closet; our community is kind of quiet and less likely to show up in person to an event,” activist Nicole Kristal, president of Still Bisexual, a nonprofit education and health advocacy organization, said. “The people who are closeted, the bulk of our community, often feel safe on going on Twitter anonymously to join in on these online communities and talk about their experiences. Some bi people aren’t even out to their partners. Now they can have this community in a private way that makes them feel safe.” These communities take different forms across the internet. Reddit’s r/Bisexual thread explicitly includes bisexuals, pansexuals, omnisexuals, queers, and other non-straight individuals, and has more than 310,000 members. Private Facebook group The Bisexual Experience has 8,000 members and Bisexual Memes has 16,000.
Maybe it’s alright that we’re still fighting about what it means to be bisexual. Maybe it’s less about silencing the fighting and more about hearing it out in its entirety so we can begin to untangle the hurt that’s caused it.
On TikTok, bisexual teens are able to seek out experiences that may feel truer to their own than the limited representation they can find onscreen or in books. Auli’i Cravalho, who voices Moana in the popular Disney film, came out as bisexual via a TikTok dance. Former YouTuber Domo Wilson created a “Bisexual Anthem,” and TikTok users danced and lip-synced to the song to celebrate their own bisexuality on the platform to the tune of more than 150,000 videos: “‘You cannot date both, pick a side, pick a side’/ ‘Do you like fuckin’ girls or do you like fuckin’ guys?’/ I like both, Bi pride stand up.” On Instagram, group accounts, including @lgbt.teens.uk, allow LGBTQ teens to anonymously discuss their identities through memes. Celebrities, like Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart, who came out via Instagram Story as bisexual, and influencers like Jessie Paege discuss the nuance of bisexuality and update their bios to include the colors of the bi flag.
The need and desire for a digital community is clearly there. With so many different social-media platforms to choose from, bisexuals are able to find the communities and micro communities that fit them best. Love bisexual musicians? There’s a thread for that. Looking for memes about being polyamorous and bisexual? There’s an Instagram for that. But these groups come with complications, considering that bisexual people are still people, and they only have this one thing—that they may define completely differently—that brings them together. “People who [were] growing up and figuring out their identities in the ’80s are different than those learning in the ’90s and then we all join the internet at the same time,” Noel said. “[We have these arguments] without leaving space to recognize that many things can be true.” In our quest to be right, we lose important nuance and context that we simply can’t convey in a few posts.
Few places perpetuate biphobia as much as the L Chat, an anonymous lesbian forum that has morphed into a variety of different forms on different websites since its creation in 2009. Forum topics include Glee, lesbian YouTubers, and sex tips, with some of its most popular threads, including “The Hollywood Closet,” being used to obsess about which celebrities are probably lesbians and owe us some sort of coming out. Colleen Curry called the users “lesbian truthers” in a 2019 Slate article, writing, “Straight talk could lead to an immediate ban. Evidence that contradicted or poked holes in the agreed-upon narrative of a star’s queer secrets was dismissed or attacked.” The rules of the forum are clear, regardless of where the forms are hosted: Don’t talk about straight people and don’t talk about men.
And here’s where we find the source of the disgust: The moment a lesbian couple breaks up, a YouTuber announces that she’s bisexual, or a female celebrity gives the virtual community a reason to doubt their lesbian status, all hell breaks loose. It’s so vitriolic that some LGBTQ folks refuse to read it entirely, especially those with a platform. Rosie Spaughton, a YouTuber responsible behind Rose and Rosie, the popular channel with nearly 1 million subscribers that she shares with her wife, Rose Ellen Dix, has been open about the biphobia she faces as a bi woman with a lesbian wife, and they’ve also discussed the harsh words tossed at them. “According to the L Chat forum, you’re going to leave me for a man,” Dix jokingly tweeted at Spaughton in 2013. The thread about the couple is more than 32,000 posts long.
In the mainstream, Facebook’s aforementioned Bisexual Memes group specifically calls out its “inclusivity,” noting, “We’re all in this together to create a welcoming environment. Let’s treat everyone with respect. Healthy debates are natural, but a person’s gender or sexuality is not up for debate.” It might seem like an odd comment for a group about memes, but memes are rarely apolitical. The Bisexual Experience explicitly welcomes discourse, calling itself a “discourse-friendly group,” though it comes with rules, including “If you do not wish to interact with discourse, scroll past it. If you cannot scroll past it, please leave.” Noel said that she’s struggled with Facebook groups because they can become less than inclusive for bisexual people. “A lot of this reflects the status of tech in general,” she said. “I’m in a lot of Facebook groups [that are supposed to be] inclusive, but I’ll find [biphobic posts] about tampon use and touching penises. And they’re adults.” But why?
Former BiNet president Wendy Curry spoke out against the organization’sattempts to reclaim the bisexual flag, but wasn’t surprised that the social-media response was so impassioned. Curry said she fully understands the way that the bisexual internet can spawn such conflict, even when it attempts to bring people together. “First, there was this hunger to connect because there was no bisexual visibility,” Curry said. “We were so desperate to get together that we’d put up with each other’s ‘quirks’ in a way. But as social media picked up and we had the ability to find any Yahoo or MySpace or Facebook group, you could find people who matched exactly what you wanted. You could self-segregate because there were suddenly so many options.”
“We’ve lost the ability to talk through differences and learn from each other,” Curry added. Among bisexuals, it becomes difficult to see experiences that don’t reflect their own. It can become a knee-jerk reaction to think that that person isn’t being the right kind of bisexual. But others suggest that the repetition of arguments isn’t actually a bad thing. “It’s a sign of an effective social movement if we’re having similar conversations on different platforms,” Kristal said. “It’s a phenomenon that proves that there is in fact, if not a singular bisexual experience, a sameness that can unite bisexuals and prove that biphoba is real, and harmful.”
When asked if there’s a queer or bisexual community, Kristal offers a resounding “Yes.” The confidence of the answer surprises me, but it also gives me hope as a relatively young bisexual who came of age in the midst of such a divisive internet. Maybe stepping into these online spaces and expecting to see ourselves and our own experiences reflected back at us is what we’re doing wrong. Maybe it’s alright that we’re still fighting about what it means to be bisexual. Maybe it’s less about silencing the fighting and more about hearing it out in its entirety so we can begin to untangle the hurt that’s caused it.
Curry explains that we have to learn to get along on some level, rather than giving into that impulse to run from differences. “There’s a really important need for people to come across to figure out how to exist if you’re a monogamous bisexual, if you can be a part of a community with a polyamorous bisexual, an asexual who considers themselves bisexual, or a pansexual. If you can have those spaces where you can learn from each other, then that’s where the community builds up and blossoms.”