From Online Discourse to IRL4 Bisexual People Define Bisexuality for Themselves

Photo credit: Savana Ogburn/Refinery29 for Getty Images

To be bi in the late 2010s is a totally different experience than being bi a decade ago: We have #BiWeek, a a week cofounded by GLAAD, Bisexual Resource Center, and Still Bisexual to raise awareness about bisexuality. Shows like Broad City, The Good Place, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are transforming the ways in which bi women are represented onscreen. Celebrities, too, are increasingly coming out as bisexual and owning their bisexuality. While bisexual representation is seemingly on the rise in pop culture, offscreen, the discourse around bisexuality isn’t always as positive.

Bisexual stereotypes as well as a perpetual misunderstanding of bisexuality continue to be entrenched. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one or fighting misconceptions alone, but that isn’t true, especially as more people identify as bi. Bitch is lucky to have multiple bisexual employees, so we’re using this roundtable to parse out our own experiences as bisexuals. We discussed how we’ve found bi community with other bisexual people, bi icons, and how we understand and define our bisexuality.

How did you come to understand your bisexuality?

Margot Harrington, contributing art director: I definitely had baby queer feelings as young as fourth or fifth grade. While I grew up in a decently progressive place with [adequate] sex education and I was taught that being gay or lesbian was cool, there was no conversation or space amid that for bisexuality. I shut that part of me off for years as a result. Sex and the City ruled my sorority in college, but the show deployed messaging that negated bisexuality, which I internalized. Once I was in my 20s and living on my own with more agency, I recognized my feelings once again but chalked it up as a fetish or some sort of inappropriate internalized male gaze. It wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I finally accepted myself and started coming out.

KaeLyn Rich, executive director: I have always found women more aesthetically attractive than men. During a sleepover in seventh grade, I told my friends I thought I was a lesbian because I had very confusing feelings for Christina Ricci in Now and Then. The very next week, I developed a crush on a boy in my class and, much to my relief, I told them I was straight again. Phew. I don’t think I considered bisexuality a possibility because I didn’t know any bisexuals. You were gay or you weren’t! By the time I reached high school, I knew I had feelings for women, but continued to deny it publicly until college, when I came out in full rainbow explosion force. I’ve never looked back. I’m attracted to people of all genders and that’s still the case, even 14 years into a monogamous relationship. My interest in genders different than my own has expanded exponentially since I came out, though my interest in cis straight men is at an all-time low.

Rachel Charlene Lewis, senior editor: I was probably the straightest teenager and preteen of all time. I spent a lot of time making out with and dating boys. But that changed in college when I started exclusively dating women. Now, I exclusively date women, nonbinary people, and genderqueer people. My version of bisexuality leaves minimal room for men. On a lighter note, Stick It really did it for me as well as Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart as Bella in Twilight. I also really hated Bette (Jennifer Beals) in The L Word until I realized… am I Bette? I’m still figuring that out.

Marina Watanabe, social media editor: I’m glad that Kristen Stewart is being mentioned because whoa boy that was a big red flag for my bisexuality. I looked back at my Tumblr posts from before I was out and I would talk about wanting to lick Kristen Stewart’s hair. But somehow I still thought I was straight. For most of my life, I felt that I wasn’t “bisexual enough” to claim the identity. I was constantly second-guessing my crushes on women and nonbinary people. After about a decade of tiptoeing around the label, I finally admitted to myself (and the entire internet) that I was bi as hell.

How do you navigate the seemingly unending discourse around bisexuality?

MH: Maybe this is dark, but I still have low expectations. That way I’m pleasantly surprised if it is affirming and makes me feel seen.

KR: I take solace in knowing that we are the invisible majority. Non-monosexual people make up the majority of the LGBTQ rainbow soup statistically.Though we also have a lot of the worst outcomes in terms of health, trauma, etc., we are also much more normal and present than we’ve been led to believe. The internet has made finding and being bi so much more fun. We’re here, we’re queer, and we can’t sit on chairs properly!

RCL: I definitely get the most frustrated online. In person, people usually aren’t bold enough to question my bisexuality, and if they do, I’m quick to be like, “Nope, not happening.” Online, though, I see endless nonsense about who is or isn’t bi. In some ways, I get it. A lot of us have deep, messy feelings and our knee-jerk reactions can be gross and exclusive, especially because queerness can feel so isolating. People feel hurt or offended when you aren’t queer how they’re queer because it means they don’t have that sameness. But it’s something we all need to grow out of so we can stop being jerks.

MW: When I first came out, I was navigating a lot of 101-level conversations online about bisexuality and queerness for the first time. It was like, “What’s the difference between bi and pan?” and “bi means two so that means you’re excluding nonbinary people,” which is a lot to unpack. I felt like I had to answer every single question pertaining to bisexuality because I was in a position of being able to educate others. Then I moved to Los Angeles and suddenly all of my friends were LGBTQ, and those nitpick-y online conversations didn’t seem to matter as much in everyday life. That’s not to say the DiscourseTM can’t be or isn’t important, but I was able to step back and take comfort in the fact that the people in my own community weren’t invalidating my sexuality the way online strangers were

Has your understanding of bisexuality shifted over time? If so, what would you say led to this new understanding?

MH: Yes. Just being able to be open about it has healed me so much. I made an intentional choice to do this after learning that bi people suffer higher rates of mental-health issues, substance abuse, and domestic violence than gay or lesbian people. If being more visible can help someone, then I need to bring it. Also, age, time, the overall societal shift to being more accepting of all LGBTQ identities also helped. Oh, and therapy. Therapy helps everything.

KR: I went through a stage where I refused to align with bisexuality because I felt it enforced a strict gender binary. Also, it was the early noughties and I felt so empowered by claiming “queer” as my identity. I still do. That said, “queer” sometimes reads as “lesbian” to people who don’t choose to learn more about me, so it sometimes results in bi erasure, even though it’s a term I use to be the most all-gender-encompassing ever. I returned to bisexual and use both queer and bisexual now. The “bi” in “bisexual,” to me and to most bisexuals I know in 2019, doesn’t mean “attracted to men and women.” It means “attracted to my same gender and to other genders plural.” I love that idea and have fully embraced being bisexual again, specifically to make my bisexuality hypervisible.

Do you think there has been progress in how bisexuality is portrayed in pop culture?

MH: For sure! Even two years ago, the conversation was much different. There were more jokes at our expense and less representation everywhere, including queer media. More people are showing up to the party and that’s *fucking awesome. I still get frustrated with the discourse around “passing” though. While it’s true that this affords privilege in some ways, it doesn’t always mean things are easier. Being invisible or having to accentuate your identity to try and be “enough” of a thing is exhausting.

Also, we need to stop interrogating bi people about their types or amount of sexual experiences, like, “Oh wow, you’ve never done X?” It’s invasive and implies there are some sort of rules or punch card of experiences they must have to be “legit.”

KR: A million times yes. Hello, 20biteen! There are more openly bisexual actors and TV and film characters now than ever and while there are still frequent missteps, it feels like we’re moving in the right direction. I’m hungry for more, but happy I’m living to see what’s possible for the next generation. I mean, Gen Z is super duper bisexual, non-labeled, fluid, and open, and they’re bringing a whole new vibe to bisexual representation.

RCL: Yes. I talk about Gen Z constantly, because I have so much hope and enthusiasm for them. They are so beyond the discourse that we’re still fighting about on Twitter.

MW: Yes! When I was in high school less than a decade ago, Glee, which constantly made bisexuality the butt of the joke, was the closest thing I had to bi representation. When I was in middle school, Paige (Lauren Collins) had a bi storyline on Degrassi, , but she did the classic TV thing where she refused to label herself as bisexual. I get it. Not everyone wants to label themselves, but that became a weird trope where characters were seemingly afraid to explicitly identify as bi. Pop culture representation still isn’t perfect, but I just marathoned Schitt’s Creek and there was a whole episode where a main character says they’re pansexual (which I consider to be under the bi+ umbrella.) I don’t think I’ve seen that on TV before. I also watched Degrassi: Next Class, which is the updated version of the series I watched when I was a kid, and they also featured a bi male character.

“People feel hurt or offended when you aren’t queer how they’re queer because it means they don’t have that sameness. But it’s something we all need to grow out of so we can stop being jerks.”

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Where and how do you find bisexual community IRL and online?

MH: I love to use Twitter and to an extent Instagram to find this community. What “tells” people are coming up with, for example, helps a lot. I’ve made a point of labeling myself IRL as well, which inherently starts convos about bisexuality and has led to newer and deeper friendships.

KR: Everywhere! My best friend is bisexual. Some of my coworkers are bisexual. My internet friends are bisexual. You find bisexuals everywhere if you go deep into queer community online or IRL. There’s a difference though, in terms of community and identity. I know an awful lot of bisexuals who identify as bisexual but don’t feel “bi enough” to actively participate in queer spaces. That is just B.S. that they’ve been made to feel that way. I know the feeling because I used to share it! Once you decide you deserve to be out, proud, and part of the LGBTQ culture, finding bi community become a lot easier. (I promise, it does, so come on out!)

RCL: Similarly to KaeLyn, I know so many bisexual people IRL. Growing up, I had one of those friend groups where almost all of us have come out as queer in one way or another. I also have several bisexual friends. It’s so nice to have people you can see and be around who can give you that nod of sameness. I tweet about bisexuality constantly too, so I tend to have people in my DMs asking questions about bisexuality, like how did I know? How do you know if you’re bi “enough?” How do you come out when you’re bi but single or dating someone of a different gender or dating someone of the same gender? Bisexuality is complicated and community really helps with that, even if we all ultimately experience it in different ways.

Who are your bisexual icon(s)? Why?

MH: Stephanie Beatriz is one of my bisexual icons. I really like how Brooklyn Nine-Nine introduced and handled bisexuality through her character. The storyline seems influenced by Beatrize and reality in a way that I haven’t seen in other media where bi people have been typically tokenized, cast as villains, or fetishized. I’ve loved Janelle Monáe for years and her last album, Dirty Computer, and the publicity around it sealed her as an icon.

Every other person I can think of are fictional characters because there are so few examples. I’ve made up and projected what I want to see onto them. Killing Eve, Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) from Bob’s Burgers, Catra (AJ Michalka) from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) from Some Kind of Wonderful, and Rufio (Dante Basco) from the movie Hook. I couldn’t tell if I had a crush on Rufio or wanted to be him but he’s a deeply emotional character who’s like the “daddy” of the Lost Boys, with eyeliner, earrings, and strong bi vibes that ticks all my queer and nonbinary boxes.

RCL: I couldn’t agree with Janelle Monáe more. I saw her live three or four years ago, and it really changed everything for me. Her dancing was just wow!. My other bisexual icons include Tessa Thompson (who I adore in all the ways) and Sara Ramirez, who had a major impact on me as a Grey’s Anatomy fan. (My cat is named Dr. Yang).

KR: There are so many. Here is a quick highlight reel:

Alan Cumming is one of the more established out, proud, don’t-call-me-anything-but bisexual celebrities and I’ve always admired that about him.

Margaret Cho is literally the first queer and bi person who made me feel seen as a little transracial Korean adoptee rural queer baby and I will always love her for that.

Brenda Howard is the Mother of Pride and the patron saint of bisexuals. I don’t know if our politics would have always aligned, but she’s truly one of the unsung heroes of the so-called modern gay rights movement and a real damn pioneer for bisexuals and for all of us!

Josephine Baker, who just lived the fullest, most surreal life, had a pet cheetah, was a French spy, and was the only official female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. She was one hell of a bisexual icon!

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.

by KaeLyn Rich
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by Marina Watanabe
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Marina Watanabe is Bitch’s social media editor. She hosts a web series called Feminist Fridays and has been told that she’s an “astrological nightmare.” You can find her on Twitter most days.