Erasing the idea of ‘passing privilege’: bisexual invisibility is not a superpower

Written by Virginia Shram

“At least you can pass as straight,” most bisexuals have heard at least once from a monosexual (someone who is only attracted to one gender) friend or partner.

As if “passing” as straight in lieu of having a respected identity were a benefit; as if my queerness must always be visible and open to critique, and the absence of stark visibility is an assumed rejection of identity.

Translation: “At least you can be grateful for being erased.”

‘Passing privilege’ is not a privilege, because it necessitates erasure of identity, one of the core oppressions against which queer individuals fight. The gift of being able to “pass” as straight and avoid homophobia only leads to vitriolic biphobia and enforces performativity. The requirement that bisexuals must look and act queer to be queer prevents bisexuals from accessing and participating in safer queer spaces. Bisexuality for women, says the queer community, must be represented by active lesbianness, and nothing less.

“Well, she’s 99 per cent into women, even though she’s married to a man, so she’s mostly queer,” I was once told. This characterization of attraction as quantitative confused me. How I could splice attraction and action into percentages? Am I more deserving of claiming “queerness” the more women I sleep with? Do I count my partners and divide by the total? Should I minimize my experiences with men by stating, “Even though I’ve been with guys...”? Must I constantly expose what some see as my inner ‘lesbianness’ but combat it with a healthy dose of heterosexual lust? Moreover, how in hell does this constant self-restriction of sexual expression, this repetitive yelling at the heavy closed doors of queer events (“Yes, I’m with a man, but I am queer! Please let me in!”) not count as oppression? If ‘passing privilege’ means that I am blessed with having the world ignore my identity whilst I am plagued with defending my every sexual preference, then we have the wrong definition of privilege indeed.

Bi erasure and reductive performativity stem in part from the LGBTQ community’s attempts to homogenize itself. It’s easier for the queer community as a whole to gain respectability and social equity if its progress is easily identifiable. A gay couple signing a marriage certificate is a clear marker of success for the gay rights movement, but what of the confused gender-fluid pansexual who is shunned in lesbian spaces and mocked in gay ones? The erasure of complexity, though seemingly positive in ensuring short-term benefits, blocks the potential for long-term progress toward inclusive communities.

This erasure of bisexual identities from queer spaces and activism has material consequences: according to a study from the Williams Institute, the majority of LGBTQ folks in the U.S. identify as bisexual (or some version thereof, such as pansexual, polysexual, et cetera). Despite being the largest contingent of the LGBTQ community, bisexuals generally have higher rates of suicide, depression, self-harm, smoking, and anxiety than heterosexuals or gays and lesbians. One in four bisexuals in the U.S. lives in poverty. It doesn’t stop at individual trauma: bisexuals have the lowest social safety net (including income, health, and family services) in comparison to heterosexuals, gays and lesbians, leading to a greater risk of sexual assault, mistreatment by medical professionals, and violence.

San Francisco’s Bisexual Invisibility report states, “Because bisexuals have worse outcomes in more areas of health where specific data are available, conflating the data [with gays and lesbians] will generally make the picture look more urgent. Yet few public health programs specifically reach out to bisexuals. This means that even though bisexuals may have greater need, the resources primarily wind up benefitting lesbi- ans and gay men.”

Treating a bisexual as homosexual when they are in a same-gender relationship and then as heterosexual when in a different-gender relationship (and presumably as asexual when single? This logic has many flaws) is preposterous. This thinking ignores intersectionality, thus tokenizing the lived experience of bisexuality as a simple stack of homosexual and heterosexual experiences, instead of highlighting the multifaceted reality where attraction to two or more genders is experienced personally. As long as complex identities are treated as an amalgamation of parts rather than a respected whole, biphobia will continue to render bisexuals invisible.

We could play my-oppression-beats-your-oppression forever, but what is indisputable is that bisexuals are consistently abused, ignored, and forgotten. We exist, just as queerly as you.