Stephanie Farnsworth examines the idea that bisexual people experience “straight privilege”
If there’s one thing that all bisexual people and pansexual people will have heard it is that somehow those identities provide us with the privilege to pass as straight. At the root of this myth that gay people try to perpetuate is the false idea that pansexual people simply don’t exist and bisexual people face half the oppression of gay people as we are only half gay.
It’s a myth that isn’t backed up by logic or evidence (and that’s saying something when funding for anything regarding sexualities that aren’t gay or straight is virtually nonexistent). Bisexuality and pansexuality aren’t identities defined by how gay a person is. They are separate and distinct identities. It had nothing to do with being gay and while there are overlaps of oppression, bi and pan people don’t face less because they may not always be attracted to someone of the same gender.
The harsh reality is, as The Queerness has shown, bisexual people are far more likely to experience issues surrounding mental health, including (but not limited to) depression, anxiety, self harm and suicidal ideation. Bisexual people are also at increased risk of experiencing intimate partner violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking. Yet despite all evidence, gay people in particular are continuously suggesting that bisexual and pansexual people have straight privilege.
Living with a sexual identity that is, in its concept, so fluid in terms of potential attractions to gender has meant that those who rely on binary tick box ways of defining people have been at an utter loss when it comes to recognising bisexuality and pansexuality. The backlash then begins with people trying to define sexuality for us as well as our experiences. It’s a complicated issue but there’s no way that any straight or gay person can possibly tell us our own experiences no matter how many thousands of times they try to.
It’s a complicated issue but there’s no way that any straight or gay person can possibly tell us our own experiences no matter how many thousands of times they try to.
What is meant by “straight privilege” is often simply erasure. It is not a privilege to have who you are constantly erased. The choice for bisexual and pansexual people so often isn’t a choice at all but it’s about just trying to survive. The culture of erasure and accusing us of having “straight privilege” means that there are only two modes of existence available: stay silent and know that we are safe from overt abuse or risk speaking up in a world where both gay and straight people want us to stay silent and don’t want us present. Erasure is often dismissed as an easy option; look at how many cisgender gay people say that you can only be truly part of the community if you’re out. That’s the privileged position because for so many people being out isn’t an option and gay cisgender people have to take responsibility for that when the LGBTQ+ culture just isn’t welcoming to so many. Ironically, the LGBTQ+ world is as good as welcoming people in as it is at shutting them out. If you’re pansexual or bisexual there is no room in the community, especially if you are transgender, a sex worker, disabled, older, fat, neurodivergent and/or a person of colour.
It’s not a privilege for a woman to be shut out of her own community for taking a man to an LGBTQ+ bar. It’s not a privilege to be called traitors. It’s not a privilege to have to remain silent lest gay people jeer at us and hurl abuse. The problem stems from the old issue of visibility vs. invisibility, erasure is soul crushing but can shield from physical or overt abuse, yet eats away at mental health too while greater visibility shines a spotlight on vulnerable identities that are likely to face hatred. “Straight privilege” is simply a coded tool to bring about erasure, and erasure itself isn’t an accident but something both gay and straight people deliberately do to bisexual and pansexual people. Monosexism unites people in bigotry against bisexual and pansexual identities.
“Straight privilege” is simply a coded tool to bring about erasure, and erasure itself isn’t an accident but something both gay and straight people deliberately do to bisexual and pansexual people.
Erasure isn’t about people just forgetting to mention something, although that does fuel the culture. It’s a deliberate act designed to shut communities down and get rid of certain identities. When LGBTQ+ organisations will offer support, information and funding to everybody except bisexual and pansexual people then that is deliberate. When an LGBTQ+ organisation hires somebody of every sexuality apart from bisexuality or pansexuality then that screams how much they think of people from those communities. Erasure is designed to break down communities so they cannot challenge for funding or attention, so that whenever issues of sexuality are discussed the attention and support goes to gay issues by default as anything else is seen as a competition. The LGBTQ+ community is just as oppressive and hierarchical as any other community. On an individual level, the same philosophy also applies. The focus is always orbiting around the struggle for gay rights and little else. Acknowledging bisexuality and pansexuality and the oppressions faced means that the attention shifts from them to somebody else. It’s the same trick that is used against so many people with multiple facets to their identity, for example: Muslim people will often receive comments that they can’t possibly be LGBTQ+ as it is against their religion, and this is by white atheists seeking to determine access to their hierarchical community. Erasure is a way to preen access to groups and services and allow it to only those who fit the narrow definitions of acceptable.
Calling out people for having “straight privilege” is a silencing tactic used against anybody who isn’t solely on board with the “gay cause”. The binary boxes with sexuality apply as much in the LGBTQ+ world as they do in the straight world. It’s even worse for transgender people who are also bisexual or pansexual. Transgender people regularly face attacks that they are not legitimate, not part of the community and are benefitting from passing privilege (either by their authentic gender and how well they are seen to present or by not being out and conforming to society’s gender expectations) and these attacks about privilege increase even more when they are also bisexual or pansexual. It’s insidious and not focused upon creating a meaningful discussion around the experiences of bi and pan people but to shut all discussions down.
Not being recognised comes at a huge price to mental health. Bisexual and pansexual people will often either to declare themselves either gay or straight, particularly if they are younger or financially dependent, so that they don’t face overt familial abuse. They are still experiencing abuse because they are forced to be silent, which causes huge emotional trauma and is a form of rejection whether it is a rejection spoken out loud or not. Being under the radar is a shadow of an existence that is relied upon by many to survive. Calling it a privilege is an insult to the countless bisexual and pansexual people who have been lost because of biphobia and panphobia which is so embedded in our world.
Follow Stephanie on Twitter (@StephFarnsworth)