Out On The Couch
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Need To Pay Attention to Bi/Pan Erasure
By Rachel Jones, MA
Keywords: Bisexual, Pansexual, Queer
Anyone between a one and five on the Kinsey Scale—attracted to more than one gender—may self-identify as bisexual, bi+, pansexual, queer, gay, polysexual, fluid, biromantic, or may opt for no labels at all. These identities, sometimes referred to as non-monosexual to illustrate the attraction to more than one gender, generally fall under the queer, bisexual, and pansexual umbrellas. Queer, the “Q” in LGBTQ+, is sometimes used as an umbrella term for LGBTQ communities as well as a word to describe identities encompassing different gender identities, expressions, and sexual orientations (GLAAD, 2016). The word “queer” has a history of being derogatory, but in recent years has been reclaimed by some members of LGBTQ+ communities (GLAAD, 2016). Bisexuality can be defined, according to Robyn Ochs (n.d.), as “the capacity to be attracted to and sexual with people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree.” Pansexuality often refers to an attraction “to all gender identities” or being “attracted to people regardless of gender” (Evans, 2015). Historically, bisexuality was considered to promote a binary system where bisexual people were attracted to two genders—bi meaning two. Pansexual people expressed difficulty with the restraints of this binary definition, and used pan- to refer to an attraction to all genders. Currently, there continues to be discord over the differences between the two identities and misunderstanding over outdated definitions. Most individuals identifying as bisexual today use something along the lines of Ochs’ definition, rather than a binary one. However, many pansexual people continue to make note that their identity is different from bisexuality. Despite the similarities between these two, it is vital to note each pansexual and bisexual person may identify with one term more than the other for varying individual reasons. Some people opt for the term queer, instead of or in addition to bisexual or pansexual, and it is crucial to affirm each person’s unique definition for, or understanding of, queer as it relates to their identity.
Bisexual and pansexual identities (bi/pan) are knowingly and unknowingly targets of implicit and explicit erasure. Erasure occurs when the “existence or legitimacy” of one’s identity “is questioned or denied outright” (GLAAD, 2016). Some consequences of erasure include an increase in internalized biphobia/panphobia as well an unspoken expectation for bi/pan people to squeeze into boxes or settle for labels that do not describe them. A study of over 200 self-identified heterosexual college students found 30 percent of women reported attraction to women and over 15 percent of men reported attraction to men (Hoburg, Konik, Williams, & Crawford, 2004). Furthermore, another study found 45 percent of female college students reported to have kissed another female (Lenutti & Denes, 2012). These studies suggest unsafe environments for self-identification based on fear of coming out, lacking a space to identify accurately, and feeling alone in non-monosexual identities. Monosexism is the belief that monosexual identities such as heterosexual and gay/lesbian identities are more legitimate or valid than non-monosexual identities such as bisexual and pansexual identities (Meyer, 2003). Bi/pan people may continue to identify as heterosexual by default due to the erasure of identities whose labels that they may most accurately relate to. The majority culture has become more “accepting” of identities within a binary system consisting of only two options—gay/lesbian or heterosexual, as though anything in between is too threatening to socially constructed ideas of sexuality and identity. This discomfort leads to deliberate as well as unconscious attempts to erase identities that challenge ignorance or trigger introspection.
A common form of erasure is how bi/pan people are often labeled “too gay” by heteronormative communities and “not gay enough” by the lesbian and gay communities. In popular culture, bi/pan individuals have been minimized to serving as…
- Phoebe Buffay’s song in Friends
- “Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a dance on Saturday night” — Woody Allen (Zane, 2017)
- “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry
- Megan Fox’s character in Jennifer’s Body
- most heteronormative-produced “lesbian” pornography
…and untrustworthy or unfaithful partners
- Piper Chapman in Orange Is the New Black
- Jules in The Kids Are Alright
- Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones
In popular culture, bi/pan-identified women are represented often as attention-seeking or to serve heteronormative male fantasies, while bi/pan men are presented “confused” or too afraid to come out as “fully” gay. Bi/pan nonbinary people are rarely represented in popular culture at all. Sometimes, even, bi/pan people are accused of lying about their sexuality to seem “cool” or “nonconformist.” This often occurs in instances where the bi/pan person is engaged in a heterosexual relationship. The concept of attention-seeking heterosexual individuals presenting as being attracted to the same gender is sometimes referred to as “public bisexuality,” and further perpetuates invalidation and minimization of bi/pan-identified people (Alarie & Gaudet, 2013). A study described participants who reported they were more likely to assume two young women kissing in public were heterosexual rather than lesbian or bisexual (Lanutti & Denes, 2012). The insinuation of one’s sexual identity being a joke, attention-seeking, or deception, not only promotes erasure but also influences the bi/pan person to remain closeted in fear of persecution. They may feel forced to go through the world presenting a narrative with major parts of their story covered in white-out, leading to the phenomenon of hiding in plain sight.
Pansexual individuals are further forced into invisibility by the majority culture’s ignorance and discomfort with “new” terms or labels. In most configurations of the acronym, pansexual individuals are not even included in “LGBTQ.” A bi/pan individual’s involvement in the LGBTQIA+ community is viewed as forced or disingenuous. Some lesbian and gay people see bi/pan individuals as privileged members of the community because some are assumed to pass—being perceived as a certain identity regardless of how one actually identifies—as heterosexual in heteronormative society, and such individuals are therefore brushed off as undeserving of affirmative support or less in need of refuge. Bi/pan men are often forced to choose between the heterosexual male and the gay male communities, as society’s idea of gender roles will not allow a man to belong to both (Alarie & Gaudet, 2013). Meanwhile, bi/pan women are often rejected by the lesbian community. In desperation for a queer space, bi/pan women are forced to create their own community, often joined by bi/pan genderqueer individuals (Alarie & Gaudet, 2013). Many bi/pan individuals, particularly those who “pass,” do not seek out experiences or relationships outside of heterosexual partnerships due to shame, stigma, and lack of affirmative understanding of their own sexuality due to cultural erasure (Alarie & Gaudet, 2013). Additionally, bi/pan women face identity erasure, dehumanization, and misogynistic oppression from “unicorn hunters” (Vasicek, 2018). Unicorn hunters are “monogamous couple[s] [who] open up their relationship only to an attractive, bisexual woman that they intend on ‘sharing’” and refer to their “prey” as unicorns (Vasicek, 2018). While many bi/pan individuals also identify as polyamorous, unicorn hunting actually devalues polyamorous identities under the guise of consensual non-monogamy. Furthermore, the fetishization of bi/pan polyamorous women and the one penis policy—“to keep women from being penetrated by a penis and/or courted by another man”—highlight the blatant sexism and transphobia of unicorn hunters as well as their contribution to bi/pan erasure (Vasicek, 2018).
Well-intentioned peers, parents, mentors, and clinicians are also guilty of perpetuating erasure through their assumptions. A woman who has historically dated only women is assumed to be a lesbian, and a man who has historically dated only women is assumed to be heterosexual. Parents may assume their children consistently choosing partners of the same gender must be gay or heterosexual, without holding pansexuality or bisexuality as a legitimate identity option. Peers noticing their female friend’s history of male partners may assume to have a heterosexual friend when perhaps she is pansexual. A non-affirmative mentor of a stereotypically lesbian presenting woman may assume the mentee is lesbian, not bisexual. A clinician may assume the patient who talks about his girlfriend must be heterosexual, not pansexual. These assumptions, particularly in the latter example, are harmful in their ability to promote invisibility and force silence upon a bi/pan person who had hoped for an affirmative space in which to be wholly themselves. The issues which arise from such dynamics often leave bi/pan people without affirmative mentors, therapists, doctors, or other significant figures all too often.
According to the World Health Organization (2010), exposure to abuse as well as sociocultural oppression and infringement on human rights are significant factors affecting mental health. As lesbian and gay individuals have statistically worse health compared to heterosexual counterparts, it is often assumed that those identifying as bisexual or pansexual would arrive somewhere in the middle (Jorm, Korten, Rodgers, Jacomb, & Christensen, 2002). However, bi/pan individuals tend to have more issues with mental health and report to utilize mental health services at higher rates than their lesbian/gay and heterosexual peers (Meyer, Rossano, Ellis, & Bradford, 2002). Studies show that compared to lesbian and gay people, bi/pan people…
…struggle with higher severity of
- non-suicidal self-injury tendencies (Kerr, Santurri, & Peters, 2013)
…are at a higher risk of
- being sexually assaulted
- being physically assaulted
- suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (Roberts, Austin, Corliss, Vendermorris, & Koenen, 2010)
…and may experience
- homophobia from the heteronormative community
- heterosexism from LGBTQ communities
- biphobia and monosexism from both LGBTQ and heteronormative communities
- being stereotyped as bad partners, incapable of monogamy, inherently unstable (Jorm et al., 2002)
Decades of research has suggested that marginalized and oppressed groups, such as the LGBTQIA+ community, may reduce the risk of increased mental health issues through community support and resources (Meyer, 2003). However, this research also points out bi/pan people do not benefit from this risk reduction as they are often ostracized from LGBTQIA+ and heterosexual community support groups due to implicit and explicit biphobia and monosexism (Meyer, 2003). Furthermore, bi/pan people are least likely to disclose their sexual orientation to health care providers due to past experiences or fear of invasive questions, dismissal, discrimination, or provider confusion, which inevitably increases psychological symptoms related to repression and suppression (Durso & Meyer, 2013). Even within scientific communities, bi/pan erasure is perpetuated by challenging the validity of male bisexuality and understanding the existence of female bisexuality as experimentation or promiscuity (Ross, Dobinson, & Eady, 2010). Transgender and gender nonbinary people who identify as bi/pan are often rejected by binary ideas of sexuality and gender, and have even been turned away for medical and psychiatric services after openly identifying as transgender and bisexual, which increases the already higher level of difficulty for trans people to receive health services (Califia, 1997).
As a mental health care provider, it is critical to use inclusive language for all patients regardless of how they self-identify upon initial intake. The provider should assume neither the sexual orientation of a patient based on the gender identity of the patient’s current partner(s), nor the gender identity of a patient based on perceived gender expression or presentation. It is also necessary for a provider to understand the effects of bi/pan erasure and the mental health impact of bi/pan marginalization intersecting with the other aspects of an individual’s identities that may be subject to cultural oppression (Dorwart, 2018). Furthermore, the provider must understand the effects of biphobia and monosexism as separate entities from homophobia and heterosexism. Due to the mainstream cultural messages promoting heteronormativity and monosexism, it is inevitable to have absorbed implicit biases against bi/pan people, such as…
…automatically assuming sexual identity based on the gender of a person’s current partner
- “He has a girlfriend, so he must be heterosexual.”
- “She has a girlfriend, so she must be a lesbian.”
…assuming objective definitions of identity terms
- “He identifies as gay, so he must only be attracted to men.”
- “They identify as bisexual, so they must be attracted to men and women.”
…labeling others based on one’s subjective understanding of identity terms
- “He is gay because he’s attracted to men.”
- “They are queer because they are confused.”
…assuming sexual identity terms align with gender identity
- “He is transgender, so he can’t be heterosexual.”
- “They are nonbinary, so they can’t be bisexual.”
Being a bisexual/pansexual affirmative therapist means checking these biases—and that starts with admitting we have them.
Unsurprisingly, there are ways for all LGBTQIA+ and heterosexual folk to help prevent erasure and promote bi/pan visibility. Reposting affirmative social media posts and going to Pride never hurts, but being truly affirmative requires taking allyship further. On top of calling out biphobia and monosexism in day-to-day interactions, increasing exposure to and contact with bi/pan people helps to prevent erasure. Such a simple task has been shown in qualitative and quantitative research to promote “more positive attitudes” toward bi/pan people and decrease “intergroup anxiety” within both monosexual groups (Lytle, Dyar, Levy, & London, 2017, p. 593). According to Gonzalez, Ramirez, and Galupo (2017), promoting bi/pan visibility using the language and narratives of bi/pan people directly goes against erasure attempts (p. 512). This means increasing bi/pan visibility affirmatively in music, television, movies, and literature (see pansexual-identified main character David Rose in Schitt’s Creek). It also requires being openminded and not generalizing the bisexual/pansexual experience. Affirmatively supporting bi/pan people in defining their sexual identity in their own terms allows those forced into hiding to be seen in plain sight.
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