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‘I feel like an imposter’: Bi-erasure and finding your place in the LGBT community

By Ellie Smith

You wouldn’t ask an unfamiliar middle-aged man if they were a virgin. Even if this hypothetical stranger was the exact replica of Steve Carrol in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, you wouldn’t personally ask if this man was a virgin. Why? Heteronormativity.

Most people assume that everyone is heterosexual. In most scenarios, this means that your sexuality isn’t questioned by others if you’re a virgin. Most of the time when you’re straight, you are still considered heterosexual regardless of whether you are a virgin. Comparatively, bisexuals who lack same-sex sexual experience have their sexuality invalidated.

Strangers, upon discovering my sexuality, have felt compelled to ask intrusive questions:

Have you ever slept with a woman?

Have you even kissed a woman?

To prove my sexuality, my sexual experience – or whether I’m a same-sex ‘virgin’ - is suddenly deemed to be a conversation topic. Yet, my sexuality is valid regardless of my sexual partners. My sexuality is valid regardless of my boyfriend.

It isn’t just straight people who judge my bisexuality. It’s members of the LGBT community too, acting as gatekeepers to my own sexuality. I understand that my current relationship status means that I am in a privileged position; passing as straight, I’m not going to be heckled with abuse in the street or forced to avoid public displays of affection or worse.

This doesn’t mean that I am straight.

‘Bisexual’ means being attracted to more than one gender. It doesn’t matter if this is a 50/50 split, a 10/90 split, or 70/30 split (not that sexuality can be quantitatively measured anyway, since it’s fluid). Bi-erasure is the refusal to recognise bisexuality – whether by denying or re-explaining it.

In light of my experience, I want to offer some examples of instances of bi-erasure and collate some tips for dealing with this unfortunate phenomenon.

Here is my outcry at typical responses to expressions of bisexuality:

1. ‘Does this mean that you fancy me?!’ I’ve never had this response, but I know others who have. My male friends don’t think I fancy them. My female friends shouldn’t think I do either. This response is particularly frustrating because it’s ironic. Your straight friends suddenly presume that you fancy them, but the girls you actually fancy don’t recognise that you’re flirting with them.

2. ‘You’re straight! You have a heterosexual partner!’ or ‘You’re gay! You have a same-sex partner!’. I think that this is the most common response that I’ve faced. I’m not gay enough, or I’m too straight. I’m not going to repeat the definition of ‘bisexual’, but I will rehash that having a heterosexual partner does not change my bisexuality.

3. ‘You don’t face stigma like lesbian or gay people.’ Again, I recognise that when I have male partners, I don’t face the discrimination that lesbian couples face – but the very fact that I’m having to prove bisexuality exists indicates that bisexuals face stigma. Bisexuals have higher recorded rates of anxiety and depression than people who identify as straight, gay or lesbian and I personally believe this is due to the denial of our sexuality through bi-erasure.

4. ‘You’re transphobic’. I think that this is rooted in a misunderstanding of what bisexuality is, and confusion over the differences between being bisexual and being pansexual. As I mentioned above, being bisexual means that you are attracted to more than one gender. Comparatively, being pansexual means that you are attracted to others regardless of their gender. Bisexuals may be attracted to certain genders more than others, but gender is a factor in their attraction, unlike pansexuals. Bisexuality isn’t a prescription for transphobia because our attraction isn’t limited to the opposite ends of the gender binary – gender is just a factor in our attraction to others, unlike pansexuals.

(Artwork by @katcassart)

It can be difficult to be confident in your sexuality when it is denied or re-explained by others. I still have difficulty finding my place in the LGBT community because I have a boyfriend, even though I very much know that I am attracted to women. I feel like an imposter, or a fraud, due to my straight-passing privilege.

So, here are my succinct tips for feeling confident in your bisexuality:

1. Remember that your sexuality is valid. Other people don’t get to decide who you’re attracted to.

2. Remember that bisexuals exist. It’s absolutely okay to be confused about your sexuality. Sexuality is fluid and you can be anywhere on that spectrum, not just the opposite ends.

3. Research the history of bisexuality! It’s a fascinating history and the experiences of others will help you feel empowered.

4. Reach out to others if you can. Find an online community if you’re not ready to tell others how you feel in your real life. We are real and we exist.

The film The Forty-Year-Old Virgin is heinous on multiple levels, but if Steve Carrol’s character was real, his sexuality and sexual experience would be none of my business. Other people have no right to enquire into your sexual history. You don’t need to ‘prove’ your sexuality. Your sexuality is valid. Nobody else gets to decide who you’re attracted to. If you believe that you are bisexual, you are bisexual. Feel confident in your sexuality because it’s yours. Nobody, not even ill-mannered strangers you may have encountered in the past, can change that.

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