Bisexuality and the myth of ‘straight privilege'
By Imogen Marachant
If we were to work our way down the 'Great Sheet of Social Privileges', my proverbial score-card would be pretty good.
Wonderful boyfriend? Check.
Heterosexual? Not so much.
The problem with existing in a world that is more likely to go in your favour depending on how many boxes you tick, is that it becomes very difficult to operate when you suddenly don’t fit into an ‘either/or’. The broader nuances of forcing people into binary boxes put to one side for a second, bisexuality can come to complicate things when it comes to interacting with the world. It can seem largely much easier to adhere to what has, perhaps understandably, been called ‘straight privilege’. This term, at surface level, seems to make sense. We’ve all heard of ‘privilege’ in other social spheres after all; terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’ are common parlance, so applying them to sexuality seems to follow a certain type of logic. Certainly, if you are straight, then the term ‘straight privilege’ fits, at least in some respect; in fitting with the social norm, you haven’t experienced systemic prejudice based exclusively on your sexuality.
I think perhaps most interesting is that I didn’t engage properly with this term until I got into a serious, loving and genuinely great relationship. More specifically, a relationship with a man. Before, when I’d got with people, it wasn’t deep. It wasn’t something that challenged my identity or made me reconsider how I function in the society I live in, particularly. I was just doing what I wanted, and because nothing was permanent, or long-term, it didn’t really matter that much who I was with or what I was doing. In the spirit of full disclosure, this may be because I was usually drunk and at a nightclub. (Remember those? Me neither). Anyway, what I’m trying to say is this - feelings of invalidation only emerged when I made the full commitment to a relationship with someone who I deeply care about.
Suddenly, the term ‘straight privilege’ felt incredibly uncomfortable and in far closer proximity than before. A queer friend expressed their envy that I could go out and hold hands with my partner without being spat at in the street. I felt like I was somehow supposed to feel a rush of security - one that had nothing to do with my relationship and everything to do with how the world wanted to see me. Sometimes, being queer can be exhausting. I can understand desires to suspend the fear of judgement and second-thought, even just for a moment. I can understand why it might make sense to think that bi or pansexual people might experience privilege; a kind of chameleonism, perhaps. A blending into the crowd and away from the limelight that queer self-expression can force you into.
Interesting, then, that this idea of straight privilege feels deeply harmful. There is already a dangerous narrative surrounding multi-gender attraction, and most strongly so in terms of bisexuality. Perhaps it comes back to this idea of binaries that the ‘bi’ prefix reinforces; the idea of both paradoxically inferring ‘one’ or ‘other’, rather than allowing for a sense of flux. Bisexuality in particular is, I feel, often culturally imbued with a sense of transience, and often conceptualised as a ‘halfway house’ to homosexuality, or an experimental phase that rebellious teens go through to anger mothers with nicely manicured lawns. To this, I offer a sigh of discontent and the assertion that this belief, this notion that ‘straight privilege’ is in any way a genuine privilege is rooted in homophobia. As well as invalidating the idea of bisexuality existing independent of a current relationship, it negates the idea of homosexual experience as a whole. It implies that homosexual feeling can be tried on and discarded when it gets too much, and reinforces the outdated idea that heterosexuality is the norm.
Essentially, this notion of ‘straight-privilege’ generates the idea that bisexuality cannot be enough on its own; that the experience of liking more than one gender does not come with its own set of experience, but rather an odd hybrid of either sides of the spectrum. This, in turn, might suggest something stronger at play; this very notion of diametrically opposed orientations feeding further into the myth of complicated, toxic social norms.
There are many rich and wonderful resources unpacking sexuality, and so many people with more experience than me; Judith Jack Halberstam and Roxanne Gay are excellent if you would like somewhere to start.
But I think, perhaps, the fundamental message from me is simple: Stop assuming. Stop pigeon-holing. Stop box-ticking.