How Bisexual Erasure Undermines What It Means to Be Queer

This week, rapper Cardi B had to defend herself against a Twitter user who accused her of being one of the few.[c]Celebrities who came out as bisexual but never dated anyone of the same sex.” In response to this allegation, Cardi B said she had dated women before and even revealed that she had a girlfriend in high school. But the fact that she had to respond to those charges with details about her life at all speaks to a culture of bisexual obliteration online and offline — where asserting any kind of queer identity requires performance or disclosure to be validated. Billie Eilish is also under intense scrutiny for possibly being bi — one guided by expected norms that not only undermine her privacy but further contribute to the eradication of bisexuality by subjecting her to misguided assumptions. A confluence of celebrity culture, internet culture, and even the history of queer struggles has resulted in bisexual people being abandoned — in ways that are damaging to the queer community itself.

Requiring queer people to be public about their entire dating history, sex life, and preferences is a form of bi-erasure — one that has fostered an internet culture bent on being vocal about identity. It implicitly implies a sense of ownership and entitlement that the general public has over the bodies of bisexual people – and joins the ranks of other ways that bisexual women are commodified, such as unicorn hunting. Remember Obama’s famous admission to reading Foucault and Virginia Woolf to take up the “ethereal bisexual”? It’s an innocuous observation, but it speaks not only to a mood attributed to bisexual people, but also to a gaze they are subjected to, making them objects of scrutiny and surveillance within both straight and queer communities. And in the age of social media and hypervisibility, it makes coming out quite messy, tense, and damaging.

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The criticism of Cardi B also sounds a lot like an allegation of queerbaiting, but “…there’s something wrong with accusing a person of queerbaiting based on how they publicly express themselves,” as The Swaddle previously noted of Harry accusing Styles was from queerbaiting. Incidentally, Styles was among the other celebrities who were called out along with Cardi B for never publicly dating anyone of the same sex.

But bisexuality does not fit easily into existing ways of understanding queer culture as a whole. Contrary to perceptions that bisexual people are “both straight and gay” or merely “experimenting,” research has found that bisexual individuals have a distinct, implicit bisexual identity that differs from perceptions and identifications of gay, lesbian or straight people. This means that the internet culture, which demands a certain performance of queerness from queer people, homogenizes very different identities under one roof. But internet culture merely inherited a culture of erasure from what preceded it: a cultural struggle to define queerness and mobilize against pain, marginalization, and harm. While it became necessary to draw clear boundaries, those who complicated those boundaries were left out not only politically but also culturally. But it doesn’t only harming bisexual people – it undermines queerness itself.

Associated with The Swaddle:

What people get wrong about bisexuality

“Unlike sexuality, which admits of seemingly clear-cut distinctions of categorization, sex remains unruly … unwrapping queer, naming its constitutive parts, and the way these position us in relation to social harm and privilege, means being much more explicit about it.” what, who and why we do, what we do sexually, to examine how sex works as a regulatory force, and it means learning much more about what behaviors, communities, identities and politics are subsumed under the banner of queer, interrogated or championed,” notes gender researcher Juana María Rodríguez.

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When we interrogate celebrities who have already publicly come out as bisexual, we use sexuality as a regulatory force, requiring them to conform to a set of expected behaviors and rules, or risk being voided entirely. Likewise, anyone else who identifies as bisexual is expected to adhere to the same norms.

“Bisexuality is an often invisible identity. Heterosexual and homosexual communities contribute to bisexual annihilation by acting together to protect a binary system complicated and disrupted by the possibility and existence of bisexuality,” reads another analysis of bisexual annihilation not only in the mainstream media but also in queer communities.

Over time, cultural fears regarding sexuality have led to a situation where a person is viewed as either heterosexual or homosexual based on their apparent behaviors and signifiers. “Bisexuals in relationships often conform to the sexual orientation dictated by that relationship rather than maintaining their bisexual status,” the study found. And that’s the assumption implicit in celebrity social media appeals: If they’ve only been spotted dating the “opposite” sex (itself a misnomer), they must be straight — and lying, of course. But the argument goes the other way as well: When celebrities signify queerness, they are accused of walking right by or accessing the privilege of heterosexuality.

Scientists have found that the insistence on maintaining the heterosexual-gay binary in this way is a social construct – if bisexual people are not visible it is not because of a lack of numbers. Kenji Yoshino noted that an “epistemic contract” between straight and gay people ensures that sexual orientation remains a stable category, sex is still an axis of identity, and monogamy is upheld. The existence of bisexuality threatens all three assumptions, making its eradication in popular culture one that aims to Status quo.

Associated with The Swaddle:

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As a result, bisexual people become easy targets for accusations of “leaning” or “double talking” from both straight and gay people. “[Q]Outer identity politics has necessarily led to the construction of definitions of queer identities whose content is characterized by the inversion of constructions of heterosexuality. While this has facilitated coherence among queers and an oppositional stance toward heterosexism, it has also resulted in certain avenues of study of queer sexuality being blocked,” notes scholar Stacy Young.

Even more troubling, it speaks to a larger culture of disbelief about bisexual people’s experiences — and their own articulation of truth. “In the public declaration of one’s own gender identity (or their sexual orientation, in my view), they make a social claim – they authorize how they want to be seen and treated socially… it is an ethical matter that bi-identified individuals and others may (or may not) determine and disclose their sexual orientation. To be denied this constitutes a violation in a morally significant way, in that it amounts to a violation of autonomy and a violation of their ability to determine how their sexuality is understood in the social sphere,” writes Heather Stewart aptly what bisexual annihilation means makes harmful.

Not only does it deny the truth of what a person is about to reveal — it also actively demands a performance that may not correspond to their identity, sacrificing privacy to “prove” the validity of their speech.

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