By Sarah Krichel
Sarah Rowe had a huge, gut-wrenching crush. Make that two crushes. Rowe and her friend Lucas* were ready to walk home together after another long day in their freshman year in high school. It was nearing 5 p.m. when Rowe’s best friend, Amelia*, Lucas’ girlfriend, came through the empty hallway. She was fighting with some other friends at the time and needed Rowe on her side. Amelia grabbed Rowe by the shoulders tightly, pulled her aside and shook her purposefully. “You’re my best friend,” Amelia told Rowe. “We’re going to be best friends forever.”
Rowe felt butterflies in her stomach, but forced herself to listen to her inner monologue in that moment: Don’t lean in and kiss her. Don’t lean in and kiss her. Do. Not. Kiss her.
After making her case for Rowe’s loyalty, Amelia planted a kiss on her boyfriend and fled. Rowe recognized her friend was straight. If she ever disclosed her feelings, the friendship would surely end. So she decided to throw herself into the crush she had on Lucas. At least a fraction more hope existed there.
Rowe’s high school heartbreak is reminiscent of any innocent crush or young relationship. But once Rowe came out, her love life became less about finding “the one” and more about who she was attracted to. To others, the fact that Rowe is attracted to more than one gender encapsulated her identity.
Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization for LGBT+ equality, launched its second national inquiry into homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on Canadian post-secondary campuses in October. In 2012, their first inquiry found that 70 per cent of participating LGBTQ+ identifying students in Canadian schools reported hearing homophobic remarks every day in school, and 10 per cent reported hearing such remarks from teachers.
But biphobia for women and femme people often takes place in nuanced ways. When Rowe previously came out to her male friends, the usual responses consisted of “it’s just a phase” accusations—something all too familiar in the bisexual community. Other times, reactions have to do with threesomes, asking whether she’s “even had sex with a woman before” or random sex questions because they assume Rowe’s some sort of expert. “Everything I did and everything I said just became a little more sexual.”
Claire Davis was never on the fence about her bisexuality. But having to continuously reassure her own girlfriend of her queerness slowly chipped away at Davis’ confidence in what her own truth was. Are you sure you’re gay?: an unanticipated question for somebody in an on-again-off-again relationship of about a year and a half—yet Davis had to deal with it on a regular basis.
Disbelief and pressure to come out persisted in the group of queer friends the two hung out with. “If you don’t come out, then we don’t believe that you’re actually queer,” they said to Davis, after an intoxicated night sitting on a kitchen floor at 3 a.m. Davis felt if she didn’t come out soon, she would be ousted from the queer community by the very people that she sought approval from. Misconceptions of bisexuality don’t exist only among straight people.
When she came out to her family, the validation also wasn’t there. She was inclined to keep her identity a secret as she became more self-conscious of how people perceived her. To her queer friends, she was an in-the-closet straight person, slutty and confused about who she wants. To straight people, she was the “warden of the queer land”—the person anyone could ask sex questions to. Davis was hypersexualized on both ends and wasn’t being perceived as who she really is: someone simply willing to love anyone and everyone.
“[They’re] pretty quick to push bi people out, because we’re just not gay enough.”
Being bisexual is often perceived as “fake queer,” as Davis puts it, and as someone seeking attention because they just can’t decide on one gender. People also often assume their bi partner is more promiscuous due to being attracted to more than one gender and consequentially, assumed to be cheaters. By anyone, straight or gay, Davis’ sexuality was sexualized.
“I wanted them to accept me in that community,” Davis remembers. “People that are supposed to be welcoming and understanding … those same people are the ones that are pretty quick to push bi people out, because we’re just not gay enough.” She says she’s perceived as being confused about what she wants.
The bi identity itself is often dismissed, made invisible and degraded. Another problem is that data doesn’t exist for these experiences—according to a report from Researching for LGBTQ Health, the organization found that studies which probe treatment of LGBTQ+ people tend to overlook the unique experiences of the “B.”
Navigating biphobia can be difficult with little statistics to cite and little to no access to support or resources. This shortage of resources is also prevalent in local book stores. Glad Day Bookshop is a Toronto store dedicated to LGBTQ+ content on Church Street. But books on bisexuality and biphobia exist only on one shelf, with some content interspersed in other sections. Content for sale remains limited when it hardly exists. Gay and lesbian fiction are more easily found in LGBTQ+ specific retailers, leaving bi folks with few resources.
“What you’re seeing as a result is this kind of biphobia going unchecked,” Davis says. “People having to just carry their experience on their own and not having a community to check in with … That’s even more for people who live outside of cities or are in isolated situations.”
Shiva Safari, a bisexual, LGBTQ+ therapist who specializes in collaborative, emotionally-focused therapy, says it’s all about the specific experience for the person—because contrary to popular belief, every bisexual person is very different from the next. Safari advises that rather than focusing on the condescension and sexualization from within and outside of the community, it’s good to talk about your feelings and validate them in a safe space. “It’s usually a big relief to acknowledge your sadness.”
While this isn’t always accessible, Davis suggests turning to visibility. According to Davis, who is a coordinator for the Ryerson Students’ Union Equity Centre, this plays an important role in dismantling this category of biphobia.
“If you feel like you’re bisexual, no one can tell you you’re not.”
One year ago, Davis took to her passion for embroidery to make a testament to her bisexuality. The piece depicts a two-headed snake, just born, on the verge of death. It elicits the truth of being stuck in one body but having more than one direction to go in. She finds the animal unnecessarily politicized, just like her sexuality. “It’s just been born, and it probably won’t last very long in its pure existence,” Davis says. But unlike the baby two-headed snake, Davis won’t let unwarranted opinions stifle who she is.
“I’m not out, but I’m really glad I have someone like you in my life,” some bi folks told her upon seeing the piece.
Once Davis learned about the alternatives to the stringent definitions of each letter, she didn’t question herself—unlike Rowe, who questioned her own identity after constantly being challenged for it.
After Rowe came out she was ashamed for “daring” to come out as bi because she never had sex with a woman. “It’s just the mere thought of having to prove myself as a bisexual woman,” Rowe says.
Nothing ever came to be between neither Rowe and Amelia, nor Rowe and Lucas. But some months after their moment in the hallway, an innocent, curious dare unexpectedly enticed Rowe to explore her sexuality again. She and her friends were curious to know if it was possible to breathe while kissing. It didn’t take them long to learn it was, and they kissed a few more times that night. And it felt right for Rowe.
After that night, Rowe went on another hiatus from exploring her sexuality after the girl from that night told her to “never speak of this again” the next morning. It wasn’t until she got to Ryerson and started frequenting Toronto’s gay clubs and bars that she became more comfortable being honest about who she was. While she still struggles with people sexualizing her on a regular basis, she’s honest about who she is at the very least.
Being bisexual is many things. It’s constantly facing threesome requests, assumed BDSM knowledge and presumed STDs. It’s a lack of support and resources on your local bookshelves. It’s fighting for equal rights alongside an oppressed community that doesn’t seem to want to accept you either. It’s butterflies in your stomach that you’re told are fake, temporary and attention-seeking.
What bisexuality is not, however, is a factor determined by anyone other than yourself. “If you feel like you’re bisexual,” Rowe says, “no one can tell you you’re not.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.