Insecurity and identity - Embracing my bisexual self

Beeld door Nelleke Broeze
Beeld door Nelleke Broeze
Nienke Amarins Hettinga (redacteur)

"Sexual freedom is magnificent and fragile,’’ a bold statement that dr. Julia Shaw starts off with in her book ‘’Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality.’’ This sounds familiar; Embracing my bisexuality is a complex but exciting journey with ongoing uncertainty. As a bisexual person, I've struggled to express my identity to friends, family, and partners. I wonder if my lack of relationships with women or non-binary individuals automatically categorises me as straight. But my attraction to multiple genders is about what really moves me, not ticking relationship boxes. Sometimes, I feel pressured to validate my bisexuality by dating people from various backgrounds. This journey makes me question if my feelings and experiences are enough to confidently claim the "bi" label.

This is what the scientific folks call '’internalised biphobia.’' To understand this, we have to look at external biphobia first, which can take the form of othering or erasure of bisexual people. Othering is a sociological concept that describes the process of treating certain groups of people as different or "other" in comparison to the dominant or majority group. In the context of bisexuality, othering can involve treating bisexual individuals as somehow less legitimate or less authentic than those who identify as strictly heterosexual or homosexual. This can manifest through stereotypes, misconceptions, or discrimination against bisexual people. 

Bisexual erasure refers to the tendency to overlook, ignore, or invalidate the existence and experiences of bisexual individuals. This can occur when people assume that someone is either gay/lesbian or heterosexual based on their current or past relationships, effectively erasing their bisexual identity. But erasure can also happen when bisexual individuals themselves feel pressured to conform to societal norms or fit into binary notions of sexuality. That is where internalised biphobia comes into play. It is the experience of judging and doubting your bisexuality as either not real or something to feel shame about. For me, dealing with this internalised biphobia can mess with my confidence. So, in this article I’m going to dive into my own bisexuality and the insecurities that come along with it, using bits from Dr. Julia Shaw's book, 'Bi: The hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality.'

Exploring bisexuality's past and complexity

The first thing that got me was how the word bisexuality has been around for almost as long as heterosexual. Shaw writes that Karl Maria Kertbeny, an Austrian writer, journalist, and translator, found the need to label and define the sexual norm so that he could explain how same-sex desires and sexual behaviours contrasted with it. This is why he came up with the terms ‘’heterosexual’’ and ‘’homosexual’ in 1869. Fun fact, a gay rights activist coined the word heterosexual as a by-product of creating the word homosexual. 

Not long after this, bi, or two, started to be used to refer to people who had both homosexual and heterosexual desires. A way that bisexual researchers often talk about this is that bi in bisexual means two, but the two are not men and women, they are same and other. Did you know? Do people know that being bisexual means you’re attracted to two or more genders? This one sentence has boosted my confidence in embracing the label of "bi" but has also made it clear to me that bisexuality is all about embracing the "same and other," expanding beyond the traditional male-female binary. For me, bisexuality isn't about limiting myself to just men and women – it's about being open to human diversity and connecting with people for who they are, not what gender they happen to be. 

But how did I stumble upon this self-discovery? Like many, it all began as a teenager when I ventured into the realm of online quizzes that proudly exclaimed, ‘’Are you gay?’’ These tests guided me through my desires, behaviours, and the journey of my identity formation. Shaw explains that these online scales are all based on the Kinsey Scale, published in 1953 by Alfred Kinsey and Wardell Pomeroy, which measures sexuality from zero to six, from entirely heterosexual to entirely homosexual behaviour and desire. Interestingly, without explicitly calling any of these categories bisexual, five out of the seven options land within the bisexual universe. 

Kinsey flipped around sexual norms; instead of heterosexuality being the default, he declared that bisexuality deserved the centre stage. Imagine a world where the question wasn't, "Are you straight or gay?" but rather, "Aren't we all a bit bi?" However, as Shaw points out, the Kinsey Scale inadvertently plants a seed of misconception, suggesting that bisexual folks are merely a blend of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Telling people to choose a number between zero and six had a profound impact on how scholars and queer people themselves talked about sexuality. 

Navigating insecurities and doubts 

This idea, Shaw explains, is part of what fueled the fire against bisexual people: ‘’When bisexuality is seen as ‘’partially straight,’’ it could be associated with the problems that gay liberationists linked to heterosexuality.’’ Some queer activists accused bisexual people of ‘’having their cake and eating it too’’ - in other words, ‘’appearing heterosexual by day and homosexual by night’’ Bisexual people are assumed to be able to take advantage of ‘’sexual camouflage,’’ blending into both homosexual and heterosexual spaces. Despite prevalent myths suggesting dishonesty among bisexual individuals, especially those who've only dated one gender, the reality is quite different. Bisexual people often face complex challenges due to double discrimination, leading to them being less likely to openly embrace their identity and struggling with internalised biases.  

This phenomenon is called double discrimination; Discrimination from both the heterosexual and homosexual communities. And this discrimination, Shaw explains, has a long history. During the AIDS epidemic, bisexual men were stigmatised as "AIDS bridges," blamed for spreading the disease from the gay world to the straight world. This led to rejection from both communities. Similarly, in the 1980s, bisexual women were often unwelcome in lesbian spaces, seen as a threat to feminism. They were viewed as "fence sitters" and "untrustworthy" due to their connections with men. Bisexuals were unfairly reduced to being solely about sexual experiences, with bisexual women being labelled as failed lesbians or even sexual predators.  This dual discrimination complexifies stigma management, leading to lower rates of openness compared to other sexual minorities. They also contend with internalised biphobia, uncertainty about their identity, and downplay the significance of their bisexuality. In other words, Shaw explains, bisexual people are often sidelined in queer communities which leads to an overall sense that she thinks persists to this day, that queer spaces and events aren’t for bisexual people. 

As someone who's bisexual, I've often felt like I'm on the sidelines when it comes to Pride and the LGBTQ+ scene. It's like I've been a supporter rather than a full-fledged member. I've had moments when I've doubted if I even belong to the LGBTQ+ community because I don't "look queer" and haven't faced as much oppression. Sometimes it feels like my bisexuality isn't taken seriously by either the straight or gay communities, and I question it myself. My close circle doesn't really acknowledge it either, because I downplay my bisexuality, thinking it's not a big deal. I feel like I need to defend my sexuality when assumptions about being straight arise. Is it essential to prove my bisexuality by engaging with both genders? These questions trouble me, making me doubt my identity regardless of my past experiences. Am I genuinely queer, even though I know I'm attracted to multiple sexes? When people see me dating men, do they assume I'm straight? Does that make me less queer? How do I meet the criteria of 'queerness' within the LGBTQ+ community, and do experiences,  like kissing a girl, make me more bisexual? These questions underline the complexity of navigating my identity in a society that often tries to define it for me.

Yay, bisexuality! 

Shaw's book opened up a conversation with myself that led to being more understanding and feeling more empathy towards my struggles and my bisexuality. It made my bisexuality more visible, to me and by writing this piece to others. It has made me braver to give my sexual identity some thought rather than just accepting default heterosexuality. 

I am still seen as heterosexual by most people, but I look just alternative enough that some people registered that I might not be. Shaw herself describes this as that she ‘’sometimes feels like a boy and sometimes she feels like a girl.’’ It's not about identifying as a different gender but embracing a mix of masculine and feminine traits. My sexuality and presentation don't always align, and some days I'm attracted to femininity while dressing femininely, other days I feel masculine while dating a guy, without feeling like I've switched orientations. And occasionally, I envision myself in a traditional straight relationship.

However, Shaw has made me more confident to let my same-sex encounters destabilise who I think I am. Because sexual behaviour is a nice way to connect with each other, and because it is fun. And, again unsurprisingly, sexual behaviour can be social and fun between all genders. It has taught me that; In the past, I’d be less confident to seek out sexual experiences with others for fears of not being queer enough. In reality, my sexual experiences aren’t the only thing that defines my sexuality. No one wonders how they know that they are heterosexual. The same applies to bisexuality. No matter our sexual experiences, if you are attracted to more than one gender, you are bisexual. There’s no need to deny or minimise my queerness. I respect everyone’s gender and sexual orientation, and I belong in the LGBTQIA+ community. I am not ‘on the way’ to a monosexual identity. Sexuality can shift and change over time, but it doesn’t mean I’m confused. It doesn’t make my sexuality now any less real or valid.I’m not straight. I’m not gay. I’m bisexual.


‘’Bi: The Hidden Culture, History and Science of Bisexuality’’ - dr. Julia Shaw 

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