Navigating Academic Spaces When Bi

2/7/2017

In many ways, school comes easily to me. In addition to being a fast reader and good test taker, I have the advantages of being white and middle class, which makes it much easier to navigate academic spaces.  Because of this, I’m generally not as severely stressed about school as my peers. But there are moments when I experience a great deal of anxiety surrounding my academic experience, and most of them are the result of biphobia.

I first enrolled in a gender studies course during my first semester at a public university, having just transferred from community college. I was ecstatic to finally be free from general education requirements, and in a room full of students who shared my interests. But I quickly realized that even though most of my peers were genuinely interested in learning about gender and sexuality as prescribed by the textbook and the professor, many of them were extremely biphobic and unwilling to learn from the actual bisexual person sitting next to them.

In class we would often discuss material from the feminist movements of the 1970s, and my commentary on any biphobia present in the readings was generally met with eye rolling and a swift subject change. Some professors made an effort to placate me by saying something along the lines of, “Well, yes, this is from the 1970’s,” as if that was all that could be said about the matter. The more I spoke up, the more I felt the people in the classroom shutting down. I was not very well-liked in the department, and was probably known to many as “that chick who always complains about biphobia” or something to that effect.

The textbooks were another huge obstacle for me. The vast majority of them were outdated, and some contained incorrect, offensive ideas about bisexuality (such as the claim that only women can be bisexual, or that all women are bisexual). Textbooks and course glossaries often had incorrect definitions of bisexuality as well, such as “attracted to cisgender men and cisgender women” or “attracted to binary genders.” My attempts to discuss these definitions with professors rarely went well. Even when I would provide them with sources such as bi.org, they would usually say they were going to stick to whatever the textbook said. I wasn’t asking them to denounce the textbook altogether – I just wanted them to acknowledge the places where it was outdated or incorrect. Was that really too much to ask?

During my second semester at the small, private liberal arts college where I’m now working on my graduate degree, I took a class that was entirely dedicated to 1970s feminist literature. I knew this was a huge risk based on my previous experiences, but I found the motivation to follow through by thinking of myself as being in the space as a representative for bisexuality. Besides, this course was being taught at a women’s college (though the graduate programs are coed) where over a third of students identify as LGBTQ. If there was ever going to be a safe space, this would be it.

There was, however, something on the syllabus that made my stomach clench with anxiety. It was the 1973 essay by Loretta Ulmschneider, simply titled “Bisexuality.” I had already encountered it several times in my academic career, and it was one of the most emotionally damaging texts I had ever read. Essays like it crop up often in the gender studies branch of academia. They assert that bisexual women are undermining feminism, and that we’re “highly privileged” simply because we identify as bi.

As a feminist myself, there is something particularly upsetting about having someone try to convince me that my sexual orientation is inherently oppressive to women. Even though it originated in the 1970s, this kind of discourse is still common in gender studies classrooms, and is often considered foundational to queer theory.

During the class discussion of that article, I calmly dismantled the author’s argument, using information I had learned from my extensive academic research about bisexuality. Other students, however, sided with the author. “I just don’t understand why you’d want to participate in your own oppression,” one student said, looking directly at me. “Or why you’d want to participate in the oppression of other women.” She went on to say that while straight women do not have a choice in who they’re attracted to, “bisexual women have a responsibility to live as lesbians because they do have a choice.” We argued back and forth until the professor moved the conversation along to another topic.

When I got home after that class, I cried for an hour. At first, I couldn’t figure out what was so upsetting to me about this situation. After all, I was used to encountering biphobic comments on a daily basis, and usually made a point of not letting them get to me. Eventually, I realized why I was so upset. Even though I was providing sources as support for my argument, which is the baseline requirement in academia, my argument was still dismissed. People in a gender studies classroom found a lesbian’s 1973 opinion about bisexuality more reputable than the information provided by a bi person sitting right in front of them. That experience made me understand: biphobia is considered acceptable in academia, while bisexuality is not.

I recently had a conversation with my friend Sara Acevedo, a GEMS (Gender, Ethnicity, and Multicultural Studies) major at a state university, about the ways bisexuality is portrayed in academic settings. Sara expressed a lot of frustration around the patterns she sees in her gender and sexuality studies classes. “I see a lot of students who aren’t familiar with the subject [of queer theory] and they’re reading the same antiquated queer theory that I am, but they end up walking away with the idea that it’s okay to use offensive terms that were acceptable back in the 90s when these articles were written,” she said. “It makes me feel unsafe knowing they might go out into the world saying these things or thinking they’re correct. It makes me feel even more unsafe critiquing it in a room full of people who might side with the author.”

In our conversation, Sara and I asked a lot of questions. Who decides what is academic and what isn’t? In gender studies classrooms, where are the queer theory articles that move beyond “gay and lesbian”? How can we get our professors and peers to see bisexuality as legitimate if it is so rarely represented in the curriculum?

I’m still coming to terms with the love-hate relationship I have with higher education. I love the ways it’s helped me grow as a person, a thinker, and a writer. I love having access to a community of people who are constantly pushing the boundaries of their fields. But I hate the moments when it feels toxic – when the discourse is more important than the person sitting next to us, when we trample over each other in the pursuit of knowledge, praise, or superiority.
In the end, even gender studies classrooms may not be safe spaces. They contain the same biphobic microaggressions that bi folks encounter everywhere else in the world. I hope that somewhere out there, people are beginning to have better experiences. I hope there is a gender and sexuality studies class with people like Shiri Eisner and Julia Serano represented in the syllabus. I hope that even as we read and appreciate theory that was published 30 years ago, we can also read and appreciate theory that was published 3 months ago, because as important as it is to know where we came from, we can’t forget where we are now, or where we’re going.

 

Hannah Johnson
Hannah Johnson is an intersectional feminist, cat lady, and bisexual activist. Her writing has been featured in Bi Women Quarterly, Selfish Magazine, The Minetta Review, the Journal of Bisexuality, and more. She is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at Mills College.