What Does Bi Erasure Look Like?
As a bi activist, I am frequently asked why? Why does it matter, why do we care about bi erasure? After all, it isn’t actually malicious, is it? People simply assume that you are lesbian/gay if they see you with someone of the same sex or straight if they see you with someone of the opposite sex. Why is it so important to correct people when they make this totally innocent assumption?
There are a lot of reasons it matters. We are made up of our experiences; when someone makes a completely incorrect assumption about who we are and who we have been, they erase a part of us. They are telling us that they don’t care to know us and that a part of who we are doesn’t matter. In the case of someone assuming that you are straight because they see you with an opposite sex partner, they erase all of your previous same sex relationships. They erase a part of you.
I am half Korean and half white; the result is that I look pretty racially ambiguous. I enjoy that ambiguity at times, but also get frustrated when people assume that I am white or that I have always “passed” as white. I accept the privilege my occasional (unintentional) passing has allowed me, but by no means do I want my whiteness to be assumed. My experiences of as a woman of color are part of who I am. Being teased as a child and fetishized as an adolescent and adult because of my race inform who I am now. The same is true of bisexuality. It matters. Just because a person seems one way in an instant, it doesn’t erase all of their other experiences.
It isn’t malicious, but these types of erasure are indicative of a society that isn’t as open as it may pretend to be. When you assume that someone is white, or monosexual, or cis gendered you are telling them that these are natural states. Everything outside of that dominant experience is unnatural, other, or exotic. This is an incredibly hurtful attitude to the many people who do not fit in this very narrow mold of “normal”. And it is simply factually incorrect. The vast majority of the population are not white, cis gender monosexuals.
The fact that so many people are hesitant to come out isn’t surprising when the entire world is telling them they should fit into this very specific mold. This creates a feedback loop. People don’t come out because they feel isolated and alone, which reinforces the idea that there are very few bi folks, which in turn makes everyone feel more isolated and alone.
Emotionally this is a brutal cycle, making a lot of people feel like they are being forced back into the closet even after they’ve come out to friends and family. By assuming someone is gay, straight, or lesbian you are also telling them that’s what they should be. Even if it isn’t your intention, that is often what is being heard. Remember, people’s experience of what you say now is informed by their past experiences. Although you might not mean it that way, someone who’s been told repeatedly that bisexuality doesn’t exist, might hear it that way. And no, they are not just being “too sensitive.”
This week the headlines gave us a much less abstract example of why bi erasure matters.
Ray Fuller, a Jamaican man, was just denied asylum because the immigration judge did not understand bisexuality. Although Fuller had faced persecution in Jamaica for having relationships with men, it was decided he couldn’t be bisexual because he was married to a woman (as if bi people never marry women). In Jamaica Fuller had been disowned, called slurs, stoned, had his face sliced open, and been shot – in retaliation to his sexual relationships with men. He also potentially faces a prison in Jamaica where homosexual sex between men carries a 10 year prison sentence.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld this decision in a 2-1 vote. In his dissent, Judge Richard Posner wrote,
The weakest part of the immigration judge’s opinion is its conclusion that Fuller is not bisexual, a conclusion premised on the fact that he’s had sexual relations with women (including a marriage). Apparently the immigration judge does not know the meaning of bisexual. The fact that she refused even to believe there is hostility to bisexuals in Jamaica suggests a closed mind and gravely undermines her critical finding that Fuller is not bisexual.
I may not always agree with Posner, but yay for him in this case. Fuller’s past is not without complications. He was convicted of criminal sexual assault, a serious crime, which some would say brings his credibility into question. Posner points out, and I agree, that that was not the reason given for his asylum being denied. The details of his past that Fuller recalled inconsistently have nothing to do with his bisexuality or the status of bi people in Jamaica. The argument against his asylum was centered on the idea that he cannot be bisexual because he was married to a woman and had multiple children with multiple women. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what bisexuality means at the base of Fuller’s denial. I am curious to hear what the immigration judge thought bisexuality does mean.
This was just one case, but it was not the first and certainly won’t be the last. Earlier this year, Orashia Edwards, also from Jamaica, was finally granted asylum in the UK after a three and a half year battle. His request was for asylum was initially denied because he had been married to a woman. His two-year relationship with a man and the photos he provided of him having sex with a man were not considered sufficient evidence of his bisexuality. Once again a profound misunderstanding of the “bi” part of bisexuality led this judge to make a huge decision without even bothering to learn what the orientation means.
So, you ask, why does bi erasure matter? Because, for example, when it’s a matter of life or death, when someone is applying for asylum, our judges frequently don’t have a basic understanding of bisexuality. They go forward making decision without even bothering to learn what bisexuality means. That is one concrete example of why overcoming bi erasure is so important. If we were to agree, as a society, not to assumer that monosexuality is some kind of natural default; this ignorance would be near impossible. People would be aware of the out bi people around them, and bi folks would be much more comfortable coming out. As it is, the justice system is totally comfortable with bi erasure. The message these rulings send out is loud and clear. As far as the justice system is concerned, bisexuality does not exist, and I think that that is unacceptable.