Disclaimer: As someone (rightly) pointed out in comments, this essay is written from a white bisexual perspective and many of the conclusions will not apply to queers of color. In particular, remaining closeted or appearing straight does not buy queers of color much in the way of privilege, due to racism.
Do bisexuals have access to straight privilege? If so, which bisexuals and which particular privileges?
Straight privilege is all those things you get just by being, acting, or appearing straight. Conversely, straight privilege is all those things you lose when you are, act, or appear as queer. Straight privilege is typically invisible to those people who have it, because they are participating in a supposedly normal experience, one which is used to shape the entire cultural experience. However, straight privilege is visible to people who do not have it, because they are excluded from the “normal” experience. (For the purposes of this essay, “straight” should be taken to mean “heterosexual and cisgendered“.)
Straight privilege is not monolithic: it is possible to have some sorts of straight privilege while being denied other forms. So, in any discussion of straight privilege it is good to break it down into various types of privilege. I have organized some straight privileges here by the manner in which they are obtained. This is of course an incomplete list.
1) Privileges gained from being seen as straight. A straight appearance is a prerequisite for many positions of power or authority, and is helpful in most jobs. Looking straight helps protect a person from hate violence, and also protects from various other types of attack: verbal, emotional, economic. A straight appearance means that the initial judgement from others is much more likely to be positive, and it is almost never necessary to defend one’s straightness.
2) Privileges gained from being in a man/woman relationship. Such relationships are well-scripted by the culture, so they are much easier to imagine and execute than other sorts of relationships. Further, the culture supports and promotes such relationships at every turn: it is almost impossible to watch a movie or pick up a magazine without seeing man/woman relationships represented, analyzed, and/or celebrated. Being in such a relationship confers a strong social respectability.
3) Privileges gained from knowing oneself as straight. This self-knowledge puts a person in the normative position, so they rarely need to examine, question, or adapt their own sexuality or gender. This sense of being normal is good for the mental health, leading to lower rates of depression and suicide. Gender integrates seamlessly with sexuality, and both again integrate seamlessly into a life filled with invisible but helpful assumptions of straightness.
For a much longer but still incomplete list of straight privileges, visit this “invisible knapsack” site.
Self-identified bisexuals clearly do not have access to privileges that spring from knowing oneself as straight: these disappear as soon as we identify ourselves as bisexual. While there could be some argument that we could divide off parts of our personalities as straight, in practice I suspect that this does not happen. There is nothing seamless or normative about being bisexual.
However, bisexuals certainly can appear as straight, and we sometimes are in man/woman relationships. So we can partake of the first and second privilege mechanisms above, but any particular bisexual may not have the associated privileges. We can therefore conclude that:
Some bisexuals have a level of access to straight privilege.
I am one of these bisexuals. I come across as a somewhat effeminate man, so sometimes I am read as straight, and other times I am read as gay. (Every once in a while someone gets it right and identifies me as bisexual, but it is rare.) Those times I am read as straight, I get things for it: I feel safer, people are more likely to respect me, and so on. However, when I am read as gay, this goes away, and instead I get the occasional insult. I am good at creating an ambiguous appearance, so I am read as straight and gay in roughly similar proportions when I am alone.
However, I am dating a number of women. My man/woman relationships (calling them straight relationships would be decidedly inaccurate) provide me with many of the usual straight amenities: a place at the thanksgiving dinner table, sex advice columns that directly apply to me, the chance to fit in at the company social, and so on. I have not gotten these sorts of things in my sexual and romantic affairs with men.
There are other straight privileges, not in the above list, that I have access to. For example, when I came out as bisexual my parents definitely freaked out. However, I am quite certain that they would have freaked out on a whole different level if I had come out as gay or transgendered.
To summarize, I definitely have access to straight privilege of various sorts. However, my access to straight privilege is limited by various factors: self-identification, deviant gender appearance, and of course having sex with men. I have nowhere near the sort of privilege I would have if I were straight. While I do not really like the fact that straight privilege exists, I am happy to take advantage of it in a number of ways, like using it to gain familial acceptance.
Not all bisexuals have access to straight privilege. I know a bisexual woman who looks queer, who has been in a monogamous relationship with another woman for a decade or so. She receives no straight privileges.
Also, the experience of straight privilege is not unique to bisexuals, among queers. Some proportion of gay men, lesbians, and trans people pass as straight in particular situations, with all that that entails. Queer femme women and fully passing trans people struggle with the privilege associated with passing.
However, given that bisexuals suffer from a regime of invisibility and are spread out across the queer and straight worlds, we can probably assume that bisexuals as a group have more access to straight privilege than queers in general, even though individual bisexuals may have zero straight privilege. The existence of significant amounts of straight privilege among bisexuals has a number of effects that are not generally acknowledged in discourses on sexuality.
First, bisexuals are very diverse along lines of privilege. As noted, some bisexuals have no straight privilege. Others have most of the privileges associated with being straight. In between is a wide range of people with varying levels and sorts of privilege. This creates an odd situation, where the very power dynamic of sexuality that brings us together also produces wide variance among us.
In some ways, it may be inaccurate (from a power perspective) to speak of a single bisexual sexuality or identity. We can see this in the large number of people who have attractions across multiple genders but who do not choose the label bisexual. While some of this is due to biphobia, often these other labels more accurately locate them: heteroflexible, queer femme, pansexual, fluid, queer, “don’t like labels”, and a whole host of words that have been largely discarded, like “omnisexual”.
It is important to remember that the word bisexual was originally created by doctors, and they never meant it to actually apply to people. The modern idea of homosexuality was created a bit over a century ago, to address a crisis of white masculinity triggered by emancipation and the suffragist movements. Bisexuality was created at the same time as a necessary logical extension, but these same doctors never allowed for the possibility of bisexual people; they relegated bisexuality to formative stages and piecemeal potentials, and some of their original assumptions are still plaguing us. (This information is pulled from A History of Bisexuality, which I recommend.)
This is a long-winded way of saying that the idea of bisexuality was not actually created for bisexuals, and it generally not been propagated or maintained for the welfare of bisexuals. Therefore, it may be getting in our way in certain ways, even as it helps us in others. Bisexuals and others who desire across gender should consider embarking on a project where we creatively engage identity, in order to produce identities that are more useful in various ways. This is of course already happening, but is typically addressed in a piecemeal manner, based on the strategies that individuals come up with. The goal of this project would be a blossoming of allied identity categories. I have seen this happen in vibrant and growing subcultures. Polyamory has a huge lexicon for identifying particular nonmonogamy styles and situations. Transmen and queer women have been coming up with a set of identities for determining shades of gender, during the current trans renaissance.
Second, bisexuals are difficult to organize. There are huge number of self-identified bisexuals, comparable to the number of gay men, lesbians, kinksters, or swingers. (A 2002 CDC survey established that self-identified bisexuals made up at least 1.8% of men and 2.8% of women in the 18-44 age bracket.) However, despite having similar numbers, bisexuals are typically not organized to the level of these other communities.
(Quick disclaimer: nothing I say in the next couple paragraphs should be taken as belittling the efforts of bisexual organizers to date, or as saying we should drop current bisexual organizations. Given these problems, what has been accomplished and continues to be accomplished is very impressive, and should be continued.)
This failure to fully organize is partly due to the diversity of bisexuality along lines of privilege. Organizing all bisexuals means bringing together people who have no straight privilege with people who are almost fully privileged on the straight axis. From a power perspective, this is approximately the same as organizing gay men, lesbians, and trans people together with straight people. The problem of organizing bisexuals is therefore similar to the problem of organizing everyone in a single regime of sexuality. We see echoes of this issue both in people who identify as “sexual” or “don’t label me” instead of as bisexual, and also when frustrated bisexuals start labeling everyone else as bisexual, whether or not those people would agree: both these strategies can be viewed as conceptual attempts to organize across sexuality.
In addition, it may be that using LGBT models for organizing will simply not work to organize all bisexuals. These models do work for some bisexuals, namely those with less straight privilege or who spend a lot of time in queer communities (other than bisexual communities), and this group forms a solid core of the visible bisexual movement. This solid core is crucial for drawing attention to bisexual issues. For example, the recent work on bi health issues came out of this sort of organizing.
Of course, these bisexuals also operate well in LGT contexts, and so bi organizing is often overshadowed by non-bisexual queer organizing, as far as bi participation is concerned. This leads to the odd situation at Pride where there are plenty of bisexuals, but most of us are not in the bi contingent(s) or otherwise visible as an organized group.
In addition, LGBT models of organizing will not work well for bisexuals who have relatively more straight privilege or who prefer to operate in the straight community. The adversity associated with oppression is a major motivator to create tight-knit alternative communities, and bisexuals who have experienced less of this adversity are therefore somewhat less motivated to participate in LGBT-style organizations.
For these bisexuals, it may make more sense to come up with alternative models for organizing. There are a number of options here, and we should be guided by what already seems to be working. One approach is to organize a specific segment of the community: married bisexual women (in man/woman marriages), or kinky bisexuals, or what have you. Along these lines, probably the most active bi list in my area is primarily a hookup list for bi men. Another approach is to organize around needs that are not directly related to oppression, for example social or subculture needs instead of support or health needs. For example, at certain large kink, sex party, polyamory, or pagan events there are often more bisexuals present than at bisexual events. We should come up with creative ways to organize within these other communities, perhaps by creating bisexual caucuses or by finding ways to advertise the bisexual presence that already exists.
It is unfortunately overly ambitious to think we can organize across bisexuality, using the models we have. We may need to revise our definition of “organizing”, and come up with particularly bisexual techniques of organization that can operate in a wider culture that is hostile to bisexual association. “Organizing” may mean writing and publishing books on bisexuals in particular contexts (such as Look Both Ways, which addresses bisexuality and feminism). It may mean organizing to serve a particular need shared by many bisexuals. I have seen this with polyamory, which is in many ways a product of the drive for nonmonogamy associated with bisexuality (as I discuss in this paper). “Organizing” may mean finding ways to increase bi visibility without necessarily bringing bisexuals together. Along these lines, I have been trying to find ways to create visibility around the large number of invisible bisexuals at Pride, like distributing stickers that people can wear during the day.
Third, the existence of straight privilege among bisexuals can make it difficult for bisexuals to interact with other queers, especially if that privilege goes unacknowledged.
Straight privilege is often an subtext when queers exhibit biphobia. We can see this in various common (and typically irrational) lesbian and gay fears: that bisexuals are insufficiently committed, that we will dump a same-gender partner for an other-gender partner, that we will somehow betray or dilute the movement. All these fears are ridiculous and are not borne out by bi behavior, but I think they function as a stand-in for concerns around straight privilege. Similarly, the construction of “more queer” and “less queer”, while patently offensive to bisexuals (and the reason I do not identify as queer), is probably a reflection of a very real question around who has what sorts of privilege.
In order to address biphobia, it is crucial that we lay out the actual personal privilege situations of bisexuals. This undermines biphobia by actually presenting the common ground (in terms of power) that we do have with other queers. Instead of just implicitly or explicitly excluding bisexuals (which still happens frequently), organizations can include bisexuals based on such common ground, instead of using identity markers. It also inevitably brings up the fact that certain bisexuals lack straight privilege entirely, and they should be admitted without reservation into any queer space or organization.
A discussion of bisexual access to straight privilege also requires that we acknowledge that there will be certain problems of privilege associated with some bisexuals.
One place this shows up is in “straight creep”, the tendency of any queer organization or space to tend towards straight norms over time. I have seen this happen in a college sex and sexuality hotline: first it was largely LGB-staffed, then it was staffed with more bisexuals and less gay members, and eventually it was entirely staffed by bisexuals and straight people. While I suspect that this particular organization would have gone this way in any case due to being placed under the (straight) administration of the university, the presence of bisexuals probably hastened this process. In other words, bisexuals with straight privilege can sometimes act as a leading edge of straight creep.
With this in mind, it becomes more clear why some lesbian and gay organizations have a hard time including bisexuals. Often the people in these spaces have created and maintained queer space with a great effort and constant vigilance. This is especially true for lesbians, due to the problems of men’s access to women built into heterosexism. However, a common response by such organizers is to overreact against bisexuals, for the straight privilege they may or may not carry. Recently a woman was kicked off a San Francisco dyke list for identifying as bisexual, despite being on the list for over eleven years and having previously identified as lesbian. Clearly this is a travesty of biphobia, but such scenarios are fairly common.
There will always be bisexual and “multiple gender loving” people in queer organizations of every stripe, as it is the nature of bisexuals to be everywhere, and to pop up wherever they are not. We need to spread an understanding of sexuality and privilege so that such bisexuals can properly be included without reservation. At the same time, bisexuals with relatively more straight privilege (including myself) need to understand that we should only be able to access LGT space to the extent that we share common ground with the particular group. This came up recently when I joined a gay/bi poly men’s group in San Francisco, and the organizer asked that I refrain from discussing my man/woman relationships (which were all of my relationships at the time). This was biphobic in that it essentially required that I compartmentalize, but on the other hand I think he was expressing a very clear need to maintain the space relatively free of straight privilege. In retrospect, perhaps I could have worked with him on a way to do that which would have been more welcoming for me.
My point here is the bisexual community as a whole needs to drop “minority-within-a-minority” thinking. There a certain bisexuals who in fact do form a proper minority within the LGBT minority, in that they have the double disempowering wammy of both biphobia and low (or nonexistent) straight privilege. We of course should fight for unconditional acceptance in all queer spaces for these bisexuals, but we should not extrapolate their situation to the entire community.
For bisexuals who only have partial common ground with LGT power positions, we should envision a parallel and allied relationship with the other identity communities. As noted above, we should come up with particularly bisexual forms of organizing, and bring particularly bisexual advantages to the table. There are plenty such advantages, which I intend to enumerate in a future post. Sticking strictly to “minority-within-a-minority” positions obscures these and puts us in an unnecessarily disadvantaged conceptual space.
In summary, explicitly addressing and understanding straight privilege as owned by bisexuals is crucial on a number of fronts. It is required for any sort of serious self-analysis of our own movement. It is a necessary part of strengthening bisexual organizing. And it is a key part of creating and maintaining alliances with other queer movements.
Acknowledging privilege is rarely easy. It involves taking a painful look at one’s own situation and often severely messes with one’s identity. However, we have to start this process, because one of the central privileges of any privilege set is the ability to ignore and obscure one’s own privilege. We need to keep this conversation going, by being aware of privilege and bringing it up whenever appropriate.