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Bi visibility: how to be a good friend

Bi visibility: how to be a good friend

A couple of bits from me for bi awareness week.

First I’ll be on this panel tonight talking about bi visibility and mental health. ELOP LGBT centre are organising this, who offer great support to LGBT folks in North and East London.

Second, thanks to Paisley Gilmour for including me in her great piece for Cosmo on ‘how straight people can be better to their bisexual friends‘. You can read the full interview I did with Paisley below…

How does coming out as bi, or being bi, affect friendships with cishet people?

Obviously it depends a lot on the cishet people concerned, but in a situation where most of your friends are cishet identified it can be hard indeed to be the one person who is bi, pan, or queer identified. It is often the case that people are ‘recloseted’ by their friends even after coming out to them as bi. If they’re not actively in a queer romantic/sexual relationship they’re assumed to be ‘really’ straight.

This relates to the common popular stereotypes of bi/pan sexuality being ‘just a phase’, ‘not real’, etc. And that relates to the cultural assumption that sexuality is binary: you’re either straight or you’re gay. Interestingly this is also very patriarchal: bi women tend to be assumed to be ‘really’ straight, and bi man as ‘really’ gay, as if everyone would default to being with a man given the chance! It also links to slut-shaming for women, as bi women are often assumed to be promiscuous.

It is stressful indeed to have to come out repeatedly to friends, to have to keep reminding them of your bi-ness, and to have it continually erased in this way. This might take the form, for example, of them assuming you are cishet even after being told otherwise, or of only expressing interest and enthusiasm about your dates who are the ‘opposite gender’.

This is all really important because we know that bi erasure, biphobia, and lack of support, takes a toll on bi people’s mental health, which tends to be worse than that of either straight or gay people. Also the rates of abusive relationships are higher for bi people because some partners will use their bi-ness against them, or act in controlling ways because they are threatened by it in a world which equates being bi with being untrustworthy betrayers.

Why are friendships so important for bi folks?

Given cultural biphobia and bi erasure, people may well have problems in their families and/or workplaces when they come out as bi. They may even not be able to be out in those contexts. This can be particularly the case where bi-ness intersects with other aspects of oppression. For example, it may feel unsafe for a bi person to come out to biphobic/homophobic parents, particularly if that might risk them losing their home, their community, and/or a carer if they are also disabled. Black women who are already highly sexualised in the workplace may fear the extra harassment they would receive if they were out there as bi.

For these reasons friendships can be vital. They should be one place where your bi-ness can be seen and mirrored by your close people, and a place where you can feel supported and like people are there for you. It can therefore be particularly painful if the people you have chosen to be close to – rather than being forced to be close to by birth or career – are unsupportive, ignorant, attacking, or bi-erasing.

Why can navigating friendships with cishet people as a bisexual/queer person be so hard?

It’s worth thinking a bit about what may be behind some cishet people struggling with bi/pan/queer friends.

First of all, remember that the majority of people experience some attraction to the ‘opposite gender’. According to a recent YouGov survey, the majority of young people are something other than ‘exclusively heterosexual’.

So it is probably the case that the person coming out as bi or queer in an otherwise cishet group prompts some degree of envy or discomfort in at least some of the others in the group. Some may be consciously hiding queerness from their friends, others may feel edgy or uncomfortable because it prompts them to question themselves in ways they haven’t done before. They may not want to look at what it brings up for them.

Some cishet friends – responding to stereotypes of bi-ness and promiscuity – will assume that somebody being bi means they will be attracted to them. There is often discomfort and distancing in friendships where there is the possibility of sexual attraction, compared to those where there is not, which is a real shame. And obviously being bi does not mean being attracted to everyone any more than being straight means being attracted to everyone of the ‘opposite gender’.

Finally, bi folks often find themselves questioning other norms around sex, gender and relationships, and more. This is partly because questioning one set of norms often leads to further questioning, and partly because of overlaps between bi community and trans, kink, polyamorous, and other communities. Again, friends may feel a sense of envy seeing these things opened up in a way that doesn’t feel possible for them. It may feel threatening to them, or it may create distance in a friendship where people are now on quite different life trajectories (e.g. towards marriage and nuclear family vs. towards an extended polycule of queers).

Bi, pan and queer folks can end up more educated around social justice issues more widely, due to common conversations in their communities, and this can also cause rifts with friends who are less keen to know about social injustice or examine their privileges.

How can we know when to educate, when to shrug off their comments, and even when to end a friendship?

Perhaps this is a broader question to ask of all the relationships in our lives, in an ongoing way. One of the problems with normative models of friendships – and partner and family relationships – is that there isn’t often a sense that consent should be at the heart of it. In fact there’s often quite a strong sense of duty and obligation: that you should be in this relationship because you were in the past, and that it should remain the same over time.

Consent means checking in, in an ongoing way, about whether a relationship is nourishing everybody in it, and – if not – what it would take to be more nourishing, whether the relationship container may need to change, or even whether people might need to go their separate ways.

A definition of consent would be that everyone involved feels free-enough and safe-enough to express themselves, their feelings, their needs, and their boundaries, knowing that these will be respected.

In the case of coming out as bi – as with any new thing – it’s fine for friends to need a little adjustment time. But if you are still not feeling free-enough and safe-enough to express your bi-ness, and confident of having it respected, after a while, then there is an issue!

It also should not be on any marginalised person to educate those around them. It’s okay to provide a couple of links of good information and expect people to educate themselves a bit. Again those who refuse to do this are giving you some important information right there!

Of course it can be really hard to have conversations about this with your friends if there is a genuine fear that you may lose them. I would suggest slowly, when it feels okay to do so, asking friends one-to-one if they’d be up for a conversation about what the friendship needs to do in order to be free enough and safe enough for both of you to bring yourselves fully. If people aren’t up for that, or if those conversations go badly, then focusing time and energy on cultivating friendships where you feel more seen and secure, is a good idea. It’s fine for this process to take a while though, and to get some therapeutic support if you find that kind of communication and boundary-setting hard, as many of us do.

Are friendships with other queer people easier? Should we be gravitating towards them?

One tough thing for bi people – certainly in the past – has been the fact that many have had these experiences with straight friends and have then turned to the gay community for friendship and support. Sadly many lesbians and gay men have struggled just as much – if not more so – with bi folks as cishet people have. This is called double discrimination and can be really devestating for people who then feel they don’t belong anywhere.

The same kinds of issue around recloseting, casual biphobia, mental health struggles, and relationship abuse, have played out for bi people in gay communities as much as they have in straight ones. Still many older bi folks in relationships with gay or lesbian identified people do not feel able to be out as bi.

There’s a history in gay communities of bi people being seen as ‘muddying the water’ in the campaign for gay rights, or of having privileges that lesbian and gay people don’t have, or of being untrustworthy and likely to return to the straight community at some stage.

For these reasons, bi communities have been extremely important to many bi people, and it can still be great to tap into bi-specific events and spaces on or off-line. Check out Bi Pride, The Bisexual Index, Bi Community News, Bis of colour, BiCon, Biscuit, and more in the UK.

However, in younger gay and queer communities there is often far more openness to bi and pan folks than there has been in the past, so it may well be that – if you are younger – the turn towards queer community is a much more positive one, and that you will find many other people there who identify in similar ways to you.

It’s certainly very helpful indeed to have friendships with people who mirror your sexuality back to you accurately, who celebrate all your relationships, and who offer you support. However, it’s worth being aware that no community is perfect, and most have some implicit norms about how people are expected to be and behave.

You are ‘bi/pan/queer enough’ whether or not you fit the ways of being bi, pan or queer that you see around you in your community. You may well find it’s useful to join some groups – or find some friends – specific to your intersections, if you don’t feel well reflected in the wider bi/pan/queer community. For example there are great QTIPOC groups, events, and helplines in many places.

The points made earlier about consensual relating are important for everyone to take seriously, and not something you can just assume to be the case in communities where people seem to be more like you. It can be the case that people surprise you, and those who are most supportive and celebratory are not always those in your specific community. For example, people who have experienced other forms of difference and oppression in their lives can sometimes be great friends or allies, and those committed to consensual relating without sharing an identity with you, can be a better bet than those who are more similar, but are not aware around consent.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Betshy

    24 September

    Really great post. It is true that there is much phobia in society towards bi people. It’s like suddenly conversion therapy attitudes and related beliefs becomes a double-edged sword. There are certain homo and hetero compulsions to change bisexual people into a defined sexuality, or to help them (even if they themselves do not feel they need the help being offered to them) find their path. It is very confusing because there is often a presupposition that a bisexual person is just a confused person, and sometimes it is these forms of peer pressure that truly becoming confusing.

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