Writer and activist Lois Shearing shares the personal story behind hashtag campaign, #DoBetterBiUs
BY LOIS SHEARING
As a child, I was sent home with a note telling my parents that The Beano was not appropriate for class reading hour and could I please be sent with something more substantial tomorrow. Such was my love for The Beano that I had boxes and boxes full stuffed under my bed, ranging back to the 70s. But as I attempted to declutter them recently (they were still taking up valuable storage at my parents’ house) I came to a sad realisation: they were queerphobic AF.
The main storylines always revolved around Dennis, a tough boy’s-boy bullying his schoolmates for being too feminine. In earlier copies the terms “sissy” and “pansy”, easily recognisable trans/homophobic slurs, were used liberally against Walter and his crew for crimes such as playing doctors, being clean, and enjoying cakes. Many of the earlier comics were also deeply misogynistic and racist, and frequently featured caricatures of Asian stereotypes for cheap laughs.
I’m not sure why I was surprised comics from the 80s and 90s were like this, but it still stung. I spent my childhood as a young bi girl pouring over these comics, running down to the shops every Thursday with £1, and right under my nose, they were treating my bi, gay, and trans siblings as punchlines.
Reflecting on it now, much of the media I loved when I was younger never loved me back. Scrubs, my all-time favourite show was biphobic as hell, constantly playing up Elliot’s unspoken bisexuality as a joke and taboo. The Todd, read by many as pansexual, was portrayed as a sex-crazed predator, whose multi-gender desire was either the result or cause of his deep sexism.
In one episode, Carla and Elliot decide that of course, the Todd must be gay, because he’s shown attraction to men and disrespects women. Not only does this rely on homophobic stereotypes that gay men are sexed crazed and misogynistic, it denies the existence of m-spec people (on the multi-gender attracted spectrum) during a time when TV had a complete drought of them.
But it wasn’t just mainstream media that didn’t return my affections; I’ve grown to realise that much of the gay media I clung to as a young women coming out also perpetuated biphobia.
Lost And Delirious, the first film I ever saw where girls could love and kiss other girls, revolves around the idea that behaviourally bisexual women (neither of the girls ever self-identity but it’s implied that Victoria is bisexual) will leave you for a man and break your heart.
In many other gay films or TV, bisexuals just don’t really exist. If they do, like in The L Word or Orange Is The New Black, their storylines generally include cheating or leaving their same-gender partner in search of a “care-free straight life”.
Bisexuals are still some of the least represented people in the media. For the few storylines that do exist to revolve around cheating and deception – even within gay media – is deeply hurtful to our community. Orange Is The New Black still pushes the trope that bisexuals are averse to labels with Piper never being referred to or referring to herself as bisexual.
In its 2017 Where We Are on TV report, GLAAD found 28% of characters on primetime TV were bi, (with the significant majority being female) a slight decrease from 2016. GLAAD also noted that much of the representation still uses many of the harmful stereotypes previously seen in the media, including:
- Bi characters using sex merely as a transaction or for manipulation
- The character’s bisexuality is treated as temporary or a plot device
- Bi characters are depicted as untrustworthy or immoral
“While representations of bisexual+ characters have improved in some ways, we do still see many characters whose schemes are tied directly to their bisexual+ identity,” the report states.
This kind of representation doesn’t live up to the realities faced by the bisexual community. Bi women are 2.6 times more likely than straight women and 3.5 times more likely than lesbians to be raped or abused. Bisexual men are also 6.3 times more likely, and bisexual women 5.9 times more likely than straight people, to have mental health issues – see page XX for more on this.
Growing up in rural town meant having few LGBT+ people around and even fewer queer spaces to access. I was the first of my friends to come out as bisexual. Often, the only time I felt like I was “with” other queer people was when I was hidden in my room watching The Truth About Jane or But I’m A Cheerleader. Sadly, though, none of those characters were ever bisexual like me. So I pieced my identity together with fragments of the media I could relate to.
For minorities within the bisexual community – trans, disabled, plus-size and BME bisexuals – the chances of fulfilling, well-rounded and relatable representation is even smaller. The 2017 GLAAD reported only 30% of LGBT+ characters were BME, while there was only 17 total trans characters. The report did not provide a breakdown of how many of those characters were bisexual.
Slowly, though, things are improving. The last 12 months have seen two kick-ass bisexual women take to the big screen; Wonder Woman and Lorraine in Atomic Blonde. And Emmy award-winning Black Mirror episode San Junipero’s focus on an unapologetic bi woman of colour as she fell in love with another woman while still defending her multi-gender attraction was a breakthrough moment in TV for which my heart stood still.
Bi people, particularly women, are starting to appear in reality TV shows too, like on Naked Attraction or The Bachelor. And let’s not forget possibly the most important bi storyline of the year – Rosa Diaz’s coming out in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Detective Diaz’s hard-hitting and realistic coming out showed just how good bi representation can be if writers listen and collaborate with actual bi people.
It’s been been eight years since I managed to come out and in that time I’ve experienced plenty of homophobia and plenty of biphobia, but this hasn’t stopped me being attracted to people all over the gender spectrum. I knew I was bisexual before I even knew what bisexuality was, but for the young questioning bisexual people of today, it may not be as easy for them to come to the same conclusion. That’s why representation is so important.
But I wonder, in another eight years time, will young bi people still look back at the media they poured over and adored and realise it was feeding them lies about themselves the whole time? Lies that they’re having to unlearn and undo the damage it caused them in their formative years? Will they feel betrayed by the characters they loved and stories that helped them find themselves, too?
I’m still nostalgic for The Beano, I still love Scrubs, and I’m grateful to Lost And Delirious for helping me figure out my feelings toward women (and introducing me to Ani Difranco, as even now I take comfort in her unapologetic bisexuality). But I can also see the damage these storylines did as I was trying to find myself, and hope that young bisexuals today won’t need to fall back on media that doesn’t love them back.
#DoBetterBiUs is a campaign which encourages bi people and allies to call out when media and organisations have failed to properly representative, protect, or support the bi community. Find out more on Twitter.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!