‘If you say you’re bisexual, to me, that means you must be unhappy in your current relationship,’ a stranger told me at an LGBTI event a little while ago.
I was taken aback, torn between ‘What?!’ and ‘I’ve called myself bi through so many relationships now that I must be a really bad picker’. I went for ‘Oh. To me it just means that the reason I don’t fancy you isn’t your gender.’
In his remark lies the greatest challenge the bisexual – as distinct from gay or LGBTI – movement has faced across decades of bi organizing. The people who use ‘the B word’ as their label are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the range of people attracted to more than one gender. It’s easier for strange stereotypes to persist when most bis are hidden in plain sight.
When Britain’s Office for National Statistics asked about sexuality, they found only 0.5% of the population are bi. But yesterday’s research from independent polling organization YouGov paints a very different picture of the UK.
Given a Kinsey Scale line of sexuality from zero (only ever attracted to the opposite sex) to six (only ever attracted to the same sex), a fifth of people put themselves in the one to five range. That’s a big heap more than 0.5%.
Sure, YouGov called the UK’s General Election wrong, but they didn’t overestimate any of the parties to the tune of 40 times their actual support.
There are some peculiar figures in the statistics. Apparently there are no bisexuals in Scotland: news to Edinburgh’s Bi & Beyond, shortlisted in the Scottish LGBTI Awards.
As we move through age brackets the proportion of people identifying in that ‘one to five’ range diminishes from 43% of under 25s to just 7% in the over 65s.
What’s happening? Two things, I think: one is that the younger you are, the less you’ve grown up in a culture of biphobia and homophobia.
I was a teenager at the time of Section 28 – the UK law that sought to make homosexuality a thought crime. If you are half my age, for as long as you can remember we’ve had things like an equal age of consent and the right not to be sacked because of your sexual orientation. Access to information and a slowly growing range of media representations of bisexuals will make those figures grow in every age bracket over time.
Second, the fact older people are more likely to define themselves as totally straight or totally gay, is probably about social and relationship pressure.
For most of us, it’s hard to maintain a strong sense of yourself as bi if you’re in a long-term relationship with one partner. The world around you perceives you as gay or straight, and many of us tire of correcting the simple binary assumptions others make when they see two women, two men, or a mixed sex couple.
Whether a lazy ‘bi now, gay later’ slur or a partner who seems worried you keep mentioning your bisexuality, there’s still plenty of social pressure to keep quiet about being bisexual. From the workplace to domestic violence in the home, there’s a growing body of research showing the stresses of bi life in a gay/straight world.
So not such a surprise that when the survey asked for identity label rather than a Kinsey number, just 2% chose the label ‘bisexual’ – a tenth of the number we might expect to pick it.
But the most impactful figure in the YouGov report is that 43% of young people are open to sexual or romantic attraction whichever gender it might happen with. That is a brilliant sign of how social change in recent years has opened up possibilities.
For all of us trying to make it easier to be bi and raising the pink, purple and blue bi flag for this year’s Bi Visibility Day on 23 September we have two battles to fight: making it easier for the ‘one-to-fives’ to own the label bisexual, and making it easier for them to just get on with living a one-to-five life even if they’d rather not own it.