Internalized biphobia is making dating seem impossible

R
asks:
I am a 17-going-on-18 year old bi girl, in my senior year of high school. I, like many people, do not fit the stereotype of a bisexual teenager- I dislike excessive attention, I am attracted to few people (just of a wider variety) and have no dating experience. Because of this, I have not come out, except to two of my closest friends, one of whom is pan themself. I can't help but feeling that people's ideas about bisexuality will lead them to make inaccurate assumptions about me, and give them the wrong idea about who I am as a person. This choice has prevented me from dating during my high school years, as no one knows who I am attracted to, and my cageyness about it has led most people to assume that I am uninterested in dating. This has been fine, but once I get into college, I'd like to start having a sex/love life. I should emphasize that my current school is VERY accepting of LGBT+ people- this is almost entirety my own issue. How do I communicate that I am interested in both men and women without constantly feeling like people are misjudging me?
Jacob replies:

Welcome to the wonderful world of being a bisexual queer and feeling weird about it! This often means spending our lives moving in and out of environments that are supportive and unsupportive to varying degrees and coming into contact with stereotypes which other people hold in their minds, our own doubts, and a whole host of helpful allies and co-queers.

The stereotypes you write about are designed to bring us down. Fear of them can leave us feeling so trapped. It sounds like that's where you are, and I'm so sorry you're in that place. It's not nice. Luckily, looking a little deeper into what is behind this fear can help. I hope I can demystify some of what feels fuzzy and hopefully along the way we can find some solutions to the frustrations you're facing.

Let’s start with a question: You describe your problem as “internalized biphobia."  What does that mean to you?

When I think of any kind of internalized bigotry, I think of it as something people have and often act from without being aware of it: as bias without awareness. I think of people who, for example, are in denial about their low self-esteem, directing their anger at people who are just like them, rather than the systems and structures that promote discrimination.

If I’m a gay man with internalized homophobia, I might spend a whole lot of time talking about how I hate gay men who “act too gay." If I’m a woman with internalized sexism, I might say I’m “not like other girls." If I am a person of color with internalized racism, I might say my community needs to stop being so “aggressive” if we want equality. I emphasize stereotypes, perhaps to be accepted by the dominant group and prove that I’m an exception. I wouldn’t even recognize that it’s homophobic/sexist/racist, I would just say that it’s true. That is how it’s internalized, and it’s a big way how sadly, many of us hurt our own causes until we recognize the internalized -phobia and start to do better.

However, I see you describe stereotypes and name them as biphobic. So, unlike my examples, I actually feel that you are starting with a healthy level of awareness. Go you! You have come to recognize certain stereotypes but (I think) do not agree with them. You recognize them but haven't internalized them.

That’s good! Because nope, bisexual people do not have more or fewer partners than anyone else, they are not more or less likely to enjoy receiving attention than anyone else, nor are they any more or less likely to find greater numbers of people attractive, and if any of those things were true for an individual, it wouldn’t be a problem, and importantly it wouldn’t be because of their bisexuality, just another part of their wider sexuality. These stereotypes just don’t represent the reality of being bisexual, but they are still perpetuated in various media and institutions.

In your question, you describe how your school feels accepting and you have people who know and support who you are. Then you seem apologetic when you say: “this is almost entirely my own issue,” as if to say that you aren’t subject to immediate homophobia or biphobia, and therefore the problem must be you.

I disagree with that, and it pains me to think of you blaming yourself that way. Just because those immediately closer to you as friends or members of your community are accepting and supportive doesn’t mean it's your responsibility to feel no hurt or to be unaffected by bigotry aimed at bi people from farther away. Even with the most supportive friends in the world, how can we be expected not to feel threatened in national or local environments where stereotypes are used to intimidate us, in the news, in popular culture or reactionary online groups? You are absolutely not alone feeling like this.

This isn’t an internal or unique problem, it’s a societal one. It's not your personal failing, it's society failing you.

In this situation, do look outside yourself. Bigotry is the result of other people’s decisions to perpetuate it, the blame lies firmly on their shoulders, and they are the ones who need to make a change.

You may want to help create change yourself by participating in activism, which can be pretty empowering. This could mean anything from donating to a cause you believe in, or signing a petition to marching down your street every day with a new hand-painted placard and a megaphone, which would sure be one way to come out! We may not be able to change people’s minds overnight, but if speaking out can nudge things in the right direction it can be a way to release a degree of that tension. Shifting the weight of harmful social attitudes is a thing that takes time from many people, but it is something you can contribute to. It can even make “coming out” into an easier task.


You asked, in the context of feeling these stereotypes weigh heavy on you, how you can come out. There's not one correct way, but I can think of a variety of tactics which can help. You can consider which of the following could fit you and your situation.

#1

The first tactic is just to be direct and to call out stereotypes, because as you emerge out of the closet, so too can your opinions and feelings. You may choose to tackle stereotypes head-on, by wording it something like this:

“I’m going to tell you I am bisexual. I ask you not to make assumptions about what that means, apart from that I am attracted to people of more than just one gender. It's so difficult to come out without worrying about people imposing stereotypes on me because unfortunately, I know how common it is.”

It might make a couple of jaws drop, but there it is. You came out and made very clear that imposing stereotypes onto you is just not acceptable.

The second thing you may consider is actively inviting questions. When you come out to people, you can create an opportunity for them to learn about who you are, and not just rely on stereotypes they may have heard about bisexuals.

They may be your friends and you might also want to answer any misconceptions they have by letting them know that as friends it is better for them to try to understand you rather than fall back on guesswork. You might also want to ask them what they think about bisexuality. Does it line up to your experiences and fears?

“I’m bisexual, meaning I’m not just attracted to people of my own gender. Also if there are things you want to know more about, just ask! Don’t feel like you have to guess or assume things about me. You are my friends and I just want to be understood.”

Encouraging people to explore the topic of sexuality with you can really deepen your understanding of each other and help you have friendships where your sexuality is respected. But that’s not mandatory, that's a choice.

#2

So, when you tell someone you are bisexual, you can also make the choice to just keep it simple. There’s no need to explain everything or sit everyone down in a big scary group and announce it, unless you want to. Realistically, a better representation of what coming out can be like is as simple as giving someone a correction when they ask if you are single or have a boyfriend: “Oh actually I’m bisexual” or “I've been meaning to tell you, I date cute people of all genders, for the record.”

A matter-of-fact statement, delivered in a way that reminds everyone that it doesn’t need to be a big deal, can be just the trick! That said, it's common to feel pressure from the idea that coming out is a confession, something wrong that we are admitting to, where you have to account for every possible stereotype.

#3

Which brings me to the broken record method. When we tell people who might be less informed, or less supportive about our sexuality, one of my favorite pieces of advice is to come up with a short statement that summarizes your point and just repeat it. Repeating that statement can be more effective (and less tiring) than trying to respond to every counter-argument. Especially when what you have said has not been respected. All rejoice the self-caring joy of knowing how to be a broken record when you need to be!

If someone mentions negative stereotypes you can sweetly say: “Oh I think you’re mistaken because that’s not true.” If they try again you can say: “I’m afraid that’s not true either.” You don’t have to actually explore the topic with them. It also works when someone tries to move the goalposts on you.

Them: Bisexual people are just greedy...

You: I’m bisexual, only I know what that’s like, so I know that those stereotypes aren’t true.

Them (taking you off-topic): But don’t you think double the genders means double the partners, come on. I am right, aren’t I?!

You (not engaging in their new argument): Again, I’m bisexual, and I know what that’s like. I don’t need to justify myself, because I know those stereotypes aren’t true

Them: *Something, something, biphobia*

You: Again, I’m bisexual, and I know what that’s like. I don’t need to justify myself, because I know those stereotypes aren’t true

Of course, you do not need to engage at all with people who don’t respect you. That's an option, not a requirement. But if they do take notice, perhaps later a more respectful and trusting conversation can happen. In the meantime, when you need to, letting yourself be a repeating parrot who isn’t having to think too hard can be a powerful way to put the onus back on others for their stereotyping.

I realize that doing all of this on your own is no easy task. The people who've come before us know that, which is why community is such an important part of queer life. No matter what you do, it’s worth planning who you can have around you when you do. You mentioned two of your friends who know about your bisexuality, so why not start there? Would they be willing to join you at some LGBTQ+ events or do they have any bi/pan/queer friends they could introduce you to?

You may not always be understood by everyone but if you have people in your life who do, then the process of becoming more open about your bisexuality becomes easier, and along the way, you will find more people whom you can add to your collection of supportive friends.


Then there's dating. After all, communicating your sexuality is also about being able to potentially enjoy it with the people you are attracted to!

The coming out bits we already mentioned also apply to new or potential partners. But there are a couple of extra points to be made. One is that it's worth setting your bar a little higher than with casual acquaintances. You shouldn’t need to convince anyone you're going to date about who you are. I'd say if someone is dismissive of your bisexuality, they are almost certainly not a good person to date.

Another is that dating other people who are queer/pan/bisexual is by no means mandatory, but if you're looking for people who “get it,” the queer community can be a really good place to start dating. You may have very different experiences but that extra layer of commonality can make dating easier, and if sexual or romantic compatibility isn’t there, you may have a new LGBTQ+ friend, which can only be a good thing.

You might also find that when you do start dating, it'll sometimes bring the benefit of making your bisexuality feel more real and practical. Bisexuality might feel like a theoretical identity now, but when you’re dating and you feel pressured by stereotypes, you will actually be able to say: “Wait, my dating life doesn’t actually look like that,” and perhaps take some relief from the fact that we are all always more complicated than simplified clichés.

Dating is where you get to experience more of the up-sides of being you, and having your own sexuality. There may be homophobes and biphobes out there but it’s also important to remember that the very things they attack — love, acceptance, freedom, community, sex — are actually the often good things we look forward to, and can regularly enjoy when we support each other.

The other thing is that in dating, describing ourselves as bisexual just gives a quick impression of who we are and who we might be into. This could be by writing “bisexual” on our online dating profiles or going to specifically queer parties and talking about our orientation in passing with new people. It’s like we start painting with broad strokes of color, but then we add more and more detail, which actually describes us more specifically.

Meeting new people and going on dates are always about getting to know somebody beyond initial impressions and labels and accepting that there are parts of them we don’t know. Having sex can come from our desire to care for each other better and discover the unique things about our sexualities and bodies, and those of our partners.

The world depicted by stereotypes of bisexuality is not where we actually live or who we are; it’s not where we spend our time or where we explore our sexuality. Coming out can feel like you are facing one huge step on your own, but maybe think of it more like lots of small steps, which you'll tread with many co-travelers in a lifelong journey towards understanding and appreciating the complex, unique and totally okay emerging bi person you are.

Here are a few more things to read around here that might help you out with all this:

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