As a sex therapist, I ran a gay men’s group for 21 years. Some five years ago, I brought in a man who identified as bisexual. The result was appalling. The group was very hard on him, insisting that he had to be one or the other — gay or straight. It became apparent that the group was not ready to accept this man’s sexual identity. What was not apparent to most was how they were doing to him the same thing that the majority of heterosexuals do to gays and lesbians — shunning, and making him an outcast — demonstrating their own biphobia.
There is a lot of talk in the media right now about male privilege, white privilege, cisgender privilege and straight privilege — each of these is important to recognize and address. However, there is another privilege that isn’t addressed: gay and lesbian privilege used against bisexuals and transgender individuals.
Think about this: If someone identifies as heterosexual, it’s as if they have won the lottery. In the majority culture, they are accepted and celebrated in songs and movies. Anywhere they go they can hold hands or kiss, and no one gives them a second look. They are not at risk of being arrested or harassed. They are not a threat. They are heterosexually privileged.
Coming out as gay or lesbian throws all of that into chaos. We lose that heterosexual privilege. Rejected and vilified by family, friends, and the culture at large, we seek out accepting communities, find people who understand and welcome us. We find a label, an identity: we’re gays or lesbians united against the rest of the world. As minorities we become a united political force fighting against discrimination. We feel pride and power.
Then a person comes along who does not identify gay or straight and declares the truth about himself: He is comfortable sexually with either gender, and the house of identity we’ve built suddenly is rocked by winds of change, and seems less solid, more vulnerable than we imagined. We feel fear, and cling to our foundation, arguing that there must only be a binary identity — either or — and unconsciously protect our hard-won identity by rejecting him, mentally casting him out of our community and withdrawing our love and support. We point our collective finger at him, not realizing we are falling victim to the same thing society has done to us forever.
Instead, some call the person “traitor.” Gone are the invitations to bars, parties, and tea dances. Lesbians and gays become angry toward the person, and say he or she is guilty of keeping a foot in the door of heterosexual privilege, betraying the cause. Just ask the once self-identified lesbian therapist, Joanne Loulan who, when she fell in love with a man, was roundly rejected by the lesbian community, and lost her “lesbian privilege.”
This frame of mind is unsustainable. Such little boxes of sexual identity are being crushed almost daily now. The 40th Michigan Womyn’s Festival was the final one last year due to transgender women wanting to attend and were rejected. The controversy over the exclusion of transgender women effectively ended the fest.
As a longtime therapist, I know that there are so many shades of sexuality that they defy categorization. I have seen the myriad configurations of bisexuality — how sexual attraction and romantic love can exist for both genders; how someone can be romantically attracted to one gender, and sexually attracted to another, and on and on.
And I have seen in the therapy room the grief of my bisexual clients that comes from the loss of gay or lesbian privilege. In seminars where I have spoken I have asked for a show of hands of women who would marry a bisexual man, and been stunned by seeing not a single hand in the air. I have counseled men who remain secretive about their bisexuality because they don’t want to lose the woman they love to the misinterpretation that they are unable to commit to her. I have known men who unknowingly date and fall in love with bisexual women, then find out and flee from the fear of competition with other women.
Isn’t it time we transcend such concepts and cherished notions? Isn’t it time to lose our bi-naiveté and our gay privilege, and to say to those who identify as bisexual, “You’re one of us, we accept you for what you say you are?” Isn’t it time to make room for the people who don’t necessarily have a fixed sexual orientation, and accept sexual fluidity as reality?
If not, I believe we are poisoning our communities, and will find ourselves increasingly fragmented and irrelevant.