Are you a Gold Star Lesbian? What do you mean you don’t know what one is? It’s a lesbian who’s never slept with a man, of course. Gold stars for the pure, no stars for the contaminated but repentant, and as for those greedy bisexuals… Well, what about those bisexuals? Those betraying, confused, promiscuous, untrustworthy fence-sitters that crept into the jolly LGBT acronym but will never know how it feels to be truly oppressed.
What a joke. Bi folk get it twice of course – as well as straightforward homophobia, they also have to face biphobia from both the straight and gay community.
But what, exactly, is biphobia? Cheryl Dobinson from bi zine The Fence describes it simply as “any type of discrimination, oppression or prejudice that is directed at or specifically affects bisexual people.” The ‘hilarious’ Gold Star Lesbian label, for example. And if it’s not prejudice masquerading as humour, it’s prejudice wrapped in ignorance.
“There’s this presumption that bisexuality is a transient phase that you dip in and out of,” explains Leeds student Laura Nieurzyla. “Like the time my mum asked me if I was ‘still’ bisexual because I was currently involved with a man, or when my gay friend seriously asked me if I would identify as gay if my next relationship was with a woman. It isn’t meant nastily, but can still get a bit tedious.”
So let’s set some bi myths uh, straight. Yes, some people genuinely do feel attraction to both men and women. No, it’s not a phase, or greed, or indecision. No, they don’t all need to have a boyfriend and a girlfriend at the same time. Yes, they are just as faithful as anyone else. No, you’re not likely to catch more diseases from them, because no, they’re not any more likely to be promiscuous.
And the greatest myth of all? That there just aren’t many bisexual women around. Actually, in a recent US study, two-thirds of self-defined lesbians reported feelings of attraction to men. Yikes.
The study published in Explaining Diversity in the Development of Same-Sex Sexuality Among Young Women by Lisa M. Diamond and Ritch C. Savin-Williams involved interviewing 100 women over two years. The scientists found that two thirds of the 34 women who identified as lesbian reported periodic attractions to men.
One study is interesting but not terribly statistically significant; however, it’s not the only report to find that self-identified lesbians sometimes feel attraction to men. A separate paper published in 1994, for example, found that of the 4.4% of American women who reported experiencing same-sex attraction, 94% were also attracted to men.
So if lesbians are sometimes attracted to men, does it follow that straight women are sometimes attracted to other women? Yes. In fact possibly as many as 84% of heterosexual women experience same-sex attraction. However, as Lisa Diamond notes, “A reliable answer to this question is elusive, given the stigma that prevents heterosexual women from readily acknowledging same-sex attractions.”
But back up. What does this all mean? How can 66% of lesbians – let alone 95% – be attracted to men? That would make them bisexual for a start, not lesbian, surely? Well, no actually.
‘Lesbian’ means so much more than just being attracted to people of the same gender as yourself. It’s a subculture. You might not like everything or everyone that shares your subculture, but there is still an underlying solidarity and strength to it that we are all part of. Being a lesbian means knowing that there are bars, towns, TV programmes and haircuts that are yours. Yes they might be crap, but they’re yours. They’re ours. So is it so difficult to understand why so many lesbians are unwilling to give all this up, just because they sometimes fancy men?
“I don’t think I would ever tell my mates I sometimes fancy blokes,” explains a woman in her twenties who has asked not to be named. “I know they’d think I was ‘letting down the side’ and I’m scared I’d lose them.”
“I think that the idea of bisexuality can be very threatening and challenging to lesbians,” adds Cheryl. “Some lesbians feel that bisexual women are traitors or betrayers because we can love women, but can also ‘sleep with the enemy.’”
Lesbianism as a political rather than an emotional or social act definitely gives a new slant to some lesbians’ feelings about bisexuality. As Cheryl explains, “there can be concerns about the political implications [of bisexuality], with some lesbians seeing bisexuals as blurring boundaries/muddying the waters and potentially weakening the queer political cause. I’ve heard this called something like ‘diluting’ the movement.
“Oh, and a favorite [stereotype] of mine is the idea that bisexual women could be lesbians if only we were stronger or more politically aware or what-have-you. Sort of assuming that we need to have our consciousnesses raised kind of thing, or that we’re ‘weak’ lesbians.”
Getting Over It
Much as homophobia is often an indication of latent homosexual desire, perhaps gay and straight people are sometimes biphobic because they haven’t dealt with their own bisexual desires, and the thought of getting with a guy/girl both attracts and repels them.
But how can we overcome our internalized biphobia without losing our lesbian cultural identity? The answer might be to stop thinking so rigidly about sexuality. Several social scientists point to the concept of a ‘lesbian continuum’ as a better way of interpreting female sexuality than the strict boundaries of gay, bi or straight, a theory that has been absorbed by some LGBT people under the umbrella term queer.
Regardless of whether you believe that you might be a teeny bit attracted to men yourself, or whether the idea appalls your sense of what it is to be a lesbian, the fact remains that there are plenty of women out there who identify as bisexual, and experiencing biphobia is having a negative effect on their health.
Cheryl is a queer health researcher as well as a zine writer. “I can tell you that on many mental health measures – depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality – research shows that bisexual people tend to report higher rates than both straight and gay people,” she says.
“I think that the reasons are primarily related to biphobia, and that we should all be aware of this and be concerned about the damage that biphobia can have.” In other words, no it’s not ‘harmless fun’. And please, no more with the lame Gold Star jibes.
This article was published in April 2008 at lesbilicious.co.uk