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The Sad State of Bisexuality on Television

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October 16, 2014

[Warning: Spoilers about How to Get Away With Murder are ahead]

My heart sank as I watched last week’s episode of How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM), primetime’s newest television show that has me rushing home on Thursday evenings, as Michaela Pratt yelled at her boyfriend Aiden for not telling her about a high school romance with her fellow law student Connor Walsh.

In the Facebook chat with two of my other friends, we did our best to give Michaela the benefit of the doubt. Was she mad that Aiden hid something from her, making her anger a matter of (broken) trust? Was Michaela upset that he’d had a teenage fling with Connor, so that her frustration was about “sharing” her fiancé with her rival? Alas, it was not to be or, at least, those weren’t the most pressing issues Michaela had about Connor and Aiden’s history with each other. Michaela, brought to her breaking point by Connor’s constant antagonizing about his past relationship with Aiden, finally snapped. Was Aiden gay? And if he wasn’t sure – sure about their relationship, sure about being straight – then he better be sure very quickly, because he wasn’t going to ruin her life “like that.”

I was heartbroken to see biphobia on my TV screen, though not surprised. There were two reasons for my dampened spirits at the end of last week’s episode. First, Connor’s outing Aiden was completely uncalled for. For a lot of people, even those who are queer, not coming out is unfathomable. But coming out is a privilege and it can be a burden.

Considering that bisexual people make up over half of the queer community, but we are also the least likely to come out to those around us – like the lonely 11% of bisexual individuals who are out at their place of work or the mere 28% of us who are out to the people closest to us, the highest figure clocked for any group within the LGBTQ community – both the queer community and greater society must take a hard look as to why that is. There’s plenty of anecdotes that give the necessary clues: ranging from the teenage girl who’s dismissed by being told that she’s going through a phase, the college student accused of “really” being a closeted gay man, the general idea that we’re greedy and promiscuous and commitment-phobic. Connor outing Aiden to harm Michaela was one instance in a very long line of them about how a person’s bisexuality is mocked, undermined, exploited, and/or used to abuse them. Michaela’s fear that her significant other was into men was that he also wasn’t into her, illustrating further that there’s still a deeply-entrenched culture-wide misunderstanding of what bisexuality is.

Second, I was troubled about the blatant bisexual erasure in last week’s episode of HTGAWM. How easy would it have been for someone to use the b-word? The media’s avoidance of the term isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination: Orange is the New Black’s handling of Piper Chapman’s romantic history is the most obvious example that comes to mind. “Former lesbian” and “straight girl” have both been used to describe Piper, which taps into hard insecurities too many of us bisexual women have about the relationships we have with men. Do we really “count” as queer? Or even as bi? It’s a struggle.

Being open and honest about bisexuality onscreen is important, the way full representation for any marginalized community is important. For bisexual people of color, the need for real representation is even more pressing. If Aiden does identify as bisexual after all, then he joins a community where bisexual men are 50% likelier to be in poverty than gay men and where bisexual men are seven times more likely to contemplate suicide than their gay male counterparts. (Similar figures hold true for bisexual women and lesbian women, too.) Bisexual men, like bisexual women, are more likely to be sexually assaulted, likelier to engage in substance abuse, and have higher rates of STDs than both their straight and lesbian/gay counterparts.

If Aiden identifies as bisexual, then I wholly understand the fear-driven rationale of remaining closeted; if he doesn’t identify his sexuality in that way, then I understand the logic behind that decision, too. I’ve been there. I’m still there sometimes, like I was with the nurse I saw the other day. She assumed that I was straight and from that assumption asked me questions about my sexual history and what safer sex methods I used, leaving me incredibly confused and bewildered about how to answer anything she posed me. I asked myself, what counts? As if my bisexuality could be explained (or explained away) so simply. It’s an ugly Catch-22.

Coming out creates a community and gives bisexual people a support network, eradicating the idea that we’re alone and that there isn’t anything real about how we feel, and would probably do a lot to minimize bisexual people’s disproportionate share in the aforementioned health rates, probably a lot due to isolation and insecurity. Yet, coming out is also far more dangerous for us than it is for a lot of other people, relatively speaking, and leaves us vulnerable to constantly justifying our histories, our experiences, and our very identities in the face of doubt, dismissal, and outright rejection from so many different fronts. (See: Anna Paquin disabusing Larry King of the notion that she’s “no longer bi” because she’s married to a man.)

So yes, one more misrepresentation of bisexuality in the media does matter. It matters a lot.  And in 2014, when so much progress has been made by and for the LGBTQ+ community, there’s no reason why we can’t all do better.

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