With the much anticipated return of Orange is the New Black back on our TV (or rather, laptop) screens, it’s time to touch on a subject that the Emmy Award-winning show has actively decided to tiptoe around: bisexuality. The sexual orientation of its lead character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) hasn’t yet been made exactly clear on the show, with her ex-boyfriend Larry (Jason Biggs) constantly referring to her as a “lesbian” due to her sexual relationship with her fellow inmate Alex (Laura Prepon), who in turn calls her a “straight girl” due to her continuing feelings for Larry. The word “bi” was mentioned once, but that’s about as far as the show has gone, which – given how brilliantly it’s represented other marginalised groups of people – is pretty disappointing.
This erasure of bisexuality in mainstream media isn’t anything new. How many films or television shows can you name which feature at least one openly bisexual character, or even mention the word “bisexual”? (What does it say that Dodgeball is the one of the only popular ones that come to mind?) Did you know that Angelina Jolie is bisexual? What about Marlon Brando or Malcolm X? Alan Cumming is also bisexual but is often mistaken by the media to be gay due to him being in a relationship with a man; likewise, Anna Paquin is repeatedly mistaken to be straight due to her being married to a man.
By definition, bisexuality is the sexual attraction to both males and females. While this can be perceived as being transphobic by some as this definition tends to ignore those who identify outside of the traditional gender binary – which isn’t to say transphobia doesn’t exist within the bisexual community – for me, bisexuality is, in terms of who you’re attracted to, the ability to move along a continuum of multiple genders. This can also be referred to as pansexuality depending on which the person chooses to identify with.
Our sexuality is often called a “phase”. We’re told that we’ll eventually “pick a side” otherwise we’re being “greedy”, despite the fact that we have absolutely no control over the way we feel.
So, why does bisexuality seem to be perceived almost as a taboo? Much like the discrimination faced by gay and transgender people, the reaction can often be one of disgust and confusion. I remember once at a club I had been talking to a guy for a while and we seemed to hit it off quite well; once it eventually came out that I was bisexual, however, his attitude changed immediately. “No, she’s a lesbian,” was his response when asked if we were together. A similar thing happened not long after, only this time it was at a gay bar (a supposedly “safe space” for people like me). When asked by a gay woman if I was also gay, I responded that, no, I’m bisexual. “So you’re not really into girls, then?” was her scoffing response. Sound familiar?
It’s a common misconception within the LGBTQ community that bisexual people are the most privileged group within the acronym, as we have the ability to “pass” as heterosexual, when in actuality it’s bisexual women who have nearly a one-in-two rape rate and three-in-four sexual assault rate. Another dangerous stereotype is that we’re all promiscuous nymphomaniacs who can’t hold down a relationship; that just because we are attracted to more than one gender means we can’t be monogamous. Our sexuality is often called a “phase”. We’re told that we’ll eventually “pick a side” otherwise we’re being “greedy”, despite the fact that we have absolutely no control over the way we feel. We’re constantly reduced to a joke in both real life and popular culture.
Bisexuality can be a different experience for everyone who identifies as it and so many people claim to not understand it due to its conflict with societal norms. Our attraction to other genders isn’t necessarily all divided equally, for one thing: some bisexual people may prefer girls while others may prefer boys, while others may have no overall preference at all. It can all be quite confusing for us as well, especially since we’re not used to seeing ourselves represented in the media and therefore may think that there’s something not quite right about the way we feel. I know I did.
Despite what a lot of people may think, however, there’s nothing strange or wrong about bisexuality. It’s a sexual orientation, just the same as being straight or gay, and it’s important to acknowledge its existence without making it the butt of a bad joke. Maybe next year Orange is the New Black and the multitudes of other popular shows and films out there will make more of an effort to include an almost invisible minority, but until then let’s make more of a conscious effort ourselves to stop the erasure of a large and very real group of people.
Words by Samantha King