A combination of things really. From a research point of view I was always interested in people whose identities were outside the mainstream in some way and what that experience was like. I was engaged with bisexual communities myself so that seemed an obvious place to study.
As I got more involved with bisexual activism I realised how invisible bisexuality was, and how research was needed to increase awareness of the issues faced by bisexual people. That was the thinking behind setting up BiUK (an organisation for bringing together bisexual research and activism), the BiReCon conference, and the Bisexuality Report.
Finally, as I’ve studied these areas, I’ve become particularly intrigued how wider culture often sees things in binary ways (e.g. women and men, gay and straight) so my research around sexuality, gender and relationships has focused more on how these things can challenge such binaries.
How do you feel about current bi visibility/portrayal in media?
Generally speaking this remains a big issue. A lot of people still don’t regard anything other than gay/straight as viable identity terms to use, despite being attracted to more than one gender. I think that is in large part to do with the fact that there are so few representations of bisexual people around them.
People often assume that bisexuality is rare because few people they know are out as bisexual, but statistics suggest that bisexuality is more common than being lesbian or gay. It is just that people are far less comfortable being out about it due to the stigma they face if they are (often from straight and gay/lesbian people). So there is a vicious cycle of invisibility.
There have been a few more recent portrayals of bisexual people, such as Captain Jack in Dr.Who/Torchwood, Ralph Fienne’s concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel movie, or Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black. The word “bisexual” is very rarely used to describe any of these characters but at least they are fairly positive portrayals of people who are attracted to more than one gender.
How do you feel about the difference between how bi men and bi women are perceived or portrayed, both in the media and by the “(wo)man” on the street?
We still have quite a gap in this area. Both bisexual women and men are often portrayed as both promiscuous and untrustworthy, with suspicion over whether they are “really” bisexual. But bisexual men are often assumed to be “really” gay, and there has been more suspicion over whether male bisexuality exists at all than female bisexuality. Bisexual women are often assumed to be “bi-curious” and mostly interested in men, and are often presented as hypersexual and titillating to straight men. Some researchers have pointed out the misogyny in the assumption that everybody will really be more sexually interested in men!
There are also increasing numbers of people experiencing themselves as non-binary in terms of both their sexuality (e.g. bisexual, pansexual, or queer) and their gender (e.g. genderqueer, gender fluid, or bigender). There are very few portrayals of this in the media so far, but the Facebook recognition of multiple genders suggests that this will probably be something that is talked about a lot more in the coming years, as it challenges the idea that sexuality and gender are binary.
How do you feel about the state of bi activism worldwide at the moment?
There is some amazing stuff happening in bi activism globally, and the movement is definitely in a pretty healthy state I would say. I’m not an expert in international bi movements, but Surya Monro (an academic up in Huddersfield) is currently researching this area and finding great examples of bisexual activism across different cultures which also engages in intersectional issues (such as anti racism, class politics, trans politics, etc). The UK and US bi movements have a lot to learn from other movements worldwide I think.
A brilliant example is Shiri Eisner who wrote the book Bi: Notes for a bisexual revolution* which links bisexual activism to feminism, trans activism, anti racism, and the conflict in Israel/Occupied Palestine.
I’m also pleased that the BiReCon conference that we set up in the UK, with the idea of bringing toether academics/researchers together with activists, community members, and relevant organisations, has been taken up internationally. There has been a European BiReCon and a US BiReCon already as well as the international BiReCon in London 2010.
How does it make you feel that we still have even high profile LGBT groups seemingly forgetting the “b”?
Sometimes it feels pretty dispiriting and exhausting. I move between spaces where everybody gets the importance of the B in LGBT and talks about “homophobia, biphobia and transphobia”, to other spaces where people still question the existence of bisexuality or regard it as a minority within a minority which is fine to include in only a tokenistic manner. “B-no” is a great phrase to capture the fact that so many groups and events are “bisexual in name only”.
When this is pointed out people are often a little embarrassed, or just shrug it off or joke about attempts to make them properly bi-inclusive, but it’s important to remember that we’re talking about a group of people who have higher rates of mental health problems, suicide, and domestic violence than either heterosexual, or lesbian and gay people. This invisibility takes a real toll on people’s lives, and is even putting lives at risk.
Labelling is a hugely tricky issue when discussing gender and sexuality, with many vehemently opposed to the “bisexual” label. What are your thoughts on how to get round this? We try our best but here at Biscuit we’re still well aware that, usually for the sake of brevity, we use cis pronouns and refer to bisexuality rather than pan/ambi/omnisexuality etc most of the time – and we are not at all alone in that as a “bi” organisation!
I generally embrace the moves towards a multiplicity of labels for sexuality and gender, including those who prefer not to label these things. Recent studies of young people, like the Metro Youth Chances Survey, suggest that more and more people are using terms beyond the ‘LGBT’ acronym to describe their sexuality and gender, and it is important to respect that. Also, the proliferation of terms is helpful in demonstrating that both sexuality and gender are not binary, and that everybody experiences them in different ways.
Obviously though this does raise challenges for LGBT movements and publications. BiUK still uses the term “bisexual” (for attraction to more than one gender) as this is well-understood by the people and groups that we are trying to train (for example). But it is important also to consider non-binary sexualities as a whole too, as there are many similar issues faced by all whose attraction is either not based on gender, or to more than one gender.
Regarding pronouns the way to go is to use people’s preferred pronouns and to ask if unsure. Again I think the move towards checking out preferred pronouns is a great way of signalling awareness that people experience gender in a multiplicity of ways.
You can find out more about what Meg is up to at www.megbarker.com
* Click here to grab yourself a copy: Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution