Meg John Barker: "A vicious cycle of bi invisibility"

Meg John Barker is a writer, psychology lecturer and sex and relationships counsellor specialising in bisexuality. Biscuit asked Meg for a few crumbs of thought on bi portrayal in the media, the tricky task of labelling, and the state of bi activism worldwide…

 

Meg_BarkerWhat first drew you to focus on academic research into bisexuality?

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!

facebook_g_options.png.CROP.promo-mediumlargeThere 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

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Charlotte Dingle

Charlotte 'Lottie' Dingle is Biscuit's editor-in-chief. When she's not running Biscuit and freelancing for a diverse bunch of clients ranging from Cosmo to Occupy, she enjoys teaching life drawing, discussing life/the universe/everything with her beloved (but smelly) 22-year-old cat, writing flash fiction for her MA course, getting pretentious tattoos, listening to folk music, creating surrealist art, trying to change the world and drinking red wine. Oh, and My Little Pony. Don't forget My Little Pony. Her favourite biscuits are cream crackers (do they count as biscuits?).

7 Responses to Meg John Barker: "A vicious cycle of bi invisibility"

  • Estraven says:

    Speaking of Shiri Eisner, here is her take on the whole bisexual/pansexual thing:

    http://radicalbi.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/why-i-identify-as-bisexual-and-not-pansexual/

  • Estraven says:

    Please be aware that for many years, research has lumped gays, Lesbians, and bisexuals together, found serious physical and mental health problems in the community, and these problems were used to get funding. But more recently the various groups have begun to be researched separately. When this is done, it is clearly seen that due to the stigma born by the bisexual community, the bisexual community bears the brunt of the problems. In childhood, bisexuals are more likely than gay men and Lesbians to be abused or bullied – see “Friedman, et al., A Meta-Analysis of Disparities in Childhood Sexual Abuse, Parental Physical Abuse, and Peer Victimization Among Sexual Minority and Nonminority Individuals. American Journal of Public Health, 2011, 101 (8), 1481-1494. In adulthood, 45% of bi women have considered or attempted suicide, 35% of bi men, 30% of Lesbians, 25% of gay men, and much lower rates for heterosexuals. Similar discrepancies are found for other health problems, and we are much more likely to be poor. A quarter of us are on food stamps, but only 14% or Lesbians and gay men.

    Yet over the past 30 years, while the LGT community has received $487,677,799 in funding, the bi community has received a grand total of $85.356. So the Gay and Lesbian groups use our suffering to get funding, and then do not spend any of it on us.

    Most years, the bi groups get ZERO dollars in funding, despite bisexuals having the biggest needs. And it is very interesting that just when this research started to come out, gay college professors started to push the idea the bi is binary, bisexuals are bad, and these whole label wars started. And instead of uniting under the community label bisexual, with the knowledge that we were the biggest group who needed the money the most, the bi community has spent YEARS arguing over labels.

    A deliberate move on the part of the GGGG groups? You tell me.http://radicalbi.wordpress.com/…/words-binary-and…/. But I can tell you now, that bisexuals are dying, and we simply cannot afford these label wars any longer.

  • Estraven says:

    For information of the idea of community identity labels versus personal identity labels, please read:

    http://fliponymous.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/to-find-each-other-or-you-and-me-and-us/

  • Matthew says:

    It is nearly impossible for many bisexual men and women to be out without being subject to ridicule, harrassment, sexual harassment, forms of homophobia that gays and lesbians are often not subjected to, biphobia from both straight and gay people, being ostricized from heteronormative people, and then ostricized from homonormative people. The pressures are so high we do actually and often artificially “pick a side” but then we are invisible and silent within gay or straight communities. Or we don’t pick a side and find we lack community and feel at times a misunderstood and isolated wonderer. It has been a very strange journey for me. The biggest issue has been not being able to be perceived as a whole person in any given situation. But when I date or make friends with other bisexual men and women I am perceived. Something magical happens. It is the birthright of every human being to manifest who they are. For the whole journey has had less to do with falling in and out of love with various genders, or sex. The journey has been about discovering who this is that calls himself bisexual. And what I found is my bisexuality is inextricably linked to other aspects of my character. For example for the first time in my life I understand myself as dual gendered in someway and my bisexual attractions are in part a manifestation of that fact. I also understand that I am mutable and adaptive and can bring forth different aspects of myself in various different settings and all of these facets are in fact authentic. I have discovered at heart I am a kind loving person who has enjoyed the campanionshop and love of other kind loving people. And the real hardship I experienced as a bisexual person has been being designated non-human status (bisexual men don’t exist). When a person doesn’t exist treating them as a human being is optional.

    • Charlotte Dingle says:

      We have a really interesting piece on bi men that’s just been submitted, talking about differences in perception that society shows regarding bi women and bi men – so watch this space.

    • Charlotte Dingle says:

      We’re also getting a lot more gender identity discussion heating up here, which to my mind seems right and proper for a bi site. Ooo, forgot to say, am the ed of the site. Please keep giving your feedback!

  • Jo says:

    I love this. It hits home with myself and I am glad there is finally some awareness being brought about.

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