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7 min

The fencesitters?

Suspicions still haunt the bi/homo divide

CAN YOU TELL THE HOMOS FROM THE BIS? Stewart Montgomery, Sharon Larade and Shlomit Segal have all grappled with how bisexuals fit into the queer community. Credit: (Joshua Meles)

Why would someone call Deborah Singh a traitor?

She’s a bright, articulate and political woman who works, volunteers and plays in Toronto’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans [LGBT] institutions and businesses. Yet a gay man she works with recently called her just that — a traitor.

Singh, 27, currently has a male partner. She is bisexual, or, more precisely, “a brown omnisexual woman” and she finds that many gay men and lesbians just don’t get it. Singh says the traitor remark “really burned because it was like he was saying that I didn’t belong in the space or I wasn’t queer enough to work there.”

In spite of the prevalence of the LGBT acronym, there is often a disconnect between bisexual people and gay and lesbian people.

Of course, bisexuals and gay and lesbian people share a lot: the experience of same-sex attraction and the resulting homophobia and exclusion from the straight world. They differ in that bisexuals may be in opposite-sex relationships, which can bring social acceptance and privilege from the mainstream. Bisexuals may also experience the added prejudice of biphobia, which can come from gay men and lesbians as well as straights.

In the queer realm, it can feel like gay men and lesbians call the shots — lesbian and gay communities and resources are more developed than any bisexual equivalents. Many bisexuals see themselves as being closer to gay men and lesbians than straights, and can feel frustrated and hurt when their fellow queers reject them or fail to include them.

For many gay men and lesbians, the difference of opposite-sex attraction trumps the similarity of same-sex attraction. It means that bisexuals have access to things they don’t have access to — namely heterosexual privilege. Bisexuals may be viewed as people who could be gay or lesbian, the argument goes, if only they were more self-aware, politically aware or mature.

Gay men and lesbians may see these differences as things that will end up hurting them — whether in relationships, community or politics.

“If I find out a woman is bi, I don’t pursue the relationship,” says H Ruth Cutler, a 41-year-old lesbian. “I don’t want her to be checking out men while we’re together…. If I found out she was sleeping with men I’d be really sick. I myself have a lot of jealousy and anger toward men.”

Cutler thinks of bi women as essentially straight and not interested in actual relationships with women. She notes that her ex started dating a bi woman after they broke up, and then the bi woman left the ex for a man.

Bi women sometimes approach her on-line, and typically they want a woman for a threesome with their husband — not her scene. This helps form her opinion that bisexual woman are “weak and ambiguous sellouts” who are confused and just can’t decide.

Cutler also recounts the story of a female friend who recently came out of a 20-year relationship with a woman. After the friend slept with a man they both knew, Cutler’s opinion of her changed dramatically.

“I told her she was a whore and said, ‘I didn’t know you were straight. Maybe that’s why your girlfriend left you,'” says Cutler. “She disgusted me because she slept with a man, and she probably wasn’t gay anymore.”

The personal and the political both factor into how Tamara Daley, 28, views bisexuals. Coming out as lesbian at 21, Daley doesn’t understand how someone could be attracted to men and women at the same time. Her own experience was being straight and only liking guys, then being lesbian and only liking women.

Daley says bi people are the holdouts in the fight for gay and lesbian rights. She wants bisexuals “to be on our side…. If you’re already half gay, be 100 percent.”

When it comes to dating and relationships, bisexuality poses particular challenges for gay men and lesbians — and even for some bisexuals. The challenges stem largely from fears of increased competition and the presumed appeal of opposite-sex relationships.

Rod Albrecht, 47, recently split with his gay male partner of several years. Albrecht’s bisexuality was a source of conflict in the relationship.

“He hated that I was bi. I could comment on guys’ [looks] but could not comment on women. He would bring it up to bait me. I was told, ‘That part of your life is done,'” recounts Albrecht, who first identified as gay at age 16, but at 19 fell for a woman.

Kat Zinguer, an 18-year-old who grew up in Russia, describes an incident where she told a woman whom she really liked that she was bisexual.

“The conversation died down, and the response was, ‘You can’t be serious.'”

But Zinguer herself admits that she too is “a little bit suspicious of bisexual women.”

“I would rather date a lesbian than a bi woman because I don’t feel the insecurity of her going off with a man,” she says, aware of the irony.

As a gay man in a four-year monogamous relationship with a bisexual man, Burke Christian, 27, says that at the beginning it was “difficult to figure out where I stood in the grand scheme of things, potentially competing with gay men, bi men, straight women and bi women.”

But as the relationship has progressed, he’s felt more comfortable and secure.

“A lot of my peers were really concerned about me entering into a relationship with a bisexual,” says Christian. They thought bi men “are greedy, don’t know what they want, are gay men in transition, and that there’s no such thing as a bisexual…. Not that it should bother me but it does have an impact.”

bisexual men also feel the impact of what gay men think of them. Daniel da Emi, 37, knew he was interested in both men and women before he ever learned the word “bisexual.” He thinks that for many gay men, bisexuality is seen as “a false state of mind that results from mental instability and/or self-denial.”

Once he was talking to a group of friends about his weekend escapades. “A friend’s partner said jokingly that all my experience revolves around guys and yet I refer to myself as bisexual. ‘Why don’t you come out as gay?'” Da Emi told him that he does talk about dates with girls — but to a different crowd.

Other bisexuals also use different language and show different sides of themselves depending on the situation.

Annemarie Shrouder, 36, originally came out as a lesbian. Now she generally avoids identifying, though she sometimes identifies as bisexual depending on her mood and the company she’s keeping.

“I have felt more tentative as a bisexual woman within the community than I did when I identified as a lesbian,” says Shrouder.

A gay friend has told her that he doesn’t believe bisexuality exists and that she just hasn’t “found the right girl yet.” A past girlfriend has “insisted that it was impossible to be attracted to/to be in love with both genders.”

A fear of such unsupportive reactions can lead some bisexuals to keep their dual attraction in the closet.

When at age 19 she first realized she was attracted to men and women, Shlomit Segal, 45, kept it quiet for awhile.

She was attending Dawson College New School in Montreal. “There were a lot of queer people there… It was the era of lesbian separatism. I became friends with some lesbians but generally they were quite antibisexual.”

Now she has a mix of openly bisexual and lesbian friends who all get along: “It doesn’t seem like an issue anymore.”

However it is still an issue for Shaun Alphonso, 18, who notices gay men and lesbians holding on to stereotypes about bisexuals.

“Just this past week I was walking down the street in the village and I heard somebody talking about bisexuality and they said, ‘These people just need to make up their mind.'”

Alphonso says that his own sexual identity “keeps flipping between bisexual and gay, but right now I believe it’s bisexual.”

He commonly hears remarks like “Bisexuality is a defence against coming out as gay,” and “So and so is a slut because they’re bisexual.”

Stereotypes about bisexuals can upset existing friendships between gay men when one of them comes out as bisexual. Brian Bukowski, 35, identified as gay when he came out 15 years ago in Saskatchewan. Ten years later, when he dated a woman for the first time, reactions of his gay male friends “ranged from disgusted to bemused.”

“With most of the gay male friends my age — and lesbian friends, too — there were periods of tension,” says Bukowski. “Lesbian friends, they clicked in to how they relate to straight men…. Those friendships I never gained back.”

Though he doesn’t agree with it, Bukowski can understand how gay men end up equating bisexuality with closeted, married guys.

“If you identify your label strongly you start to put everybody else in a slot,” he says.

For some gay men and lesbians, their perceptions of bisexuals are based on their own coming-out process combined with their lack of exposure to out bisexual people.

Stewart Montgomery, 64, married a woman in 1966, when he still thought his attraction to men was “a strange illness.” Based on his own experience of “being fine with a woman because I didn’t know myself,” he has wondered if bi men are “guys who haven’t made up their mind yet.”

Montgomery thinks he’s becoming more open-minded about bisexuality as he gets older, but also says the he’s doesn’t meet out bisexuals in queer-oriented groups like the Forte choir or the seniors group Prime Timers.

“No one is talking about bisexuality,” Montgomery says, which makes it difficult for attitudes and opinions to change.

Dino Paoletti, a 47-year-old gay man, agrees that gay men and lesbians often see bisexuals as being in transition, sometimes because of having identified as bisexual themselves before coming out as gay or lesbian.

His own view of bisexuality is that it is “totally amazing” and he credits his bi friends with allowing him to see more possibilities in the world. That includes the late Karol Steinhouse, a bi social work professor at Ryerson, who he met in the mid-1990s.

“It was through sharing her personal experience and life narrative that I gained another window into my own and began to critically reflect on my own experience as a gay man, the ways in which the boundaries of my own sexual identity were more permeable than I had allowed myself to consider,” says Paoletti.

Actually knowing and having meaningful connections with bisexual people also plays a role in how Sharon Larade, 43, has come to see bisexuality. She and her partner of eight years both identify as lesbians, but when they first met her partner identified as bi.

“I’ve been influenced by people I’ve known who’ve come out as bi,” says Larade. “I was probably like some of my friends who think bis are fencesitters.”

She thinks that part of the reason for negativity and skepticism about bisexuality is people’s internalized homophobia.

“It’s like when straight people encounter gay people and then get insecure and have to show they aren’t gay by being homophobic,” says Larade. “There is an exclusionary hierarchy, where gay and lesbian is ‘more pure.’

“We all have a responsibility to educate and inform ourselves and each other and to push each other a bit around this,” says Larade.

She doesn’t think that bisexuals should be the ones who have to make it happen. Cultivating an openness and acceptance across the gay/bi divide is all our of work.