Monday, 1 November 2010

Dirty Words for Love, or: 'how I came to stop worrying and like the word bisexual' (and a bit more about suicide), Part 1

"I can think of nothing else that would have helped me understand
and support my identity as an uncertain teenager more than
a vocabulary that recognized my existence... This is a call to
bisexuals and bi-allies everywhere to respond."

Let's face it: 'bisexual' is a dirty word. Well, Google Instant thinks so anyway.

If you try to type 'bisexual' into Google nowadays, good luck getting past the letter x. Once you type b-i-s-e-x the world changes before you. Below your search box -- where once there was a plethora of suggestions for how to contact the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education in Lahore, buy Scottish indie pop memorabilia, join the British Interplanetary Society, or do geographical bisection -- there is nothing but stark white space. And it is a judicial space. The internet is wiped clean before your very eyes and the blankness of the screen judges you. It shouts out to you (and anyone who happens to be peeking over your shoulder) that you are trying to access information on.... shhhhh.... a dirty word. You perv.

Personally, I don't like it when the internet judges me, but according to Google (who I know, I know are not the entirely of the internet, but they act like they are) this is a public service. They are saving the world's information junkies from the horrors of unfiltered content retrieval. "Google's SafeSearch screens for sites that contain explicit sexual content and removes them from your search results.... [and with Google Instant] we try to filter out suggestions that include pornographic terms, dirty words, and hate and violence terms."

So let me get this right: 'bisexual' is an explicit term? one that contains sexual content? Well, yeah, I guess, but no more than homosexual or heterosexual (which are not on their blacklist). It is only sexual in so much as it denotes a sexual orientation: one's enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and sexual attraction. And as we all know by now -- or should know -- someone's sexual orientation is about much more than whom they want to get jiggy with, when, where, how and using whatever brand of scented oil. It's also about their "personal and social identity based on those attractions, behaviors expressing them, and membership in a community of others who share them."

Now, I doubt Google is trying to say that 'bisexual' is an inherently violent and hateful term (at least I hope not), so that leaves porn and filth, and this is where I reluctantly kind of get it. Porn screws a lot of us, pun intended. It's not just 'bisexual' that gets the short end of the cattle prod. The following terms are also excluded by Google's new search feature because they have somehow become associated with the the down and dirty: adult, bitch, clitoris, cock, cumming, erotic, hairy, latina, lesbian, orgasm, servitude, transexual, vagina, vivid, vulva, webcam and 'women rapping'.

So if you want to search for humans over the age of 18 who breed female dogs, you are outa luck getting 'instant help' with that. As you are if you have an interest in finding a male chicken to manage your flock of hens, want to find a news story on human trafficking or a biography of actor Alan Cumming (poor Alan, bisexual and with a dirty last name; his blog will be lucky to be found), or read a critical review of the works of Anais Nin. If you are a Latina lesbian you are deemed stereotypically too hot to handle, and godforbid you are transexual as well, then you are practically radioactive. If in addition you try to search for how to break into a career as a rapper, you might just explode. And if on top of all of that you persist in trying to purchase a video camera to use when you skype your mom back in Tulsa, Homeland Security will surely have your number. And apparently terms associated with female anatomy and puberty are too graphic to be stumbled upon by the unaware and Google will refuse to give you extra help with that homework -- even 12 year old girls who want to read about their changing bodies and menstrual cycles better have the proper Latin terms for their body's bits already down pat and the wherewithal to spell 'em out, press enter and go it alone. Vivid? You got me. Maybe the folks over at Dulux have some explaining to do about what's happened to that formerly innocuous term.

So sure, I get it. Porn has co-opted some words for its own use, but there are certainly ways to filter out pornographic content than to stigmatise an entire group of people, because that is certainly what Google Instant and other such filters do. By saying that 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual' are acceptable or safe terms but 'bisexual' is unsafe and not a respectable word, you encourage and reinforce judgements about bisexual orientation and bisexual people. The erasing of search results when you type b-i-s-e-x-u-a-l takes part, not just in the vilifying of our name, but in the expunging of our identities. Bisexual erasure is the tendency that individuals, the media, religious and social groups, history and academia have of ignoring, removing or falsifying evidence of bisexuality and eliding the contributions of bisexuals. The supreme form of bi erasure is surely the stupid but persistent notion that bisexuals do not exist (funny, that one; the tax man always seems to know I exist. He's the only one who never denies he knows me and where to find me).

But furthermore, bi erasure and the reinforcement of the notion that 'bisexual' is a dirty word is not just annoying, it is dangerous. Touching again on this blogger's deep concern with the recent spate of suicides, I refuse to hold back: bi erasure and vilification are emotionally brutal and can prove deadly.

I want to make it clear that I am not pitting bi people against straight or other LGBT/queer people or trying to engage in any oppression-olympic style infighting. That would be unworthy and self-defeating; the fight for human and civil rights is not some zero-sum game where if one group wins other groups lose. We all have a stake in ending misconceptions and eradicating prejudice and hatred wherever it is found. That said, neither am I going to be demur about this, as far too many voices have been before now, by which I mean our collective current moment. A great deal is changing at the moment with the worldwide bisexual movement for consciousness and respect, rights and visibility. The idea that bi people are merely a subset of gay people and that our rights will dovetail gay rights has lost sway. The notion that bi people are really a subset of straight people and that we consciously and cynically hide under an umbrella of heterosexual privilege is also heading for the dustbin of history. Bisexual people have very particular issues at home, in schools, in the workplace, and in our communities that need to be addressed from a standpoint of knowledge, respect and compassion.

As it regards the youth who are now the focus of so much attention in relation to bullying, suicide and the message that It Gets Better, the reality that there is a particular need to target bisexual youth with this message has so far been lost. The statistic that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth as a whole are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers has just recently permeated the psyche of the US, Canada and a various countries that have been touched by recent events. But the statistics that show how strong suicidal ideation is among bisexuals specifically have been lost in the shuffle. And this community cannot be ignored if we are to reach and affect individuals who need to be helped.

A recent study into sexual health in Canada found that bisexuals are the sexual orientation group most likely to suffer from depression and suicide. As a group, they are shown to have a lifetime suicidality rate of 34.8% for bisexual men, 25.2% for gay men, and 7.4% for heterosexual men. The women's survey found rates of 45.4% for bisexual women, 29.5% for lesbians, and 9.6% for heterosexual women. A more accessible, though non-academic survey, done by the dating site OkCupid similarly finds that among American and Canadian respondents 69-75% bisexual men have considered suicide, along with 61-63% of gay men and 48-50% of straight men; 79-83% of bisexual women have considered suicide, along with 74-80% of lesbians and 55-60% of straight women.

Armed with this information it becomes unconscionable to 'forget' bisexual youth when speaking of the recent suicides in the USA and the public reaction to them. In a rebuttal of the repugnant hate speech of Arkansas school official Clint McCance, the popular talk show host Dr Phil McGraw gave a brilliant and heartening defense of non-heterosexual youth on the Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees news program. The only problem is that he kept forgetting to include bisexual youth in his message:

"I consider myself to be a Christian. I have a very personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And I see absolutely no conflict whatsoever between the God and religion that I know and accepting and embracing people from all different walks of life and orientations, including gay, lesbian, transgender and questioning youth."

"And my concern is that, because this is getting so much attention -- and I think it needs to be -- but the down side of it is that gay, lesbian, transgender or questioning youth right now can say, 'See?That's how they really feel.' And we drive them further back from feeling comfortable with who they are and taking a position to own that and claim that."

If this were just a one-off, I may have ignored it. But Dr Phil's elision is all too common nowadays and many have noticed that pundits speaking about the suicides and the various projects, programs and acts of remembrance and support have done the same. This is just the most recent and clear example (and the one for which there is an online transcript).

I believe Dr Phil, a psychologist and compassionate man, would be horrified to know his words of support could cause any teenager pain and make them feel less comfortable with who they are. I'm sure he would be dismayed to see in black and white how easily he erased bisexual youth from his statements. When it is pointed out to progressive people of any sexual orientation, and to those who fight for justice and an inclusive society, how their habits of mind and speech collude in bisexual erasure and suffering, they usually get it and are willing to pay closer attention. Personally, I have come across very few people face-to-face who want to hurt or insult bisexual people. Yet they do unfortunately exist, and in print and internet discourse they abound. I had an online debate once with a woman who claimed to be a psychologist and a college lecturer who basically said, and I summarise: "I can accept gay people and of course straight people, but bisexuals are just disgusting. They need to be forced to choose." Blah, blah, blah... and more of the usual hateful mess, just dressed up in the rational guise of her profession. Anyone who knows me or has read my blog so far can imagine the kind of response she got from me (it started with "grow up" and ended with "you can't handle the truth," and was peppered along the way with a few aptly posited 'dirty words'). Erasure and hatefulness are hard to bear no matter your age, and that woman's words certainly caused me pain, but in the case of vulnerable teens, this kind of thing must cause us all to pay better attention.

So why would bisexuals be at particular risk for depression and suicide? What are some circumstances that would make a bisexual person specifically vulnerable as 'a bisexual' rather than generally vulnerable as a member of the LGBT or queer community? Isolation is one answer (and I endeavour to deal with other answers in future posts). Feeling that they have nowhere to turn and no one anywhere who will understand their feelings and problems causes bisexual teens and adults great agitation and a distortion of their self-worth. Bi teens report rejection and bullying by both straight and gay people when they come out of the closet and often feel they have nowhere to turn for validation and full acceptance. The erroneous and painful notion that bisexuality does not really exist feeds the idea that bisexuality is a phase that they will grow out of and eventually accept their 'true' identity as either gay or straight. Often bi people feel 'forced' to choose. But 'choosing' (a bit of newspeak by which detractors actually mean denying you the right to freely select your partner) is only another word for faking it, distorting yourself, or being forced back into a closet, replete with all the soul destroying shadows that reside there.

A bisexual teen is bisexual. A rather simple concept that seems to escape far too many people. S/he is not gay, not straight, and no more confused than any other teenager about life and love. They do not have twice the chance of a date for the prom, they have twice the chance of rejection and misapprehension when asking someone to be that date. They do not have it easier coming out to parents because being bi is "more acceptable" than being gay (an error that even Dan Savage, the founder of the It Gets Better project, has persisted in perpetuating up until now and which we can only hope he has finally discarded). It is not easier for them to avoid bullying and hate crime simply by "acting straight" -- for how do you act straight when your boyfriend, girlfriend or heart's desire is of the same-sex? And there simply is no evidence that there are more bisexuals hiding out as straight people than there are gay people who, for whatever reasons, are still in the closet or straight people who are adamant about the heterosexual label but still occasionally have same-sex partners they refuse to speak about.

Basically, this notion that bi teens have got it easy is wrong and can be damaging if it causes those who are trying to help LGBT teens to overlook them, dismiss their concerns, or just forget they are there. And to put it baldly and answer one person who challenged me to "name one bisexual teenager who has been beaten or committed suicide" -- is Billy Clayton enough? or this boy? or this one? or this one? or this one? I certainly don't want to have to name anymore. Not one more bisexual or lesbian, gay, transgender, transexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, questioning, intersex, straight or other orientated or identified teen or adult should be added to the list. Not one more. The price for psychological and emotional health and liberation of LGBT people is not a certain amount of blood spilt -- or at least, it should not be.

END OF PART 1 (part two forthcoming).

** Please note that public outcry has recently gotten 'Latina' removed from the original Google Instant filter, with no apparent damage to the psyche of the world's children and to us non-porn-searching information junkies. **


  1. Hello dear,

    Those stats are sobering! I am stunned and had no idea. Thank you for unveiling hypocrisies and advancing compassionate discourse.



  2. Thank you for your comments, as always, Toni. I do hope what I post helps to advance a discussion in this area. Getting tongues a'waggin'! That's what it's all about.... and setting the record straight.

  3. Do wish we had more things like this written / submitted for BCN (this may be a hint!)

    Those stats are stunning. A shame there aren't similar sources on them for the UK - or are there I wonder?

  4. Great hint, Jen! :) -- absolutely.

    And I am always on the lookout for UK stats and for other countries. So when I have them I will write something about them.

  5. Very important post. Thank you.

    I heard of an article in a zine that was titled "There are no queer teens suicides, only queer teen murders", and this seems ever-appropriate to the topic of bisexual erasure and bisexual suicide.

    I think your description of the google "profanity" filter opened a bit of unused space for criticism of anti-sex culture. In particular in connection with bisexual women/female people, this is a fascinating topic, as we are both hypersexualized by the media (including porn), and at the same time given a social space to explore our bi sexuality. In a way, the way that bi women are "forced" into this sexualized space, at the same time also "allows" us to partake in it.

    2 cents,

  6. Thank you, Shiri... your 2 cents are much appreciated!

  7. I'm so glad I found this article - finally someone else understands the isolation! I'm going to show this post to friends who really don't get it...

  8. Anonymous -- it was wonderful to wake up and read your comment. Thank you! -- for reading and recommending to others. I'm glad if the article helps you feel less isolated & less misunderstood... I definitely have known that isolation all my life and the misunderstandings continue. But if we can create a dialog about it all, things will get better.

  9. I really appreciate this. I wish I could have it published in our local queer paper-more people need to "get" this.

  10. Hi Leah -- thanks so much! I'm glad you liked it -- and, hey, I'm happy for you to reprint it if you think it'd fit your local paper... you can email me at to chat about it.

  11. As a bi-sexual male I am thrilled to read such a well written blog dealing with bi-sexuals,especially us men.I crossdress and my wife accepts me for who I am,she knows I have an active bi-sexual past and in reality I had more male sex partners than female but relationships are not built on sex but rather trust and compatibility.Love is a combination of several areas within our (DNA) and this is where sexual orientation should be an individual decision and these "christian" therapists should be put in prison for telling any man,woman or child that they are committing a sin against God for doing what they deem as immoral sexual behaviour.The suicide rate is higher amongst the GLBT`s because of the so-called "Christian Coalition"-namely (Conservatives),ironically the same party that says "less government,lower taxes,and we don`t want the government telling us how to live",Hog-wash!!!That`s all they try to do is control the morals of society that some "Ideological idiot" took something out of context from the Bible and modern American christians bought right into it,instead of following God they are following a poor example of what the Bible really does say,"Love".

  12. Hi Stefiecd, thanks so much for reading & commenting!

    I agree that the entire attack on people who go outside a very narrowly defined set of strictures for what and who is right and good needs to return to the margins of society and the central teachings of so many faiths and of people of no faith -- that of loving one another selflessly and of treating one another equally, no matter our differences -- must be thrust right back into the centre of our personal, political and social lives.

    Thanks again for reading the blog and sharing your experiences and thoughts.