I grew up in the UK during the era of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister. Thatcher’s ideal England was as traditional as the Adventist churches I attended every Saturday, and their shared social philosophy was our water and air.
One of Thatcher’s legacies was a local government rule called Section 28, which banned schools and local governments from discussing non-heterosexualities.
This all but forced teachers to teach as if only heterosexual people existed.
My denomination supported this law in the name of protecting the nuclear family and impressionable children, and regional church leaders used nasty arguments to discourage its repeal in 2003. The decade and a half I spent in those churches was fifteen years in which I never heard of a single out LGBTQ person in my communities, let alone another bisexual one.
The enforced silence of Section 28 and my heterosexist Christian subculture didn’t help families like mine or children like me. Together my state and my church developed a way to wrap LGBTQ people up in invisibility cloaks: simply never speak of them.
Under Section 28 and cultural invisibility, thousands and thousands of young people from every culture and faith group born in the 1980s and 1990s struggled to learn about ourselves and our community history. We struggled to accurately perceive our place in our churches and society, and to be accurately perceived by the people we love.
As I grew older, I heard whispers, euphemisms, nudges, and winks about LGBTQ people, yet none of these whispers sank in for me. We had a Monty Python actor; we had Elton John, Boy George, and George Michael; we even had the newspaper obituary code phrase “confirmed bachelor.”
But that list of the famed only seemed to mark people who were White, male, or gay.
“We’re not like that; we don’t do that” was the motto of my parents’ generation. They were first-generation immigrants striving to build a life in a society that told them they were morally and socially inferior. They hoped and prayed that, despite society, their children would learn to look in the mirror and recognize themselves as people of promise and value.
And so they and the immigrant West Indian families around me used the lives of middle- and upper-class English entertainers or politicians, some quietly repressed, others openly flamboyant, as cautionary tales.
“We’re not like them,” they taught us, “and you must never act like that.” As I slowly learned to navigate my crushes, imagine my future family, and make choices that matched the morality I’d been taught, I did so not realizing that major pieces of information were missing.
Looking back, it was as if someone had tasked me to assemble a watch, then thrown the parts at me, stripped me of all tweezers and screwdrivers, and switched the lights off.
“Sexuality,” “bisexuality,” and “emotional intimacy” were all concepts I didn’t have and never knew I needed.
I knew I’d be expected to marry a man one day, and because I did date guy friends once in a while, I thought I’d be able to fulfill my elders’ wishes. It didn’t occur to me that I might need to imagine a different kind of adulthood than the one they’d set before me.
It didn’t occur to me that I was a different kind of person.
I was in my early twenties before I discovered there even was an LGBTQ community. I was in my mid 20’s before I realized I was part of that community, that my orientation was fluid, not fixed, bi, not straight. And I was 26 before I met another out bi person who also believed in God, community, prayer, and faith.
I’d spent my entire childhood looking in the mirror of our home, our church, and two societies, and not once had I seen a reflection that matched. I expected the visibility of people like me to improve when I eventually started to read LGBTQ community literature, but it didn’t. The first few decades of LGBTQ Christian stories, memoirs, and nonfiction have largely focused on gay men, and also lesbian women when they’ve accounted for women at all.
Bi people are described as if we’re straight with flair or gay in waiting.
Even books that I’ve come to love, like John Fortunato’s Embracing the Exile (1984), John J. McNeill’s Taking a Chance on God (1988/1996) and Freedom, Glorious Freedom (1995/2010), Kelly Brown Douglas’ Sexuality and the Black Church (1999), and M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom (2010), do the same.
Meaning well, authors position the bisexual community as if it’s too complicated to acknowledge and use terms like “gay” or “gay and lesbian” as if they represent us all. They don’t.
For far too many people, being bisexual, religious, and Black still means growing up looking in the mirror of home, church, and society, but seeing no reflection looking back. It means turning to book indexes and either finding no “bisexual” entry, or just “See homosexuality.” This has to change.
I enjoy our annual bi visibility community events, themed articles, t-shirts, and the best memes on the internet—and yet these things aren’t the heart of bi visibility for me.
For me, bi visibility is a daily thing.
It’s connecting with other fluid people and sharing our stories and experiences with each other. It’s rooting myself in community literature that cares enough to call us by name. It’s shaping conversations with relatives and friends that accounts for bi people’s lived experience and doesn’t just settle for others’ presumptions and stereotypes.
Bi visibility is highlighting those who, as a collective, are the reflection that bi people in every culture, faith group, and age group might not yet know they need because they don’t yet know who they are.
When they do go seeking, as I eventually did, we’ll be in that social mirror, and they’ll find in us the truth that they are people of promise and value, and are no one’s inferior.
Photo via flickr user Hernán Piñera