It’s no secret that heteronormativity’s days are (thankfully) numbered. Surveys have shown that the number of cis straight people is decreasing and that people between the ages of 16 and 24 are the most likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ — meaning that the future is looking queerer than ever.
This doesn’t mean that we’re hurtling towards a gay planet. Bi people comprise over 50% of today’s queer population, signalling that some men and some women will still be loving, shagging and ghosting one another until the end of time. This is not to say that bi people's 'straight passing' relationships should be seen as traditional. In fact, they could be the site of profound social change.
Studies have suggested that up to 84% of bi people are in a relationship which could, from the outside, be viewed as 'heterosexual'. Contrary to what the disputed notion of 'bi privilege' might suggest, this doesn’t provide a shield against queerphobia; quite the opposite. Facing discrimination from both queer and straight communities, research suggests that people who are attracted to two or more genders face higher rates of depression and anxiety and poorer health outcomes. One UK study found that only 33% of bi women felt comfortable telling their general practitioner about their sexual orientation, and nearly half of respondents had experienced biphobia when accessing health services.
Added difficulties stem from the fact that bi people are less likely to be out about their identity (just 19% say they are out to all of the most important people in their lives) and bi women in particular are more at risk of domestic abuse for a number of reasons including – but not limited to – the fetishisation and objectification they experience thanks to popular portrayals of bi women as 'promiscuous'.
There is clearly work to be done to combat biphobia in society, particularly when it intersects with sexism, and bi women shouldn’t be left to tackle this on their own. Cis straight men are in a unique position of privilege and when they become intimately involved with bi women, they have a duty to use this privilege for good. Without consciously educating themselves to become an LGBTQIA+ ally, they could be contributing to the stigma bi women face. But if they do the work and pass on what they've learned to their straight circle, they could be instrumental in challenging the biphobia that lingers to this day.
So where to start? Like a lot of bi women, Niamh, 23, feels her bisexuality becomes "a bit invisible" when she’s in relationships with men. One of the first and most fundamental things a straight partner can do is actively affirm her identity. "It’s important to acknowledge the fact that your girlfriend is queer and that this is a part of her identity," Niamh says. "If she wants to talk about it then you should be there to listen." She also thinks it’s important that straight partners help keep their queer girlfriends in touch with LGBTQIA+ culture by participating in it themselves, be it cinema, art or Drag Race. "Whatever you enjoy, fully embrace it."
Equally, it’s up to bi women to decide how much they want to bring straight cis boyfriends into their experience of queer culture and their partners should respect any boundaries they agree on. Twenty-five-year-old Helen recommends that men don’t take it too personally if their bi girlfriend is hesitant to bring them along to the gay bar. "There are some aspects of queer culture that you’re not going to get in a straight relationship and he shouldn’t take offence to that," Helen explains. "If she wants to take time to go on a night out in queer spaces or go to Pride without you, don’t be offended by that. That’s an aspect of her personality that she has to embrace and she can choose whether or not to include you in that."
Partners shouldn’t use this as an excuse not to do homework on their own, however. Helen advises: "Read about what bisexuality is and read accounts from different people who identity as bi – not just your girlfriend." Independently researching bisexuality is certainly a good shout – places to start include Shiri Eisner’s Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution and essay collection The Bi-ble — not only as a way to pick up queer terminology and discourse but as an education in the struggles that bi people face. After all, to empathise with people you need to understand what they’re going through first.
The work goes much deeper than cracking open the books, though. Any potential bi ally needs to examine their own biases – particularly when it comes to sex. Due to the hypersexualised portrayal of bi women in the media (hello, Basic Instinct) and pornography, they are often objectified, even by their partners. Intrusively asking bi girlfriends to participate in threesomes, insisting it's 'not cheating' if they kiss other women and prying for details of queer sexual experiences are all examples of fetishisation. It might seem like it’s all in good fun but this kind of behaviour can be outright damaging. Just ask bi women.
This is the experience of Katie, 24, who recounts stories of her sexual identity being used for past boyfriends’ gratification. "My male partners would encourage me to flirt with women, kiss women at parties and play-act a kind of fantasy of sexual availability," Katie explains. "Being objectified in that way [made me] feel like sex with women was something you did for a male audience." She is now able to reflect on the experience and sees that relationships between bi women and straight men will only work if the latter leaves their ego at the door. As she so succinctly puts it: "Your partner's sexuality is not the place for [straight men] to play out their fantasies or insecurities."
Further into relationships between bi women and straight men, there should (hopefully) be a level of respect and understanding of each partner’s identity. This doesn’t mean, however, that society will have caught up. As bi women continue to deal with biphobia, it’s necessary for their partners to advocate for and support their identity — whether that’s to parents and friends or in wider society. This is what Lucy, 28, recommends: "There’s obviously that [misconception] that bi people are just greedy and it’s important that [any partner] understands why that’s wrong and can stick up for bisexuals in those situations." Bi women shouldn’t have to fight their battles on their own; at the very least, they should be able to rely on their partner for backup.
Sometimes the allyship we cherish can be something altogether more abstract, especially in a world which is tough on both women and bisexuals. This is Helen’s experience with her current boyfriend. "My partner is an ally in that he makes me feel happy and comfortable with myself and I feel like I can be myself around him," Helen says. "Queer people are prone to having issues with self-acceptance and self-love but he makes it so easy. That’s why I love him."