Bisexuals, Passing, and Straight Privilege: A Deeper Look

I'm not straight; I'm bisexual. Appearing as straight and being straight are two different things. The privilege I gain from appearing straight is taken away the moment my sexual orientation is revealed. I wanted to make that clear.
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USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Man on bench reading newspaper
USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Man on bench reading newspaper

I'm a white, cisgendered man who screwed up. I didn't check my privilege and I want to apologize. I recently wrote a piece titled, Why Passing as Straight Isn't a Privilege. In it, I noted how in being in an opposite-sex relationship, I benefit. I'm not afraid of being beaten when I kiss my girlfriend on the lips in public. I'm not harassed by passersby in the street for holding her hand. I claimed that while I clearly benefit from appearing straight, it doesn't mean I have "straight privilege."

My reasoning for this was simple: I'm not straight; I'm bisexual. Appearing as straight and being straight are two different things. The privilege I gain from appearing straight is taken away the moment my sexual orientation is revealed. I wanted to make that clear.

I wanted to discuss how bi-erasure is a real and ubiquitous problem. That despite being the largest sub-group of the LGBT+ community, we are rarely presented in media. And I wanted to give people who are monosexual (solely attracted to one gender), a taste of what it's like to be bisexual on a daily basis, but I didn't fully explain the struggle. Instead, I explained how bisexuals are assumed to be something that we're not, and it's not a privilege to have someone mistake your identity.

I ended up sounding like a mopey privileged man -- people aren't judging you based off of your appearance, wow Zach, you're really at a disadvantage. You're right in thinking this is not a form of systemic oppression, but the bisexual struggle is more nuanced. It's more than having your identity ripped from you. It's more than being re-closeted in every single novel situation. It's more than constantly needing to correct people of your identity. It's more than feeling invisible.

It's the constant questioning and dismissal of your identity. It's the constant need to prove who you are. You start having sleepless nights, and take every single microaggression to heart. "Oh honey, you're bi? You'll get there, I did." "So have you picked a side yet?" "Bisexuals don't exist." "They're just greedy." Every skeptical face takes its toll psychologically. Still, I don't fear being fired if I decide to bring my female partner to the Christmas work party. This is undoubtedly a privilege that all straight and some bisexual people have, but gay people don't.

Nevertheless, I don't think the psychological and emotional components of identity erasure should be diminished. I don't think being constantly re-closeted is a privilege. Neither does science. Bisexual folk are more likely to experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal-ideation than gay and lesbian folk. It's not a stretch to say that the higher rates of mental illnesses in bisexual men and women are caused by the societal factors that deny us our identity. Of course, this is not beneficial and clearly problematic. I think we can all agree to this.

Moreover, bisexuals don't have the same community as gay men and women. Gay folk don't judge each other for being gay (well, they do, but we'll save the conversation on internalized homophobia for another day), but they often refuse to accept bisexuals as an equal part of the LGBT+ community. I think this lack of acceptance comes from believing that bisexuals don't struggle the same as gay individuals. Bisexuals pass with straight privilege, and are therefore not part of the community. That is why I was nervous to admit that I am privileged as a bisexual. I didn't want to further perpetuate the belief that bisexuals don't deserve to be apart of the queer community. That we are, for all intents and purposes, "straight," which is simply not true. While not gay, we have our own unique struggle that differentiates us from being straight, despite having some privileges from our appearances.

Let's me clarify. I'm not trying to start an oppression Olympics. Is it tougher to live life as an openly bi or gay man? Who is society going to oppress more? A rich black man or a poor white woman? We shouldn't be competing to be more victimized.

We should be asking the larger questions: Why is appearing straight a privilege to begin with? Why is appearing "masculine" a privilege in males but appearing "feminine" not? What does it say about society that appearing feminine is not only deemed less valuable, but increases the likelihood of being physically assaulted? How does intersectionality play a role in these gender/sexuality/sex/race issues? How can you be privileged in some ways, but not privileged in others? And of course, the most important question, what can we do to change this?

So yes, my bisexuality has given me some privileges. I want to acknowledge and do my best to check those privileges. But in other ways, ways that are too often ignored by mainstream LGBT media, my bisexuality is not a privilege, and I don't want the psychological and emotional impacts of the ways I'm not privileged to be diminished because I have privilege in other capacities.

I've dated gay men who feared I was going to leave them for a less resistant, "straight" path. Why stay with a man when it's so much easier in society to date a woman? their logic goes. First off, I'm not going to do that because I like them, and that's what matters. But second, that "less resistant straight path" isn't exactly what they think it is. While both being something and appearing can share some of the same privileges, appearance and being is not the same thing. That's what I meant to state in my original essay.

Thank you to the people who respectfully and calmly questioned my beliefs, and helped me scrutinize my own privilege.

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