“You have to pick a team!” - the damaging effects of biphobia
Biphobia. As far as prejudices go, it’s a particularly pernicious phenomenon. It’s sometimes lumped together with your classic ‘anything that isn’t straight is disgusting’ homophobia, but the sting in its tail is that it can come from all angles - from straight people, gay people, and even from cuddly panto actors.
Christopher Biggins, the openly gay performer and reality TV mainstay currently appearing on Celebrity Big Brother, commented on Monday: “The worst type, I’m afraid to say, are the bisexuals. What it is, is people not wanting to admit they’re gay. Be honest, that’s what you’ve got to be”. His unlikely comrade, celebrity mafia wife (because apparently that’s a thing) Renee Graziano, agreed: “You have to pick a team!”
Their comments sparked controversy - or did they? Had a homophobic comment been made, there would likely have been significant backlash. If Biggins had said something racist, he’d have been turfed out quicker than he could say “that word was acceptable when I was growing up!” As yet, though, no action has been taken over these biphobic comments. And yes, it may only be a tacky reality show, but Biggins’ words are still worth holding to account. They are proof that, sometimes, the worst, most ignorant forms of prejudice can come from within a marginalised community itself.
Biphobia takes several forms. There are the stereotypes: bisexual people are greedy, indecisive, promiscuous, etc. Why any gay person would bolster another group’s stereotypes after decades of being unfairly labelled as AIDS-ridden, child molesting heathens is hard to conceive, but then again, it’s not uncommon for the oppressed to mimic the behaviour of their oppressors. The gay community can be a place of brutal hierarchies, with racism still a worrying trend. If nothing else, it can be comforting to at least have one group that’s below you.
Biggins’ comments, however, are more analogous to monosexism, the belief that only exclusive sexuality (be it hetero or homosexual) is valid. This paints the world in an outdated, binary way, insisting that people are either attracted entirely to women or entirely to men with zero middle-ground. It insists, as Biggins did, that bisexuality is a simply denial of homosexuality, rather than its own identity. Some, of course, ease their way into homosexuality by first wondering if they’re bisexual, but for many more it is a genuine, lifelong orientation (and honestly, having to debate its very existence in 2016 feels ridiculously retrograde).
Perhaps coming of age at a time when homosexuality was more taboo shaped Biggins’ perspective on this. It may have been easier to see gay and straight people as two very separate, even oppositional factions - ‘Two Tribes’, as it were, with their own worlds and norms. If that were the case, there’d be no sense lurking between the two. Patently, though, that isn’t the case.
Prejudice is prejudice, and whether it’s biphobia or homophobia
There is no proof substantiating monosexism. Way back in 1953, Alfred Kinsey devised the now-famous Kinsey scale, which revolutionised thinking around sexuality by suggesting that orientation lies on a spectrum. 0 is exclusively heterosexual and 6 is exclusively homosexual, but between these two poles are a host of other identities. Bisexuality might be considered a ‘Kinsey 3’, indicating completely equal attraction to men and women, but there can also be varying degrees; a sexual leaning towards one gender, for instance, or a romantic tendency towards the other. Last year, 28% of British adults identified as something other than exclusively heterosexual (rising to 49% in 18-24 year olds). Would Biggins say that all of these people are simply confused, or in denial?
Social norms dictate that we, as Graziano put it, “pick a team”. A majority of people will only ever date, marry and sleep with members of the opposite sex; others will come out as gay. In reality, though, human sexuality is far more complex. Some ostensibly straight people will have had gay encounters, or vice versa. Some will have had a strong enough attraction to a member of the same sex which, even if it wasn’t acted upon, prevents them from considering themselves 100% straight (and again, vice versa). There are some who spend a lifetime attracted to men, only to find one woman who knocks their socks off. And that’s not to mention situational homosexuality, where heterosexuals engage in same-sex behaviour in places where their preferred sexual practices aren’t possible, e.g. in prisons or single sex schools.
I’m not attempting to be dogmatically PC here; even I sometimes get mixed up with the sheer abundance of labels and identities now entering modern parlance. But surely Biggins remembers growing up with his own feelings being invalidated - being told that his sexuality was unnatural or sinful, hearing the old chestnut “It’s just a phase”. You’d hope that he and other gay people, more than anyone, would want to approach different forms of sexuality with a little more compassion and open-mindedness, rather than regurgitating the ignorance they themselves once faced.
Prejudice is prejudice, and whether it’s biphobia or homophobia, it’s equally damaging. At a time when someone can walk into an LGBT club and shoot 49 people dead, unity and acceptance aren’t fluffy intangibles - they’re necessities. Of course, this incident is nothing like what happened in Orlando, it’s just some wrong-headed comments made on a reality show. Still, it highlights the damaging attitudes that can fly under the radar in what we think of as a liberal society. It also reminds us that acceptance - true, full acceptance – cannot come with exceptions.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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