Within every lesbian community there exists a tale as old as time, a proverb as common as it is contentious: Bi women cheat, betray, and ultimately leave—never for another woman, but for a man. Like those who flee the tumults of city life for quieter and less complicated pastures, bisexual women may seem destined, in the eyes of gay women, to trade the grit and hardships of queer life for the suburbs of heteroville. As a bisexual woman myself, I can’t deny that something about this stereotype that rings true; bi women do seem to romantically engage, or “end up” with men far more often than with woman. But is this really because we prefer a life of white-picket simplicity and comfort? Or could it be that, when it comes to romance between queer women, the game has been rigged from the start?
Like many stereotypes, the lived experiences of one group have almost certainly colored the perceptions of another, however unfairly or inaccurately. But I believe that it’s time to examine the pervasive, inner workings of heterosexual conditioning that, whether any of us in the bisexual community want to admit or not, have doomed so many bisexual/lesbian pairings to failure. While I understand that I can’t speak for anyone else’s experiences, I’ve written this article with two particular perspectives in mind:
1. I spent the first two decades of my life living as a closeted trans woman—a bisexual male to the outside world.
2. I have since transitioned, and now live as a bisexual woman.
Lost In Translation
My experiences with dating, both before and after transitioning, have magnified the differences in how courtship and sexual pursuit are modeled for both genders. From an early age boys and girls are taught that relationships are successfully obtained by performing “complementary” roles of cat and mouse, pursuer and pursued, the actor and the acted-upon. Consequently, girls learn to define romance as a noun—a subjective experience brought about by a man’s actions. Boys, on the other hand, learn to define romance as a verb—something they must actively do to earn a girl’s affections. This socialization has immediate implications for all queer romance, but presents an even greater obstacle for a potential lesbian and bisexual pairing, as illustrated by the following quote from a very good friend of mine (who’s also a bi woman):
“Honestly, I don’t even like men all that much. Physically, I mean. But they make me feel wanted and desired in a way that very few women ever do. Even when a particular girl is gay and says she’s into me, it’s like pulling teeth just to get her to flirt with me or make a move…”
One of the most pervasive challenges I’ve experienced with dating after I transitioned has been maintaining the interest of cisgender bisexual women without having to perform romance in the same heteronormative manner I’d been taught back when I lived as a boy. In this situation, if I approach romance even slightly more passively, or deviate from heteronormative standard practice in any way, the momentum between us fizzles out in a hurry. Now no one is driving the process forward; no one sets up the next date, leans in for a kiss, or “buys the flowers,” so to speak. Any digression from the beaten path of straight romance leaves other bi women feeling as though I’m not interested, even if I am interested but showing it in a different manner than she’s used to. (Conversely, my relationships with straight men go haywire the moment I try to take a more active role in romance or courting. A lot of men say they want that in a woman, but that has certainly not been my experience!)
My relationships with gay women, on the other hand, have felt much more egalitarian to me. Particularly with those who’ve known their orientation from an earlier age, and/or those who’ve had little, if any, experience dating men in their past. While lesbian women are certainly bombarded with the same messages about romance as everyone else, I wonder if perhaps they don’t internalize them to the same extent. The gay women I’ve dated don’t expect me to perform romance as a man would, because their relationships have never or rarely included men, and as a result they’ve created their own version of what romance looks like. In this situation our interactions feel less scripted and more ad-libbed, and I feel so much more like an equally invested—and involved!—partner.
If dating gay women has worked for me, why hasn’t it for the friend I quoted above, or possibly for other bisexual women as well? Consider that I was not socialized as a woman from birth; I never learned to expect the heteronormative tropes of romance and showing attraction. I suspect that at least a few gay women actually have made attempts at “making a move” and romance with my friend, but not in the manner she’d been conditioned to understand. Conversely, many of my lesbian friends have complained of bi women disappearing after a few dates, or “ghosting”, as it’s called these days. I can’t help but wonder how many bisexual women do this simply because they don’t believe—or haven’t even noticed that—the other woman is actually interested. Both parties then go their separate ways, bemoaning what seems like a lost cause.
And nobody wins.
More Than A Numbers Game
“There are more straight men out there then gay women; simple math tells us that a bisexual woman is more likely to end up with a man than another woman.”
The above point is frequently cited in an attempt to explain why so few bi and lesbian pairs exist. And while the sheer number of available partners may explain some aspect of why bi women partner more frequently with men, the heteronormative socialization described above is almost certainly as responsible, if not more so, for this phenomenon.
But an even more insidious hurdle to a bi and lesbian pairing is plain, old fashioned misogyny—the disdain for the feminine vs. the admiration of the masculine. For instance, accusations of deceit are leveled at bi women as well as bi men, ostensibly insulting both groups equally: Bi women are actually straight, and bi men are actually gay. But note that while the claims appear to be opposite from one another, the underlying fears are the same: In both cases a given bisexual is sure to end up with a male partner, as our society dictates that sexual relationships are only viewed as legitimate when they involve at least one man. This leads to the perception that sex requires a penis to be considered “real”—or, put another way: only sex that involves a penis is seen as “threatening”. As a result one rarely hears these concerns echoed in the gay male community; why would a gay man ever fear losing his bi male partner to a woman? This principle can be explicitly observed in how most heterosexual men view a woman’s bisexuality as exciting and acceptable, because in his mind no sex involving two woman can truly be a threat to him, as his penis would be the only one around. I have personally seen this in action several times, as many polyamorous men have been all too excited for me to date their wife or girlfriend, only to suddenly refuse when I disclose that I am transgender. (See: The “One Penis Per Party Rule” as applied to polyamory: https://sexgeek.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/theproblemwithpolynormativity/ )
It isn’t difficult to imagine that most gay women have internalized some of these awful messages, and it’s even less difficult to imagine the resultant feelings of insecurity regarding their sexual power or agency. As a result, is it really so hard to see why some gay women might feel wary or reluctant to begin a relationship with a bisexual woman?
What Biphobia Is Not
Recently, I sat down for coffee with a lesbian acquaintance of mine who’d been dumped a month earlier by a bi woman. “I just don’t feel comfortable dating bi women anymore, like I’d never be able to settle down and feel secure,” she told me, exasperated. “When they leave, they leave for men. I’m just sick of being burned by it…”
“Has anyone ever called you biphobic for feeling that way?” I asked.
Her eyes got wider than the saucer holding her cup of coffee. “Yes! Do you think I am?”
After thinking on it for a moment, I told her that I didn’t. And after having thought about it in the time since, I’m even more certain that it is harmful and reductive to instantly shout biphobia! when a gay woman declines to date a bi woman—in much the same way that I don’t believe it must be necessarily called transphobic for someone to decline a partner who doesn’t possess their anatomy of choice. No person or group of people is entitled to the affections or intimate spaces of another, and nobody should be expected or even asked to expand their own boundaries solely for the sake of inclusivity. Particularly, in this instance, because the pressure to be more inclusive falls to gay women far more than any other marginalized group.
In this context it is critical to remember that lesbian women, both as individuals and collectively, have endured a long history of their sexual preferences being denied, policed, and, in so many tragic cases, “corrected” via acts of sexual and/or political violence. Is it any wonder that they may feel angry or frustrated upon experiencing even slightly similar pressures in a supposed safe space? Desire and love are not subject to popular vote, and as members of the queer community, we ought to know better than to inflict these kinds of pressures on one another. My acquaintance at the coffee shop wasn’t oppressing bi women with irrational hatred of us as a group—she was acting in her own self interest, responding to negative experiences in a manner that seems very understandable.
Making It Right
If bisexual women hope to be seen as a more viable relationship option for gay women, we should remember that heteronormative socialization does give them a few good reasons to be wary of us. And while some in the lesbian community have certainly expressed unreasonable prejudices towards bisexual women as a group, I would challenge us not to automatically claim biphobia in response, but to focus instead on rethinking what it means to both perform and receive romance. Of course, I am not unaware that being transgender has made doing this work somewhat easier for me than it might be for a woman raised from birth to view romance as a passive process. But I believe that everyone in the bisexual community should take the opportunity to re-examine our habits and perceptions, to expose and dismantle the rigged game of heteronormative romance and the misogynist foundations supporting it—to tilt the odds in favor of queer romance, a game with new rules, better prizes, and far more winners.
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About Vee Kinsley
Vee Kinsley is a registered nurse, writer, and musician; she lives in Texas with her wife and only child, a ball python named Sir Hiss.