Bi+ acceptance: From a Meme to A Tipping Point

Nov 1, 2018 | 2018 Fall - Pop Culture, Articles

By Alexandra Bolles

The first place I ever came out as bisexual was in a chat room on Melanie Griffith’s website when I was in middle school.

Yes, you heard me.

Melanie Griffith, as far as I know, isn’t bisexual and I was probably the only one in that chat room posting about LGBTQ identities (were people even saying “LGBTQ” in 2003?), but I felt confused about being attracted to women and girls when I was also so sure about being attracted to boys, unaware of any young adult resources about being bi, and uncomfortable admitting any of this out loud. During that pre-teen summer of depression and hormonally wrestling with my sexual orientation, one of the only things that made me feel better was seeing Melanie on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Neither the show nor the website were about bisexuality, but they made me feel safe. That’s what I needed most to get started on being myself.

Even now, 15 years later, as a very out bi+ (bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, etc.) media advocate, I’ve never fully seen myself represented in the media. The closest I’ve come was Desiree Akhavan’s 2014 GLAAD Media Award-nominated film, Appropriate Behavior. It’s about a 20-something Persian woman who had just moved to Brooklyn, was newly out, and dating a woman for the first time. At the time, I was a 20-something Armenian woman who had just moved to Brooklyn, was newly out, and was also dating a woman for the first time. Seeing the character figure out her life while navigating her heritage was such an unprecedented “a-ha” moment for me: “So this is what it’s like to see yourself,” I thought. Since then, the media landscape for LGBTQ representation, including for bi+ people, has improved dramatically. But we still have quite a ways to go.

Bi+ people have long created unique spaces for ourselves in digital, print, and broadcast media. Such spaces—like this publication, social media groups, and more—are vital resources for our community, providing support, validation, information, and representation. They empower us to organize, connect, and heal. We need them and we also need the mainstream media to humanize us to the general public by telling our stories fairly and accurately.

Bi+ people make up the majority of the LGBTQ community, but are significantly less likely than gay and lesbian folks to be out to the important people in our lives. Therefore, the general public’s understanding of bi+ people is heavily shaped by the mainstream media, which tends to perpetuate harmful tropes about who we are. When I say harmful, I mean it literally: stereotypes about manipulation, lying, deceitfulness, destructiveness, and so on are often invoked in moments of violence against bi+ people. In short, poor media representation can fuel and attempt to justify the physical, sexual, social, and emotional abuse, rejection, and erasure that bi+ people face. And we face them at significantly higher rates than gay and straight people.

But this doesn’t mean we can write the media off all together. To end these multifaceted forms of oppression and abuse, we need the mainstream media. While Hollywood’s history on bi+ issues isn’t great, the media’s been telling some bi+ stories super, super right lately. So right, in fact, that I feel confident declaring this snapshot of pop culture history a full-blown media moment for our community.

This media moment is largely home-grown by bi+ people who both entertain and advocate. Award-winning bi+ activist and actress Sara Ramirez was instrumental for ten years in shaping her groundbreaking Grey’s Anatomy character Callie Torres. Callie is an out bisexual Latina surgeon who learns to love her identity in the face of rejection and antagonism, builds a nontraditional family, and excels in her profession. She also happens to be the longest-running queer TV character. Sara went on to play a vital role in building her well-rounded Madam Secretary character Kat Sandoval, whose resonant dialogue about her queer identity and gender expression will go down in bi+ television history. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Beatriz, who’s been publicly “bi and proud as hell” since 2016, equipped the show’s writers to portray her character Rosa coming out as bisexual in the acclaimed comedy series’ 100th episode. Grey’s Anatomy and Brooklyn Nine-Nine have both received GLAAD Media Awards for quality LGBTQ media representation.

Additionally, Asia Kate Dillon from Showtime’s Billions is pansexual and the first non-binary person to play a non-binary character on a major television show. Jane the Virgin, Schitt’s Creek, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Legends of Tomorrow are also among those telling engaging bi+ stories across platforms.

Outside of TV, Janelle Monae brought much-needed understanding of pansexuality to the national conversation when she and her iconic visual album Dirty Computer came out this year. A self-proclaimed (though no arguments here) “free-ass motherfucker,” Janelle’s interview telling Rolling Stone that she’s part of the bi+ community trended across social and news media. It even lead to “pansexual” being Merriam-Webster’s top-searched term of the day and sparked coverage of the identity in mainstream news outlets like The Washington Post, BBC, Harpers Bazaar, USA Today, and more. Dirty Computer paints a multidimensional picture of being a queer Black woman in America today while also being filled with solid bops.

Social media is a double-edged sword, but it’s an invaluable home for bi+ affirmation and organization. In 2014, national bi+ advocacy organization BiNet USA teamed up with GLAAD and other leading activists to co-found #BiWeek, a week-long digital campaign to celebrate bisexuality+ and educate folks about our community. During #BiWeek, bisexuality+ has gone viral by trending on social media every year. Groundbreaking Obama-era White House bi+ community briefings took place in D.C. and bi+ people make ourselves heard loud and clear. In 2017, the number of posts on social media about bisexuality+ nearly doubled during #BiWeek from the week prior. Social media is quite literally growing and shifting the worldwide narrative about our community.

Current bi+ media representation is not only educating the general public about bi+ people’s unique experiences, but it’s also actually entertaining. Across demographics, media consumers are getting introduced to fleshed-out, authentic bi+ characters of various races, gender identities, and ages. It’s humanizing bi+ people to middle America…I mean, Madam Secretary is on CBS. My parents watch CBS. Yours probably do, too.

Bisexuality+ has become so much a part of contemporary pop culture that “bi+ lighting” – essentially, any scene tinted with the pink, purple, and blue colors of the bi+ flag – is now a common meme (thanks in no small part to Janelle’s heart-stopping “Make Me Feel” video about her love for people of more than one gender). Even the colors of the bi+ flag are becoming so ingrained in the cultural lexicon that many can recognize them on sight.

This is all good news. Our community needs this. The obstacles bi+ people face are heavily rooted in how poorly understood bi+ people are. Now the question for the bi+ community is, how do we elevate this media moment from a meme into a life-saving tipping point?

There is no silver-bullet solution to all the bi+ community’s disparities. What I want to see, and what our community needs to combat the myriad of struggles we’re up against, are better research that’s specifically about our community (not lumped in with our gay peers), and more funding for bi+ programming and organizations. Any funding at all would be a big improvement right now because there’s virtually none. GLAAD proudly has a budget line earmarked for bi+ advocacy and I hope one day, all LGBTQ organizations do. I also know that, if history teaches us anything (and it does), we’re going to need quality media representation to make those things happen.

“The media” sounds big and amorphous and untouchable, but there are actionable steps we can take as consumers to ensure this bi+ lighting moment doesn’t flicker out. If you spot bad representation, speak up. The stick loses its impact when there are no carrots though, so if you spot good representation, speak up about it. Entertainment executives actually pay attention to social media. Online fan support has the power to save shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project. Pop culture can be more than a guilty pleasure; it’s an opportunity to show the world our opinion matters. And you don’t have to do it alone! Reach out to advocacy organizations, including GLAAD. We can use our resources and relationships to celebrate folks doing it right, and work with others to help them do better. GLAAD can even help you effectively tell your own story. Celebrating our heroes and even our allies is key! Proving to content creators and decision makers that the movement for bi+ acceptance is a well-attended party helps them understand that thoughtful inclusion is worth their time.

I am so grateful for everyone fueling this media moment. I’m grateful to the trailblazers who are doing this work so publicly. I’m grateful to networks like Freeform for telling bi+ stories to young viewers through shows like The Bold Type, Shadowhunters, and Grown-ish. I’m grateful to Robyn Ochs for her decades of advocacy work and for facilitating spaces like Bi Women’s Quarterly, in which otherwise ignored perspectives and voices can be appreciated. I’m grateful to Emma Gonzalez, Blair Imani, and other influential advocates who make sure their bi+ queerness doesn’t get erased from their innovative, culture-changing work. I’m grateful to BiNet USA and GLAAD for renewing their commitment to #BiWeek every year and I’m grateful to you for diving deep into all of it.

With the fifth annual #BiWeek right around the corner (September 23-30 this year), I’m asking you to stay invested and make your voice even louder. We’re in an extremely trying political climate and pretty much every day feels like screaming into a void while trying to climb out of a dumpster fire. Believe it or not, though, our efforts are working. We’re having a moment. Let’s grow it into a bigger and better movement.

Alexandra is a bi+ media advocate spearheading GLAAD’s bi+ programming. She co-founded #BiWeek, the viral annual digital campaign, and received PFLAG Queen’s Brenda Howard Award for her bi+ advocacy. Follow Alexandra on Twitter at @anorianb.”

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