By Barbara Oud
I walked through the building as a fresh round of workshops was beginning. Each room was crowded with people and enthusiastic workshop hosts; the information market was well-visited; and a vegan lunch was being prepared in the courtyard. Our hard work had paid off at the European Bisexuality Conference (EuroBiCon). I experienced an intense sense of happiness.
Last summer, the third EuroBiCon and the first European Bisexuality Research Conference (EuroBiReCon) were held in Amsterdam. Despite the fact that I had never attended a EuroBiCon or any conference on bisexuality, I was given the opportunity to be the conference’s program manager. In the process of organizing the EuroBiCon, we were approached by a mainstream, well-read Dutch online magazine. As coverage in this magazine was an important opportunity to promote the upcoming conference, I considered being interviewed. I knew this would mean my coming out online as bisexual, and I didn’t know whether I was ready to do so.
One night, I discussed this struggle with my partner. I told him about the possibility of having my story featured in the magazine and how much this scared me. I also told him I doubted whether I could even call myself bisexual, considering I had never been in a “real” relationship with a woman. I told him about feeling that organizing the EuroBiCon had perhaps encouraged me to consider myself bisexual, even though I wasn’t “actually” bisexual. He told me I was wrong; although organizing the conference further affirmed my bisexuality, I had been bisexual all along. He helped me remember that since the start of our relationship I had discussed my interests in people of multiple genders, and the fact of my bisexuality was not determined by the conference nor by the relationships I had (not) had. Not only did he give me a powerful sense of being supported, he also encouraged me to do the interview and to face the consequences. I could do it.
And so I did. The headline was “I like both men and women, so what?” I got many positive responses, yet there were also people who made strange comments. One man responded that my coming out as bisexual was “very hot,” because now my partner and I could invite a woman and have a threesome. A coworker told me after we had discussed the article that she didn’t care about anyone’s sexual orientation because “It’s not like you are going to jump onto me now, right?”A different coworker told me he had seen something on Facebook about me. He said he read an article saying I am bisexual. He said, “But this isn’t true, so why are you saying this?” I asked him why it wouldn’t be true. He told me I couldn’t be bisexual because I had not told him before.
I don’t believe that most people are against bisexuality; they just lack knowledge. Well-intentioned people can still make comments which enforce negative stereotypes or can be classified as bi-erasure. Consider the following example: at one point I was preparing for the EuroBiCon and I was sitting next to someone I know. When she asked me what I was up to, I explained that I was organizing a conference on bisexuality. She looked at me puzzled and said, “It’s so interesting that you are organizing the EuroBiCon, considering you are not bisexual…or are you?” I told her I am, and she looked even more puzzled. “But how can you be bisexual if you have a boyfriend? That means you’ve made your choice, right?”
In my view these are all examples of why bisexuality needs to become more visible. We need conferences and events and parties and magazines specifically for bisexuals. We need our own communities, to confirm we are not alone and that our feelings are valid. I found my community when organizing the EuroBiCon. By organizing the conference and becoming part of this community, I started to be more comfortable in understanding myself as bisexual. The path that I walked allowed me to openly claim my bisexuality, instead of keeping it to myself and those closest to me. Apart from these personal experiences, I was amazed by how warm and welcoming this community is. While old friends were reconnecting at the EuroBiCon, new connections were created, and everyone was welcome. Being welcomed into this community powerfully affirmed my sexual identity. I was truly happy to a part of this important event.
Although becoming part of this community has meant a lot to me, it is not the only way I feel supported. I am lucky enough to have a support system bigger than that. As I stated above, my partner affirms my bisexual identity, as do my children, two teenage girls who can happily explain what bisexuality means, who sport their own EuroBiCon t-shirts and fight me over who gets to wear my EuroBiCon sweater.
Bisexuals face very specific challenges. Our experiences differ from the experiences of heterosexuals, but also of gays and lesbians, as bisexual identity involves being attracted to multiple genders. Bi-erasure is real. Our experiences and feelings are minimized and silenced, and persistent stereotypes affect our daily reality. More visibility is needed, but this should not be the goal in itself. Instead, visibility should be the means towards other goals, such as improving bisexual health and life circumstances.
I am well aware that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. Although I am new to the community, the community itself is not new at all. Many of you have been fighting for bisexual rights for decades, and it is your fight that created the framework within which I am currently thinking, working and fighting. We need to keep spreading knowledge and continuing the conversation. I have chosen to start small. By being open about my own sexual identity, I hope to encourage coworkers, friends and family members to think about bisexuality. After starting with my personal environment, I can expand this mission and improve awareness about bisexuality among a growing group of people. My hope is to play my part in creating a society that is open to diverse sexualities, in which multiple stories are told and heard. Bisexual communities are important sources of support and affirmation for bisexual people, but feeling supported within our own communities is not enough. Society should welcome and equally value all sexual identities. This struggle is not over yet, and I believe that our collective fight still needs to be won.
Barbara Oud is a 26-year-old woman living in the Netherlands with her male partner and two stepdaughters. She has a degree in Gender Studies and is passionate about starting discussions about sex and sexuality