By Lain Mathers
When I first came out as bisexual at the age of 21, it was 2011. I surprised even myself as the words fell off my lips ungracefully in the company of a friend. I was trying it on for size: Bisexual. A word I was familiar with only in the sense that it evoked imagery of lusty vampires and indecisiveness I’d seen on TV or heard about in songs, images that I did not relate to my sexuality at all (which is not to say there’s anything wrong with lusty vampires or indecisiveness. Who among us has not painstakingly debated about whether to watch Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or some other equally compelling story of fantasy?).
As I disclosed my recently-acknowledged sexual identity, I asked said friend for advice on where to see people like me represented in films, TV, books, and other popular media. Images that dug into the nitty gritty, day-to-day life of bisexual people while they shopped at the supermarket, had difficult conversations with family (that were not always about sexuality), got themselves into a comedic pickle and then wriggled themselves out of it. I wanted stories that took place on planet Earth, involved well-developed characters, and kept me up late into the night promising myself just one more chapter or episode. I was hungry for stories of bisexual people navigating difficult life choices or a grim work environment. I wanted bisexual characters who were lovable and flawed, not just one or the other, and while I wanted them to do lots of other things besides engage in action that would be labeled “bisexual,” I also very much wanted their bisexuality to be central to their stories. I wanted to see some bona-fide 3D representations of bisexuality, dammit!
Unaware of the naïveté of my inquiry, I found it odd that my friend chuckled at me and mumbled, “Good luck finding that,” under their breath. Though I was perplexed at the time, being relatively unacquainted with the vexing conundrum of bisexual representation that has plagued popular media for decades (see, Willow in one of my, admittedly, favorite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), I was certain that I would be able to find what I was looking for. After all, there had been a reasonably large explosion of lesbian and gay characters in media around the time I was coming out, so I would surely be able to find bisexual characters, right?
Wrong. So wrong.
Fast forward to 2016. I was having a conversation with another trans and bisexual mentor/friend, J.E. Sumerau, lamenting the fact that, save for a few exceptions, I still had trouble finding relatable representations of bisexual characters (this being compounded by the fact that in that span of time, I also acknowledged my genderqueer nonbinary identity), when she said, “Well, that may not be such a problem soon, at least for you.”
I was caught off guard by the sureness of their statement (note: J uses both she and they pronouns). Seeing that I was hanging on her words with bated breath, they said, “I think I’m going to try writing novels again, stories about people like us.” I was giddy with anticipation. FINALLY, I thought to myself. Finally, I will have the stories that I have been longing for since that day back in 2011. (1)
It turns out my excitement was not misplaced. I served as a beta-reader for J’s first novel, Cigarettes & Wine, a coming-of-age story about kids in the 1990s southeastern United States, and let me tell you, I gobbled that book up. When I finished it, I called J with tears in my eyes and a catch in my voice as I gushed about how much I loved it. There I was! On the pages! A nonbinary and bisexual character! And what’s that?? The person like me is not the only one in the story?? They have bisexual and nonbinary friends, too? They deal with the complicated dynamics of growing into their teen years, loss, poverty, and love? It was only in that moment that I felt the true weight of the lack of realistic bisexual representation in the popular media I consumed: the fact that a bisexual nonbinary narrator having other bisexual and nonbinary friends should not be a novelty, considering that it is a reality for many of us (though, not all of us, I know).
This pattern only continued when J sent me their next novel, Essence, a story of four people who fall in love and have to make challenging choices about how to live in a way that is best for all of them. What?? I thought to myself, A positive and genuine portrayal of polyamorous relationships that involve bisexual people instead of the vague and/or fetishistic representations I’ve grown accustomed to?? When J sent me the final draft of Homecoming Queens (which turned out to be a 2018 Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Bisexual Fiction), I could not stop laughing. I snuggled into my worn couch cushions and devoured the combination of mystery and comedy that, again, centered on realistic representations of polyamory, bisexuality, and the complexity of returning home after a long time away. My longstanding hunger for seeing people like me, who identified as bisexual, had multifaceted lives, weren’t perfect yet were completely lovable, in popular media, such as novels, was finally being satiated, but only because I had a friend who was doing the work to create those stories, and thus, I knew immediately where to find them.
This past semester, I assigned one of J’s books in the class I was teaching. After discussing the novel in class, a student timidly, but with a smile, approached me. I asked them if they had a question about the book or our discussion. They shook their head, still smiling, and said, “No. This is just the first time I’ve seen a bisexual character that I can relate to. It’s just pretty cool to finally see that.” “Ah,” I said feeling both happy and disappointed, “I can relate.” I was overjoyed that this student was able to finally see themselves represented, but I was—and still am—disappointed because it is 2018 and bisexual people younger than me are still hunting for themselves, often unsuccessfully, in the media they consume.
The point of all this is simple: It is not news to any of us who identify under the bisexual umbrella that our representation in popular media is wanting and has been for a while. For those of us who desire to be validated through stories we can relate to, we are often met with profound disappointment at the dearth of validation from stories like the ones we seek. However, there are awesome, talented bisexual artists doing this work to make our lives visible in a way we recognize. So if you are a bisexual person who has found popular representations of us that you think are validating, share them! Take a note out of the playbook of A. M. Leibowitz and construct lists, with others or independently, of these popular representations (check it out: http://amleibowitz.com/the-big-bi-list/)! Pass along films, TV shows, music, any art to a friend, blog about them online. Tell others that, in fact, our stories are being told.
And if you are a bisexual person sitting there reading this and you’ve been thinking about writing a story, creating a TV show, making any form of art that tells our stories in a way we don’t see right now, DO IT! We need you now more than ever. We are the largest group in the LGBTQ population with the least (or at best, least accurate) representation of the nuance and complexity of our existence. Write more narratives of bisexual people of color. Film the stories of bisexual men. Paint the loving embraces of bisexual people with disabilities. I know some folks are already doing this (fantastic!), but we still need more, and we cannot wait for others to tell the stories we long to hear.
(1) And you can, too! Check out jsumerau.com for more information on her books.
Lain Mathers is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ze is currently in the process of completing zir dissertation on bi+ identity, community, and politics and is the author of numerous academic articles on bi+, transgender, and LGBTQ experience broadly.