Epistemic Status: I believe this to be an accurate description of how I experience the world. I am reasonably confident that it generalises based on what I know about peoples’ experiences, but I may be overstating how widespread it is a bit.
PSA: Please for the love of all the gods do not use this post to pick fights with me about bisexual vs pansexual. Not the time, not the place.
Credit: Thank you to various beta readers for this post. It’s always a bit stressful writing about this sort of thing.
If you talk to be people who fall under the LGBTIAQ* umbrella, one sense you will frequently get is something akin to the idea of “born this way” even if it’s not quite phrased as that – that their gender or sexuality is in some sense a deep seated part of their core identity and that trying to suppress it would be unbearably awful for them.
I have absolutely no doubt that the people saying this are telling the truth, but I think an underappreciated point is that this is still what you would see even if that were not the majority experience.
In particular, my personal experience is quite different.
I am bisexual. I tend not to make a big deal out of this, mostly because I do not date that much, but it turns out that your sexuality doesn’t magically go away just because you’re not doing anything with it.
I chose to be bisexual. At some point I decided that I was bored of describing my sexuality as “It’s complicated and not that interesting but I can give you the decision tree if you really want to spend the next fifteen minutes talking about it…” and that I should just use the commonly accepted word that was least inaccurate for my situation.
In a different life where I had had different experiences I probably would still consider myself to be heterosexual. I mean sure my brain would still occasionally go “hello, boys”, but it’s remarkably easy to ignore what your brain is telling you and just write it off as “brains do weird things sometimes” when it’s something that doesn’t fit your self-image.
Even if I had realised that this was genuinely a thing, there are definitely different circumstances under which I would absolutely not fess up to it in public. I decided to just be out about this in large part because I have social capital to burn and I thought it would be useful to people from a visibility point of view, and because secrets stress me out, but I had less of the former and the costs of my being out were substantially greater then I’d probably shove myself pretty thoroughly into that closet. “Hello fellow hets. Just call me Straightvid McHetero. Yup yup. This here David is all about the ladies” (that’s how straight men talk, right?).
Honestly, that would probably have been OK for me. Especially with how little I date, my sexuality isn’t a huge part of my life. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I could deal with it.
Before I go any further I want to emphasise that this is not universally true. There are many bisexuals for whom their bisexuality really is a deeply felt part of their identity and for whom passing as straight (or as gay) would be unbearable. The situation is even worse if you are gay and forced to present as heterosexual.
But it is my experience – the cost-benefit analysis for me personally is such that if I had to pass for safety reasons it wouldn’t be awful. My suspicion is that this experience, and variations on it, is actually quite widely shared.
The whole reason we have this notion of being in the closet is because society imposes a high cost to breaking its rules. Even the most liberal of societies are still very heteronormative, and even more strongly cisnormative. If you go against these norms, you will be punished. It might be in big ways, it might be in little ways, and it’s certainly better than it was 50 years ago, but there absolutely is going to be a cost.
And what happens as a result is that people do a cost-benefit analysis (usually implicitly. Actually sitting down and going “Is the cost of publicly self-identifying as bisexual worth the benefit to me?” like I did is weird, but I’m like that). The people who are publicly out or otherwise visible as non-conforming are the people for whom the benefit of doing so is greater than the cost.
What this means is that for things where the cost is very high, the overwhelming majority of people you see who do not conform to some norm are people for whom the non-conformance is of sufficient importance to them that it’s worth the cost, or the cost of conformance is too high.
You can see this as more and more people feel comfortable coming out of the closet as things get gradually better – as the level of policing of people’s sexuality gradually goes down, the number of people for whom it is worth it to explore their sexuality goes up. This isn’t what a binary “you’re either LGBT or you’re not” split looks like, it’s exactly what happens when you have a continuous spectrum and everyone below some threshold is quietly pretending that there’s nothing to see here.
Centering gender and sexual politics and discussion on the people most strongly affected is absolutely the right thing to do, but I think it’s still useful to be aware that this spectrum exists and literally everybody is somewhere on it (that’s why it’s a spectrum).
This is important for a number of different reasons.
The first is simply that I’m pretty sure that it’s true. It’s good to believe true things. The world makes more sense that way. This model of how people are behaving is (as far as I can tell) extremely consistent with both the data and many many quiet conversations I’ve had with friends about their experiences.
The second is that I think it is extremely helpful to people to understand this about themselves, especially if they are in a boundary area. Stressing about the question “Am I bisexual or am I just faking it?” seems to be an almost universal bisexual experience, and that’s not surprising given this dynamic! When most of what you hear is from people whose sexual identity is burned into their very soul, “I don’t know what’s going on but sometimes I feel like it might be nice to be able to kiss boys??” feels fake in comparison.
It’s also useful from a political point of view. There is strength in numbers, and understanding that the range of experiences includes a much more broad base of people who would experiment if given the option significantly increases our numbers. I’d much rather describe my sexuality as “Look over there!” followed by dropping a smoke bomb and escaping in the confusion, and my decision to identify as bisexual instead is in no small part a political one. I suspect there are quite a lot of others out there who could usefully do the same.
(Please note: If you actually feel you’re genuinely 100% straight don’t just call yourself bisexual for political reasons. I think the label becomes significantly less personally and politically useful if people start doing that).
Finally, the biggest reason I think that this is important to talk about is because that’s how we beat pluralistic ignorance – the phenomenon where a norm is publicly enforced by the majority of people but also privately rejected by a majority of people.
Imagine an extremely oppressive society in which presenting as anything but straight is completely not an option (sadly this probably does not require much imagination). Now wave a magic wand and everyone wakes up one morning as a 50/50 split bisexual. What happens?
Well, almost nothing. Possibly enforcement of the rules gets even stricter, because now people are terrified of being found out as bisexual themselves. Although everyone is bisexual, they each think everyone else is straight.
I think it is extremely likely that we are in a less extreme version of this scenario, with almost everyone failing to quite fit the mould that society wants them to but still being complicit in enforcing the accompanying social rules on others.
(Some people benefit enormously from the current state of society, but both things can be true at the same time).
I really do mean almost everyone, because this isn’t a problem confined to sexuality (although I do think that for a sufficiently broad definition of bisexual there are a hell of a lot more of us out there than is commonly supposed, so maybe it’s even a majority if you just stick to sexuality). The human experience is full of spectra – gender is probably one or more spectra, there are a whole variety of neurodivergences which certainly are, and a whole variety of less obvious preferences and traits that society forces us to fit into.
As a result, I believe most people are spending their lives being made vaguely miserable by an attempt to conform to rules that describe an ideal that almost nobody actually wants to conform to. If we could all take a step back and just decide not to enforce some of those rules, we would be more able to express ourselves in ways that make us more comfortable.
Talking about this problem won’t make it go away on its own – some of these rules are due to genuine value differences, and some of the people being made miserable would actively choose to enforce the rules even if given the option not to – but I think it’s a good first step.
By acknowledging that we all experience these degrees of variation, and that nobody quite fits in, maybe we can start to broaden the range of behaviours that society accepts and make it easier for people to experiment and find out what actually works for them.
If you would like to read and learn more about this, I can highly recommend “Queer: A Graphic History” by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele. Foolishly I read it right after rather than right before writing this post, so it did not directly inform it, but I think there’s a lot of overlap nevertheless.