Bisexual erasure is defined as the cultural de-legitimation of bisexuality as an intelligible sexual identity (Khuzwayo and Morison, 2017). It includes the tendency to ignore, invisibilise and falsify bisexual identities, viewing them as inauthentic (Stange, Oyster and Sloan, 2011). The erasure may also include the assertion that all bisexual individuals are in a phase and will soon “choose a side”; either heterosexual or homosexual (Christian, 2011). One reason for this assumption is the widely-held belief that bisexual individuals are distinctively/inherently indecisive (ibid, 2011; Khuzwayo and Morison, 2017:28-29). Gross misrepresentations of bisexual individuals as hypersexual erase their sexual agency, effectively devaluing their true identities (Rodriguez, 2016). Bisexual erasure often results in bisexual-identifying individuals experiencing a variety of adverse social encounters and stigmas, as they not only have to struggle with finding acceptance within society but also within the LGBTQIA+ community (often, they are considered ‘not queer enough’ and/or ‘on-the-fence’) (Berbary and Guzman, 2017).
Generally, bisexuality is “a silenced sexuality” both in popular and academic discourses (Khuzwayo and Morison, 2017). Researchers often use a mono-normative perspective that views sexuality in binary terms (Ibid, 2017:20). Responding to a call for more local research that explores how bisexual women negotiate heteronormativity, including African research that addresses the specificities, Khuzwayo and Morison (2017) wrote and published an article titled “Resisting erasure: Bisexual female identity in South Africa”. The article draws on the personal narrative account of the first author (Zuziwe Khuzwayo) in which she recounts various significant experiences of living as a middle-class, black, bisexual young woman in South Africa (Khuzwayo and Morison, 2017). The aim of the paper is not only to address the relevant research gaps, but also to contribute to the application of intersectionality theory in local research on sexualities. Through the use of this theory, the analysis of Zuziwe’s autobiographical narrative “concentrates on bisexual erasure, considering how the inter-connection of social signifiers (e.g. sexuality, class, race, gender) shapes in/visibility and avenues for resistance to dominant norms” (Khuzwayo and Morison, 2017:20).
After reading the Khuzwayo and Morison (2017) article on bisexual female identities in South Africa, I wanted to gain an in-depth understanding of what bisexuality and bisexual erasure are, and the various avenues for resistance against the status quo. I thought, what better way is there than to sit down with Zuziwe herself and unpack her lived experience? The following sections present Zuziwe’s personal account of her experience. The discussion is guided by intersectionality theory, with the aim of illuminating the various vectors of dis/advantages shaping her experience as a bisexual woman. Since no interview is neutral, I also reflect on my own positionality, defined as the identity of the researcher in relation to the study, context, and participants (Rowe, 2014). According to Medzani (2021:387), ‘positionality’ is informed by aspects such as personal knowledge, cultural values, power and preconceptions on the subject of research. This will be discussed in relation to the privileges that I may experience as a result of my own sexuality, and its interconnections with other parts of my identity.
Intersectionality was conceptualised and coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It is used as an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities intertwine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege (ibid, 1989). Examples of social and political identities include gender, caste, sex, race, class, sexuality, religion, disability, and physical appearance (Runyan, 2018). Davis (2008), posits that these intersecting and overlapping social identities may be both empowering and/or oppressive. Hence, as a framework, intersectionality enhances analytical sophistication and offers theoretical explanations for the ways in which heterogenous members of specific groups (such as women) might experience society and the world differently depending on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, and /or class and other social locations (Atemologun, 2018). Sensitivity to such differences enhances insight into issues of social justice and inequality in various contexts, thus maximining the chance of social change (ibid, 2018).
This theory adds significant value when applied to research phenomena in South Africa. In particular, van der Westhuizen (2016), posits that the South African post-apartheid context is a site of contestation over previously normalised hierarchies, including over identity vectors such as gender, race and class. Thus, the use of intersectionality in this context highlights the various situations in which oppressions and privileges are divided according to placement of “naturalised hierarchy” (Collins, 1998:71). As a critical theory, intersectionality is used in this reflection piece to illustrate how identity construction is situated, contextual, relational and reflective of socio-cultural and economic power.
Zuziwe: “I will just give a nice brief note. I think for me I always knew that I liked girls and boys since I was young. And I remember that I just had this attraction towards girls particularly in primary school. But I did not know how to articulate that and there wasn’t any space to do that.
One, because I was still a child, and two I came from a (I wouldn’t say conservative) but a very Christian household and what happened was that when I got to high school I was very depressed so there was no time at all to check for my sexuality. But lucky enough my father I think I wrote this in my article but I’m not quite too sure I forget. My father and I were driving one day, I think I was 16, we were driving in the car and an advert came on I think we were listening to radio 702 where they said “you know there’s going to be gay pride happening this coming Saturday so people must go” then my father turned to me and he said, “you know I think you should go” and I was like what! And I sort of laughed and it was clear to me that he also knew that I was not straight. And you know how the older generation can never articulate their feelings but somehow, he was indicating things like that, so when I received that message and it sort of made me think more about my sexuality but I was too depressed in high school and too focused on being a good student and all that madness that goes in to you going to an all-girls high school. It was only when I got to Varsity that I actually started to explore my sexuality.
To explore my sexuality, I just had realised that I really liked girls. I did not act on it immediately but at first, I thought I was a lesbian which I told my Mom. I was like “Mom I think I am a lesbian” my mother freaked out entirely. Luckily, I was in Cape Town at the time, so she said we should talk about this face to face so I was like cool great. But I will still gonna explore my life. And so, I went to explore my sexuality and I met a girl, and her and I had a relationship. I just started to say I think I like girls. The feeling of liking boys never went away and then there was a boy that I liked also when I was in undergrad and he was really cool and it did not work out unfortunately and so I felt that these two things could coexist for me. It was not one or the other and then I just started to do research and I started looking at bisexuality and I was like yoh I think I am a bisexual individual and luckily my mother came around, she is incredibly supportive now and I think I just became more comfortable in myself as being a bisexual and the fact that I can be attracted to a man or a woman or a gender non-conforming individual”.
In response to the question of how society, her family, friends and the LGBTQIA+ community treated or responded to her sexuality, Zuziwe expressed that while she has received support from the LGBTQIA+ community, her family and friends, there are still ‘sceptics’ that constantly question the credibility of her sexuality. Below are some of the responses she has received that serve to invalidate her identity.
The social construction of bisexuality as false or lacking legitimacy was brought into our conversation as often as the ‘oversexed bisexual’ narrative. Through Zuziwe’s experience when she came out as bisexual and her daily lived experiences, it is evident that bisexuality is sometimes viewed as a phase, as trendy, or as something that women claimed. Alternatively, she was thought to be confused and hence could not be trusted. This point of view is apparent when her ex-girlfriend’s friend asked her about her intentions and if she was sure of her sexuality:
Zuziwe: “I think that bisexuality continues to be a misunderstood and under-researched sexuality. Which therefore brings about challenges when you are a bisexual woman in these spaces. I feel that in my experience…like I have a situation where I was with another girl and we were going out for dinner with her lesbian friends. Her lesbian friends would want to meet on the side and would say to me “do you know what are you doing with my friend, are you being serious with her? You must be playing games with her” and first of all I was so taken aback because do I know you? I don’t know you and you don’t know me. What gives you the right that you can come and question my sexuality one, and my commitment to this individual”
While the above example of mistrust also includes invasion of bisexual individuals’ privacy and identities, Zuziwe posits that there are underlying biases and stigmas as a result of bi-curiosity:
Zuziwe: “But there is something about bisexuality, where there is a stigma of us that you can’t trust us and that we are just having fun with girls and we are going to go back to men. And that somehow allows those who are Lesbians and those who are Gay to think that they can question us…… At the same time, I think we must also as bisexual individuals particularly as bisexual women acknowledge that we haven’t been fair to lesbian women. In this research that I am doing now in my PhD like I have found engaging with other lesbian women and even with other bisexual women that some women have been ‘bi-curious’ and then used that as a way to sort of date these women and pick and change relationships…. but then they would leave them and go have another relationship with a man. Now that doesn’t make you less bisexual but when you are just using somebody, like there is a lot of why. Is it a relationship or is it curiosity that’s not fair and I think a lot of lesbian women come with that in mind when they deal with bisexuals. So, I always think when I come into a space that I am going to be questioned…. I know that I am going to be given a side eye.”
Perhaps the most often cited stereotype of bisexuality is that bisexuals are more sexual than other people (Callis, 2013). They are thought to want and/or need more sex, to be less discriminating in their hunt for sexual partners and to be more likely to engage in threesomes and group sex (ibid, 2013:87). For example, Zuziwe told me that people equate bisexuality with promiscuity, and bisexuality is often viewed as a phase that people move through on their way to other sexualities.
Zuziwe: “I find myself more attracted to women so the questions that I get is like how are you going to have a family? or “don’t worry you will find the right man you know you will”, and I am not looking for one. You get my favourite “like so you can have a threesome when you are married” and I be like what? It’s like the idea that being bisexual means that you are promiscuous. But not even that, like regardless everybody is out here being promiscuous. Why is it that you are assigning promiscuity to bisexuality? I think that it’s because it disturbs this binary of understanding sexuality (the heterosexual and the homosexual) and that you have to only like one single sex attraction. There is only one and bisexuality challenges that and I think people are frightened by that hence they just say all these things that are just offensive. But then I think I just do not care anymore because I know who I am”.
Evident in the above quotation is the notion that bisexuals are often constructed not only as more sexual than other people, but also that they were construed as being incapable of being monogamous. All of these stereotypes contribute significantly to the de-legitimation of bisexuality as an intelligible sexual identity. Zuziwe’s account highlights how erasure proceeds along multiple lines, and this has implications for the constructions of bisexual identities. Bisexual erasure works to re-assert dominant norms and power relations. In particular, by disregarding bisexuality as an intelligible sexuality, the homosexual/heterosexual binary remains intact (Khuzwayo and Morison, 2017).
Zuziwe: “For me intersectionality becomes very important because it looks at the fact that I am a black woman. I am a bisexual, queer, woman, and I am a middle-class woman and how do all those things intersect with my sexuality. I must say I am lucky in that I am a middle-class individual so as much as I had those different factors that played a part in this intersectionality there is that card of middle class instead that bumps me up the ladder as compared to other women who are not. But that does not mean that I don’t face the threats because I have come to realise with myself even with my PhD programme that black women and black women’ bodies will always be the site for individuals to do what they want to do with it because it is a site of violence. It does not really matter whether you are working class, middle class, or upper class, as long as you are black female body that body is just a space for anybody to do what they want to do with it” […]
“So, I think for me, hopefully I am answering the question like writing is the form of resistance, using that intersectionality is a form of resistance. For me being a middle class individual gives me privilege to be honest with you, and that allows me the space to resist where I can go into Rosebank and hold my girlfriend’s hand or my partner’s hand and kiss her and things like that and not feel necessarily nervous but nonetheless even in these spaces there is a regulation of my body that does occur because the black female body is just the space where anybody can do anything.”
Zuziwe: “I wanted to respond to this “how can you resist erasure of any kind in our society?” I think that this project on my PhD has helped me in recognising that resistance comes in different ways: resistance comes in me writing the work, one in documentation, my participants that I interviewed for them to be willing to come forward and be interviewed and be part of this process and claiming their bisexuality is a form of resistance, and say that we will no longer be invisible or erased as bisexual individuals we are going to claim it and things like that […]
But then also by interviewing my former participants other forms of resistance have occurred where they do not necessarily want to be partaking in sort of traditional ways of being queer i.e. coming out and they rather agree for inviting in where they are saying that I am going to choose who I tell my sexuality to and I invite them on this journey with me and learning about my sexuality and they avail themselves to also do the work. I think with this conversation is just constantly raising issues of legitimacy of those who are marginalised or those who are invisible so those are the forms of resistance.
Zuziwe: “By inviting people and you are allowed to choose who you invite in versus having to broadcast everybody and the consequences of that and ultimately that people themselves must be willing to do the work with you and understanding your sexuality and that you must not because one of the things that are very frustrating by being a bisexual person is that you constantly have to be explaining what it is. Now to be fair there are multiple understandings of bisexuality, like if you ask somebody what bisexuality means? One will say it means that I like a man or a woman and another will say, and this happened in my interview with my PhD, no I am attracted to the individual. Then the other one will be like no it means being attracted to a man or a woman or those who are non-gender conforming. So, there are multiple ways of understanding this idea of what bisexuality means and things like that. And what becomes very clear about the whole idea of the ‘inviting’ concept is that since bisexuality is such a misunderstood sexuality, when you are making the choice to tell individuals or to invite them in, you have the power and then you are making that selection versus this constant telling other people who then misunderstand what it is that you are trying to say to them” […]
“I would argue that this way you are in control of how your sexuality is going to be understood and also you might get some negative feedback from people that are going to just think that you are selfish, you know pick a side this and the other you know. And that is very important about the idea of inviting in particularly for bisexuals it become very critical, I think for all queer individuals I have seen that it is a very important tool that we can use.”
Evident in Zuziwe’s narrative is how agency and measures to resist are often constrained by misrecognition, and mistrust as mechanisms of bisexual erasure. The possibility of individuals claiming bisexual identity relies on others recognising this identity as legitimate. According to Bostwick and Hequenmbourg (2014:499), the repeated instances of misrecognition “render bisexual women’s identity claims faulty or, worse, false and inauthentic, and burden bisexual women with additional identity work, which is both cognitively and emotionally taxing”.
Based on Zuziwe’s account above, it is evident that there may be some spaces and places that grant recognition more readily. As a middle-class person, she has access to spaces where her sexual identity claims are recognised (such as the university and more progressive suburban locations). In these spaces, it is possible to resist erasure, by openly disclosing and/or performing a bisexual identity (Khuzwayo and Morison, 2017). Yet as a black woman, the threat of physical violence features in her narrative as a significant concern and restriction on her ability to overtly resist dominant norms in this way. “The threat of violence (symbolic or physical) amounts to the impositions of invisibility and possibly moments of collusion with bisexual erasure” (ibid, 2017:32). This process requires, as Zuziwe recounts, selective disclosure through the process of “inviting in” which enables one to selectively disclose their sexuality with people who are willing to surrender to the process of learning.
Zuziwe: “There is privilege that comes with being bisexual, so I could be dating a man and people will assume that I am straight if I walk down the street but I am not straight, I am bisexual! So, there is a sort of privilege that we have as bisexual people that I think we also don’t want to acknowledge it. But, that privilege always say comes at the cost of our sexuality not being recognised. So, it is really a privilege to some extent. Is it really a privilege that yes, I can walk with a guy if he was my boyfriend and people will think that I am straight but my identity is not being acknowledged and recognised because people think that I am straight? So, these things I think it is a privilege but one is also losing something in that privilege”.
Bi-privilege is assigned to bisexual people who are in “straight passing” relationships (Stanger, 2020). There are two specific arguments that usually come with bi privilege. As Zuziwe expressed, when dating a man, she is less likely to experience homophobia, and is able to feel more included in mainstream heterosexual culture. However, this is harmful to bi individuals as their sexuality is misrecognised in the process, resulting in a kind of erasure. Thus, as Zuziwe argued, this is not really a privilege, as her identity is somewhat erased. Moreover, being “straight passing” assumes that bisexual men and women in a relationship fall into the same binary dynamics and scripts as straight people do, whereas bisexuality challenges the preconceived dynamics and gender roles in these relationships.
Both privilege and oppression shape the ways we interact with the world and how the world interacts with us (MacIntosh, 1989). However, privilege is often embedded in our identities and daily realities to the extent that we often cannot see the effects of such privileges as we go about our lives (ibid, 1989). Nonetheless, an oppressed person can usually point out the precise examples of how they are treated in a different, oppressive way. To be specific, when we are brought up with the absence of struggle or consequence of disadvantage, we don’t see what the absence is instead, we see ourselves as normative and neutral to oppression. For example, if you are straight, you may not consider how straightness is made standard in romance, parenting, and law to make your life and sexuality extra comfortable and ‘normal’. In fact, you just see that your gay or bisexual friends have more to go through.
While reading and interacting with people from various walks of life can help to build empathy about their lived experiences, this is never enough to adequately change an unlevel playing field. Instead, in her essay, “Unpacking the invisible knapsack” (McIntosh, 1989) argues that we must deliberately unpack our privileges. McIntosh (1989) brings the disadvantages of oppression into view, enabling readers to see the flipside of prejudice, and in the context of her article, to hold white people accountable for participating in and benefiting from an instiutionalised system of discrimination. She wrote:
“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. … I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence”. (p. 10)
In conversation with Zuziwe, I started to reflect on my own privileges as a heterosexual woman. I wanted to understand and unpack what it means for me to have my identity normed, understood in primary terms as the normal, natural and most desirable condition of sexual being. What follows is not an exhaustive answer to these questions, but merely an exploration and a reflection of my experience living them:
My intention here is not to exhaust the topic, nor to centralise heterosexuality. This would be inappropriate in a piece that tries to give voice to bisexual identities in the context of erasing practices. In naming straight privilege and naming some of the benefits I derive from it, I wanted to make visible the injustices of the everyday that allow anti-LGBTQIA+ language and other kinds of violence to seem natural, normal, and acceptable to many members of the heterosexual majority. While the effects of heterosexism are battled around the world everyday by LGBTQIA+ people and their allies, I hope the problems of and responsibility for heterosexism might become understood as belonging to the heterosexual majority who must claim either ignorance/ entitlement to continue to accept the unearned benefits of straight privilege. Moreover, I hope that this reflection plays a part in making it more difficult for members of this group to claim ignorance of the advantages they accept for themselves and deny for others.
In this reflection piece, I have drawn on the conversation I had with Zuziwe of her experiences as a black bisexual-identified woman living in South Africa. The piece highlights how bisexual erasure – occurring though multiple invalidating responses and misrecognition – makes bisexual identities culturally unintelligible. This has implications for the constructions and expressions of bisexual identities. The process of bisexual erasure works to re-assert dominant norms and power relations, as shown in the discussion above. In particular, it allows the homosexual/heterosexual binary to remain intact. Zuziwe’s account of her lived experience also illuminates moments of agency and the possibility of resisting these norms.
In addition, reflecting on my positionality as informed by my sexuality, I named my privileges and listed some of the benefits derived from my sexual identity. As mentioned, the aim is to make visible injustices of the everyday that allow anti-LGBTQIA+ language and other kinds of violence to seem natural and normal to the heterosexual majority. I hope this reflection piece plays a part in helping individuals to deconstruct and reframe conditions that are currently keeping the lives, struggles and contributions of bisexual individuals silenced and marginalized.
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Stange, M.Z., Oyster, C.K., & Sloan, J.E. (2011). Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World. Sage Pubns. pp. 158–161. https://books.google.co.za/books?id=bOkPjFQoBj8C&pg=PA158&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Consent was received from Zuziwe regarding the dissemination of information (in various forms) from this critical conversation. A thematic analysis was done to extract themes from the conversation for the purpose of this reflection note.