Friday 10 June 2011

Being bi & poly in LGB spaces


Posted by Sebastienne

Below is the text of the presentation I gave at a panel discussion for Oxford pride, "We are Family: LGBT Community in 2011". It's a bit more introductory-level than I'd usually blog here, but it seemed to raise some interesting talking-points so I thought I'd let the discussion carry on here if people were interested.

One of the reasons, I think, that we create LGBT-specific spaces – like pubs and clubs and meeting groups of all kinds – is so that we don't have the burden of surprising people. In general, most people we meet are going to assume we're straight unless we do something to demonstrate that we're not; every day there's scope for another little bit of coming-out, or for worrying how we'll be perceived if we do or say things that are normal to straight people.
So we create our own spaces, where no-one will be surprised if we kiss our partner or talk about our queer lives.

But the problem with me and queer spaces is that I am simultaneously too queer for them, and not queer enough.

Too queer, because I'm polyamorous – I prefer to pursue multiple relationships at once, practicing informed, consensual non-monogamy – and not queer enough, because I'm bi.

Not just bisexual – but in a relationship with a man.

And it's certainly true that I do benefit from some “heterosexual privilege”, being in a relationship with someone of the opposite gender – I don't have to think about which part of town I'm in when I kiss him in the street; I don't have to worry about talking about him in front of my granny. I don't want to minimise or ignore these things, because I can completely understand why they might make it more difficult for some gay people to feel like I am “one of
them”. But, ultimately, I do think that they're wrong.

First off, I've had enough girlfriends to know what homophobia looks like. Second, I present as queer – short hair and piercings and bovver boots. But even if I was the prettiest femme in the world, and had only ever had male partners, I would still be queer. The “heterosexual privilege” that I get from my primary relationship would only ever be the privilege of passing as straight – which sometimes translates to, hearing someone's unfiltered homophobia because they assume I'm on their side. I'm constantly in this limbo – assumed to be default-straight by society at large, assumed to be a lesbian as soon as I do anything which reveals that I'm not straight; I very rarely get space to relax and be myself without surprising somebody. For this reason, lots of LG(b) places only feel welcoming to me if I'm alone, or with a female partner.

As it happens, I do also have a female partner. But it seems pretty offensive to use her as a bargaining chip, to demand access to queer spaces based on the fact of her existence. If she dumped me tomorrow, I'd still be queer! A lot of bi people aren't poly, and it doesn't make them any less queer, either.

A brief aside about polyamory here, as I'm aware that it's not necessarily a concept that people have come across.

So, my polyamory. That's all I can really talk about, because everyone does it differently. It's possible for poly relationships to take all sorts of forms; for example in the past I've been part of a 'triad', which means three people all in a committed relationship to one another. Right now I have a “primary partner” – the man I live with – and a “secondary partner”, my girlfriend. My boyfriend and my girlfriend are not involved with one another. There are other occasional liaisons, but none which really deserve to be called relationships.

Just like a lot of people have explained to me that they feel naturally drawn to monogamy – that when they find one person they really like, they stop wanting anyone else – I am naturally drawn to polyamory; I find the idea of limiting myself to one partner to be just as strange as I'm sure it feels natural to many of you.

But it's hard for me to really compare monogamy and polyamory as two equal choices. I've never seen anyone asked to explain their choice to “forsake all others”! In fact, the government have confirmed in response to a recent Freedom of Information request that people who live in poly households are being erased from this year's census data – eg if a married couple list themselves as living with a third person, designated 'partner', that designation will get deleted. I find that pretty incredible.

I have a harder time talking about my polyamory than I ever do about my bisexuality – without going into an explanation like the one I've just given, I guess it is hard for people used to monogamy to understand “last night I stayed in with my boyfriend..I needed an early night for my hot date tomorrow, with the girl I met on OK Cupid!”. But I don't always want to give a mini-lecture when talking to colleagues or acquaintances, so quite often my secondary and casual partners get downgraded to “friends” when I talk about them. It's a little lie which I'm sure has been familiar to a lot of LGBT people over the years.

And because my primary partner is male, these little lies mean that I end up getting a lot more of that straight-appearing privilege that I was talking about earlier; it's like there's one, socially-acceptable side of me who gets invited to tea with my partner and my Tory aunt & uncle; and there's another, equally-acceptable side of me who's welcomed into LG(b) spaces with my girlfriend.

Maybe that's why I don't tend to spend much time in mainstream venues of any kind, straight or gay; mostly I socialise with a group of friends who are queer-identified, many of whom are bi or poly. Much as I appreciate LG(b) spaces, and want to feel at home in them, I often can't – I'm assumed to be a Lesbian and then talking about my boyfriend feels like 'coming out'; or, worse, I'm assumed to be co-opting queer identities to please men when someone finds out I have a boyfriend AND a girlfriend.

I think that's why I tend to prefer the more nebulous queer community to spaces that are focussed on the 'gay community'. There's nothing inherently LGB about a gay pub.


  1. But the lines - and the definitions - get ever increasingly blurred. I thought "queer" was taken to mean accepting / open to all relationships and identities, including relationships that include a trans partner. And heterosexual relationships.

    But i don't know what the "official" definition is (?). Besides who decides that anyway? And now we have omni sexual and pan sexual thrown into the mix.

    If people ask intelligent questions, sure then give them intelligent answers. Otherwise, can i suggest that we don't think about it, and likewise worry about it, too much?

    I consider myself a lesbian (and have no desires to date men) but i don't throw scorn at women who do. If they're kissing the guy in an LGBT space, i judge them with the same open mind that i hope they're judging me :)

  2. It's the blurry lines that I like so much about queer spaces. Because while your attitude is great, it's not one that I get everywhere.

    It's hard not to think about it when I'm constantly being reminded in little ways: like a table of Lashings members (including my male partner, with prodigious beard!) getting a hearty "Hi, lesbians!" from the organiser of an LGBT event in Dublin.

  3. JStar:
    With my moderator's hat on I'd just like to draw your attention to the safe space policy, and in particular, to point 2 about respecting each person's expertise on their own experiences. Suggesting that somebody stop worrying and stop thinking about something which clearly is of concern to them, amounts to attempting to dismiss their experiences as unimportant. I am glad that you are accepting of bisexual women in LGBT spaces. Please also accept that not everyone we encounter in those spaces is welcoming as you, and that this is a legitimate worry.

  4. Please read my post in the manner which it was clearly intended, instead of looking for the underlying suggestion that i meant ill, or judging it too harshly. Or we could be accused of lacking that open mind we want others to have.

  5. JStar, you may know know how you "clearly intended" your comment to sound, but that doesn't mean that it'll come across that way to everyone reading it. Annalytica's right that responding to a post where I explain why something bothers me by telling me not to worry about it does come across as dismissive.

    I did give you the benefit of the doubt before, engaging with your comment and assuming that you hadn't meant to sound dismissive; but I won't keep on giving you the benefit of the doubt if you're going to argue with the moderators when they point out our comments policy.

  6. Discussion and argument are different things.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. It's a topic that I have a hard time finding writings on. As a bi and poly woman in a relationship with a man (although not very physically active on the poly thing), I also experience this thing about sometimes being not queer enough and sometimes too queer. I am so fortunate that I have almost always only had positive responses to my bisexuality from my surroundings, including my male partner. But when it comes to the poly part, I have experienced some of my normally very tolerant friends turning somewhat biphobic: they express the prejudice/myth that being bi can "cause" being poly, and that it's therefore a "difficult" or "bad" version of being bi. And that it's like making bisexuality an excuse for being unfaithful. This has not surprisingly made me reluctant to be open about being poly.

    I think being being bi and poly are two things that are not necessarily interdependent. And it hurts when people jump to the conclusion that you're poly just because you're bi and in a steady relationship.

    It can feel lonely to be bi, I think. Thanks for a great blog entry on this.

  8. I have had a ton of self discovery/acceptance in the past few months. I finally accepted the fact that I whole heartedly love women. I have come to realize that my tortured, monogamous mind could be put at ease by realizing I was polyamorous (found that out when I sat, with tears streaming down my face, at my computer and googled "coming to terms with monogamy"). I am engaged to a wonderful man, and while he cannot entertain the thought of me being intimate with a man, he can handle me being in a relationship with a woman so long as our relationship remains solid.

    I am still learning to stop dismissing women that catch my eye, and start allowing myself to gravitate towards them, start a conversation, see where things go. I have fallen head over heels for a woman that won't have me because she is committed to her wife. I am saddened that I can't get over her, but big enough to respect her boundaries.

    I am open and honest on OkCupid, but perhaps too honest. "I'm engaged, I'm polyamorous, I do not want threesomes." I believe there's some bi-phobia as well as poly-phobia. Who wants to meet a woman who has a man, 4 kids and 2 dogs? How does such a woman fit into the picture? Do I scale my profile back and just allow someone to know me for me first and then dump the rest on them?

    So, while googling, "hard being bi and poly", I came across your blog. Bottom line: I like it!

  9. I am so excited to have found this article. I am a bi, poly women and have been with my primary male partner for 5 years. As of recently I have started seeing romantically an amazing woman. Of course, I want to introduce her to all my friends as my "girlfriend" in time. That should be interesting!

  10. It amazes me how much your statement resonates with in me. I am also poly and bi. And its really hard for many to understand that. I am thankful for my partners thru and thru for accepting me as I am and not being afraid to love me.