Tipping The Scales: An Investigation into Biphobia.
Maud Woolf explores her personal journey around biphobia, interrogating the effects of internalised shame and how to affirm your sexuality despite stigma.
It’s maybe a little sad to admit that so much of my identity was formed on a children’s game about penguins but there we are. Club Penguin for those never experienced the intense joy of playing it, is or rather was, an online multiplayer game run by Disney that existed from 2005 to 2017. The premise was uncomplicated; you played as a penguin and hung out with other penguins in a winter-wonderland style world. You lived in an igloo and sometimes did mini games about making pizza. It was on this website at the age of nine that I had my first gay experience.
Maud Woolf drawn by Beck Kubrick
She was a bright pink penguin with a bow; I had yet to convince my parents that I could handle the responsibility of a membership. As a result, I was accessory-less and on Club Penguin, accessories were everything. Most importantly, they were the only way to express gender. Without a bow or a little flower or a handbag, my light blue avatar was about as butch as you could get.
It was a very perfunctory romance; she waddled over to me and asked if I wanted to be her boyfriend. In those days that was all it took (back in the wild west days of internet romance). I said yes.
Let’s hold hands, she said and then, a little red heart bobbed up over her pink bow. I logged off immediately and then, pointlessly, I cleared my internet history. That night in the bath I remember feeling an acute sense of shame and guilt. It wasn’t just that I had just failed my first test of heteronormativity and categorically failed. It was also that I had dragged this poor, unknowing pink-bowed penguin down with me. I had in effect, fooled her into sharing my perversity.
Most of my early grappling with my bisexuality went like this. One step forward and then I would get skittish and retreat. I made a friend on a gay teen forum under an anonymous pseudonym. We talked for two weeks about the novels of Sarah Waters and then on a frightened sickly impulse I ghosted her mid-conversation. A friend at school confided in me that she had enjoyed playing spin the bottle at the last girl only sleepover. Hugely, overwhelming relieved, I admitted I did too. We smiled at each other but after that something had shifted. This time it was her who stopped speaking to me.
It was like that for a long time. I used to prod around the edges of what I wanted, afraid to look at it face on.
When I try and think of what exactly I was frightened of, it’s hard to pin down. Other parts of my identity were privileged – as a white, cisgender and middle-class person I was in many ways very protected. My parents wouldn’t reject me and although there were always stories at school of other people being targeted, I don’t think I personally ever felt threatened by physical violence. It wasn’t as if I had much to lose in terms of social standing either- I was already hanging out with the weird kids and on top of that I was fat and excruciatingly self-conscious.
So, what was I scared of? Why did it take me to my early twenties to come out?
Really, I think it comes back to Club Penguin. I was scared of deceiving people. Because, and this is a question I still come back to even now, what if I got it wrong? What if I say I’m one thing and then I find out I’m lying?
The thing about bisexuality is, that you have a lot of confusing data to process. The fact you are receiving little signals pinging off in all directions regardless of gender can get very complicated when you’re trying to figure out which box you fit into. When I was younger, I used to carry around a scale in my head. Gay or straight. I used to spend all my time collecting evidence and watching the scales tilt one way or the other. After a lot of back and forth I decided there was too much evidence on either side to really make sense of the system. But even after I discovered bisexuality, the scales didn’t go away.
If they don’t exist for you, then you are always aware that they might exist in other people’s minds.
The older you get the more solid your evidence has to be. Yes, I dated three girls, but my longest relationship was with a man. Does that balance? Does that track? Do I still deserve to tick that bisexual box on the employment form? What if I fuck up and accidently spend the rest of my life with a man? Does that mean I was faking for clout? What if I’m with a woman or someone non-binary? Will I still be bisexual then? Will I have lied?
Bisexuality sometimes feels like a headache. It feels like a constant debate. You defend it against others or you make ‘ironic’ jokes about keeping your bisexual licence up to date, and if you have any creeping doubts in your mind or unanswered questions, then you push them down because the last thing you can do is be unsure yourself. You need to be very firm in your identity. You need to above all, have pride.
But still, at least for me, the unease lingers. The scales still hover over my head. When I broke up with my last boyfriend, I caught myself thinking, right how to balance this out? Will I need a four year-relationship with a woman? Or a four separate one-year flings?
This is of course, ridiculous and doesn’t even take into account the complexities of bisexual relationships or non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals. It’s purely about visibility, another hugely complicated issue for bisexual people.
If, like me, you are ‘mostly’ out (some family members and not others, friends but not work, twitter not facebook and so on) then you tend to get selective with the truth.
People say coming out isn’t a one and done thing; it’s a continuous process and that’s true. But there’s another continuous process going on underneath; of constantly having to monitor situations and make careful judgements and tactical decisions. Who do I tell? How do I tell it? Is it safe here? What version of myself do I use?
“There’s another continuous process going on underneath; of constantly having to monitor situations and make careful judgements and tactical decisions. Who do I tell? How do I tell it?”
I used to get a strange kind of thrill from this sometimes. It felt like being a secret agent, being around other people who thought I was a fellow straight. I used to listen to them say mildly homophobic things and I would think, haha, you don’t know it’s me you’re talking about. You wouldn’t say this in front of a gay person but surprise! I know exactly what kind of person you are- but you know nothing about me.
I felt like this and then one day while watching a dating show with my brother and another more distant relative, one of the contestants happened to mention they were bisexual. My distant relative, who I was decidedly NOT out to, took an issue with this. They took issue with it very loudly. Like usual, I said nothing. My brother on the other hand, without giving me away, got very upset on my behalf. An excruciating argument followed, after which me and my brother were left alone on the couch.
“How do you put up with that?” he asked me, still visibly fuming.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not a big deal.”
But maybe it was a big deal. I always told myself that I would come out to everyone more officially if I ever got a long-term girlfriend. To my mind, this was only logical. It was the only time my sexuality would be an issue. If I had a girlfriend, then they couldn’t use the evidence of my long seemingly heterosexual dating history against me. To come out without one, seemed like presenting a court case without a star witness.
There are other reasons I don’t come out to people all the time of course. A lot of the time I can’t be bothered with the hassle. If I’m going to get paid minimum wage to pull pints for six hours at a time, I don’t feel particularly obligated to have to fight with homophobic co-workers on a nightly basis. Also, I don’t always feel the need to share that part of my life with people. It’s my firm belief, that no one should feel obligated to come out, for any reason.
But there are different kinds of fear. There’s fear of others and what they will say or do. There’s fear of being treated differently, being seen differently, in a way beyond your control. But also, there is fear that comes from within. Fear of being truthful with yourself about what you want or how you want it. Fear that you will somehow get it wrong. Maybe I’m not scared of other people thinking I’m a liar. Maybe I’m afraid of somehow lying to myself.
To anyone who might possibly relate to anything I’ve written so far, I want to say:
You don’t have to have it all worked out; you can have doubts. You can even change your mind. Not just when you’re growing up, but forever, for the rest of your life if that’s how it works out. That doesn’t make you a liar-it just makes you a person. These labels are just a rough tool we use to describe something very messy, personal and complicated. I still don’t understand myself completely- I don’t know if I ever will. But that’s okay- I don’t have to. You can just do what feels right and work out the rest of it as you go. It really can be that simple.
If you don’t have any doubts and are the sort of bisexual who enthusiastically throws themselves into the scrum of debate, then more power to you. I have so much admiration and respect for those who are able to defend themselves with such passion and resolve. But I would say, if you ever get tired of the fight, then it’s okay to shut down debate if you feel like your sexuality is on trial. Some people will take your well thought out arguments and dismiss them out of hand. They don’t want a dialogue; they want an excuse to exercise their bigotry. With those people, sometimes you just have to call them an idiot and move on.
Having said all of this, I haven’t got it all worked out yet myself. I still struggle with telling the people I date (of all genders) that I’m bisexual. It’s something I’m working on though- not for their sake but for mine. Because I want to be loved for all of me, not just the parts that are convenient.
Sadly, Club Penguin closed down in 2017, so my chances of ever running into that pink-bowed penguin are pretty slim. But if you’re out there and reading this, IceGurl42, then please know if you ever want a second date at the ski lodge then I’m very single and free anytime.