For perhaps the first time in modern pop culture history, bisexual individuals are finally getting a modicum of the recognition they deserve. More and more celebrities have begun to come out as something other than straight or gay, bisexual characters are being seen more and more on television, and there has been a significant uptick in music and other art that deals with the complexities of the bisexual spectrum.
But even with more representation, bisexuality still faces an unhealthy stigma in our society. For bisexual, pansexual and sexually fluid individuals across the world, part of coming out is dealing with and trying to fight against the myriad stereotypes that are present from the start. Ask a bisexual person, and they’ll tell you stories where friends, family and strangers -- both LGBTQ and not -- used a series of familiar tools to delegitimize their feelings. “It’s just a phase,” “Bi now, gay later” and “You’re just figuring things out” are among the most common phrases bi people hear when coming out.
This phenomenon is often referred to as “bi-erasure” by those in the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD defines bisexual erasure as “a pervasive problem in which the existence or legitimacy of bisexuality (either in general or in regard to an individual) is questioned or denied outright.”
For a long time, bisexual erasure has permeated throughout every part of our culture, including and especially pop culture. Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" is an oft-cited example of bi-erasure thanks to the stereotypes about the promiscuity and validity of the bisexual identity portrayed in the song's lyrics. But in 2018, a number of queer artists have come forward to make it unequivocally clear that bisexuality, pansexuality and fluidity are not only valid, but beautiful in and of themselves.
Since her rise to fame in 2015, pop star Halsey has been outspoken about her bisexual identity, constantly confirming and reaffirming it within public view. But this year, the “Bad at Love” singer was faced yet again with those telling her that her sexual orientation was a fluke.
The drama came when the singer released her video for “Strangers,” a pop banger about getting out of and coming to terms with a toxic relationship, featuring fellow bisexual star Lauren Jauregui. The video shows Halsey boxing her former female lover, Rosa, in a ring, before eventually emerging triumphant and falling into the arms of her boyfriend, Solis.
Some fans of the star criticized the video for being “not queer enough,” saying that Halsey made it more palatable for a mainstream audience. Where many singers would have stayed quiet, Halsey instead decided to speak up, letting her fans know that a male-female relationship being depicted in a video doesn’t make it any less queer.
“It literally IS a bisexual story,” she said in response to the critics. “Luna has romantic relationships with both Rosa and Solis. Her relationship with a man doesn’t nullify her bisexuality. Not in an imaginary music video universe and not in real life either.”
This isn’t the first time Halsey has publicly pointed out the toxicity of bi-erasure. In 2016, a Buzzfeed article titled “What Does A Queer Pop Star Look Like In 2016?” claimed that despite her openness about her bisexuality online and in interviews, much of the singer’s music did nothing to highlight her sexuality. Taking to Twitter once again, Halsey strongly defended herself in a now-deleted string of tweets, saying “Sorry I'm not gay enough for you … [the article] is part of a mentality so engrained [sic] in the erasure of bisexual 'credibility' even within the lgbt community."
Even simple, public recognition of the bisexual identity can be extraordinarily helpful in dismantling erasure. Earlier this year, singer/songwriter Jason Mraz penned a poem to the LGBTQ community for Billboard. After thanking the community for constantly supporting and inspiring him, he ended his note by saying “But know I am bi your side. All ways.”
The specific reference sent fans into a speculative tailspin, with multiple outlets and Twitter users openly wondering if the artist’s letter was his official coming out as bi. In a later interview with Billboard, Mraz confirmed that the letter did effectively serve as his official coming out. “I’ve had experiences with men, even while I was dating the woman who became my wife,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow, does that mean I am gay?’ And my wife laid it out for me. She calls it ‘two spirit,’ which is what the Native Americans call someone who can love both man and woman. I really like that.”
Had Mraz simply come out as bi, that would have been a wonderful moment for himself and his fans to share in. But in his interview, Mraz did more: he opened up about the process of determining his sexuality, specifically pointing out that thanks to the way our society frames the sexual binary, he was originally conditioned to think he was gay. His honest account of coming to terms with himself not only serves as a beautiful personal story, but as a representation of what the actual coming out process for bisexual people can feel like in a society that doesn’t talk about bisexuality.
Even though the practice is commonly referred to as bisexual erasure, the act of delegitimizing a person’s sexuality is not contained to specifically bisexual people. Those who identify as pansexual, omnisexual, sexually fluid and the many other arrays of sexuality falling under the “bisexual umbrella” are affected by the stigma on a daily basis.
A few stars have already helped create more visibility and understanding for some of these even less talked-about identities. In a cover story for Rolling Stone, funk icon Janelle Monáe came out as queer, specifically highlighting pansexuality as an identity that she found her identity in. “I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too,’” she said. “I’m open to learning more about who I am.”
What followed her stunning admission was undoubtedly her best (and queerest) album to date, Dirty Computer. The album is laced with themes and overt references to her sexuality, with Monáe finally liberating herself to an audience that had long speculated about her sexual orientation. Through her flirtatious song “Make Me Feel” and its subsequent video, Monáe had penned a true bisexual anthem.
Panic! at the Disco frontman Brendon Urie was another artist who many had long wondered about. Through songs like “Girls/Girls/Boys,” fans openly theorized if the married star identified as bisexual. The star had said in previous interviews that he identified himself as straight -- but that changed in 2018.
In an interview with Paper, Urie said that he came to the realization that his marriage to a woman didn’t negate his sexuality. “I'm married to a woman and I'm very much in love with her but I'm not opposed to a man because to me, I like a person,” he told the magazine. “Yeah I guess you could qualify me as pansexual because I really don't care … I guess this is me coming out as pansexual."
Both Monáe and Urie’s public acknowledgment of their pansexuality did more than just appease fanbases eager to know more. After Monáe’s coming out in Rolling Stone, the word “pansexual” became the most-searched term on the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s website, increasing by 11,000 percent. Urie’s admission had a similar effect, prompting another bump for online searches of the term, and resulting in multiple online articles explaining to worldwide audiences what pansexuality meant.
Even when artists were called out for negative portrayals of queerness in 2018, some still managed to further promote the cause. Rita Ora’s single “Girls,” released in May of this year, was criticized for reasons similar to Perry’s "I Kissed a Girl." The song trivialized bisexuality and sexual experimentation by equating it with the drunken antics of girls who just want to have fun. Lyrics like “Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls/Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls” contributed to the controversy.
But in the wake of the song, a number of artists involved -- including Bebe Rexha, Cardi B and Ora herself -- came forward to say that they each had sexual experiences with women. While none of the women used the terms “bisexual” or “pansexual,” Rexha referred to her sexuality as “fluid” in a subsequent interview with Entertainment Weekly.
Artists with smaller platforms than those listed above also had a hand in breaking down bi-erasure this year. Indie star Lucy & La Mer publicly came out as bi in an interview with Billboard in May, and spoke specifically about the difficulties of coming out in the face of negative stereotypes. London-based singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama came out as pansexual and discussed the issue of internalized biphobia on her single “Cherry” earlier this month. And just this week, Rapper Lady Leshurr came out as pansexual, claiming that pop star Kehlani introduced her to the idea.
Let’s make one thing clear: bisexual erasure is far from over. Only 14 percent of the queer-inclusive films among the biggest films of 2017 featured bisexual characters according to GLAAD. Songs like “Girls” and “I Kissed a Girl” still do harm to those in the community on a regular basis by equating bisexuality with straight experimentation. Bisexual people are facing and still will face stereotypes intended to undermine their identities.
But these artists serve as an example of where we could be headed as a culture. Their unflinching representations of the bisexual spectrum have helped, even if in a small way, to confront those harmful stereotypes head-on. And maybe, with their help and the help of others like them, we will eventually be able to erase the longstanding consequences of bisexual erasure.