“Oh, So You’re Straight Now?” Biphobia In The Lesbian Community

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
When Stevie spotted her ex-girlfriend across the room at a mutual friend’s house party, six months after they split, she made a beeline for her. She thought, on balance, that enough time had passed for it not to be awkward. Though their relationship had been intense, they’d only dated for six months and Stevie had thought there were no hard feelings when she called it off. 
Now, Stevie was happy in a new relationship with a guy she’d met on a dating app and she had heard her ex was dating someone new, too. 
"I’ll buy you a drink," her ex said, tapping her on the shoulder. "Even though I shouldn’t bother, considering you’ve turned straight now."
The comment didn’t go down well. "I was a bit winded, to be honest," says the 28-year-old, who lives in London. "I followed up a couple of nights later and asked what the hell she was on about. She responded: 'Yeah maybe I was a bit out of line, but that’s why we don’t go out with bisexuals. You’re too unsure of yourselves and there’s just too much baggage.'"
This was the first time Stevie had heard her ex come out with something biphobic but it wasn’t the first time she’d dated a lesbian who had problems with her sexuality. 
"I’ve dated lesbians in the past where it’s never been brought up as an issue, but I’ve had more than one experience like this where it’s got to the crunch point and then all of a sudden me being attracted to men is a valid insult."
Stevie is one of six bisexual women and non-binary people who want to talk about the "sometime complex" and often tense relationship between bi women and lesbians. 
Each of the six is keen to impress on me that they don't believe all or even the majority of lesbians are biphobic, and they are wary of in any way tarring an already marginalised community. However, they are painfully aware of the impact biphobia has had on their lives – especially when the comments and actions are from a partner, a close friend or simply a trusted member of the community.
Twenty-seven-year-old Marina's first experience of biphobia was at the age of 14 when they came out to their lesbian friends on social media. 

On the surface, campaigns to stamp out biphobia in the LGBTQ+ community are growing in clout but, elsewhere, outdated and pernicious stereotypes of bisexual people as inauthentic and greedy persist. 

"When I was a teenager, I had a few older lesbian friends online who I really looked up to," says the non-binary femme bisexual, who lives in the southwest of England.
"When I came out as bi to my closest friend in that group, I had a lot of pressure from her and a few other people who were also lesbian to ditch being bi and come out as a lesbian. When I said it would be untrue, I was met with these just insidious and snarky comments. For a long time I felt deflated, and like they were more legitimately queer than me."
While Marina hoped these comments came from a place of immaturity and tried to put them to the back of their mind, the same hostility reared its head when they began dating a few years later.
One time, Marina dated someone they were too scared to tell they were bisexual. 
"On our first date, they referred to bisexuals as traitors so I thought I’d just let her run with the assumption that I was a lesbian too. I really liked her, and I just brushed it aside and tried to get on with it. Looking back, that’s a really screwed up way to go about a relationship," they explain. 
Marina’s experience seems indicative of a queer world that doesn’t quite know what to make of bisexuality. On the surface, campaigns to stamp out biphobia in the LGBTQ+ community are growing in clout but, elsewhere, outdated and pernicious stereotypes of bisexual people as inauthentic and greedy persist. 
In 2018, a study published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity suggested that lesbians and gay men see bisexual women as more attracted to men.
In the study, 165 lesbian women and gay men were asked to answer a set of questions about how they believed their community viewed bisexual women or men in general, and to what extent they thought bisexuals were sexually attracted to men versus women.
Lesbian women respondents were more negative toward bisexuals than gay men, and they were more negative toward bisexual women than gay men were toward bisexual men, with bi women perceived to be 'inauthentic' in their attraction to women. 
Roisin, 29, struggled for her bisexuality not to be seen as adversarial by her lesbian ex-partner. The freelancer who lives in East Yorkshire understood why her ex viewed her sexuality as concerning and she wanted to assuage those fears. 
"There's a level where it’s a lot easier for me to be 'straight' than it is to be 'gay'. It's admittedly easier for my family, and it’s easier for me to have children. Whether they’re a lesbian or they’re gay, any monosexual person (someone who is only attracted to one gender) has struggled to see how I could be attracted to two," she says. 

In 2018, a study published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity suggested that lesbians and gay men see bisexual women as more attracted to men.

After Roisin and her partner had split up, they met so she could return her possessions. That, she says, was when her ex began "stereotyping" her "as a straight girl".
"The anxiety about me being bi turned vicious and was framed as a distaste for my sexual past. I didn’t appreciate that," she reflects. "When I think about the relationship as a whole, it felt like there was another power structure there that I couldn’t get hold of. It was my first relationship with a woman and I felt like she was leading the way and was a lot more 'in the know', and I felt powerless."
Some might write off these remarks as the embittered words of a hurt partner but it can be more challenging to explain away hostile remarks made by close friends.
"I had one mate who clearly had a problem with me dating a man after a long line of dating women," Meredith, 27, says. "She hadn’t known me for all that long before me and my partner got together, and dismissed me out of hand as a 'baby queer' even though I’d arguably had more experience with women than her."
When Meredith hung out with their group of friends who were all lesbians, the friend would make clear that her sexuality was separate and casually label her "Meredith the bi".
"I’m not massively sensitive but after a while it did start to chip away at me," Meredith says. One night, she had an honest conversation with her friend and realised that her disparaging remarks were shaped by her own experience of struggling to come out as a lesbian. 
"She told me how long it had taken and how difficult it had been for her to come out. I told her that I too had really struggled, and stopped talking to my parents because of it." 
"It seemed like that story had gained her trust and stopped her seeing me as this adversary piggybacking onto a sexuality for the hell of it. I’m really glad the tension has eased between us, and I really feel for her – but to be honest, I am a bit sick of having to prove myself," Meredith adds. 
Within the lesbian community, which has fought hard for visibility – only to receive a smattering of the representation of gay men – reclaimed language is sometimes branded as the territory of lesbians only. Recently, this conversation has focused on the word 'dyke' and whether bi women should be allowed to use it. 
'Dyke' refers to a woman whose gender expression and traits present as typically 'masculine' and has often been used as an offensive slur directed at lesbians.  
But for some people, like 31-year-old Bella, a bi woman who dates another bi woman, the term has been levied against her and "anyone else with a same-sex partner". 
"Bisexuality is consumed by lesbianism and we are faced with the same slur when we walk down a street with a same-sex partner. Offensive terms are not packed with nuance but reclaiming the term can [be]," she says.  
For others, attempts to define straight or bi women as attracted to women only have emerged in increasingly popular theories like 'compulsory heterosexuality'. 
This theory, shared on a document made by @cyberlesbian on Twitter, is posited as a guideline for bi and straight women, providing a checklist to help them navigate whether they are actually attracted to men or if society has just told them that they should be. 
"I swear this document resurfaces every couple of years," Marina says. "In the formula it argues that, if you’re primarily attracted to women, and came to being attracted to men later than women, you’ve been coerced by heteronormative norms so you’re actually a lesbian.
"I do truly think it's a really great doc for anyone who thinks they might be a lesbian and is questioning but, like I said, as I've had my bi-ness invalidated it just set off red flags for me, personally," they add.
Rae is 30 years old and lives in Leicestershire. She says that the lauding of 'gold star' lesbians – women who have never had a sexual relationship with a man – was taken to a new level by one of her friends’ ex-partners. "My friend’s ex-wife left her because she couldn’t deal with my friend being bi," she says. 
"It isn’t like she didn’t know, my friend’s been openly bi for years before they even met. And there were flags that her partner wasn’t the best. She made jokes about how my friend was the exception to all the other bi girls, and one time bought gold stars for herself and silver for my friend when they were making their wedding dresses," she adds. 
Meanwhile, Bella says she is aware that bi women are among the "bottom of the pile" in how well they are accepted by other members of the LGBT community. 
"We all know there’s this LGBT hierarchy, where cis white gay men are at the top and the likes of trans people and bi people seem to exist at the bottom, while not quite facing the challenges of LGBTQ people of colour and disabled people," Bella says. 

I understand that lesbians, for example, might look at bi people and think ultimately, you can go and marry a man and have, like, a 'normal life' but we have to understand that bisexual people are not the enemy.

"It’s a challenge to find space to represent every woman who loves women when you’re challenged by the male gaze, and for visibility in a society that acknowledges queer men before it acknowledges queer women," she adds. 
Even at work, Bella fights against stereotyping and outward contempt for bisexuals at shOUT, an LGBT youth charity based in Dublin. 
"I was at this LGBT conference when I started chatting to a lesbian from Ukraine. When she heard how I identified, she said 'Oh, I hate bisexuals,' and everyone laughed," she says.  
Like the other women and non-binary people who are struggling to understand how to navigate biphobia from those closest to them, Bella is keen to emphasise that nothing will come from "making bisexuals the enemy".
Too often, bisexuality is typecast as a 'stepping stone' by monosexual people. Seeing it like this is biphobic but perhaps it's easy to understand why some lesbians, who have fought hard for their own identity and may have experienced homophobia, have this reaction to bisexual people. It can be motivated by both internalised and external homophobia.
"I understand that lesbians, for example, might look at bi people and think ultimately, you can go and marry a man and have, like, a 'normal life' but we have to understand that bisexual people are not the enemy," Bella concludes. "We're part of the solution because the only way we can live a 'normal life' is to closet ourselves, and that is no privilege."
*Some names have been changed throughout this article to protect identities

More from Living

R29 Original Series