In the past few years, a phenomenon I call purple washing has grown uncomfortably common. Even though the term is new, the practice of selectively representing bisexual people and issues in order to make an organisation appear more inclusive than it is, is widely bemoaned among bi activists. One of the most common examples of purple washing can be found in queer publications, where every September, in honor of Bi Pride Month and Bi Visibility Day, many increase their inclusion of bi-focused content. On the surface, this inclusion suggests an improvement in the queer community’s consideration of bi people, but the lack of representation the rest of the year betrays the superficiality of this gesture. This phenomenon is especially frustrating given that bi people comprise the majority of the LGBT community (over 56%), yet continue to struggle against negative stereotypes and misrepresentations of their experiences from within it. This frustration has prompted many bi activists to describe the flurry of representation in September as opportunistic, token and disingenuous.
But this phenomenon creates a paradox. Conversations around purple washing tend to focus solely on the negatives, and don’t acknowledge this form of bi inclusion as a step in the right direction. As a bi activist, I struggle with uncertainty over how to talk about the past, because I don’t want to suggest that future progress is unnecessary by pointing out the things that used to be worse. At the same time, it seems dishonest to downplay advances won by past efforts, because doing so fails to present an accurate picture of progress and implies that activism is pointless. To resolve this dilemma, activists should be able to criticize current circumstances while also celebrating the past successes of their movements. Taking this approach may be more difficult than simply focusing on the negatives, but it is more motivational than denying progress, and more likely to encourage activist efforts in the future.
I will be the first to admit that there are many things in need of change before we reach bi equality. Most queer publications and organizations still tend to focus on gay and trans experiences, for example, and often erase bisexuality by lumping it into the LGBT umbrella. Because of this practice, data on bi people is lost or overlooked, and funding is diverted to other, more visible segments of the LGBT population. Bi people are uniquely vulnerable to discrimination in both straight and queer spaces, which may be partly why bi representation is still generally so poor. The ability to experience both heterosexual and homosexual attractions continues to be misunderstood, as evinced by incorrect definitions of bisexuality presented in all manner of media outlets.
Sometimes, when I look at this long list of challenges, I get lost in it. It can feel hard to celebrate when there is still so much work to be done. It is tempting to disregard what has already been accomplished in the fight for bi visibility because it is now our new starting point—the presumed baseline in contemporary bi activism. But I also cannot help but recognize the ways in which circumstances for bi people are better than they were before.
In the 1970s, there was hardly any research on bisexuality, and most people did not even believe it was a legitimate orientation. Bi people (like most queer folks) frequently felt compelled to live a closeted life in the interest of protecting their reputation and safety. Thanks to the pioneering work of sex researchers like Fritz Klein, this gap in understanding slowly began to close and the perception of bisexuality started to change. After Klein published The Bisexual Option and The Male, His Body, His Sex in 1978, and Bisexualities: Theory and Research in 1986, he went on to found the American Institute of Bisexuality and the Journal of Bisexuality, which helped to further scientific research, bi visibility and acceptance.
Through these efforts, social opinion of bisexuality began to change. Bi people started coming together, which increased their profile. The social club amBi was a major innovation in this direction, because it is specifically designed to create welcoming spaces that centre bisexuality. Online resources like Bi.org flourished. In 2018, the city of West Hollywood, California hosted the first Bi Pride event to be officially hosted by a city, which marked the attainment of a level of bi visibility and community that was unthinkable when Klein began his efforts over 40 years ago.
It is important to keep this progress in mind, not only because it helps put present circumstances in perspective, but also because it reaffirms the validity of bi activism. Yes, this approach makes it harder to throw out a blanket statement about the problems bi people face, but that is precisely the point. What good is struggle and sacrifice if it never amounts to anything? Showing that activism works is just as important for a movement as being clear about what still needs to be changed, because progress is inspiring.
The recognition of progress is also important because doom and gloom turns people off. In recent years, bi experiences have grown much more visible in mainstream media, yet this success is rarely celebrated. Instead, conversations around bi issues tend to focus on the ongoing hardships, highlighting things like health disparities, drug use and suicide rates. While these issues are of serious concern, focusing only on how broken bi people are is a losing message. Certainly, we should continue to push for equality in all areas related to bisexuality, but positioning the group in a victim role ignores the positive aspects of being bi.
To me, the circumstances endured by earlier generations seem like something from another realm—a barbaric and dystopian world that my imagination struggles to fathom. Because of this, it is easy to overlook the efforts of our predecessors by presuming success was inevitable. I want to address the problem of purple washing, but I also want to take the time to appreciate the ways this phenomenon marks an improvement. Sure, I would like to see better representation of bi life in queer publications throughout the year, but featuring bi experiences in September is a start. Although this inclusion may not do much to address the concerns of the community, it still adds to bi visibility and changes the landscape, at least a little. We should be able to acknowledge this improvement, without posing a threat to the movement. Things are not perfect, but the world we live in continues to evolve, and I hope that through our efforts we may get closer to achieving equality for all people, regardless of their specific approach to sex or relationships.
This piece is published as part of a partnership between Areo and the publication Queer Majority. You can find the original source here. Visit https://www.queermajority.com.
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