Thursday, April 28, 2011

Erasure: What's the harm?

The Oppression Olympics is a game you play when you want to dismiss other people's problems because they aren't as bad as yours.  Never mind that we can talk about multiple problems at once, or that smaller problems often have simpler solutions.  People play this game all the time with asexuals.  "Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals face a lot of hatred and discrimination in society.  Asexuals just* get ignored and disbelieved. That may be annoying, but how does this concretely harm them?"

*This is not really true.  Asexuals can also experience homophobia and other forms of hatred.  But that's another topic.

People ask this same question of skeptics whenever they debunk things like homeopathy or astrology.  Often, it's the case that these things do cause concrete harm, and we just aren't aware of it.  There's a website called "What's the Harm?" which collects stories of harm caused by various kinds of pseudoscience and other nonsense.

Consider this an attempt to show, with evidence, that invisibility and erasure cause concrete harm. You know, if the anecdotes and informal polls aren't enough for you.

My source of evidence is Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations, a recent report written by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.  Because bisexuals also face invisibility and erasure.  This consists of:
  • Assuming that everyone you meet is either heterosexual or homosexual.
  • Assuming romantic couplings of two women are lesbian, or two men are gay, or a man and a woman are heterosexual.
  • Thinking bisexual people haven’t made up their minds, or are confused, or that it's merely a "phase".
  • Refusing to accept someone’s self-identification as bisexual if the person hasn’t had sex with both men and women. 
  • Assuming bisexuals would be willing to “pass” as anything other than bisexual.
  • Thinking that bisexual people will have their rights when lesbian and gay people win theirs.
  • LGBT organizations failing to address the specific needs of bisexuals.
(Partly quoted, partly paraphrased from report.  Not exhaustive.)

It's not true, by the way.  That bisexuality is just a "phase".  A 10-year study of women showed that they were more likely to adopt a bisexual label than relinquish one.

But what harm does that all cause?  Surely bisexuals must have it better than gays and lesbians, since they can pass better, and get legally married.  I mean, they're basically halfway straight, aren't they?  Won't they get their rights when lesbian and gay people get theirs?

Nope.  By many measures, bisexuals have it worse than gays and lesbians:
  • Bisexual women were more likely to be current smokers and acute drinkers. 
  • Bisexual women in relationships with monosexual partners have an increased rate of domestic violence.
  • Bisexual women showed significantly higher rates of poor general health and frequent mental distress, even after controlling for confounding variables. 
  • Bisexual women are more than twice as likely as lesbians to live in poverty (17.7% compared to 7.8%), and bisexual men are over 50% more likely to live in poverty than gay men (9.7% compared to 6.2%). 
  • Gay men earn 2-3% less than straight men and lesbians 2.7% less, while bisexual men earn 10-15% less and bisexual women nearly 11% less.
  • Bisexuals are more likely to seriously consider suicide (bisexual women: 45.4%, lesbian women: 29.5%, straight women: 9.6%, bisexual men: 34.8%, gay men: 25.2%, straight men: 7.4%).
    (Partly quoted, partly paraphrased.  Where bisexual women are specified, this is because it came from a study of only women.  The same trend may or may not exist in bisexual men.)

    Considering that bisexuals make up about half the LGB population and have some of the worst problems, it makes you wonder why we talk about about gay rights and not bisexual rights.  Why do we talk about gay teen suicides and not bisexual teen suicides?  Why do LGBT organizations invest so little, if any, of their resources on bisexual issues?  Perhaps the issue of invisibility is too invisible (the irony!).  People seem to think homophobia and discrimination are the only issues, and erasure you can just shrug off.

    But now you know better.  If homophobia were the only issue, you would expect bisexuals to fare the same or better than gays and lesbians by most measures.  Instead, they do worse, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is partly due to invisibility and erasure.  Or perhaps it's just the lack of community and institutional support (itself a result of invisibility).

    Asexuals face homophobia less frequently than bisexuals, but I daresay they are even more invisible, and more erased.  They certainly have less institutional support.  I don't know of any studies which attempt to look at possible problems faced by asexuals, but I'm betting that they will find something.  Studies differentiating bisexuals from gays/lesbians are the best proxy we have so far.

    Note that this is not an attempt to play Oppression Olympics.  Frankly, if I were to play, I would lose.  Not just to trans people or to bisexuals, but to most other asexuals as well.  Difficulties vary not just between groups but within groups, you see.  This is merely an attempt to show that these issues exist.


    Ask A Bisexual Guy said...

    Loving this article. Found a new blog to follow. Keep it up!

    Anonymous said...

    This might interest you, if you don't already know about it, as you’ve mentioned Dan Savage in the past. One more thing asexuals share in common with bisexuals is the “Savage Love” he doles out for us. Not sure if this is still his opinion, but in the past he wrote that bisexuals should just date other bisexuals.
    Then again, he seems to love being snarky and flippant, so it's a little hard to know what he seriously believes.

    miller said...

    Yes, I've heard that Dan Savage has said many problematic things about bisexuality. As far as being snarky goes... it doesn't matter what Dan seriously believes. What matters is the message he conveys to his readers, whether he's serious about it or not.

    Mike K. said...

    Thing about Dan Savage is that he has a terrible blame the victim mentality.
    In his mind, all the problems of bisexuals are our fault. He takes aim at the fact that most bisexual people "end up" in relationships with people of the opposite sex thereby, in his mind, taking advantage of straight privilege. Not a thought to the fact that 9 10ths of our dating pools are people of the opposite sex.

    We're also a group people need to be wary of since a lot of us males come out later as gay. Nevermind that that makes up a small proportion of young bisexuals but also that's something gays are doing to us.

    The notion of defaulting to being interested in the 'other' sex from one's partner in the middle of a relationship also never ends. Girls think I'll run off randomly with a guy and be a happy gay man for the rest of my life. Gays think the reverse. That kinda thing just ends up as a self fulfilling prophecy furthering the needless phobia.

    And it's all our fault, we're told.