In recognition of Bi Visibility Day on 23rd September Shine, Fujitsu’s staff LGBT+ network, wanted to open up a conversation with inspirational bisexual employees across different organisations to discuss some of the challenges and misconceptions around bisexuality. Annie Ho (Lloyds Bank), Sian Jones (Accenture), and Amy Wills (Stonewall) were interviewed by Caroline Shrader, Co-Chair of Shine, to share their experiences of being bi.
What stereotypes of bisexuality have you been subject to, if any? And where you think these might come from?
Amy Wills: I’ve definitely encountered stereotypes – one was the idea that I was less trustworthy than someone who is straight, lesbian or gay. I remember an ex telling me that no one would trust me so I shouldn’t tell anyone.
I think that comes from the idea that everyone else is focused on one gender and because bisexual people don’t fit within that it’s hard for them to understand. Most stereotypes come from misunderstanding and ignorance: thinking that because you’re attracted to more than one gender you’re likely to want to be involved with more than one gender at the same time. That’s one I’ve definitely seen and experienced in the past.
Sian Jones: I only came out properly in the past year to everyone I know so I’ve been very fortunate with my friends. But one I have experienced with past boyfriends when I’ve brought it up a few years ago was that they saw it more as a chance that I would have some fun with those genders than that I am attracted to both men and women They saw it as I’d be more promiscuous.
Annie Ho: I wouldn’t say I’ve been subjected to anything in particular, but the comments I’ve had are mostly from my friends. I’ve been in a same-sex relationship for many years, and so when I tell my friends that I am bi, they typically laugh or scoff.
I feel that’s a bit immature and also a reflection of themselves in the fact that that behaviour is often from lesbians who would never entertain going out with a man. I suppose it’s just a bit of banter and needs a bit of understanding.
At work, I think most people are quite respectful. Perhaps that’s because as a woman if you’re bisexual it may be more acceptable than for men. That’s kind of representative at Lloyds where the two most senior people who are out as bisexual are women. I don’t think there’s that amount of comfort amongst the male population to come out as bi.
Certainly, when I was looking for participants for this campaign, there is a definite lack of visibility of men who identify as bisexual – why do you think that might be?
Annie: This is just an assumption, but for a lot of large institutions in the UK, most of the people at the top are straight white males. Looking at their example, it’s difficult to rationalise coming out – what is the added value for them to come out as bi? Especially if they’re in an opposite-sex relationship as many people are.
Amy: I think it’s self-fulfilling and a bit of a vicious circle. There aren’t that many visible bi men anywhere – in the media, on the stage, in sport, at work. We are a lot more comfortable now with the image of gay men on TV who do great things for men in the gay community but bi men are almost mythical, they’re almost a unicorn in cultural and social terms, which has an impact in how we feel about the people we interact with every day and how other people identify.
If you never see anyone who is like you you’re going to feel a lot less comfortable with being the only one. And this extends to representation of other marginalised identities within the LGBT community, whether that’s about faith, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender identity or otherwise.
Sian: We have recently had more women in the media come out as bisexual and there have been articles about how a lot of people identify as partially bisexual or homosexual but the focus there is always on women – there is never the emphasis on men. Going back to the idea that they’re mythical – people don’t maybe feel that they have that place that women do.
What do you think bisexual means, or what does being bisexual mean to you?
Annie: For me it’s a person who’s attracted to men and women. Within our LGBT network, we have a monthly call with a small group of bi-colleagues called “Bi Talk”, where we have discussed the definition of bisexuality vs pansexuality and omnisexuality and I think that’s what most people agreed on.
Amy: From a really personal perspective, it’s just about knowing that I have the capacity to be attracted to and be in a relationship with people from different genders. When I first came out I looked at the different terminology and, similar to you Annie, I thought that bisexuality seemed to be around being attracted to men and women and I definitely feel like that but going on my journey I’ve recognised that there is a capacity in me to be attracted to people who do not fit into binaries and I still identify as bisexual and still feel that really strongly.
I feel that people who identify as bisexual feel it in a different way but it is a handy term to capture it all. There are lots of people who describe bisexuality as an umbrella term and within that there are different ways of identifying. That’s what it means to me – it’s about capacity and it’s not about this idea of it being “half and half” – it’s a whole separate thing. It’s not like when I’m attracted to women I suddenly lose attraction to men and that’s my “lesbian half” and when I’m attracted to men that’s my straight half – it’s a whole identify in itself.
Caroline Shrader: There’s been a couple of times when I’ve quite embarrassingly tried to example my sexuality in percentages and wondered why I thought it necessary to do that!
Sian: I completely agree, it’s not that if you’re with a man you’re suddenly straight but then when you’re back with a woman you’re lesbian again or that you’re equally attracted to both. It’s that you have a capacity to be attracted to both. It’s not that you have to like one then the other. It doesn’t equal out.
Annie: I like the way that some people describe it – where “I would be happy to share my life with either a man or a women” and it’s all about the personality rather than the body parts they have.
What was your experience of ‘coming out’?
Amy: I came out at 19 at university, in my second year, which is pretty classic. But I do remember when I was about 14 talking to my mum being really upset and worried and saying “mum, I think I might be gay, I think I might be a lesbian” and she said to me “well, are you attracted to boys?” and I said “well, yeah” and she said “well then you’re not gay” and that was the end of the discussion.
I thought maybe I just appreciated the way girls and women look. Maybe I just want to be them, I don’t want to be with them. I parked that for years and when I came out a lot of my friends said “I already knew that”. It’s not necessarily about admiring someone. It’s about being happy to spend time and romantic relationships or the rest of your life with different people. But as we all know, we’re always coming out. All my friends know, there are still people who might not but they are people I don’t really know anymore – Facebook friends, that sort of thing.
Now I’m in a funny position where I’m so comfortable coming out because I work in such an inclusive environment and I live in London, which is such a diverse place that I accidently come out all the time. To strangers, to people I’m on first dates with all the time without really thinking about it. It’s so natural for me that when they suddenly need to stop and say “what?” it reminds me that coming out is still something you deal with all the time.
There is sometimes that feeling that people don’t know how to talk about it. I still get friends and family talking about “boyfriends” and “husbands”. It’s not something I like but I don’t always pick up on it because they’ve known me as straight for a long time so that’s a hard habit to break and I find it’s easier, instead of challenging them every time, just to occasionally do it and be inclusive in my own language in talking about myself and they tend to pick it up.
Annie: When you say “come out” to people who don’t know you so well, do you come out as bi immediately or do you come out as being in an opposite-sex or same-sex relationship?
Amy: Sometimes I’ll say “I’m bi”, sometimes it will just come up…coming out usually involves talking about partners and then people will say “don’t you mean boyfriend” and I say “no, I mean partners”. Sometimes when I talk about my job and something I’m doing at work that involves me disclosing. Often it’s me saying I’m bi rather than mentioning partners.
Annie: When I disclose it’s because we’re talking about relationships and being in a same-sex relationship people assume I’m a lesbian or I’m gay, which, depending on the level of friendship, is fine by me. Sometimes I don’t want to go through that extra layer of having to explain or maybe I’m not comfortable enough with someone to delve into the real identity. I feel that often I haven’t fully come out to people and also, I question if that really matters?
Sian: Similarly, I had feelings when I was younger but I pushed them aside for a long time. I only really properly came out to everyone I know in the past year to 6 months. My experience with friends as a whole have always been “oh, yes I always kind of thought that, that makes sense”.
I noticed that when they brought up who you might end up with or “your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend”. They accept that I might be with either one or other in a really positive and surprising way. One of the reasons I felt comfortable coming out is because of the company I work for. They have a very strong LGBT network and I’ve made some really good friend there. It was knowing that it’s absolutely fine, that I can be comfortable doing it.
Caroline: I was quite used to coming out. I’d struggled with it a little bit when I first started university and gradually got more and more used to being out to people. It wasn’t until I was due to get married and I was having a conversation with someone and I came out as bisexual to one of my friends and they made me feel as though my sexuality was redundant now because I was getting married so they were questioning the purpose of my coming out.
I think I’ve taken that to heart too much because I do second guess myself – do I really need to be coming out in this situation? Annie, one of the comments you made was “what is the added value” of me now taking that extra step. Because I’m in a same-sex relationship, if I’m having an organic conversation with someone it will be in reference to my wife but rarely in reference to my sexuality. It’s only really in getting involved in these campaigns that I have the opportunity to talk about these things.
Leading on from that, what. If anything stops you from being out as bisexual in all areas of your life?
Amy: It doesn’t feel like it’s a big enough deal – what’s the point of talking about it? I think that all stems from this self-doubt that it’s valid – that it’s something important and part of who you are. And since joining Stonewall I’ve understood the importance of coming out. Through that I’ve come out to so many more people.
But there are people I may not come out to, which is absolutely fine. It’s something probably across all LGBT communities that you feel pressure to be out everywhere all the time and sometimes it’s just not practical or necessary. If you don’t feel comfortable about it then you shouldn’t feel the pressure to come out. I’m sure people make assumptions because I work at Stonewall and I’ve heard rumours of discussions over “have you heard, Amy’s gay now!” which is fine.
The other thing that stops me – I worry about it changing the way someone views me. I think it would be easier to say if I was gay because I feel like people get that so much more and there’s a real conflict between wanting people to take it seriously and not wanting them to freak out. For a long time I was paranoid, even to the people I’d come out to. It’s a worry that people aren’t going to take it seriously but if they do then that they will they treat me differently. Sometimes I think it’s just not something I really need to talk about with people I barely know.
Annie: I tend to agree. In terms of going out of the way to explain the finer details and the practicality of doing so in a normal conversation. People look at me and they see me as Asian and female first so any “getting to know you” conversations first revolves around those identities – my Asian identity…and then they might ask me about the relationship or being a parent, when they’ll realise I’m in a same-sex relationship, which typically results in the assumption : “oh, so you’re gay”.
By that time I’ve explained and peeled through so many layers of myself that I question whether this person would really care if I made clear that I am bisexual and not gay…at best, people I speak to would find my multiple identities very interesting but most of the time acquaintances will just want to find some common ground to talk about rather stand corrected on the various assumptions they have made about me. I think often bisexuality is quite deeply embedded within my whole identity – how often do I really want to go there and explain so much to a person I’ve just met or barely know?
Do you consider yourself to be part of LGBT communities?
Annie: Definitely, because I’m in a same-sex relationship and most of my closest friends are lesbians so in that sense it is part of my life. In terms of things like “being bi” I still think participating in Pride and those kind of activities and raising visibility of LGBT is very important and the more I get involved in the bi aspect, especially at work and outside, I hear more of a need to increase visibility of the B within LGBT. I definitely get involved as much as I can.
Sian: I do feel part of it in some sense. We have a very strong network at work. I have gay and lesbian friends I go out with but I’m not in a same-sex relationship. I only came out recently and I do feel slightly removed from it. I guess it will come with time.
Amy: I work for Stonewall so I’m very connected to the LGBT community and I’ve made some incredibly close friends through colleagues who still work here and some who’ve moved on so my network and my attachment to those communities has developed quite considerably. But in my personal life, in my upbringing, in my circle of friends – no I don’t feel connected.
I’m the only bi person I know outside of work, I’m not part of a network and I know one gay person from a previous job. So, yes and no – I do feel connected but as to the bi community? – No, I think my connections are mainly just professional and more to do with my knowledge of the issue rather than social connections.
What reactions have you had from gay and lesbian friends or partners?
Annie: We discussed a bit about my lesbian friends who have scoffed about the fact that I identify as bi but I think, interestingly, my partner, although we’ve been together a long time, every time I mention that I’m bi you can see a glint of fear or horror in her eyes. We’ve discussed it a couple of times as to why that might be and she has become quite uncomfortable about it and she‘d say to me “I wouldn’t want you to leave me for a man”, whereupon I would question if it made a difference whether it was a man or a woman. Rationally she understands that there is no difference but instinctively there is and a bit of a fear there for some reason.
Amy: Most of my lesbian and gay friends that I’ve met at work, and the one I’ve mentioned before – he was the first person I came out to and I was so relieved by his reaction and everyone here is good too so I’ve only ever had positive reactions but I do get lots of banter that I don’t think happens as much…maybe between gay people, but not between gay and straight people.
There are jokes and comments that I don’t think you’d make about someone with a diffident sexual orientation to you in different circumstances. It’s all funny, I don’t mind at all but it’s an interesting dynamic. A lot of it is curiosity and it exposes a lack of understanding, I still get so many questions – personal questions that I don’t think people realise are so personal about your past experiences and personal history that they might not be so confident in asking someone else.
But it’s all with good intentions and it’s never through suspicion. It’s more just wanting to understand where I’m coming from and my personal context so I always try and make an effort to answer those questions even if they sometimes make me feel a little bit uncomfortable because I know that person will be better off for knowing.
I think that’s a really important thing that we have to bear in mind that I’m sure all LGBT feel. It’s really uncomfortable to sometimes talk about this stuff but it is often doing so much good to be so open, to be able to say it because it pushes you, which is really important. And it challenges but it also teaches other people and it’s an important thing for people to hear – from “normal” people on the street who are bi and their experiences and feelings. All the lesbian gay people I know who know about me are really positive and respectful about it.
Caroline: One interesting thing I have noticed…representations of bisexual people that go to serve as pillar examples in people’s lives is that either bisexuality is something people call themselves before they come out as gay or they come out as lesbian and then they meet a man…Rather than accepting that they might have been bisexual all along it’s this term used to pass through a different sexuality.
Have your opposite-sex partners always accepted your sexuality. How have they reacted?
Sian: I haven’t really dated anyone properly since coming out but when I have told boyfriends in the past they saw it is as more of a gimmick or a phase I was going through. But that was a few years ago and so may be a reflection on their maturity at the time rather than anything else.
Amy: There have been ex boyfriends who have not been kind about it. I think I mentioned at the beginning an ex who, after we were dating said no one would ever trust me so it would be best if I was never honest with men I dated in the future because they would immediately think I would sleep with other women. I dated a guy briefly whose reaction was to say “oh but you’re not attracted to the butch ones, right?” and that was the last date!
People I’ve dated in the past before I came out have been fine. I think people can feel threatened by it and I think that first ex I mentioned was being vindictive and mean but the second one – it was an example of viewing it as “it’s ok as long as it’s sexy” and I just thought that says so many things about his character and how he views bisexuality. When dating someone there’s always the thought of “which date shall I leave this to” but I’ve dated men who are really respectful.
Annie: I totally agree. I think it’s the threatening aspect. When I dated a guy quite seriously for a long time and I was coming to the realisation that I was bi, I was very honest with him. He was very accepting and it was fine but …I think he found it a bit threatening. And similarly, with my current partner…that glint of fear in her eyes…again that’s probably because she feels threatened. Perhaps it’s a sheer numbers thing – you don’t just have to be “cautious” of 50% of the population but it’s actually 100% of the population…in an exaggerated way!
Amy: It’s ALL the fish in the sea!
Caroline: Interestingly it does come back a lot to people’s insecurities about not being enough for their partner and that’s the main theme I’ve noticed around reactions that I’ve heard to bisexuality and what that might mean for your relationship – that that means there’s something missing from your relationship. It’s treating the different physical bodies as even more important than things like personality traits.
Amy: So much comes down to not understanding it. You can’t make someone else understand, or believe what you’re saying. What can you do is just keep explaining yourself and reassuring people. Unfortunately it shouldn’t have to keep happening because it should come down to trust as well. Because people think if you’re bi then you need to be with multiple people or in some on-off cycle with men and women.
But you wouldn’t assume people in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships are missing something. If you’re with someone there are all sorts of other things you might be “missing” out on. It’s not the gender, it’s the person you’re with that makes you happy in the relationship.
If there was one thing you wanted people to understand about being bi, what would it be?
Annie: For me it’s the fact that it’s not a phase. We identify as bi because that’s the way we identify. It’s not that if you’re in a same-sex relationship you’re gay and opposite-sex you’re straight and you just flutter between those two. It’s something that once somebody has made up their mind they tend to stick to it.
Sian: For me it would be to echo what’s been said, if I’m with a man I’m not missing being with a women and vice versa. It’s not that there is a lack in my life.
Amy: It’s hard to think of just one thing but, just like all gay people and straight people, not all bi people are the same and that’s ok, we don’t all act in the same way. It doesn’t make what we feel any less valid. There are many things in the world that I am confused and unsure about and there are many things that I need someone to help me with but knowing my own identity is not one of those things.
We know how we feel and just like people know they are straight or gay. It’s just a feeling and it’s an innate knowledge of what you are and who you are, which makes it as serious and valid and a thing to be respected.
The participants were also invited to ask their own questions
Amy: I would be interested to hear how everyone feels about the pressure of being a bi role model, whatever that means to you, in your capacity on your network or outside of work? Do you ever feel like you’re the only bi voice or do you enjoy that responsibility? How does that affect your life?
Sian: Like you were saying…every bi person is an individual so it’s being the visible bi person at work because I certainly don’t feel like I can speak to everyone and I don’t want to speak for everyone because everyone has their own individual experience.
Caroline: Sometimes it feels attention-seeking. I think that’s the thing I struggle with the most I feel like I’m standing on a pedestal, like one of the preachers on the street telling people, insisting I’m bisexual. That’s what makes it feel uncomfortable. Because, from the outside, I fit more comfortably into the lesbian community. I’ve married a woman and all of our worries and concerns in reference to legal status, household problems, and how we’re going to have children they all fit within that space. It feels like I’m insisting and that’s the biggest part I struggle with.
Annie: I tend to agree because, as I’ve discussed before, bisexuality is so many layers underneath the identities that I have that suddenly to have to talk about it so vocally in work I find…I have found quite awkward. What has spurred me on is that so many people say they want role models and more visibility. I am a role model not because I live an exemplary life, but because I am willing to talk about bisexuality. And if that benefits someone then great.
I do feel a bit of responsibility, as I’ve mentioned before. The most senior people who disclose as bi within a bank of 95,000 people – I’m one of them and there’s another one and we’re not that senior and so if were talking about needing role models then I feel responsibility to step forward so that people can see there is career progression as a bisexual colleague. We can work and be happy. And I also think that people need role models at all levels and if I can influence and encourage others to step forward then that’s another success in my view.
Amy: I feel like there is a tension between saying “we’re just like you” and the need to step forward and say “actually, we’re not just like you, but you should respect us anyway”. I think erasure is one of the most difficult things to tackle– whenever anyone says the term “gay marriage” or “gay rights” it’s like a little knife in my side. It’s just constant but you don’t want to be on the pedestal making a fuss.
Thank you very much to Amy, Sian and Annie for some fantastic contributions. You can find out more about Bi Visibility Day at the official website, and get involved tomorrow through #BiVisibilityDay on Twitter.
|Amy Wills is a Youth Programme Officer for Stonewall, providing support to young people through their personal and career development. She has been with Stonewall for 2 years and helps to raise bi visibility by participating in awareness campaigns and producing resources.||Sian Jones is an Agile Project Manager working on the Innovation Programme at Accenture. She has been in her role for 18 months and studied at the University of Cambridge. Sian now lives in London and is involved with Accenture’s staff LGBT network.||Annie Ho is Head of Nordic & Dutch Coverage for Financial Institutions, Debt Capital Markets Origination at Lloyds Banking Group and has worked in the banking sector for over 10 years. She acts as the bi-advocate on the Steering Committee for Lloyds’s LGBT network, Rainbow.|
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Debbie Pheasey said on
Really insightful blog… and great that this subject is being openly discussed.
Let’s hope we see more on this subject – only greater awareness will allow the same status (not sure that is the right word) as gay and lesbianism