Since it’s Bisexual Visibility Month and I’m annoyed with the world again for multiple reasons including the goddamn marriage equality postal vote in Australia, I present to you a post. It’s long. I’m sorry.
This is primarily aimed at discussing the content of books with bisexual protagonists, but some parts will apply to other marginalised groups, and to life in general because people are dicks everywhere.
Before we go further, a reminder: I use the term bimisia to talk about hostile attitudes towards bisexuality, because -misia = hatred or dislike. You can also use the suffix for other forms of aggression such as homomisia, amisia (anti-asexual) or aromisia (anti-aromantic). The -phobia suffix used to talk about bigotry can harm people with actual phobias, and also often obfuscates the reality of bigoted attitudes that are typically described using it anyway. (Addendum: not all people with phobias are bothered by the -phobia suffix, but being that I don’t have phobias, I prefer to err on the side of caution.)
With the housekeeping out of the way, let’s get talking.
There are some common traps for readers discussing bi books, and queer books in general. These stem from the dominant and INCORRECT societal attitudes about queerness. I am probably going to swear a lot. Because I’m in a pissy mood.
The Validity of Bisexual Relationships
This is the issue that sparked this post. I’ve more or less resolved things regarding the original incident, but now there is a general sense of bullshittery going around because apparently Bisexual Visibility Month brings out all the dicknuggets. The original issue feels so long ago. Because shit will NOT STOP HAPPENING.
A bisexual in a m/f relationship is just as queer as one in a same-gender relationship
This also applies to other orientations, e.g. pansexual, however this is an issue often brought up against us specifically.
I’m gonna need people to stop dismissing books with bi protagonists just because the love interest is a different gender. Sexual and romantic orientations are defined in terms of attraction, NOT behaviour.
There is something especially gross about dismissing queerness because a relationship appears straight to people who have no idea what they’re talking about. The mere presence of a queer person, regardless of their partner’s gender and orientation, automatically makes it a queer relationship. The identities of the people in the relationship define its queerness, not what it looks like to uninformed observers.
Do you personally prefer to read about m/m or f/f relationships over m/f? That’s fine. I prefer f/f. But you have got to watch your mouth… fingers… whatever. Focus on your personal preferences, rather than complaining about bisexuals, pansexuals and other queer folk in m/f relationships. That includes saying you’re “disappointed” or “unimpressed” that a queer character is in a m/f relationship. That’s hurtful to bi, pan, asexual, aromantic and multi-attracted queer folk who don’t use the other labels.
And, for the love of God, don’t tell us we’re overreacting or drawing attention from other matters whenever we talk about this stuff.
A bisexual who has only dated one gender is still bisexual
Adding on to the previous point, it is not a requirement to date more than one gender to earn the title of bisexual. There are countless reasons why someone may have dated one gender. They may have had negative experiences with others, or met the love of their life early on. Even if there is no specific reason, bisexuals are still valid regardless of who they have dated.
As I said above: orientation = attraction, not behaviour.
A bisexual who has never dated anyone is still bisexual
“How can you know you’re bisexual if you’ve never dated anyone?”
Do you screw every single person you see just to check if you’re attracted to them? No? Then don’t expect it of anyone else. Jesus, that’s a lot of work.
You’d think people forget that everyone starts at zero, with the way they talk about us.
Dismissing a person’s bisexuality or biromanticism due to a lack of experience also erases many asexuals and aromantics. In addition to being bi, I’m also grey ace. (Grey aroace? I like grey ace better but the second is probably more accurate. I ramble on that more here.) Anyway, I only experience attraction under specific circumstances, which don’t come around very often. I know I can experience attraction to more than one gender, when I experience attraction at all. Because I am the one living with my brain.
Trust us when we tell you who we are. We know best.
Omitting Character Queerness
This is another thing that has happened recently, although I wasn’t personally involved. This happens most often in reviews from allocishet* readers.
*Allo = allosexual and alloromantic, people who experience sexual and romantic attraction (i.e. are not asexual or aromantic). Cis = cisgender, a person whose gender matches the one assigned at birth. Het = heterosexual.
Identity is not a spoiler
I’ve seen a lot of allocishet reviewers claim that talking about a character’s queerness in their review is tantamount to spoiling some massive plot point.
Spoiler alert: it’s not.
An example of this would be Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Some readers go into this without knowing it’s queer, but a lot of us read it specifically because of that. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book if I hadn’t known. Knowing about the building queer romance doesn’t ruin the book in any way. If anything, it just made the anticipation so much better.
Furthermore, if mentioning a character’s queerness will legitimately spoil a plot twist: the rep probably isn’t that great anyway. People’s identities are not plot twists and using queerness in this way is a sign the author may not have spent much time or energy actually researching the identity so they can write it through the whole of the story rather than saving it for shock value. Can a plot twist like this work? Probably. Do I trust it? Heck, no.
Help your readers find representation
It can be hard to understand, especially if you’re white, allocishet, wealthy and abled, why representation is so important. This is because members of the dominant social group can easily turn on the TV or open an book and see an abundance of characters that are like them.
However, for readers who are LGBTQIAP+, POC, Indigenous/Native, poor, disabled and neurodivergent, it is far harder to find characters that a) represent them, b) are not offensive stereotypes and c) actually live through to the end of the story.
Studies such as this one (this is a public release; I couldn’t access the study) have shown that seeing yourself represented in the media you consume is a huge boost to self-esteem while a lack of good representation has a negative impact. This study is focused on race and gender, but it can easily be extrapolated that the same applies to other marginalisations.
(While this study didn’t find statistically significant information on this effect in literature, it is worth noting that this study focused on television use.)
There has also been additional research aimed at LGB kids that has found these kids report better wellbeing when they see themselves represented.
While the We Need Diverse Books movement has resulted in improved representation for marginalised readers, they are still hard to find unless you make a deliberate effort. Many readers, like myself, rely on word of mouth to find books that represent us. Reviews are a huge part of that.
So I really do encourage reviewers to mention when marginalised characters are present, and to specify whether these characters are protagonists, supporting characters, antagonists (which can be risky), or minor background characters.
If a book is ownvoices for ANY marginalised identity, then say so. If the information isn’t readily available, that’s fine, but if you do know or can find out easily, then include it.
Ownvoices stories are so, so important. I’m more comfortable reading books about bisexuals that are written by bisexuals, because that author has the lived experience that gives them a unique and often deeper perspective on that identity. Because of this, an ownvoices author is less likely to produce harmful rep. It can still happen, but the odds are better. I’ve been burned more than once reading books about bi characters from non-bisexual authors.
It is harder for marginalised creators to get their work published in the first place, even with concerted efforts to improve diversity. We should be able to tell our own stories, not just have other people tell them for us in the way they think is the right way.
That’s not to say marginalised creators must always write ownvoices. They don’t. We should support them regardless. Marginalised creators and ownvoices rep are equally important.
The sheer joy on Twitter whenever a reader gets their hands on a book that represents them, and does it well, should be enough to convince you to specify the representation and whether it is ownvoices.
Watch your umbrella terms. Don’t call a LGBTQIAP+ cast “gay” if they’re not all gay. Specificity is preferred when possible, in all areas of marginalisation.
If you’re using an umbrella term for a reason–like talking about the cast as a whole–be aware that some LGBTQIAP+ people don’t like allocishets using “queer.” This is not a uniform thing. Some of us don’t mind. I personally get a tiny bit uncomfortable when allocishets use it, given that it has been used as a slur and sometimes still is. It’s safer to err on using an inclusive version of the acronym, like the one I’m using. Queer reviewers can obviously use “queer” if they’re comfortable doing so.
Only use umbrella terms when they are relevant, and it’s best to follow up with specific identities that are represented.
Seriously. Don’t call a bi character gay. Just don’t. We may occasionally use the word to describe our own same-gender attraction (for those of us who are attracted to our own gender), but that is not an invitation. Just don’t. And it’s not just allocishets who need to be careful with this. I have argued with gay people who thought they had every right to call bisexuals gay while simultaneously disallowing us from using “gay” for ourselves. I mean… what? Bimisia is stronger than thinking things through, apparently.
Adding onto the above, a f/f relationship is not automatically a lesbian relationship, nor is m/m automatically gay, or m/f automatically straight.
If all the people in a relationship are gay, lesbian or straight, then it’s fine to use that term to describe the relationship. However, if they’re not, doing that contributes to erasure of queer identities. Using f/f, m/m and m/f are preferred. Bisexuals, pansexuals, aces, aros and multi-attracted queer folk who don’t use those labels can all, theoretically, be in any of those relationships. Using these terms instead avoids incorrect implications and erasure.
Note: If I’m labelling a relationship with a nonbinary character, I tend to shorten it to NB, e.g. M/NB, F/NB, NB/NB. Edit: As seen in the comments, some people shorten it to “enby” instead.
Complaining about diversity
Do I really need to explain this? *sigh* Okay.
No, we’re not judging books purely based on how diverse they are. No, diverse books are not taking over the industry. No, books with white allocishet abled protagonists are not endangered and likely never will be.
No one’s forcing anyone to read diversely. Looking askance at those who don’t read outside their bubble does not constitute forcing or censorship or whatever the heck buzzword is in this week.
Marginalised folk finally getting a piece of the pie shouldn’t be upsetting. These talented creators getting their chance to shine can only raise the bar when it comes to quality books. The vast majority of diverse books I have read have been lightyears ahead of many non-diverse books, because they have to be just to get a chance in the first place. Are there bad diverse books? Yes. But that doesn’t take away from the good ones.
Rating diverse books lower than non-diverse ones
Yep, this happens. A lot of prominent reviewers do it, and they do not like it when others point this out.
Reviewers that give four stars for a non-diverse book that has a trope that annoys them will sometimes turn around and give a diverse book with that same trope two stars. Or even one. There’s an unconscious bias going on there and it’s a reason why I’m often hesitant to give books lower ratings for purely subjective reasons.
Of course, a good solution for this is to read exclusively diverse books… which is more fun anyway…
But, if you don’t want to do that, be careful not to judge diverse books more harshly. Marginalised creators tend to have smaller audiences, so a low rating can hurt them far more easily than authors with privileges they don’t have.
Try to be aware of what you forgive in a book, e.g. annoying plot points and writing style. It’s very easy to be more judgmental of a diverse book without realising it.
Speaking over ownvoices reviewers
This is something that happens a lot, often when books have good rep for one marginalisation and a complete cock-up for another. Friends of mine have been shouted down for posting negative reviews of books that hurt them. I’ve had multiple friends straight-up leave Twitter, sometimes short-term and sometimes permanently, due to harassment regarding critical reviews and the fact they often talk about representing their marginalisations properly.
Readers who share the characters’ marginalisations should always take precedence, especially when talking about how good the representation is. Do a lot of ownvoices reviewers dislike the rep even though you don’t see the problem? You’re probably missing something due to a difference in lived experience. Reviewers, even those with the same identities, don’t always agree, but it is worth listening when some of us take issue with something.
I recommend reading as many ownvoices reviews as possible and, when appropriate, linking to them in your own review. Goodreads is a good place for this, and Twitter sometimes circulates these reviews as well. Following a variety of marginalised folk will improve your chances of that happening, and I also recommend boosting them with retweets when you see them. If a marginalised reviewer is being harassed, go ahead and report the trolls and send the reviewer some words of support.
And, for the love of Christ, don’t tell marginalised folk they’re overreacting when a book has hurtful representation.
This has been a monster of a post. If you’re interested in reading about similar issues from a lesbian’s perspective, my friend Tasha has a discussion post on How to Be a Good LGBTQIA+ Ally. She touches on some of the same stuff, but she also talks about a few things I haven’t covered here.
Oh, and for another issue within the bookish community, take a look at Amelie’s (aka the artist formerly known as Trish) post on adults mistreating teens in the YA community, especially marginalised teens like herself.
I’ve also written a metric fuckton of other posts on bisexuality and queerness:
- Writing Bisexual Characters: What IS Bisexuality?
- Writing Bisexual Characters: Stereotypes
- The Heartbreaker Bisexual Character
- The Hypersexualisation of LGBT People (I use a more inclusive acronym within the body of the post, FYI)
- My Favourite Bisexual Books – at the time of writing
- How Not to Be a Dick to Bisexuals: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
- Self-Promo When Writing Outside Your Lane
- Thoughts on Being Grey Ace
Now I’m going to collapse in a heap and pretend I didn’t just spend hours on this instead of doing the back exercises my chiropractor gave me.
One more thing: I just set up a Ko-Fi page. So, if you liked this post and have a couple dollars to spare, feel free to Buy Me a Coffee! I’ve also put a link in my sidebar.