You may recall Casey Lawrence from her recent cover reveal for Order in the Court. Now she’s back to talk about the tricky business of writing bisexual YA. Without further ado, Casey Lawrence!
Young Adult literature is often characterized by discovery, by firsts. First crush, first kiss, first loss, first love. YA is a genre that helps generations of teens find their place in this world and discover who they are in it. For this reason, it is extremely important that YA novels reflect their demographic; most of the readers in dire need of that help are young members LGBTQ+ community.
For young queer teens, the world can be a scary place. YA books can be an escape, but also a mirror: for many queer teens, their first taste of what it might be like to actually be queer comes from the media’s representation of queerness.
LGBTQ+ YA is a growing market. More and more authors are taking the leap to publish stories with diverse characters. My own book series, The Survivor’s Club, has a bisexual teenage protagonist. Today I’m going to outline a major problem I’ve encountered with writing a bisexual character: it’s a lose-lose situation.
Because YA usually has some kind of romantic element to it, authors writing bisexual characters need to make a choice: who does your bisexual character “end up” with? (Since I write bi girls, I’m going to use bi girls as examples, but the same goes for bi boys.) If your bi girl ends up with a boy, your character gets accused of being “basically straight,” “bad [queer] representation,” or “reinforcement of compulsory heterosexuality.” If your bi girl ends up with a girl, she ends up having to be representation for all wlw (women who love women). She’s “basically a lesbian.” Either way, the character’s bisexuality is somehow “negated” by their relationship status. Sure, in Chapter One she’s a Bi Girl, but by the end she’s Basically Gay or Basically Straight—in either case, thinking this way is Bisexual Erasure.
Bi characters in m/f relationships are “bad representation” because they’re basically straight.
Who one is in a relationship with does not define one’s sexuality. A bisexual woman married to a man is not straight. A bisexual man who has only dated men is not gay. In both cases, these people are bisexual—both in real life, and on paper.
I’ve been seeing a lot of posts lately about how having a bi character enter an m/f relationship somehow invalidates their queerness. Bi women suddenly must have their wlw cards revoked because they love men, which makes about as much sense as saying a person can’t enjoy both chocolate and vanilla ice cream. For bisexual women in particular, this idea reinforces the patriarchal idea that men can fundamentally change a woman’s identity.
Here’s a conversation I recently had:
Them: You mostly date men, right?
Me: Yeah, so?
Them: So you’re mostly straight, then.
Me: I’m bisexual.
Them: Oh I know, but I mean, you’re not 50/50. You’re more on the straight side. More straight than gay.
Bisexuality is not the condition of being half-gay and half-straight. A bisexual person is entirely bisexual, not fractions of other things. When a bi person of one gender dates a person of another gender, their sexuality doesn’t change, in the same way that being single doesn’t make a person asexual until they start their next relationship. The number of relationships one’s had with different genders do not fill in a pie chart that somehow can determine the percentage of their queerness—they’re bisexual, completely, irrespective of their relationship status.
But heterosexual relationships already act as representation for bi people in m/f relationships, don’t they?
Nope. Bisexual people in relationships with people of a different gender can have a very different dynamic with their partner than a heterosexual couple. They face different challenges, one of which may be being told that they’re basically straight because of who their partner is. A lot of real bi girls do end up with guys and they deserve better than to be told that relationships that look like theirs are the “disappointing” option, or “not real queer representation.” It’s not fair that they aren’t allowed to have representation of how to conduct their lives in different-gender relationships because of how those relationships are perceived.
These assumptions have real world consequences. People say things like “Bisexuals in het relationships don’t belong at Pride.” This is equivalent to parents accepting their bisexual children only as long as they date the opposite sex. Why is the latter abhorrent but the first tolerable in the LGBTQ+ community? Accepting someone as long as they act like you is not okay. Conditional acceptance is never okay. This is true of the LGBTQ+ community as well as outside of it. Both of those statements are example of biphobia. They make it seem as if a bisexual person can “choose” to be gay or straight—rather than being bisexual, which is a sexuality in and of itself.
Can’t you just let your bi character have both an m/f AND an f/f relationship over the course of a book/series?
Sure I could. But that leads to a whole ‘nother conundrum: which relationship gets the HEA (happily ever after)? No matter which order I choose, there are going to be complaints. This is where the lose-lose situation comes into effect:
If my bi girl dates another girl only to later date a boy, I run the risk of implying that her bi-ness was just a phase or an experiment. I’ll get all those accusations about bad representation outlined above; my bi girl can’t end up with a boy, because then readers will think she’s straight (no matter how many times she tells the world she’s bisexual).
If my bi girl dates a boy first and then dates a girl, it reinforces the idea that bisexuality is a “stepping stone” identity on the way to declaring oneself a True Homosexual. This is more prevalent in m/m stories, but holds true for female characters as well. Bisexuality is considered by some people a way of keeping one foot in the closet.
Why does that happen?
There’s something called the One Drop rule when it comes to m/m romance: one m/m attraction or relationship is enough to call a male character gay, despite having been in m/f relationships in the past. One drop in an ocean is enough for that male character to be considered queer, negating an entire history of attraction. For bisexual female characters (and real bisexual women!), the opposite is true. Often, any evidence of opposite-sex inclinations is cause for exclusion from wlw spaces.
Bisexual men are assumed to be gay and performing bisexuality in order to cling to heteropatriarchy’s idea of masculinity, while bisexual women are assumed to be straight and performing bisexuality for heterosexual male attention. Thus bisexual women are in the unique situation of being “too gay” or heterosexual spaces, but “too straight” for queer ones, creating a need for bisexual women’s spaces, whereas bisexual men are, for the most part, welcomed into gay spaces with open arms—assuming they consider to “perform” their queerness. The same holds true with literature.
Romantic or sexual relationships with men are seen as bad representation for wlw because it appears to adhere to the patriarchy, or compulsory heterosexuality. One reasons why gay men do not feel betrayal toward bisexuals in “het” relationships to the same degree or in the same way as lesbians do is that to them, bisexual women in relationships with men are choosing to adhere to the heteropatriarchy, despite the capacity not to.
Can’t you just write a bisexual character in a polyamorous relationship then? Why does she have to choose?
Ah, now wouldn’t that just be the perfect solution! Many bisexual people are also poly. But the thing is, most bisexual people aren’t. Writing bisexual characters as poly unfortunately enforces the stereotypes that bisexual people are greedy, can’t be satisfied by one person, are promiscuous, more likely to cheat… the list goes on. If everyone wrote bisexual characters into poly relationships, bisexual monogamists (of which there are many) would be left completely without representation or a voice.
Bisexuality and polyamory are different things. The first is a sexuality—to whom one is attracted—and the second is a relationship style—how one performs their sexuality in the context of a relationship. A person or character can be both bi and poly, but not everyone who is bi is also poly, just like everyone who is a pianist is not also left handed. I’m sure there are left handed pianists, as one certainly doesn’t negate the other, but one does not necessarily mean the other. They are completely separate.
So while I’d be excited to read (or write) a bisexual/poly romance, that’s not going to work with every character, just like it wouldn’t work for every bisexual person.
So why can’t you just write your characters as individuals making personal choices? Why do they have to represent all bisexual people?
And there’s the real reason for the lose-lose situation: since there are so few bisexual characters, every bi character that makes it to the published page is suddenly expected to be representation for all bi people. Gay people want bisexual representation that is “queer enough” to fit onto the existing LGBTQ+ shelf at the library, straight people want to see bi people that look like them or someone they could date / have dated, and bi people—well, we all just want to see ourselves on the page. With so few examples, it’s no wonder that no one is satisfied. There aren’t enough bi characters to go around.
What’s the solution, then? Is it hopeless?
Hopeless? No! Of course not. The only thing to do is to keep writing bisexual characters. Bi characters who end up falling for someone of the same sex. Bi characters who get their HEA with a member of the opposite sex. Bi characters who love nonbinary characters. Bi characters who are also trans. Bi characters who date trans characters. Bi characters who are in polyamorous relationships with people of different genders. Poly bi characters who date multiple people of one gender. Bi characters who end up heartbroken. Bi characters who end up alone, but happy. And, most of all, bisexual characters who proudly say “I’m bisexual,” no matter who their partner(s) is.
The only thing we need less of is stereotypes. If we create enough unique bisexual characters and stories, hopefully we can beat this lose-lose system. Each and every bisexual person is different, with different preferences and experiences. Why should bisexual characters be any different?
Casey Lawrence is a 21-year-old Canadian university student completing an undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature. She is a published author of LGBT Young Adult fiction through Harmony Ink Press and has been actively involved in LGBT activism in her community since she co-founded the Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school. Her first novel Out of Order is available through all major online book retailers and its sequel, Order in the Court is currently available for preorder.