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.
22 thoughts on “Goodbye, Bad Bi: The Lose-Lose Situation of Bisexual YA, a Guest Post by Casey Lawrence”
My authorial and actual life just flashed before my eyes. This was so on point.
I love this article so much, thank you for writing. This is exactly what I struggle with when writing my own characters. Hope this changes one day.
Thank you for this!
It’s exactly why I’m hesitant to describe my main character as bi. She’s still pining over the boy. Maybe the female-female kiss comes across as pandering?
Fantastic article 🙂 Also, the typo in “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 boy chocolate and vanilla ice cream” is making me desperately try to think of things “boy chocolate” could be a euphemism for 😀
Hahaha thanks for that – I am not always the best proofreader. Going to fix now!
This post NAILED it.
“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.”
So the answer is that we should start writing books about bisexual girls who end up with two partners, one of each?
All jokes aside, this is extremely accurate/well explained. As someone whose friends are mostly bisexual, this erasure is pretty baffling. Unless all my friends really are figments of my imagination…
OK, I’m sorry, I can’t put the jokes aside, I had way too much caffeine.
Incredibly insightful article. Thank you for writing this. I love the end and all the permutations of character combos.
I am working on two novels. In one, the bi main character ends up with a woman (who is also bi) and in the other, the two bi male main characters end up together. Both novels have other bi characters but I heard all these contradictory messages regarding my novels. Thank you.
Wonderful post, with lots of important points! x
Can we please not refer to male bisexual erasure as the “One Drop Rule”? This phrase has a very long, very racist history. (Meaning anyone with even a remote African ancestor, aka “one drop” of black blood was considered black, thus denied privileges of white people.) Surely, there must be other terminology you can use.
Otherwise, this was a great article.
Wow this was such an amazing article to read! I’m so pleased to see there are people out there talking about how bis are oppressed but also offering solutions. You really nailed it. Good luck with your writing and future endeavors.
“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 wording here could have been a lot better. I agree that bisexual mono people deserve representation, but it could be interpreted that the person who wrote this article somewhat agrees bi poly people are all of the above even if they redeem themselves a little in the last paragraph. Respectability politics shouldn’t be a reason to push bi poly representation to the back.
An easy way to get past this “Either Or” dilemma? Make them Polyamorous. Make them wind up with “Both” every now and then instead of choosing one or the other; allow them to explore consensual non-monogamy, or allow them to explore having no relationship at all but multiple romantic partners. Stop choosing to place your characters with only one person 100% of the time, and allow Poly and other relationship styles some representation too.
There’s an entire section about polyamory in the post. Literally three paragraphs dedicated to this.
And I addressed that in my second comment. I hit enter too soon on this one. But put plainly, as a Pansexual who is also Polly, I disagree with your assertions. And I’m not suggesting you never make them choose ever and always write them as Poly. I’m suggesting that every now and then you don’t force them to choose and allow other forms of representation to exist as well.
Writing them as people capable of polyamorous relationships only reinforces the ideology that polysexual people (people liking more than one Gender in any manner- whether it’s Bi or Pan, etc) are “promiscuous” if you write it poorly, allow the readers to draw that conclusion, and don’t actively do anything to discourage it. But you can’t shy away from allowing that representation to exist simply because stereotypes also exist. Otherwise you’re only providing representation for half of the crowd you’re attempting to create representation for- and a half measure is just as bad as no representation at all; bi and pan polyamorous people exist, and they deserve representation as well.
This post is fantastic, and so so important! I get a lot of that erasure in real life, so I get overly excited when I read or see a bi character. I wish it wasn’t like this, but I guess the more we write the better the representation is going to get
I am so happy I found this article. I write a book and the MC girl is bi, and ends up with a boy. But I read so many reviews of books and whatnot, where people are just hating on bi character ending up with the member of opposite sex. And it felt completly wrong to give my MC girlfriend before the boyfriend, just to make sure she would be “bisexual enough”. This was really helpful, I wish more people could see it that way! 🙂
I know this article is now several years old, but as I now prepare for my PHD (the topic will be bisexuality in YA novels) I can’t help but still feel it’s so true. Bisexual characters in mixed gender relationships in YA novels are erased so hard. Our experiences as bisexuals in m/f or mixed gender relationships are NOT the same as a heterosexual couples. Thank you for the article, hopefully at some point I can reference it and you.