Monday, 7 March 2011

It's not that easy being purple

I thought I'd share a (very debateable!) bit of thinky theory I was having a while ago with the wider world.

One of the reliable old debates to set gay and bi teeth on edge is the "who has it easier?" one about the LG and the BBB ends of LGB. I shall try to render it here: try to imagine the voice of The Book in Hitch Hiker's guide for this bit, and some line art graphics of people arguing, example images and all that.

"Lesbians and gay men have it easier" say bis. "They have gay bars, special dress codes and haircuts so they can recognise one another, a sense of community fostered by a more similar experience of sexuality. They are better represented in the media and their sexuality is - after a lot of hard fighting that we helped with - taken seriously and respected in a way that ours is still not".

"Ah no," say the gays, "bisexuals are the ones who have it easier, they have the chance of being in a relationship that gives them heterosexual privelige, they blend into mainstream society. They don't have such a strong political profile because they never had it so tough".

"Urk." The bis pause then retort with, "but look at these stats on things like mental health, they show that we have a rougher deal than you do. And there is so much more work done that is targeting lesbians and especially gay men on things like sexual health, whereas it's assumed we will pick up the straight leaflet and the gay leaflet and work out how to interpose everything neatly together for ourselves."

Both sides of the argument are quite sure they're right.

So, I wonder if what is going on is like this: first, that the conversation above is a kind of class-based analysis, in other words, it leads to sweeping statements that are a pile of steaming piffle when it comes to actual lives. All gay men do not have the same experience of oppression, ditto all bi women, etc. Everyone's experience of oppression is complex and varies through their life and indeed the course of each day.

So it might go a bit more like this diagram here. Pink line for gay/lesbian, purple line for bis. If bi folk tend toward one end of the range of experience or the other, and gay to the centre, then both observations would hold. Because of the options of mixed-sex relationships, more bis would have a low-stress experience of how their sexual orientation affected their lives than would be the case for lesbians and gay men. At the other end of the range of experience, because there is more of an infrastructure of support for gay people, those bis who needed more support would find it lacking and so be pushed further to the right hand end of the graph - even moreso than for lesbians and gay men who might be more likely to be able to find the help and support they needed.

This might also explain why there is more support for lesbians and gay men than for bis: if you are up at the right hand end of the graph, it's probably harder to give support to others since your own needs are quite pressing. Whereas the bulge in the middle of the gay curve causes more people to think that there needs to be something and that they can find the time and energy to make it happen.

I stress, this is just a thinky exercise. I've got no research data, just a bit of a thought that came to me a while ago!


  1. The "who has it easier" debate is often phrased in a different form: "my group is more oppressed than your group".

    As you point out, it is common for both sides of the debate to be convinced they are right, I suspect that the availability heuristic has a large role to play in this.

    Put simply, if I can easily think of ways in which "my" group is oppressed and cannot as easily think of ways in which "your" group is oppressed, then the availability heuristic may lead me to assume that my group is more oppressed than your group. Therefore, I will conclude that your group "has it easier".

  2. Not to overcomplicate things, but...

    Being thought straight isn't always a privilege. For one thing, I think it brings about a lot of the biphobia we get from the LG end of the spectrum: that we are either still in denial about being "properly" or "fully" gay, or that we are straight and pretending otherwise for some unsavory reason (to attract attention to ourselves, or whatever... though considering how scornful a lot of this attention can be, they clearly haven't thought through why anyone would want it!).

    And even well-meaning people can contribute to bi invisibility via straight privilege. For example, equal marriage is a hot topic lately: some people will claim that it opens up marriage to LGBT people. It's clear they're using the acronym without thinking about it too much there, as plenty of bi (and trans, but that's a whole nother can of worms) people are already married!

    And calling it "gay marriage" implies what we already have is "straight marriage," which I'm not comfortable with -- I'm not straight, even though I am married! Being thought straight is no privilege there.

  3. Holly- this is why I always call it 'same-sex marriage' as opposed to 'gay marriage'. Even though that phrase is a bit dodgy from a sex/gender point of view as well. But at least it's closer to the point that it's about the person someone wants to marry, as opposed to the other people they might also fancy or have fancied.
    ...Although, if anyone has a better one than 'same-sex marriage' which isn't all cis-centric and all that, as well as being nicely short 'n' snappy, that would be awesome.

  4. @ considertheteacosy - as the laws on marriage and civil partnerships in the UK are strongly defined around a legal binary sex, I think same- and mixed- are good enough terms. Though hopefully the left side of our left-right coalition will sort that out in the next couple of years! :)

  5. This one drives me nuts. Lets face no-one really has it easier. We just all have it different and since each individual deals better and worse with different things it can often only seem that one side or the other has it easier.

    Or another way, everyone has problems they need a support structure to deal with. And everyone has problems they don't need help with at all.

    The trick for society as a whole and not just the LGBT segment, is to make sure there is support available for when people do need help and the facility for them to then help others.

    Does that make any sense? Migrainy Amanda isn't super cogient.