Opinion: Lesbians and Bi Women – Culture Clash?
Why can’t we just all get along?
I have a lot of close bi friends. I have dated bi women. I hear a lot about how bi women feel pressure to ‘prove’ their queerness and how they get the message that they are not legitimate, by both straights and queers, particularly if they mainly, or always so far, partner with men, or are married to one. They feel that lesbians don’t want to date them.
I am a lesbian. I have lesbian friends. I have dated lesbian women. I have heard first hand why some lesbians are reluctant to date bi women. I have heard how some bi women feel about that.
Being the kind of person who is analytical and defaults to ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ I have thought a lot about how both sides aren’t ‘getting’ one another.
Here’s what I’ve come up with, to explain what I see as the cultural divide. These are things that I don’t see talked about elsewhere, and factors my bi women friends tell me they have not known or considered.
I can’t speak for more than my own experience
The experiences and observations are from the perspective of a white, cis, Canadian, over 50 lesbian who has been out for 30 years. Your mileage can, and probably will, vary and that’s fine. So if your response to this is a NotAllSomethingsDoThat then of course you are right, but this is true for at least some of the lesbians you will meet.
Similarly, yes, biphobia exists. It’s wrong. However, that’s not a place that has much room to move in, so I’m focussing here on the other factors at play, as I see them.
I don’t have enough experience with pansexual identifying women to add them to this analysis, so I’m sticking with the interactions I have experienced between bi and lesbian women.
Nuance / Don’t Shoot Me
Also, I use the terms, ‘some’, ‘many’, ‘usually’, ‘occasionally’, ‘tend’ for a reason, so pointing out exceptions isn’t really on point. Please don’t shoot me if my experience doesn’t match yours, and look at all the modifiers I have put in to make room for your experience.
Transwomen can be bi and lesbian too
Although much of the following may apply to lesbian and bi women who are also trans, I’m not qualified to speak to that from my own experience. If a lesbian or bi transwoman wants to write on the topic and have it linked here, contact me.
It’s okay to believe and think different things from one another
If you find yourself reacting to this article, I invite you to sit with this perspective that may be different from your own, and ask how it could inform you, rather than attacking it, or me. If you find it doesn’t fit your experience or views, that’s great, it’s something new to add to your understanding of how other people think.
I am convinced most of the difficulty is about women communicating between cultures – one side coming from the majority heterocentric culture (as most if not all bi/lesbian/queer people do at first unless they have queer parents) and the other immersed in a subculture made to fit the needs of lesbian women, created in reaction to and for protection from mainstream culture.
Different Cultural References
Bi women who live mainly in the het world begin with very different cultural references from those lesbians and queer women who live mainly in the queer world. Most lesbians have been raised in straight culture, some in small homophobic towns. Many ran screaming from it, hid themselves in the big city queer ghetto and never return, except grudgingly and stressfully to attend holiday dinners with families. They may be fiercely allergic to anything from straight culture, and for very good reason based in extreme and pervasive homophobic discrimination and oppression.
Immersion and Respect Matters
Bi women who usually partner with men may be assumed straight most of the time, which isn’t always what they want (as a femme presenting lesbian, I hear you on that), but it does place them nearly full time in the dominant straight culture with all of its blind spots. If a bi woman hasn’t immersed herself to an equal degree and for a significant chunk of time in women’s queer culture, she is not going to speak the language or know the secret hand signs. There are only one or two secret hand signs, but there are many ways of dressing, signalling, speaking, organizing and sharing space that are unique to lesbian and queer women’s cultures, and it’s critical to know and respect that. Like most oppressed subcultures, these are developed in reaction to mainstream hetero culture, to protect it’s members from hetero culture and to make it fit us better. Culture matters. Respect for a culture arising from oppression matters a lot toward building respect and safety with members of that culture.
Full time vs Part time
A bi woman who is not yet acculturated into queer women’s subculture is very similar to a lesbian woman who is newly out. Both get some suspicion and the ‘who are you anyways?’ treatment until they have put in the time to fit in. However a lesbian coming out is more likely to dive in full time and keep on swimming until she gets acculturated, while a bi woman may spend less time, sometimes a lot less time, wholly immersed.
Coming out differences
Lesbians coming out
When lesbians come out, we tend to immerse ourselves in an entirely new all queer culture. We spend a couple of years adjusting, we fall in love, we get our heart broken, we find our own subgrouping of queers to hang with. Once we are in, we are often in full time unless we are closeted. We tend to leave the straight world behind completely, at least at first, while we do so. I literally had no straight friends, or friends in opposite gender relationships, for many years. The coming out process is often fraught with drama and huge adjustments.
I was so isolated in my all-queer bubble for so many years that when I attended a house party hosted by a bi woman of my aquaintance a few years ago, populated mostly by straight people, I spent 30 minutes talking in a comeradely manner with a pleasant man who was complimentary, attentive and interesting. He was also undoubtedly trying to chat me up. I had zero clue that is what he was doing, because in my world for the previous 20 years, men only flirted with other men.
Men flirting with women was something I only saw on television and in movies (which I seldom saw), and had kind of forgotten was a thing. My friend noticed and pulled him aside to let him know I was a lesbian. Embarassed, he avoided me the rest of the night.
Bi women coming out
The coming out process with bi women tends to be different. Bi women often come out later in life. I’m not sure why, perhaps because the pressure to be with men isn’t intolerable for them, and because there aren’t a lot of out queer women remaining in the circles they hang out in if they are mostly living in straightsville. And there are just far fewer queer women available to date than there are straight men. Just as some lesbians come out as bi first and then come out again as lesbian, some bi women come out as lesbian first and then come out again as bi. This means that some newly out bi women are already acculturated to queer community, but most aren’t.
Lesbians who come out as bi first, sometimes do so (as I did) because they experience less stigma by not rejecting dating men entirely. My mother asked me to ‘keep my options open’ when I came out to her. Unlike many lesbians, bi women who come out do not need to completely renounce the straight world, and may still spend most of their time there. This is their choice. However it is sometimes going to result in them behaving in ways that read as straight, culturally, within queer contexts.
The kinds of men we hang out with and what we do with them are different
Straight men can be very yucky
A lot of lesbians choose to never hang out with men outside their workplaces and biological family or when we do, we only socialize with queer men. Straight men are something from an unpleasant past before we came out.
Straight men can be, well, you know, occasionally offensive to women, particularly to lesbians. The male partner of a queer woman I invited to a party at my home immediately approached me and my then girlfriend and told me in a smarmy voice that he’d been enjoying sexual fantasies about the two of us. I was too shocked to immediately throw him out of my house, so I put up with him until they left, but it made me wonder about the woman’s judgement both in dating such a creep and in bringing him to my home.
Lesbian Aversion to Hetero Sexuality
Being sexual with men is something most lesbians have done, under constant and often coercive pressure from straight culture, their parents, their religion, mass media, and every book and song and movie they ever saw before they came out. Sometimes it was fine, sometimes meh, and sometimes it was awful. Many women who went on to identify as lesbians, really didn’t like sex with men and never want to do it again (insert standard disclaimer about how, rarely and controversially, some women who occasionally sleep with men id as lesbians, but in general, this is true).
This is the thing many bi women have told me they didn’t know about lesbians: As a result many lesbians (insert NotAllLesbians disclaimer here) are at least somewhat squicked out by the idea of being sexual with a cis man. They may range from mild squick to being completely, viscerally, revolted. Many lesbians don’t want to hear about men in sexual contexts well, ever, but particularly inside the rare and special spaces they have set up for themselves to get away from the straightdom. As a result, lesbians often experience great distance in perspective from mainstream heteronormative culture as a whole and from straight and bi women. It is hard to emphasize enough how much impact this has on relationships between bi and lesbian women.
Hetero Passing Privilege or Not?
This is the thing I find lesbians and bi women disagree on most, and I don’t know a way around it.
All the lesbians I have talked to say, yes, of course a woman partnered with a cis man has hetero privilege, how is that even a thing that people think they don’t? Bi women can live a life free of structural discrimination with at least some of their partners, and studies show that most bi women partner with men most of the time. Many lesbians believe that bi women often have just not experienced the daily, pervasive, violent homophobia many lesbians have, and so are disregarding it’s impact when they say they have it worse.
Many of the bi women I have talked to say they have less privilege than lesbians because they are rejected by and often feel a need to be closeted in both the straight and queer communities, that bi community is virtually nonexistent, and that some studies indicate bi women are more likely to have negative health impacts than other queer women or straight women, at levels similar to closeted lesbians. They adamantly state that they have less privilege overall than lesbians because of this.
I don’t know what to do with this difference in reality other than point it out, and to point out that reasonable humans are known to hold either of these views.
The dreaded unicorn hunters #NotAllBiWomen
One unpleasant experience many lesbians and lots of bi women share is being approached for threesomes by male-female couples, sometimes referred to as unicorn hunters because their prey mostly doesn’t exist. Now, just as #NotAllMen sexually assault women, but #YesAllWomen have experienced some kind of intrusive sexual behaviour from men, only some bisexual women participate in this behaviour, but the majority of lesbians have experienced it from those busy (insert expletive here) unicorn hunting bisexual women who engage in it.
Asking a lesbian to sleep with a man is a dick move
Because of some of the factors above, this is extremely offensive to lesbians (as no doubt it is to non-hunting bi women too). Women in general are assumed to always be sexually available to men, and lesbians use the label ‘lesbian’ to indicate that we are not. Inviting a lesbian to participate in sexuality that involves men insults their identity as well as all the other layers, like objectification and fetishization of lesbians. This is particularly hard for femmes because they get told they aren’t ‘real lesbians’ and are often invisible as lesbians. Femme lesbians get hit on by men in the regular world all the time. They really, really don’t want that happening in queer spaces.
And it happens so often! Straight man/bi woman couples intrude on queer events to try and pick up, and hundreds of unicorn hunter couples message and post on each and every online dating platform that has queer women on it, completely objectifying queer women. They are the graphic viagra spam of the woman dating woman world. It’s offensive, culturally insensitive and intrusive on our spaces, and it is pervasive.
What to do?
So, in light of that offensive behaviour most lesbians have experienced from a small number of bi women, bi women need to kindly understand that attending a queer event with your male partner is likely going to be received with some thoroughly justified fear that you are ‘one of them’ and be poorly recieved. It will help if everyone there already knows you and know neither you or your partner have a double agenda.
Saying you are absolutely not a unicorn hunter and think it is gross will help. Similarly, a male partner who doesn’t want to piss everyone off should be on his best behaviour in queer spaces and scrupulously avoid any expressing sexual interest in anyone but you or a dude.
Call out/in your friends
Speaking up and calling in your bi women friends when they speak of finding a woman third for their mixed gender relationship** is an act of alliance with other queer women. Supporting such behaviour (outside of environments specificaly intended for it where people consent, like swingers spaces) is an act against us. This bullsh*t behaviour has to stop, and enabling it drives our communities apart.
We can all get along
The more I think about this and talk to women on both sides, the more I think that the way for us to ‘all get along’ is for bi women to understand some of these factors, and for lesbians to think of bi women with the same generosity we sometimes (but not always) extend to a newly out lesbian.
For Bi women
So if you’re a newly out bi woman – join a softball team, attend the potlucks, work for the causes, stand in the discomfort of being in a new and different culture, of being out, of being in a marginalized group, in the discomfort of not fitting in yet, not feeling accepted yet. I know it’s uncomfortable, but don’t ask these spaces to change to suit you until after you’ve put in significant time and can feel empathy for why it is the way it is.
Newly out lesbians go through the same thing
Recognize that newly out lesbians have this same experience too, and handle it the way they do. Put in the time until you feel you fit in. You will need to do this in every town, community or sub community you join, but it will get easier. Recognize that lesbian-centred spaces might not ever feel like they fit you completely, and resist biphobia the way lesbians resist lesbophobia, by building bi spaces that are specifically for you and other bi women. Form friendships with other bi women, have bi potlucks, build spaces that meet your needs as a bi woman completely.
Be culturally sensitive
Be sensitive to lesbian aversion to straight culture and man-woman sexuality based in an appreciation of the reasonable and justified place it comes from, even if you can’t relate. Saying ‘I love the person, not the gender’ may be true for you, but it’s not universal, and it’s not a sign of a narrow mind to only consider being sexual with women. You, of course, would never ever approach a queer woman for a threesome with a male partner**, but keeping in mind that women may be justifiably wary that you might, can help you to signal clearly that you aren’t about that.
If you’re a lesbian – welcome that newly out bi woman who is trying to swim in a new and very different pond, and remember how you felt first coming out and joining lesbian community. It was tough for a lot of us. It’s equally tough for her. Have some compassion. Draw a firm and agressive boundary with actual unicorn hunters, but don’t assume that a woman who has a male partners is one unless she says so.
Respect her differences
Get to know her and decide if she’s dateable after that, like you would with any woman. Don’t assume that she is really lesbian and just coming out – it denies her the agency to self-identify and make her own choices. That’s her business to sort out either way. If you’re worried she’ll never value you as a partner as much as someone with a higher income, more status, and of whom her mom will approve, in a relationship without systemic discrimination, recognize that entirely justified fear but weigh it against what you learn of her character and values, instead of dismissing her categorically. Bi women are rightly insulted at the implication they might cheat for any reason, as you would be too.
Understand if a new-to-community bi woman doesn’t yet get it, and hold space for her to do so. Understand that bi women are not straight women, and that they already understand a lot more than a straight woman ever will about what it is to be queer.
Thank you for considering these ideas with an open mind.
**outside of spaces like swingers clubs or dating sites expressly for this purpose.