Marriage Equality Could Worsen Bisexual Erasure

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On May 17, 2004, town clerks in Massachusetts, under order from then-Gov. Mitt Romney, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state was the first to do so in the country, sparking intense media coverage, including profiles of the pioneering gay, lesbian, and bisexual partners who said “I do” for the first time with a state’s blessing. 

Among the first to tie the knot and receive such coverage were Robyn Ochs and Peg Preble, who had been in a relationship for seven years before lining up at the Brookline City Hall to take part in history. The Washington Post wrote glowingly of the newlyweds on their special day, noting the motorcycle the couple sped off on with a “Just Married” sign attached to its back, as a “newfound blue was breaking through” the cloudy sky.

Yet the Post and many other major outlets mislabeled the couple, calling them a “lesbian pair.” Ochs, a scholar of gender and sexuality, identifies as bisexual, and the error marred the otherwise happy proceedings.

“I am happy to be grouped with lesbians. Queers too,” Ochs would later write in an essay titled “What’s in a Name.” “But it is important to me that I be seen in full: past, present, and potential future; internal and external, and that no part of me be obscured or erased.”

Over a decade later (and just last week), the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in marriage cases out of four states, consolidated under Obergefell v. Hodges, which may soon decide the fate of nationwide marriage equality. But this same problem Ochs vocalized, known more broadly as bisexual erasure, still exists. And it could get worse.

The terms “bisexual” and “bisexuality” were not mentioned once in the transcripts of these historic proceedings, which debated whether the U.S. Constitution permits an American to marry a partner of either sex, and whether states must recognize legal same-sex marriages from other states. In comparison, the word “gay” was mentioned 28 times in the first session of the oral arguments alone.

Mary Bonauto, an attorney speaking on behalf of all the combined plaintiffs, invoked the word in her opening remarks to argue for same-sex marriage.

“If a legal commitment, responsibility and protection that is marriage is off limits to gay people as a class, the stain of unworthiness that follows on individuals and families contravenes the basic constitutional commitment to equal dignity,” she said.

The mainstream media echoed this rhetoric in its coverage of the proceedings. The New York Times titled piece from its editorial board “A Landmark Gay Marriage Case at the Supreme Court,” and routinely favors “gay marriage” in lieu of "same-sex marriage" in its reporting. Politico, The Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, the Bloomberg news service, and the Chicago Tribune are just a few of the other major outlets that also favored “gay marriage” in headlines last week.

By framing the issue of marriage equality as a gay issue, are the media and courts lessening the aforementioned “equal dignity” of bisexual people? Does excluding bisexuals from the current conversation hurt the LGBT rights movement? And is it really a big deal to mislabel a person or a union when the larger issue of same-sex marriage is at stake?

The answer to these questions is yes, according to Faith Cheltenham, the president of BiNet USA, the nation’s largest bisexual advocacy group.

“The bisexual erasure that’s gone hand-in-hand with [marriage equality] has been devastating,” Cheltenham says. “It speaks to the lack of awareness that media professionals in mainstream magazines, newspapers, and blogs have about bisexual identities.”

Mislabeling LGBT people in the media can be harmful in many respects, Cheltenham says. It can affect the health and well-being of the entire LGBT community. Underreporting on the number of bisexual people — which estimates say may constitute more than half of the LGBT population — affects HIV rates in official government reports or youth suicides reported by national LGBT organizations or the number of tallied hate crimes.

Moreover, bi erasure in the media engenders biphobia, as it signals that bisexuals are not supported, affirmed, or important enough to warrant mention. This in turn perpetuates cycles of discrimination, depression, and suicide.

Thus, when nationwide marriage equality comes to the United States — as early as this year, by optimistic speculations — it will bring with it a flood of reporting and a corresponding deluge of opportunities for error. To help stem bi erasure and its consequences, Cheltenham offered tips for the media in its coverage, many of which are also outlined in BiNet USA’s media guide.

Overall, language is key. Cheltenham cautions against using terms “gay marriage” and “gay and lesbian couples,” especially in headlines.

“It causes a massive amount of mental stress … [and] sends the wrong message to the mainstream community that we are OK with the term ‘gay’ as an umbrella term,” she says. "Leave that particular branding in the dust. It’s really important to refer to the fight for marriage as ‘marriage equality.’”

Unsure of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity? Ask the individual and the couple how they would like to be identified in print, in order to avoid the “lesbian pair” error faced by Ochs and Preble.

“Same-sex couple,” not “gay couple,” should be the default language in cases when asking is not a possibility. And avoid defamatory terms such as “bi-curious” or “down low” and misspellings of bisexual like “bi-sexual” or “BiSexual.”

Also, when reporters refer to the LGBT population, Cheltenham recommends that they strive to spell the acronym out at least once, so that readers will see the word “bisexual.” President Obama made history when he did this in January, becoming the first president to say “bisexual,” “lesbian,” and “transgender” during a State of the Union — a major win for visibility, which would not have occurred if he had just said “LGBT.”

In addition to employing the appropriate language, the media can commit to making a greater effort at promoting bisexual visibility. An easy way to accomplish this would be to address the bisexuality of major public figures and celebrities. For example, Angelina Jolie’s bisexuality is almost never mentioned in the media, leading to missed opportunities for education. Some studies show that lesbian and bisexual women are at a higher risk for cancer, which was nearly absent from the public discussion that occurred when Jolie came out as high-risk for the illness and about her decision to undergo preventative surgery.

“I find that many bi and lesbian women don’t know the data about cancer,” Cheltenham says. “Is that something the marriage equality movement has also dismantled — this approach to LGBT health that is all-encompassing and all-inclusive?”

The marriage equality movement — in the courts as well as the court of public appeal — has been advanced largely by the argument of sameness. Or the “We're just like you, straight people!” argument, as Cheltenham terms it, even as HIV rates among young gay and bi men skyrocket, trans women of color face what advocates call an “epidemic” of murder, and employment discrimination remains a reality for all LGBT people.

In conversations with the media and among the different parts of the LGBT population, organizations should be unafraid to note the differences among the components. By doing so, they can more adequately address these issues in order “to see a fairer, more just world for everyone,” Cheltenham says.

In the meantime, conversations about bisexuality can also help the marriage equality movement. BiLaw, the first ever national organization of bisexual-identified lawyers, filed an amicus brief in support of the marriage equality cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the brief, BiLaw makes the excellent argument that bans on same-sex marriage “are, at their core, a form of sex discrimination. This discrimination is pervasive on the face of marriage statutes, which define marriage in terms of sex; moreover, sex discrimination is the most acute form of discrimination suffered by bisexuals because they are denied marriage rights only when they have fallen in love with someone whom their state views as the wrong person.”

In an op-ed for The Advocate, BiLaw says the amicus brief “argues that the legacy of bisexual erasure in LGBT rights litigation denies the sexual orientation of many plaintiffs before the court,” whose bisexual identities have not been reported by the media. The brief also points out that bisexual erasure “ignores the unique role that bisexual identities play in the court’s equal protection analysis.”

Chief Justice John Roberts employed this logic in last week’s oral arguments for same-sex marriage. “If Sue loves Joe and Tom loves Joe, Sue can marry him and Tom can’t. And the difference is based upon their different sex,” he reasoned. “Why isn’t that a straightforward question of sexual discrimination?”

Why isn’t it, indeed? 


Necessary But Dangerous: If the Supreme Court rules in our favor, not all of the effects will be positive. This is the fourth entry in The Advocate's special series that explores those possibilities. Find the previous entries here