Earlier this month, Cynthia Nixon, famed for her role on HBO’s Sex and the City, lost the race to become New York’s next governor. Had she won, she would have not only been the first female governor, but also the first lesbian to hold the position, as former New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn referred to Nixon.
But there lies a problem. Nixon isn’t necessarily a lesbian. On occasions the actress, married to a woman, has identified herself as bisexual.
After marrying her wife in 2008, Nixon has been dogged with questions and speculation about when she realized she was gay. But, up until this year, she’s been clear -- she’s not a lesbian. She has happily called herself gay, as many bi, pan, and queer women do, but has pointed out that she has always felt like being attracted to men and women was part of who she was, and that her attraction to her ex-boyfriend, who she was with for 15 years, had been genuine.
As quickly as the articles by prominent bi activists arrived to point this out, so did the articles claiming that acknowledging her bi identity would put her in a narrow box.
And that's how bi erasure tends to go. As Meg-John Barker pointed out in their best-selling book Queer: A Graphic History, “Bisexuality is rarely allowed to exist in the present.” Bisexuality is either seen as a futuristic state with no genders and labels, or it's seen as something binary and regressive. Never does it exist for its own sake.
— GLAAD (@glaad) February 6, 2017
For many people, perhaps including Nixon, their sexuality is fluid or undefined or they just hate labels. Some women use both lesbian and bi at different times in their lives, acknowledging that both and all the labels they've used have significance to them.
Nixon, married to Christine Marinoni since 2012, has only once called herself a lesbian publicly, in response to Quinn calling her an “unqualified lesbian.” After that, Nixon reclaimed the insult, enveloping it into her campaign. Other times she has called herself bisexual, but noted she doesn't often use the label because of the stigma attached to it. “I don’t pull out the ‘bisexual’ word because nobody likes the bisexuals,” Nixon told The Daily Beast in 2012. “Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals.”
So why is everyone so set on erasing her bi identity or claiming it's problematic to acknowledge it? It's no doubt related to the myths that perpetuate in popular culture. The idea that bi is a “stepping stone” to being gay was something heard on Nixon's own Emmy-winning show and, more recently, the series Faking It. In both cases, a nonbisexual character states that “bisexual is just a stopover on the way to gay town.”
Human rights lawyer Kenji Yoshino proposed that straight people erase bisexuality because it's existence makes it harder for them to prove their sexuality and gain access to the heterosexual privileges they feel entitled to. If it's possible to like more than one gender, then showing your attraction to the “opposite gender” by dating or marrying them does not immediately prove you aren't interested in others.
In his theory, gay people also have a stake in bi erasure as it facilitates an “us & them” narrative that allows the gay community to unite around a common enemy and protect their community from clearly defined outsiders.
In academia, bi erasure is explored under the umbrella of “monosexism.” In her book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Shiri Eisner defines monosexism as “the social system according to which everyone is, or should be, monosexual. Including social rewards for monosexual people and punishment against bisexual and other non-monosexual people.”
This doesn't mean that both gay and straight have the same systematic power over non-monosexuals. In fact, gay people have none. But their identity fitting into the binary structure of how sexuality is conceptualised in mainstream Western society means they have more visibility in society, and while that can exacerbate oppression, there's proof that this also comes with benefits that non-monosexuals don't have access to.
Bi people are less likely to come out, more likely to be mentally ill, more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped, more likely to live in poverty, be homeless, go hungry, and face long-term ill health than either gay or straight people.
The dreary numbers illustrate a struggling community that's fallen outside of the public's attention. That's why the erasure of Nixon's identity felt like adding an insult to the aforementioned injuries.
To call the accomplished actress and impressive campaigner possibly “the country's first lesbian governor” ignores all the times Nixon has used the label and reinforces the notion that "bisexual" is a less valid identity than "gay" or "lesbian."