Earlier this week I interviewed one the UK’s most prominent bisexual activists, Marcus Morgan, founder of The Bisexual Index and Teaching the Difference. I wanted to find out what factors had been important for him in developing a sense of wellbeing and confidence in his bisexuality over the years.
Our conversation covered topics such as bisexual identity and community, coming out, and the importance of engaging with other bisexual people.
Here are some of the highlights from the interview:
How did you come to identify as bisexual?
Marcus Morgan: When I was a teenager I was gay, I wasn’t attracted to women at all. So, the big priority for me was to move away from my family and community, and find a larger setting to explore my sexuality and the gay scene in the UK. When I went to university I joined the gay society and started going out in London, and I met my first boyfriend, who I went out with for about two years. I also moved into shared accommodation with other people from the gay community.
I started to find that I was having very strong feelings towards some of my female friends. It wasn’t something that I acted on at the time, as I was clear then that I was gay, and my friends were lesbians. I tentatively discussed it with one friend on one occasion. This led me to feel that something had changed. It wasn’t that I’d had a revelation about something that I’d been all along, or I’d found a side of myself I’d been suppressing. I’d been quite happy being gay. I very much enjoyed the community, the pubs and clubs in London in the early 1990s. But I was now finding out a different part of myself.
I thought that if I am bisexual, then I need to meet other bisexual people, I need to find out how they see their sexuality. I contacted a large lesbian and gay phone service, and told them I was looking for a bisexual group. The person on the other end of the phone gave me the details of a group in London, and then he said to me, ‘I feel obliged to ask, are you sure you’re bisexual? Because a lot of people come out as bisexual as a stepping stone to coming out as gay. Wouldn’t it just be easier for you to come out as gay first?’. I was taken aback by this and I said ‘Well, I’ve already come out as gay, I’ve been gay for nearly 10 years!’. He said, ‘Oh, well maybe you’re going in the opposite direction then and it could be a stepping stone to being straight for you.’ Anyway, he gave me all the details for the group. Now it’s nearly 25 years later, and I’m still bisexual!
Six months later I plucked up the courage to go to the bisexual group. It took me a while to build up the confidence to go because I was expecting the people at the group to be incredibly comfortable about their sexuality, and thought they might look down on someone who was uncertain. I didn’t have a mental image of what the people would be like, as there wasn’t really any imagery of bisexual people to hang onto at the time.
I went along to the bisexual group, and the person who opened the door was someone from my university gay society! ‘Hi Marcus, so, you’re bisexual too I guess!’, he said. It was the most amazingly warm welcome, because it was someone I already knew. It was just an amazing coincidence. It really made an impression on me about how spaces can be welcoming. One of the things I’ve always tried to do, when I’ve welcomed people to bisexual groups myself, is greet them like they’re old friends who you’re meeting for the first time. I know how terrifying it can be to go for the first time, not knowing what to expect.
What advice would you give to someone who thinks they might be bisexual and are unsure what to do?
I would say find other bisexual people, particularly other bisexual people who are like you and talk to them. Not necessarily about bisexuality, just talk to them. Have the experience of it not being an issue. When I say ‘talk to’, I don’t necessarily mean face to face, it can be instant messenger or commenting on blogs, or tumblr or twitter, or whatever.
The most useful thing you can do is find somewhere that’s home for you. For me BiCon [the UK bisexual conference] is like how I think Christmas is supposed to be. All the family gets together for a big meal and a bit of a party. It’s my bisexual community getting together. Find a bisexual group by contacting an organisation like BiUK or Bisexuals of Colour or BiNet USA. Go along to a meeting or local group. If you’re ok about going to a gay event, go to your local Pride, and find the Bi Stall or Bi group, and just try being bisexual on. Not worrying about it. Just saying, ‘I’m bisexual, that’s ok’. You don’t need to have a detailed talk about what it means yet, you could do that later. Just try accepting it, and finding a space where it can be accepted.
On defining bisexuality
When we set up The Bisexual Index in 2009, there wasn’t anywhere on the internet that set out an easy, understandable definition of bisexuality that people could look at and say ‘that seems to apply to me’. We provided a definition, that a bisexual is someone who is attracted to more than one gender. People can try it out for size. If you like it you can keep it, if you don’t that’s fine.
Back then, if you went to the big gay organisations like Stonewall, they didn’t really define bisexual, or, if they did, they used very convoluted definitions. They’d say things like ‘bisexuality is a fluid attraction towards men and women that can be sexual and/or romantic’. The problem with that is they’d never give such a wordy description for being gay, and it made bisexuality this complicated thing. And if bisexuality’s complicated, then how can you be sure you’re bisexual? And if no one can be sure, then suddenly there’s no bisexuals anymore! I don’t think that’s a deliberate act on the part of the gay organisations, though I’m aware that other people do. I think it’s more about complete unfamiliarity, and that’s why it’s always better for people within a community to define the labels of that community.
– One of the great advantages that bisexual activism has over, say, pansexual activism is that people have already heard of the word ‘bisexual’. So, if someone’s thinking, ‘I’m attracted to 99 girls and Billy in my woodwork class, does that mean I’m bisexual? Am I bisexual?’, we give them a definition as a mirror they can look in. Perhaps they can see their reflection, and say ‘yes, it makes sense, I’ll use that’. We’re very clear on saying to people that it’s not about being 50-50 or simultaneously or currently attracted to more than one gender. It’s about being attracted to more than one. Which is a broad scope, and people can see themselves reflected in that, I hope.
On identifying as bisexual & the importance of labels
One of the things people often say to me in Q&A sessions after I’ve given a talk, is ‘don’t you think we should just get rid of labels?’. I can see that someone who’s confident about their sexuality and has a community and all their friends in place might want to stop being what they perceive as political about it, but labels are absolutely vital when you’re trying to find where you belong in the world. You’ve got to be able to see who is like me, who can I talk to about this stuff, without it being a big thing.
So when people say ‘we should move beyond labels’ or ‘label jars, not people’, I say ‘label yourself’, then find other people who label themselves, then compare labels. Then you can find people who are on the same page as you. If we ignore labelling, then how can we monitor inequality, for example? If we’re not using labels then we’ve no chance.
On bisexual erasure and changing society
People don’t see bisexuality. We sometimes talk about bisexual invisibility which is useful, but it’s not as useful as talking about bisexual erasure. Bisexual invisibility is something that bisexuals need to fix about ourselves; bisexual erasure is something society needs to fix about itself. The weight isn’t on bisexuals to be more visible, because the people who are out there being visible bisexuals are a tiny fraction of the number of people who are bisexual.
It’s far more useful if we can get people to stop assuming that everyone’s either gay or straight. We shouldn’t need to wear a purple T-shirt or a ‘nobody knows I’m bisexual’ badge for people to realise that maybe Bob in the office who’s mentioned that he was out with Jean last week and John this week isn’t talking about his brother, maybe he’s talking about a male partner, and a female partner, maybe he’s bisexual.
– All the surveys suggest there are more bisexuals than lesbian or gay people, but our society is so good at erasing bisexuality and only seeing people as gay or straight that we just don’t know the majority of bisexual people out there. So promoting inclusive definitions, giving people a chance to see themselves reflected in that; having open and welcoming bisexual spaces…these are small things we can do to turn the tide.
On the importance of the bisexual community
I think bisexuality’s really simple. Bisexuality is not something that people agonise over once they get into a community where bisexuality is seen as something that’s simple and you can just be, and get on with it.
– I’ve had very little cause in the last two decades to doubt or be uncertain about who I find sexually attractive. When I came out as bisexual and joined the bisexual community, I was immediately welcomed into a supportive group of people who were of very similar outlook and age to me. I was going to my first Bicon within 6 months of first attending a bisexual group. I was writing for bisexual newsletters by then. I’ve been lucky and privileged that the sort of things I was looking for in a social group were pretty much precisely the things the bisexual community at the time was providing. I had a very soft landing into bisexuality and I’ve not really had any need to question it or doubt it.
Marcus Morgan is founder and coordinator of The Bisexual Index, an activist network raising awareness of bisexuality and the issues that affect bisexual people. He is also an equality and diversity trainer specialising in bisexual engagement and inclusion. His clients include major international companies, government departments and NGOs. He was an author of the Open University’s 2012 Bisexuality Report, and has written on bisexuality for The Guardian and various LGBT publications.