Bi Erasure, Straight-Passing, and Str8ness – Part 1


***If sharing this article, or the concept Str8ness/being Str8 as described here, please cite and credit Kshyama (that’d be me, the author), and link the blog where you found it (that’d be this one)***

I’ve seen this argument go around in circles over and over again, dressed up in a variety of spaces in many queer spaces. At its most dangerous, exclusive, and extreme ends, lie these two opinions:

  1. There is no such thing as straight-passing privilege for bi people because straight passing privilege erases bi identities and this constitutes violence to bi bodies. 
  2. Straight-passing privilege outweighs or overrides a bi person’s queer identity. 

We need to, as a community of bi-identified people, come together and unpack these opinions. 

We often, in our circles I’ve found, we’ve build amazing communities of support,  of bi-related issues. I am thankful for these sources of support. But at the same time, I’ve found that in some cases, out of a need for self-preservation and protection, we’ve clung too tightly, restrictively, and in a reactionary manner to the first point, especially when  we’re called out for straight-passing privilege, or when we hurtfully find ourselves unable to access queer spaces precisely because of biphobia. 

But so often, I’ve seen many of us respond that indeed, none of us have straight-passing privilege because this privilege is contingent on erasing a part of our queer and/or bisexual identities and that this constitutes violence. I don’t disagree that such erasure constitutes violence. But I also don’t think that such erasure necessarily negates the privileges that some bi folks get from being read as straight. But I also don’t think in any way that straight-passing privilege outweighs or invalidates our queer identities: straight-passing privilege/bi erasure  does create barriers to  finding support within hostile, biphobic, queer spaces, as well as hostile, queerphobic straight spaces. So here are some of my thoughts, all pulled together.

It’s my contribution, as a bi, desi woman, to bi discourse, to queer discourse, in a world hostile to bi folks *and* hostile to queer folks, that still happens to treat me differently because I pass as someone I am not. I am curious, in this essay, to ask when I pass, how I pass, and what or who exactly is it that I am passing as? In doing so, I arrived at, what is to my knowledge, a new conceptual tool to understand what exactly is happening in the context of erasure and passing privilege. I call this concept: str8ness, and I will be writing a series of posts on this term, and how it contributes to intersectional understandings of invisibility and passing privilege. 

  1. Str8ness, (and maybe str8-passing privilege) are intersectional experiences, and we must treat them as such. Str8(-passing?) privilege depends not only on a context of bi-erasure,  but also of transphobia/cissexism, as well policing of gender expressions.
    Just as “queer” is sometimes an umbrella term (which also has its flaws) for non-normative genders *and* sexual orientations, I propose, tentatively, that str8tness operates in a similar way, that encompasses, or intersects with, to a certain degree, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, and “normative gender presentation privilege”, whatever that may be. For me, it means presenting as femme. Maybe we need another term, not straightness, but perhaps str8ness for this phenomenon, which I’m going to only describe as the following: Societal norms of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation contribute to “str8”-(passing) privilege in complex and intersecting ways.  I’ve only listed 3 axes through which str8 privilege could operate on, but there well may be 8 or more. And as a parallel for queer(ed) identities, consider: bisexual orientation, trans identity and asexual identity are 3 different axes. 

    I don’t know how useful this term could be but it might be useful in trying to explore this phenomenon. Str8-passing privilege happens because of normative scripts in our society that tell us what “str8ness” is. Often, this  means a heterosexual, monogamous couple where both partners are cisgender, and express their genders in a normatively-sanctioned manner. When queer people exist in relationships, in public, that do not fit this norm of “str8tness” in any way, they are read as queer in a way that marginalizes them, and puts them at risk for violence and harm. And similarly, when queer people exist in relationships, in public, that do fit this norm of str8tness, our identities risk being co-opted by discourses of str8ness.At first glance, this might seem to be a conflation of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. But this is precisely my point: Unlike straightness, str8tness, I’m learning, in our society is  not just a question of sexual orientation-  If I was more butch in my gender expression, I’d be read as queer, not str8t, no matter how bi I remained. As it happens, I know my femme appearance certainly contributes to how str8 I’m read, even when I’m not with a man in public. (And certainly, when I am in public with a man, I personally  experience straight-passing privilege as well. But I can completely understand if a butch bi woman with a man does not experience straight-passing privilege if she does not pass as straight!)  So how can I possibly fairly argue that my gender expression not be contributing to this degree of str8-passing privilege? If I actually argue that I do not experience str8 passing privilege, I am choosing to equivocate between my experiences as a bi femme woman and those of a bi butch woman – and worst of all, I risk arguing that I do not experience str8t-passing privilege because she doesn’t, and that our experiences are the same.(A philosophical question here that just occurred to me is: Do I have str8 privilege or str8-passing privilege? A part of me, uncomfortable as I am about this, feels that I actually access str8 privilege directly due to my gender presentation (but never straight-privilege, and only straight-passing privilege which I only gain when with a man in public due to the heterosexual connotations of our visibility as a “straight-looking couple”)
  2. Straight-passing privilege depends on a context of erasing sexual orientation, such as bisexuality.
    Str8(-passing?) privilege depends on a context of erasing/co-opting queer expression, identity, and orientation.
    These are not opposite concepts, but interrelated ones.  

    We cannot ever ignore the fact that bi people, when read as straight, and not as bisexual, are having a part of our sexual orientation and identity go unrecognised, unacknowledged. Not everyone who is bi experiences straight passing privilege, however. Str8(-passing) privilege can happen for some bi people, depending on many other factors (see point 1); when read as str8,  we are explicitly safer from some forms of violence such as physical, verbal, or sexual harm as compared to other queer folks, including folks who may also be bi or trans or present in other ways, who do not pass as str8. If I did not acknowledge this privilege, I would be equivocating between my particular, local, bi experience, and other queer people’s, and I’d be pretending that they are the same. A trans straight person may not access str8 privilege due to a lack of cisgender privilege, and being at risk of transphobic violence. While they may have straight privilege, they may not have str8(-passing) privilege. At the same time, str8(-passing) privilege does occur in a context of queer erasure, which itself is a form of violence. I can, and do, argue that my femme expression is queer because I am queer, and this is  my expression. However, str8 discourse co-opts my expression to such an extent that I am literally safer in some clear ways due to this gender presentation which is simply a part of str8ness. Therefore Str8 privilege occurs precisely because my way of existing as  femme is not recognised by str8 people or by many queer people as legitimately queer, and this is violent to a particular form  of queer gender expression.
    The complexity lies in how femininity is constructed by Str8 heteropatriarchy and how femme is constructed by queer circles but in terms of presentation, often overlap and,  because in mainstream spaces, heteropatriarchal constructs of identity/presentation are valued more than queer identities/presentations, we find, in particular, bi femme cis women a lot of the time are quite helplessly invisibilised – it’s important to note that this is not so much an active conforming-to-Str8ness as having a queer (re)presentation not being read *as legitimately queer* by queer people and by straight people alike. This is one way in which accessing Str8ness can erase one type of queer identity.What is important to remember here however, is that this erasure is not the only form  of violence. Indeed, if I was read as queer and/or as bi, I would undoubtedly be at risk of more sexual, physical, and verbal violence from straight and queer people alike.

What does this conceptutally mean for invisibility, erasure, and the heated arguments that I see circulating in our queer communities? What does it mean to actually be (accessing) str8(-passing privilege) in some ways, and still be queer or bi? How can we meaningfully discuss erasure as well as straight-passing privilege, without minimizing access,  services, support, and community for bi people? Can Str8-passing privilege even exist, as I’ve tried to articulate here, or is it a question of accessing a particular kind of privilege based on how one is read? I will be exploring these concepts in future posts!

For further reading on related issues, please see On “Privilege” and Identity-Based Models of Oppression 

 

 

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