In Western society, we love binaries. Whether we’re talking about gender (man/woman), sexuality (straight/gay), race (white/black), or even pets (dog/cat), we love being able to sort things as either one thing or the other with no in-between. It makes everything simpler. If you aren’t one thing, then you’re the other, and that’s that. Easy. However, this kind of thinking provides no room in the middle for those who don’t quite fit into one category or the other. As a result, anything from confusion to derision can be directed at someone who occupies this middle space.
Consider bisexuality. (After all, last week was Bisexuality Awareness Week.) For a variety of reasons (including the sexuality binary mentioned above), a number of negative stereotypes exist about bisexual people. Those who identify as bisexual are often judged by others as being straight people who are “just experimenting”—the assumption being that they will give up this sexually-deviant behavior and come back to the “right” side (heterosexuality). This is especially true for bisexual women, who are often fetishized by straight men for their attraction to women, and not because of sexual equality. Being attracted to both men and women is seen by some as being “greedy” and sexually promiscuous as well as deviant. Similarly, according to these types of stereotypes, a person who identifies as bisexual is “actually gay” and won’t (or can’t) admit it. Many in our society with this heteronormative gaze apply this stereotype to bisexual men. All of these stereotypes paint bisexuality as deviant and characterize the bisexual as being “unable to choose” who they are attracted to.
When someone identifies as bisexual and they are dating someone of the opposite gender, they may be told or made to feel that they aren’t “queer enough” to be part of the LGBTQI movement. Being in this kind of relationship may also lead to accusations of denying their sexual orientation or cause the bisexual person to feel that they are “repressing” any homosexual leanings they may have. It can be difficult to express one’s attraction to more than one gender when in a monogamous relationship; many bisexuals may feel compelled to “prove” themselves in LGBTQI groups or gatherings. As such, some people may choose not to identify as bisexual to avoid the whole discussion, thinking it easier to just identify as straight or gay.
All of these stereotypes and negative perceptions result in something I call the Schrodinger’s Closet, a derivation of “Schrodinger’s Cat” that refers to a mind experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. The hypothetical experiment involved placing a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison. The part of the experiment that matters for our purposes here is that, as long as the box remains sealed, the cat is both alive and dead. (For a more thorough explanation of the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, see the Telegraph article below.) Even someone who has never taken a physics class can tell you that it is impossible for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time.
Let’s do another thought experiment. Imagine a bisexual person. The gender of this person is not relevant, so I’ll use a gender-neutral name and pronouns. Let’s call them Sam. Sam is not in a relationship. As such, Sam is both gay and straight, in a sense. (That is, they are attracted both to people of the same gender and of the opposite gender.) However, if we apply society’s sexuality binary, Sam should not exist. It is not possible to be both gay and straight: you are either one or the other. In the same way that we want to know if Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead, we, as a society, want to know if Sam is gay or straight. We are not willing to accept that they are attracted to people of both genders. Thus, as a society, we socially impose Schrodinger’s Closet and sort people as either gay or straight, depending on what type of relationship they are in or what gender they are more attracted to.
Several close friends who identify as bisexual have expressed feelings of frustration with these negative stereotypes and perceptions. They have also found Schrodinger’s Closet frustrating: if they are in a “straight” relationship, even if they feel happy and satisfied with their partner, they sometimes feel that they aren’t “queer enough” or that they “don’t count” as a member of the LGBTQI population. At the same time, if they were to date someone whose gender identity matches their own, they fear being ostracized or questioned from family or other friends who might “think they’re gay now.” Schrodinger’s Closet can also be inherently frustrating when in a monogamous relationship, since the bisexual person may feel that they can’t fully express their sexuality. As established, much of the negative perceptions around bisexuality come from our society’s inability to understand (or try to understand) anything that doesn’t fit within our predetermined binaries. Schrodinger’s Closet is a result of that. It’s no wonder that, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, only twenty-eight percent of bisexuals have “come out” to important people in their lives. By contrast, seventy-seven percent of gay men and seventy-eight percent of lesbian women have come out.
Interestingly, though, an increasing number of millennials—up to thirty percent according to a poll in 2011 by YouGov—identify as bisexual or not exclusively attracted to one gender. The friends I mentioned earlier are all millennials, and among people my age, being or knowing someone who identifies as bisexual is a pretty common thing. As attitudes about gender and sexuality change, perhaps more and more people will find themselves able to be who they are without fear of being characterized as a deviant or a fake. Bisexuals are only one group of people who are marginalized because they occupy the middle space between the binary. Society imposes a number of closets on people who cross gender, sexual, or racial binaries. We must take strides to remove the hinges from Schrodinger’s Closet rather than locking people inside of it.