We Do Exist!: Anna Paquin, Bisexual Invisibility, and Internalized Heterophobia

by: Raechel T

Every campus organization at the University of Minnesota has the opportunity to advertize by painting a block on the bridge that connects our East Bank campus to the West Bank campus. Most blocks just have the names of the organizations, with directions to their website, and meeting times, but some get more creative. Obviously, the queer groups’ images are always eye-catching and fabulous. I was specifically excited by the painting done for Biversity, the organization for bisexual students: an image of a unicorn, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster are displayed next to the words “We Do Exist!”

This made me giggle, but also spoke to me in a very real way. As a person who has dated, loved, and been physically intimate with men, women, and various genders in between, I have experienced the challenges of living in a society that prefers binaries. In fact, it’s my disdain of binaries that makes me reject the label of “bisexual”—-as noted above, I’ve dated more than just “men” and “women.” But I don’t need the label to understand the issues: whether I identify as “queer” (which I do) or “bisexual,” most people would prefer an easier explanation.

As a queer woman who is in a long-term, committed relationship with a cisgender male, I have always felt a certain kinship with actress Anna Paquin. In 2010, Paquin came out as bi in a public service announcement. When the PSA was released, she was dating her True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer, to whom she is now married (and expecting a baby). I remember hearing that and thinking it was really great that she felt it important to make salient an identity that is rendered invisible through her current relationship. As Paquin recently said in an interview with Zooey magazine, “If you’re going to talk about some cause in a way that’s meaningful, you should identify why it means something to you.”

In the same interview, Paquin states, “It’s not being greedy or numerous other ignorant things I’ve heard at this point. For a bisexual, it’s not about gender. That’s not the deciding factor for who they’re attracted to.”

I appreciate Paquin’s attempt to refute the “numerous…ignorant things” that are said about bisexuals (and there are plenty), but my personal experience as person attracted to more than one sex differs from hers: it is about gender. It’s not about sex, but it’s definitely about gender, and the performance of gender. As a woman with deep attachments to a working-class femme identity, I am consistently attracted to masculinity. Whether that masculinity takes shape in a cisgender man, a woman, or a transman, makes no difference. But this disparity in how Paquin and I understand our sexuality just highlights that there is no one way to be a queer person.

It’s this truth—that being queer looks really different for everyone—that I tend to forget in my daily life. I struggle with a bit of internalized “heterophobia,” if you will. I feel so whole in queer spaces—sharing inside jokes about The L Word, using in-group terms (no, I don’t feel like explaining flagging to straight people, thank you very much), dancing whenever possible—queers are my people. And I’d be lying if I said I’ve never, consciously or not, avoided disclosing the fact that I’m in a heterosexual relationship.

I’ve done a lot of reflecting on this, and have come to realize that I’m doing a disservice to everyone by acting as though my straight relationship somehow makes me less “authentically queer.” In addition to the fact that those ideas run counter to anti-essentialist understandings of queer identity, my negotiation of this has been deeply hurtful to my partner. We have an amazing relationship—he is the love of my life!—and acting as though I was embarrassed of it is something I regret immensely.

Diminishing the importance of my relationship is also disrespectful to my queer community. Although there are certainly times that queerworlds should be inhabited only by queer folks, to assume that my queer family couldn’t handle my straight partner doesn’t give them the credit they deserve. It’s been a long process trying to figure out how to be a queer person in a straight relationship, but slowly and surely I’m working through it, and am very grateful to have both my queer community and my wonderful partner. Sometimes he joins me in queer spaces, and sometimes he doesn’t. Fortunately I finally realized that no matter what, I’m always queer, and he’s always my partner.

What people like Anna Paquin and I do have to acknowledge is that although we suffer from “invisibility” we also carry with us a huge amount of privilege. Passing as straight gives queers and bisexuals in seemingly heterosexual relationships access to a whole host of things to which same-gender-loving queers do not have access. Marriage, of course, is one of those, and my awareness of passing-as-straight privilege is a one of the (many) reasons that my partner and I decided not to get formally hitched (but we are going to have a pretty epic “commitment party”!).

I’m not trying to judge Paquin for getting married, or for being a breeder—I don’t think she’s setting back the fight for queer rights by participating in wedlock or procreation. (And, because, really, if we’re talking about using privilege, we should probably start with addressing Whiteness and class status, which probably help her out a lot more than her ability to get turned on by penis). On the contrary, I think it’s really great that Paquin has made the decision to remain so vocal about her sexuality, regardless of her current relationship. Doing so helps refute one of those other annoying assumptions about bisexuals: “It’s just a phase.”

Sure Paquin ended up with a man, but she still identifies as bi, which means that her past relationships with women weren’t “experiments.” Remaining steadfastly “bisexual” (or queer) tells the world that sexual fluidity is a real, lasting, important part of our being, regardless of who we’re currently fucking and loving.

Raechel T is a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include: critical media studies, queer studies, rhetoric, critical pedagogy, and the labor movement. She’s a long-time labor activist and a full-time cat lady. You can read more of Raechel’s thoughts at rebelgrrlacademy.wordpress.com, and you can follow her adventures with vegan food and healthy living at rebelgrrlkitchen.wordpress.com.

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15 responses to “We Do Exist!: Anna Paquin, Bisexual Invisibility, and Internalized Heterophobia

  1. It was not until I took a queer studies class that I realized that I was fully a part of the queer community, not just there part time, as other LG people wanted me to believe. This article too was empowering, I feel like I have to come on sooner about my male partner. Queer love!

  2. heterophobia is as real as black people being racist against white people – it doesn’t exist.

    sure, queer folk can say some straight up hateful shit on het people, or those perceived to be het, but is that oppression or resistance? are you supposed to take it personal? we can’t deny what systemic oppression lies above and around us.

    i’m sure it’s discomforting for people with straight privilege to be around that. however, it’s always discomforting for me, as a trans woman, usually no matter where i am, what i’m doing, when i’m out with another woman holding hands, being stared at… all the fucking time.

    i find it difficult to empathize with the plight of queer people who are cis and appear to be straight. invisibility sucks, but violent reaction toward seeing gay and/or trans couples…. i’m going on a limb to say that it’s worse.

    i appreciate the privilege-check that you give but it falls short of expressing the magnitude of privilege and oppression that these relationships have in our society.

    • “heterophobia is as real as black people being racist against white people – it doesn’t exist” ? My dad (a black man) is a racist, he hates others based on their ethnicity, which yes is influenced by his experience of racism but it is not from a place of resistance. Hate is not the same as resistance. Resistance is fighting for your own rights against those who would hold you down, not hating others for characteristics that they cannot control. Hate individuals if you must, but please do not extend that hate to cover all people of a group or you are just propagating the problem. We cannot help whether we are born queer, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, polysexual, black, white, brown, beige, rich, poor, male, female, transgender, transexual, intersex or any of the catagories out there. We need to fight for all PEOPLE to love and be loved, and to be who they are, where they are without discrimination. Because that is the only way every person will be able to walk down the street holding the hand of their loved one(s) without someone getting their jimmiess rustled.

  3. It’s one thing to express your own particular plight and work to educate people about it, but to go from that to comparing who’s plight is worse as a means to invalidate another is pathetic.
    Nobody understands what it takes to be in your shoes but yourself.

    And seriously, “straight privilege”?
    Bloody socialism making everything a class struggle…

  4. Um, I’m bisexual and can tell you it’s not about gender for me. It’s making generalisations like yours that make posts like yours necessary…watch your words and only speak to your own perceptions, not mine.

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  6. Hi everyone! Thanks for all the comments. I’m so sorry that my use of “heterophobia” came off as ignorant. I meant to use it lightly and tongue-in-cheek, which is why I “danger quote” it. I don’t believe reverse racism exists, and I don’t believe queers have the privilege to oppress straight folks via sexuality (although there are certainly examples of wealthy white queers making decisions that oppress poor folks and people of color, straight or LGBTQ). I definitely didn’t intend to imply that heterophobia is some real thing that straight people should feel victimized by.

    @Zoe: I’m sorry that you felt I implied that bisexuals always care about gender. I was pointing out that for Ms. Paquin, she doesn’t, and for me, I do, so I was hoping to illustrate that bisexuality/queerness is different for everyone.

    Thanks for the feedback!

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  8. >> Paquin came out as bi in a public service announcement.

    I had such a flash of the bizarre and surreal from that sentence:

    “The right two lane of the 405 will be closed from 3 to 5:30,
    If you need help with prescription drug dependency contact al-Anon,
    and Anna Panquin is Bi.”

    I guess I am just too hopelessly old fashioned.

    Well, The More You Know.

  9. I am a lesbian. I know alot of people don’t like labels anymore, but I do. Its simple and I like simple. I know many bisexuals and think they absolutely exists. However, I vowed a long time ago that I would never date a bisexual woman. It had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I know that I have insecurities that would make it difficult for me to be comfortable in relationship with a bisexual woman and that wouldn’t be fair to either of us. I think a big reason on why I feel this way is because all but one bisexual person I know has ended up with the opposite sex. They’ve all dated men and women, but in the end they have all married the opposite sex. And I can’t think of any well known bisexuals that have ended up with a same sex partner in a marriage or long term commitment. It may sound like a silly reason but in my mind , if was with a bisexual woman, I would always think that one day I won’t be enough.

  10. I appreciate this writing immensely. I am a recently out bisexual woman and I am more than aware that I will face suspicion and possibly even ostracism from both heterosexuals and homosexuals. It really is this constant pull between being invisible (passing for either gay or straight) and constantly having to defend your identity to everyone. The fact is that biphobia is quite real and comes from both “sides.”

    I appreciate also people like @Kate above who own their feelings and preferences about bisexuality rather than trying to make those issues a reflection on bisexuals. People have their preferences and there is nothing wrong with that. Still, I would say to you though that there are many reasons why bisexual folks often end up partnered long-term with the “opposite” sex and many have nothing to do with you or your not being enough for them.

    The fact that homophobia is still rampant and marriage equality is not the norm are obvious reasons. Some people want to be married and while they may be happy in a marriage with a person of either sex, the reality is that they’re not really permitted that option. Part of it is just a numbers game. The pool of straight people is usually much larger than the pool of queer folks or any orientation. Another reality is that many monosexual gays and lesbians will not consider relationships with bisexuals for whatever their reason. This will naturally limit the already limited opportunities of bisexuals to form long-term same sex relationships. Also, prejudice against bisexuals being what it is among both gays and straights, some people who are actually bisexual choose to identify as gay when they are in a long-term same sex relationship the same way many will choose to say they are straight when they are in an “opposite” sex relationship. I know more than one “gay” person who is actually a closeted bisexual. Until bisexuals feel free to maintain their unique identity apart from their partner’s gender, it will really be difficult to ascertain how many end up in same sex or different sex relationships because you will have people who switch labels to avoid judgement.

    Not that any of that can or should change anyone’s ideas about who they should or should not date but it is something to consider.

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