It's the first day of Queermas and we couldn't be more excited here at Swords and Sapphics! From now until the 21st of December, you'll find new content every day, including author articles, interviews, and special episodes including some lovely guests.
We'll kick the celebration off with an article from The Mistletoe Connection author, Chelsea Pennington, who discusses the biphobia that still exists within media and tells us about her strive for positive bisexual representation in her own festive book, which features an entire cast of queer characters.
Without further ado...
Earlier this year, Netflix’s TV show Heartstopper, an adaptation of Alice Oseman’s graphic novel of the same title, quickly stole viewers’ hearts with its sweet depiction of two teenage boys realizing they have feelings for each other. Yet just a few months later in October, one of the stars of the show, Kit Connor, was forced to come out as bisexual when fans accused him of “queerbaiting” after photos surfaced of him holding hands with his female costar.
There are a lot of things that are problematic and harmful at play here: gatekeeping who belongs in the LGBT+ community, the twisted definition of “queerbaiting,” the belief that anyone owes other people details about their sexuality. But there is one toxic belief at the heart of it all: The idea that being in a relationship with someone of a different gender must mean you’re not part of the LGBT+ community.
Connor had previously said that he was comfortable with his sexuality, but didn’t want to label himself publicly. Yet when photos that suggested he might be in a relationship with a woman made their way across the internet, people quickly reacted with an assumption: He can’t be part of the LGBT+ community if he’s dating someone of a different gender.
This attitude is inherently biphobic, and dismisses and minimalizes the experiences of bisexual and pansexual people, not to mention transgender people and people on the asexual spectrum. And yet, the idea that the “real queer community” only includes people in same-sex relationships with people of the same gender is pervasive, from anthologies that claim to support the LGBT+ community but only accept submissions about people in same-sex relationships to phrases like “gold-star lesbian” or “hasbian.”
Too often, bisexuality is treated like the minor leagues of the LGBT+ community. It’s considered just a temporary phase, until they move on to being a real part of the community, aka gay. If someone stays in the minor leagues, there’s something inherently inferior about them. Or if they stop playing baseball altogether, they must not have liked it to begin with. I’m belaboring this metaphor (and also know virtually nothing about baseball), but you get the idea. Bisexual people are often accepted and celebrated when they’re in a same-sex relationship, but if they date someone of a different gender, their validity as a queer person is suddenly called into question.
Even the idea that biphobia is “watered-down homophobia” is extremely harmful. Attitudes that assume if someone is in a same-sex relationship, they must not “really be gay” or that being bisexual is just a pitstop along the journey of realizing you’re gay can deeply shake one’s confidence in their sexuality. Indeed, the bi experience of constantly switching between wondering “am I actually straight and calling myself bi to be cool” to “am I actually gay but calling myself bi because of internalized homophobia” has become a meme itself on the internet. This deeply ingrained insecurity about being bisexual doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s the result of constant, subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) messages that insist You don’t belong in the queer community if you’re not in a same-sex relationship.
And honestly? It breaks my heart to see the LGBT+ community be so exclusive, to practice such gatekeeping. It breaks my heart to see people talking about how they’re scared of being called “not queer enough” to write queer stories if they’re bisexual but dating someone of a different gender, or maybe have never been in a relationship with someone of the same gender, especially because I am scared that I’m going to be accused of that someday.
It’s why it’s so important to me to write bisexual characters with a range of experiences. In my holiday romance book The Mistletoe Connection, there is a bisexual woman named Kat who has her happily-ever-after with her guy best friend. Even though she ends up with a man, even though we don’t get specifics on her dating past and if she’s ever actually dated a woman, her identity as a bisexual person is still valid and made clear on the page. In my upcoming book Thorn In Her Side, one of the main characters is bisexual, but has only ever had a serious relationship with and slept with a man at the start of the book. Again, her identity as bisexual and belonging in the queer community is never questioned. I have always felt the importance of writing stories that feature bisexual characters who happily end up with a person of a different gender. When biphobic attitudes rear their ugly heads, the necessity of these stories is made even clearer, even as incidents like the one involving Kit Connor make it harder to believe that these stories will be accepted, much less celebrated.
I write bisexual characters in relationships with people of other genders because those relationships matter, they are valid, and they are just as deserving of belonging in the queer community as any other. We are always talking about how vital it is to have queer stories that end with happily-ever-afters and allow people to see themselves represented. But if the internet continually attacks people who have the experience of being bisexual and in a relationship with someone of a different gender, those people are not going to feel free to create stories about their experiences. And it will be a less accepting, less vibrant world without those stories in it.
Chelsea Pennington lives in Colorado with her husband and their dog, Pippin. Her first story was Pokémon fanfiction in kindergarten, and she's been writing fiction ever since. When she's not writing or reading, you can probably find her listening to podcasts or hiking outside. You can connect with Chelsea online at www.chelseapenningtonauthor.com or on Instagram at @_chelseawrites.