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Visible and vocal – a post for Bi Visibility Day 2022

IMG_4646(Edited)I haven’t posted anything of substance for two months but today is Bi Visibility Day all over the world and a milestone in my world, as the first time I’ve marked the occasion as an openly bisexual person.

It’s also significant because a tweet thread by literary agent Abi Fellows on this day last year inspired me to come out publicly the way she has. I already admired and respected Abi – who has since become a wonderful friend – for her openness about embracing her bi identity in midlife, but her words a year ago made me realise how much it matters, to the LGBT+ community and society in general, to see bi people out in the world, getting on with our lives like anyone else. I’m not a fan of cute sayings but two spring to mind: one is you can’t be what you can’t see (well, you can but it’s a lot harder and lonelier) and the other is be the change you want to see.

Witnessing Abi and others be brave enough to do this made me want to do it but that wasn’t the only reason. As an author passionate about representation – my home territory being older women and female sexuality – it felt untenable for me not to be open about who I am in my own life*.  But there are boundaries – none of us have to provide context, explanation or the lowdown on our private life as evidence. If someone tells me who they are, I take their word for it.

In sharing my decision and experience of coming out and being visible (which are not the same thing generally but closely linked in my case), it’s important to emphasize that these issues are different for everyone. It’s a uniquely personal and vulnerable situation; there is no right or easy way to do it, or not. Above all, nobody should feel shamed or pressured – you don’t have to be out or visible to be valid. I am acutely conscious of the social, economic and legal privileges that have made this an option for me where for many others it would be unthinkable.

The need for awareness-raising days like today is often questioned, usually from the standpoint of whatever the dominant majority is (hetero, white, etc). As it happens, bisexuality is particularly prone to invisibility and erasure, allowing the stigma and discrimination around it to go unchecked, which in turn makes it more difficult to come out (most bi people don’t). I’ve thought a lot about where the harmful stereotypes come from: fear of difference, the fact (we’ll admit) that bisexuality is difficult to get your head round, ignorance and deeply rooted social conditioning.

I am not going to dwell too much on these on a day of celebration. As this is a book blog, it’s the perfect moment to mention a ground-breaking book by psychologist Dr Julia Shaw which came out earlier this year: Bi – The hidden culture, history and science of bisexuality. This is by far the most validating and illuminating work I’ve read on the subject (and I’ve read tons) and to see it get so much mainstream coverage feels radical. If you have even the faintest interest, or (challenging you here) negative views about bisexuality not based on experience or proximity, I strongly recommend that you read it.  For a start, Julia corrects the frequent misconception that bi means men or women when it means same or other. And she points out that many of the charges levelled at bi people concerning relationships, sexual behaviour, etc, are equally (ir)relevant in the general population. We’re all human first, and humans are complicated, conflicted – and fascinating.

The last year has been an absolute revelation, changing the way I think and feel about almost everything, from myself to other people to the world in general. A few examples: I’d never noticed (of course I hadn’t) the presumption of heterosexuality in everyday life until I had to fight it. My experience of shifting sexuality, which had felt so isolating and confusing, is far from uncommon in women – a reason in itself to talk about it. A surprising number of women have casually (or perhaps not!) told me they’ve had sex with other women or want to, and there are way far more people who privately reject the strictures of social convention than I would ever have imagined.

Sticking your head above the parapet is another matter.

My younger son, who’s 20, asked what it was like for me coming out. (Seriously, the conversations I’ve had…) I’m not going to repeat our private discussion but I will give you an honest answer now. Having the freedom to own my identity and accept who I really am in every dimension has changed my life.  It’s brought me intense joy – and pain, but I think those go together in any situation you show up to with your whole heart. It’s brought me extraordinary new people, friendships, experiences and a sense of belonging I might never have known. It has deepened my connection with my long-term partner and many friends I’ve known for years. I’m immensely grateful for the support and empathy I’ve received from so many people and especially to those like Abi and Julia and author Julie Cohen whose bi visibility has helped me to claim mine. Circling back to phrases, paying it forward sets my teeth on edge but I love the principle. I know for a fact that my decision to be visible has helped other bi/queer people because they’ve told me so.

The only line I recall verbatim from Abi’s tweets last year? Bisexuality is beautiful. It is. We are. Sending love and solidarity to everyone in this community – wherever you’re at with all this, I see you.

*You can read here how it took writing my novel Scent about a middle-aged bi woman to make me realise I am one – and you can imagine what it meant to me when it was longlisted for the 2022 Polari Prize for LGBT+ writing.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.

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