A prominent bisexual campaigner has been nominated for a high profile award. But far from the accolade being about putting a trophy on his mantelpiece, he hopes that winning would give him the chance to tell society that the way it treats bi people “simply isn’t good enough”.
Lewis Oakley is a campaigner and writer. His work has been featured in Metro, HuffPost, The Independent, Attitude, on the BBC and even in The Daily Mail. But now he’s been nominated as Pink News‘ ‘Campaigner of the Year’. You can vote in the awards here. And The Canary caught up with Oakley to talk being bi, sex, prejudice and “where his penis has been”.
Disclaimer: this writer is also bi, so be prepared for some frank conversation.
Oakley says he didn’t realise he was bi until he was about 20. He says even at that age being bisexual “in a society that believes you can only be gay or straight” is difficult. But looking back, it was at school that Oakley first realised he was different. He told The Canary:
Other boys would say things like ‘don’t you think she’s hot?’ and the gay kids would realise they didn’t feel that way. For me, I was attracted to girls so I understood the attraction and didn’t feel any different. It’s what a lot of people say, that gay people realise their sexuality with the onset of puberty but for me it wasn’t until I was 20 that I realised I was attracted to both, which is what a lot of bisexuals tell me. Looking back now I realise I was attracted to some of the boys at school. But at the time I mistook that for thinking they were cool and either wanted to be like them or be friends with them.
Where’s your penis been?
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that more 16-24-year-olds now identify as bisexual (2.4%) than see themselves as gay or lesbian (1.7%). Overall, just 0.8% of the population identify as bi, compared to 1.2% saying they’re LG. But the ONS stats are somewhat without nuance, given how many accepted ways there are of defining gender and sexuality, now. A 2015 YouGov survey, for example, found that 43% of 18-24-year-olds considered themselves in some way non-binary.
But Oakley believes that stats mask the reality of life as a bi person in the UK. Because, he says, we still face discrimination, even from inside our own ‘community’:
Research tells us that the majority of bisexuals feel the LGBTQ+ community is a more hostile environment and I’d have to agree. A lot of gay men, for example, once would have called themselves bi and they struggle to realise that’s not what everyone is doing. I feel a lot of gay men struggle to see sexuality outside of their own experience. I’ve been told to stop kissing my girlfriend in gay clubs. And a lot of gay men have said some despicable things to my girlfriend, from asking her ‘can’t you just find a straight man?’ to questions about ‘where my penis has been’. I think there is this sense of anger from the LGBTQ+ community. They think bisexuals get to have ‘the best of both worlds’.
A woman’s work
Oakley also points to the problems bi men face with dating straight women. He believes that to many straight women a bi man is still “a love interest”. But because of prejudice and women’s concerns over “how they’ll be judged”, they wouldn’t consider a relationship with one. Oakley also says he’s personally known straight women to say that his bisexuality is actually “proof of [him] being gay… which is a very self-indulgent opinion”.
Let’s talk about sex
But its sex which Oakley believes is one of the most confusing areas of bisexuality to many non-bisexual people. A study in 2013 found that bi-erasure is still rife, with nearly 15% of people believing bisexuality doesn’t really exist. And it’s this non-acceptance, Oakley says, which drives biphobia. He says that people tell his girlfriend “he’ll cheat on you” or “you’ll find him in bed with a man eventually”. But he says:
People seem to have a misunderstanding: I’m not attracted to everyone; my types are very specific and I’m probably only attracted to 5% of men and 5% of women. People can’t get their heads around how I could possibly be in a monogamous relationship with someone when I’m attracted to men and women. The way I explain it is, if the relationship and sex you are having are amazing why would you need anything else? Both straight and gay people are attracted to people outside of their partner. But it doesn’t mean they are going to cheat, and it’s the same for bisexuals.
It’s a (gay) man’s world
Also, Oakley believes that gay men do not help their bisexual counterparts in challenging biphobia. He says, bluntly:
It’s an unpopular thing to talk about but gay men have done damage to the credibility of bisexual people. Many gay men identify as bisexual on their way out of the closet, so society is used to seeing it as a phase. What people don’t realise is that these men were never bisexual. They were always gay, but struggling to accept it. This makes it harder for genuine bisexual men to be taken seriously, because many people know someone who used bisexuality as a transition period.
Victims of our own community?
But the challenges for bi people run deeper than just other people’s ‘phobic’ behaviour. A study in the US found that bi people had higher levels of financial and health poverty than the straight community, and far higher still than their LG counterparts. And yet the voices speaking out about this are few and far between. Oakley believes strongly that part of the problem lies within the LGBTQ+ community itself. He told The Canary:
I honestly think we have become a victim of being part of the LGBTQ+ community. We see a lot of people trying to help. But really they are dropping the ball on bisexuality because they don’t realise that we face different issues requiring different solutions to that which LGTQ+ people face. For example, a lot of the sexual health research commissioned is problematic. I read all the time ‘x% of gay and bisexual men are more likely to catch an STI’. But bisexual men might be more or less likely to use a condom with a man than a woman. For me, looking at the sexual health risks of two groups with completely different sex lives is not just insanity but dangerous.
He also feels that bi people’s unique challenges are not properly recognised by the LGBTQ+ community. He says he often feels bad, for example, about how the “hard time” he gets over his sexuality impacts on his girlfriend; an issue gay men don’t face. Oakley also notes:
They don’t look at pregnancy, either. Gay and lesbian people are very unlikely to get pregnant but bisexual people can deal with unexpected pregnancies. So what is the official advice? Take someone who is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. But they also know if their relationship doesn’t work out, the next one might be same-sex and they won’t have to opportunity to have biological children again. What do you tell them? This debate hasn’t even been started.
And the award goes to…
But with his nomination for Pink News‘ Campaigner of the Year, Oakley hopes to start smashing some of these issues. He says if he won the award it wouldn’t be about the trophy or recognition. In fact, he has a very unusual acceptance speech lined up if he does win:
If I win then I get to address the room. And so, I get to tell everyone in attendance that this simply isn’t good enough. I get to tell them that 43% of young people now fall under the bi umbrella, yet only 12% of bisexual men feel comfortable to be out of the closet. I get to tell them that if we have gay clubs, magazines, apps, helplines, merchandise, TV characters and research then we need double the amount for bisexual people.
He notes that winning the award would show a “demand” for people talking about bisexuality, and that it’s “just as important as all the other issues being discussed” in society. But he thinks there is a broader problem with equality that needs addressing. And it’s one which he will try to, if he wins:
People think that equality means treating everyone the same – it doesn’t. Equality actually means assessing people’s differences and their unique requirements, then providing what they need to give them equal opportunity. I’m tired of people believing helping gay men will help bi men. It’s as if people think they’re killing two birds with one stone.
Being bi is one of society’s taboos. It’s still widely under-represented, plagued with misconceptions and riddled with prejudice and stereotypes. So, for an openly bi man to win a high profile award would be a watershed moment in bi history. But Oakley believes the issues facing life for bi people in the UK could, and should, be easily solved:
People need to recognise that LGBTQ+ is made up of completely different groups. And each group deserves the respect of being looked at separately. I always ask LGBTQ+ advocates the same, very simple question:
‘How does the care and support you offer to gay men differ to that you offer to bi men?’
I’m still yet to get a good answer. And, if we don’t get a good societal framework in place and make resources and adequate support available, we’ll continue to fail 43% of young people in just about every way we measure success.
Bisexual people face sexual prejudice and discrimination. But with people like Oakley flying the pink and purple flag, we may soon start to see the beginning of the end of biphobia in the UK.
– Vote for Oakley as Pink News Campaigner of the Year.
Featured image via Tom Dingley
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