I can’t remember the first bisexual woman I ever saw on television, but I know that I needed one growing up. I remember seeing lesbian women in sitcoms – usually serving as the woman the man just can’t have, but, believe him, he’ll try – and I remember seeing very camp portrayals of gay men in the television shows my parents would watch. But no memorable bisexual women. I needed one, because I am one, and I started having feelings for women at an age where representation would have been my only real source of understanding. I recently tore my way through Channel 4’s brilliant comedy The Bisexual, and not only did I find it life-affirming, as a 22-year-old woman essentially seeing her life play out on-screen, I couldn’t help but imagine my younger self having somebody like Desiree Akhavan – the show’s co-writer, director and lead role – to look to when she was coming to terms with her identity.
The first time I kissed a girl, I was 10 years old. We were playing on the school field. Girls and boys used to kiss there all the time. I hadn’t planned it. Before my 10-year-old brain had time to think, I had placed my pouting mouth on hers. I froze after that. She just laughed a bit, and wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her school jumper, still laughing. I had no idea why I’d done it. It confused me and I felt upset. She didn’t seem upset, but then, she hadn’t done the kissing. “That’s it, then,” I remember thinking. “I must be a lesbian.” But I also knew that I really fancied Gareth Gates. How could I be a lesbian? I had no way of knowing that I am, in fact, normal, not greedy or some kind of sexual deviant, as I would come to think of myself in later years.
The Bisexual deals head-on with the stigma against bisexual people – often from within their own community. In the first episode, Akhavan’s character, Leila – who, since coming out, has always identified to others as a lesbian – responds to the question, “does anybody know an actual bisexual?” with an awkward glance and, “I’m pretty sure bisexuality is a myth.” Watching that, I remembered saying similar things to the group of out-and-proud lesbian friends I had when I, too, identified as a lesbian.
‘I’d just much prefer it if you admitted you’re a lesbian,’ my girlfriend said to me. ‘I can’t stand the thought of you with men’
I came out to my parents, shaved the side of my head in an effort to appear more easily identifiable, and got my first girlfriend. At the beginning of our relationship, I had been playing around with the word “bisexual”, not yet knowing the sheer horror it received. “I’d just much prefer it if you admitted you’re a lesbian,” my girlfriend said to me. “I can’t stand the thought of you with men.” Because I loved her so much, and I was young, and perhaps I wanted to feel part of something, I soon after started to believe that I was a lesbian, after all. My experience mirrors Leila’s in The Bisexual: when her lesbian friends see her with a male love interest, they leave in disgust. I lost a lot of friends, for sleeping with men after I’d been sleeping with women. I was no longer gay enough. But I am still gay.
I have lived through coming to terms with being a bisexual woman, but I’ve never seen it played out so fearlessly on television. It examines the guilt of the woman who masquerades as something she isn’t, only to realise she is uncomfortable with who she actually is. Leila laments the term “bisexual” to her roommate: “It’s tacky, it’s gauche. It makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance.” The taboo against bisexuality is an insidious one, which makes people believe that they are invalid, even “sex-tourists”, as the show puts it. Leila has to embark on a journey of self-acceptance, years after coming out. The Bisexual is at once valuable and cathartic, because it exposes the taboo for its ignorance, and ultimately pushes forward a new way of thinking; less shame, more acceptance and the freedom to be who we are and love who we love.