‘If Something Is To Be Told About My Life I Will’
Interviews with Indian bi women
The term ‘bisexual’ was first written in 1793. Its Merriam-Webster definition at the time said it meant ‘possessing characters of both sexes.’ Over time, it has undergone numerous expansions and changes, and more recently bisexuality was defined as ‘the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree,’ by Robyn Ochs, editor of Bi Women Quarterly magazine since the 90s. The ‘Bisexual Manifesto,’ a statement published in 1990 in Anything that Moves, a magazine published by the Bay Area Bisexual Network, emphasised that bisexuality is a fluid identity, and that the ‘bi’ in bisexual in no way stands for living gender or accepting sexuality in binaries.
The cisgender, bisexual women I interviewed for this article were all on journeys of unlearning the norms of the binary world. In their responses, one may read that the choice of a cisgender, heterosexual man as partner isn’t always a ‘free’ one. I felt a shared acceptance in their journeys having to do with undoing hetero learnings. Like at one point, one of them said, ‘with a man, he does all the labor of sustaining the conversation. With a woman on a date, you need to take that burden equally if not more.’ I wondered how heteronormative ways impact and design very basic and important life choices and situations.
There was also the question of families. In a 2020 essay, ‘Unhousing Sexuality: Sexuality and singlehood in Singapore’s public housing,’ Lilian Chee observes: ‘The family is the basic block of our society… And by family in Singapore, we mean one man, one woman, marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit.’ According to Chee, state-controlled housing rules permit only those Singaporeans with a ‘proper family nucleus’ to purchase apartments. The said nucleus may be achieved through various means, by married couples, parents and children, a widowed person and their children, siblings etc. We know this notion of what constitutes a proper relationship isn’t unique to Singapore.
Akansha Patidar, a 21 year old from Madhya Pradesh, expresses deep appreciation for her friends and her Masters degree in gender studies, acknowledging their role as a vital support system and catalyst for her self-acceptance of her sexuality. She contemplates the potential reactions of her parents when they discover her sexuality, fearing it might be perceived as a ‘failure’ of ‘upbringing.’ As her elderly parents need her support, she finds herself stalling the potentially confrontational conversation.
She finds solace in her elder sister instead. ‘My sister tells me stories of women in their thirties who joke around about bodily intimacy, the sensation of touching and being touched by other women, and other such giddy experiences between women friends.’ She adds that, ‘the lived experiences present in these ‘jokes’ are never claimed by the married women as their truth.’ Rather they always conclude with the disclaimer, ‘but I am not like that.’
Other women I spoke to also expressed a feeling of unease discussing their sexuality with their biological relatives. There were many ‘objective’ causes of this discomfort, and the idea that heteronormativity is the sole way to construct longterm stable equations is the point where they all intersect.
‘Compulsory heterosexuality’ is a term coined by U.S. poet and feminist Adrienne Rich, who argued that women are constantly bombarded with messages portraying them as the emotional and sexual possessions of men. She argues the autonomy and equality of women are seen as threats to established institutions such as family, religion, and the state. Conventional mechanisms of controlling women, such as patriarchal motherhood, economic exploitation, adherence to the nuclear family, and the enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality, are reinforced by legislative actions, religious influence, media representations and censorship attempts. The resulting heteronormativity places systemic pressures and expectations on people to adhere to heterosexual norms, disregarding the diversity and complexity of human genders, sexes and sexualities.
U.S. feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon notes that a woman who too decisively resists sexual overtures in the workplace is accused of being ‘dried up’ and sexless or lesbian. Her job depends on her pretending to be not merely heterosexual, but a heterosexual woman, in terms of dressing and playing the feminine, deferential role required of ‘real’ women. In her 1980 essay ‘Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence,’ MacKinnon asks, ‘What if inequality is built into the social conceptions of male and female sexuality, of masculinity and femininity, of sexiness and heterosexual attractiveness?’
The women I spoke to were all on journeys of undoing compulsory heterosexuality. Besides the long and ongoing process of accepting their queerness themselves, each had a long journey ahead before she could open up to her family.
Born and brought up in Delhi, Nikita, a 26-year-old cis bi woman, said her undergrad days experience with a best friend prompted her to reflect and question her sexuality. ‘I could not completely connect to queerness, but I knew for sure that it was not a mere friendship. I was reading a lot about queerness, attending MHQC (Miranda House Queer Collective) discussions, and listening to other queers speak about their journey. It took me two months to finally accept my queerness, but I was only dating men until then, and it was a one-and-a-half year journey to come to terms with my own bisexuality.’
Her parents do not know about her sexuality yet.
Although Bi Week was first observed in 1999, even today when young women learn of their bisexuality, they feel ashamed. Nikita said it was challenging for her then-‘friend’ to feel ‘overwhelmed and overjoyed’ the way that she had done. ‘Our mutual friends accepted our bonds when I told them I am dating her. However, a few of them were worried about me (my feelings) as she was already in a relationship with a man.’
I pondered the notion of ‘cheating’ and the way that cis-het, monogamous men understand it for themselves and their partners. In this regard the women I interviewed had similar views and stories to tell. Shreya, a 23 year old cis-bi woman from Karnataka, recounted an incident involving her ex-boyfriend, a cis-het man, who expressed to her that he would not feel as upset if his partner had an intimate encounter with another woman as opposed to a man. He also mentioned that he’d be fine if she communicated her interest beforehand. That conversation emerged while they were discussing the concept of cheating in heterosexual relationships.
Do some men tend not to get offended because the non-hetero relationships of women don’t feel like a threat to their manhood? Or perhaps they consider the romantic interest between women as ‘just a phase,’ thus stealing the authenticity of sexuality of the person who is in such bonds.
Nikita had a different experience. After she revealed her sexual orientation to her ex-partner, a cishet man, he felt as continually intimidated and uneasy about her interactions with other women as with men.
Often bi people are called ‘confused,’ and I wonder if the heterosexist setting and ignorance leads some cishet men into the ‘confusion’ about how love, desire and sexuality work.
When the media representation in popular culture does show women attracted to each other, often one appears feminine and the other masculine. This isn’t always the case in real life. Many Indian femme bi women who are into femme women recall their teen attraction to a screen celebrity who was also a femme woman. It is a common experience in the community - an incident in the early days gets them into a dilemma of, ‘Do I like her or do I want to be like her?’
Sakshi, a 24 year old from Uttar Pradesh, had the queer realisation while crushing on a celeb. It was Rekha in the film Silsila. ‘I just liked her!’ she recalls. ‘In a discussion in WDC (Women’s Development Cell) years later, a woman said she likes to appreciate other women’s bodies from afar but isn’t attracted towards them - and I was not relating to it!’
Bi women are different in their journeys of what gets them to like women, when they do. Shreya appreciates women with self-awareness and self-assurance. Akansha believes women make life much easier, and holds them to a higher standard than men, because of her prior dating experiences with men.
With the changes it is interesting too to note how myths against bi people still stand today the way they did decades ago.
The Bisexual Manifesto in 1990 clearly read: ‘Bisexuality is a whole, fluid identity. Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature; that we must have “two” sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders. Do not mistake our fluidity for confusion, irresponsibility, or an inability to commit. Do not equate promiscuity, infidelity, or unsafe sexual behavior with bisexuality. Those are human traits that cross all sexual orientations. Nothing should be assumed about anyone’s sexuality—including your own.’
To counter the heteronormativity sponsored myths of being Bi, we need more awareness of Bi sexuality and queerness in general.
The first issue of Anything that Moves carried a piece on ‘The New Bisexual Orthodoxy,’ describing ‘the new bisexual hero,’ who knows her sexual identity very well, without any conflicts. Contradicting the image it held that constructing a bisexual identity is a long term and slow process.
Some Bi women express their dilemma of ‘not being bi enough’ if they have not dated or been with someone who is not a cishet man for a longer time. Bi people can be coupled or single, monogamous or no, and many times the choice of dating or committing is influenced by the hetero norms of the society around.
For Akansha, ‘I am still on my journey to undo hetero conditioning, but dating a man does not mean you are not bi. Sexuality is about oneself, about knowing oneself, exploring it, living it. Not everyone can do the exploring part - it has a cost.’
She explains the cost with another example. ‘If I want to marry a Muslim man it will come with a cost, but it will be easier in a society like ours if I want to marry a Hindu man of the same caste. There are many ingrained norms in society, one has to choose and look out for oneself.’
The findings of a recent survey by the Yale School of Public Health are that the majority of the world’s sexual minorities—about 83 percent of those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual—conceal their orientation from all or most of the people in their lives. Published in the PLOS One journal, the study is perhaps the first effort to estimate the extent of the ‘global closet’ and to assess its effects on public health. It argues that making people maintain secrecy has a negative impact, as it keeps sexual minorities apart, and also keeps them from accessing public health resources.
Sharing knowledge of one’s sexuality with a cishet partner can influence the direction of many aspects of the relationship. When Nikita would notify prospective partners (cishet men) about her sexual background and orientation, they would become quite uncomfortable. Some even questioned whether she was certain about her bisexuality. As she explains, ‘It took me a long time to come to terms with my sexuality and I still struggle with issues that heteronormativity imposes - in that case, I cannot take such inquiries. Even my sharing of queer memes has decreased from what it used to be five years ago. I've experienced unfavorable responses from folks as a result.’ Her response comes not from a place of shame or confusion about her orientation, rather from a place to save the labor of catering to irresponsible and unwanted cishet intrusion. ‘I tell the amount of detail needed to a partner who has never had awareness about queerness - but they could do some basic reading or self education. Rest we may always talk.’ Adding, ‘I don’t owe anyone all the teaching - you also need to educate yourself and if something is to be told about my life I will.’
Sakshi describes coming out to her cishet male ex-partner as ‘dramatic.’ ‘She was a friend from before. After months we were meeting that day. After I went home I realised that I was thinking about her. I was dating a man then, so after this experience I called him and I said that I need to rethink my sexual orientation’. Later, ‘I called and told him that I feel something for a friend who is a woman. All my friends and even him always had a cue that I liked women even before I came out to them. But I told my partner that part.’ Six months later, they broke up. Sakshi feels that something changed after that conversation, though she can’t pinpoint it exactly. ‘Or I changed, I don’t know,’ she says.
These experiences, reflections, exploring or being unable to explore, set Bi people’s journeys against irrelevant myths like that they ‘have a pool to date or choose from,’ or ‘it’s a phase,’ or ‘it’s a confusion about sexuality.’
Nikita says, ‘Still there are days when I am questioning or reflecting on my sexuality. I took a lot of time to educate myself and accept my queerness and after this journey I cannot bear a cis het man asking me, on a date, “are you really sure you’re a bi woman?”’
The fetishisation that occurs as a result of these myths is another reason why women often choose not to reveal or discuss their queerness. The myths depict bisexual women as ‘loose’ or ‘confused,’ suggesting their openness to all sorts of sexual requests. They are a gross violation of women’s choices, autonomy and right to sexual expression. As Shreya said, ‘They also say that bi women are confused. I heard people say all this. I consciously surround myself with friends who don’t think this way.’
It is interesting how romantic bonds too can have their place of origin in shared experiences of oppression. For one respondent, ‘I like women who are able to express anger, who are not stigmatized or conscious in being angry wherever she should be.’ Another respondent likes women who are confident and have a sense of self. They are reflections of the possibility of a unique bond that fosters between women who might be interested in each other, a bond coming from a plane of some shared embodied and societal experience.
A message to oneself, while living against hetero impositions, can be what was said by Loraine Hutchins, co-editor of Bi any other name: Bisexual people speak out, an anthology of bisexual coming-out stories. ‘I come out as single and non-monogamous and Bi… I feel that the power and responsibility for sexual freedom and sexual self satisfaction rests on me rather than equally on the viewer who is viewing me… you have to listen to your heart, your head, your pussy and put them all together’.
Aishwarya Amritvijayraj holds a Masters degree in philosophy from Delhi University. A three-time UN Laadli Media awardee, she is an independent writer and researcher who believes in questioning and rethinking dominant knowledge and practices. Her hobby is to lie down and gaze at the ceiling fan