Writing Bi Characters

New post on Gay YA

Writing Bi Characters

by Marilla

by Corinne Duyvis

Identification. Labels. Exploration.

These topics are often brought up in YA. Even more so in queer YA: after all, discovering your own identity and who you are or aren’t attracted to is a huge part of many queer kids’ lives. Something that often leads to even more confusion—on all sides—is when someone is attracted to more than one gender. Yes, the “confused bisexual” borders on stereotype, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur. I mean, I was super confused about my orientation as a young teenager (which I’ve written about at DiversifYA before) and I had a very easy time of it compared to many others.

There are a couple of reasons for this common confusion. One is that there’s still a stigma about bisexuality/biromanticism. Greedy, confused, fakers, insatiable, etc. If those are the main messages you hear, then no wonder you wouldn’t want to apply that label to yourself.

Another is that bi people are still comparatively underrepresented in the media. There’s a long history of erasing bi people and their orientation, both in real life (current celebrities, historical figures) and in fiction (in the work itself, in reviews and discussions). Sometimes these people are labeled straight or gay, or there’s a ton of debate about “straight vs. gay” without ever allowing for other options; sometimes their same-gender or other-gender relationships are dismissed or written off as platonic; on the rare occasion the person’s or character’s attraction to multiple genders is acknowledged, they’re often identified as experimenting, confused, fluid, liberated, straight-with-an-exception, gay-with-an-exception, or disliking labels.

The words “bisexual” or “biromantic” are rarely used, despite being very common ways for real-life people who are attracted to multiple genders to identify. Many still shy away from the word(s). Thus, when authors do explicitly label their characters as bi, it stands out. Author Tess Sharpe (of the fabulous Far From You) has often spoken of the amazing reactions she’s received from teenagers in regards to her identifying as bi, and writing a character who does, too.

This kind of representation matters. It’s important to use the word, to defy stereotypes, to explore what this identity means. I’m glad more and more people realize how much bi visibility matters.

At the same time, this advocacy for bi representation raises many questions. In fact, when Malinda Lo suggested I write about this topic on Twitter (thank you, Malinda!) several people immediately chimed in ditto-ing their interest.

After several years seeing these questions and rebuttals online, I thought I’d put together some of the questions I’ve most often seen.

(These are specifically about bi visibility/erasure/identification—if I were to include terminology and stereotypes, we’d be here all day.)

 

But isn’t it true that teenagers often are confused or experimenting? Isn’t that what YA is about? Shouldn’t those teenagers also be represented?

Sure, it’s true for a lot of people. It was true for me! Not everybody leaps—or has to leap—to the label. People should never feel pressured into identifying a certain way. Bi advocates like myself need to be careful not to shove the label on people who may not want it.

I think it’s possible, however, to acknowledge the trend of erasure and misrepresentation of bi people and characters and how this is often done by defaulting to other labels and descriptors, without in turn erasing the individual people who do use those labels and descriptors.

Bi advocates aren’t saying, All these characters should be bi, end of story. We’re saying,Realistically speaking, way more of these characters would identify as bi—why this persistent reluctance to call them that?

As someone who has been a confused teenager, and whose sexuality is fluid, I would never want to take stories about those experiences away. We need more queer representation of all kinds.

I just also want explicit bi representation.

We can have it all. (/bi slogan)

 

How would I even show my character is bi? I mean, what if they’re in a single relationship during the course of the book?

Bi people are still bi even when they’re single or in a relationship with a particular gender.

If I’m in a relationship with a man, I’m not straight; I’m still bi.

If I’m in a relationship with a woman, I’m not gay; I’m still bi.

If I’m in a relationship with a non-binary person, I’m (a) going to be extra pissed if you attempt to label me or said relationship as lesbian/gay/straight, and (b) still going to call myself bi.

And if I’m single, guess what? I’m still bi. Just … a lonely bi.

(Call me.)

So the way to show they’re bi is simple: have them be attracted to more than one gender. Just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you can’t check out other people or refer to past/crushes relationships. Not to mention they can still be explicitly referred to as bi in dialogue or narration.

 

On that topic, why this insistence on using the word? What if it just doesn’t come up in my novel? Besides, it feels artificial. I don’t label my straight characters, either.

You’re right. Sometimes it doesn’t come up. In my second book On the Edge of Gone, there’s an important bi character who is never labeled as such. She was called bi in a line that was taken out in revisions, and I never found another good place to mention it. I still feel anxious about this, to be honest.

That said, the reason so many people are so keen on having authors use the word because it’s still so rare. I think it’s important for readers—and particularly questioning teenage readers—to have every road wide open to them. Part of that is seeing their options represented in books.

Straight people don’t suffer from erasure; in fact, they’re considered the “default setting.” On the other hand, if you don’t explicitly call a bi character bi, many people will interpret them differently.

Since bi erasure is so common, and so many authors have internalized biphobic ideas without realizing it, the best way to defy that is to be extra thoughtful about how we approach the topic. Decades of erasure don’t go away by accident or “the natural flow of things”—they go away by consciously countering that erasure.

That’s why it matters to at least try.

 

But isn’t sexuality fluid? Why bother with labels in books?

Labels aren’t always bad. Labels can connect you to a community, a history, peers. They can help you realize you’re not alone, help you make sense of yourself, help you realize that it’s normal and common and a real, existing thing.

I’ve always seen labels as descriptive (this is my behavior, and this term fits that behavior) rather than prescriptive (this term identifies me, thus I must behave in certain ways); I’ve never felt boxed in by them. If people want to assume parts of my identity based on a label, or see me as nothing but a label, the problem is with those people, and not with the label itself. I’m also not going to stop calling myself female just because that gives people incorrect ideas of what I am or should be.

For me, seeing more positive and explicit bi representation as a teenager would have made things far easier.

If a person doesn’t want to commit to a label, that’s their choice. The thing is, we do have to give them that choice. Part of that is having stories that represent all these identities, experiences, labels and lack thereof, and more.

 

By insisting on bi visibility, aren’t you erasing people who don’t want to be labeled?

I hope not. If I ever cross that line, I hope someone calls me on it.

As I said above, it’s possible to acknowledge and fight bi erasure without in turn erasing others; I don’t want less of one thing, I want more of another. That way there’s no pressure on any single character or person to identify one way or another and represent an entire group in the process.

 

But what if it’s a fantasy/SF world that doesn’t have the word? Or a historical setting?

In a historical setting, you of course have to be true to history. Easy as pie. (Note that even if the word or concept didn’t exist, the people sure did.) If you’re writing a fantasy roughly based on a historical era, you have more flexibility, in my opinion; why could dragons and magic exist, but a word to identify people attracted to multiple genders would be a step too far?

For speculative settings, it’s entirely up to you. If you want to use the word, you totally can. You’re the one building these settings, after all! It’s entirely possible that another world may have come up with their own terms for less common sexual/romantic orientations, or they could even straight-up use the same terms as we do. After all, plenty of other modern ideas are often used in fantasy worlds, and you are theoretically “translating” this fantasy language into English. It’s logical to use words that readers will be familiar with.

Or maybe the world really doesn’t have any words for it. That could make sense, too, given how recent the terms we use are. In your world, maybe queer people are so oppressed and erased that it’s not ever spoken of; maybe queer people are so accepted and integrated that it feels odd to single it out.

Me, I had that latter situation in Otherbound. My fantasy-world protagonist is in a relationship with a boy but harbors an attraction to a girl. It’s never labeled or remarked on by anyone. Sometimes I wish I’d taken another route and been more explicit about her bisexuality; other times, I’m happy with my choice, as I know many queer people are hungry for these kinds of settings.

You’re got lots of options, really.

 

If my character is attracted to multiple genders or is exploring that option, and I decide not to have them identify as bi … am I contributing to bi erasure?

I mean … it depends? Everyone’s opinions are different, and I can’t comment on your book without having read it. All I ask is that authors strongly explore their reasons for this choice. It’s easy to internalize biphobic ideas and to default to a “simpler” option without genuinely investigating why.

If you do decide to have your characters identify otherwise or deny labels, I would personally love to see more genuine exploration and research of that character choice, rather than an off-hand mention as an apparent get-out-of-jail free card. Put in the work, either way.

One thing I would like to see more of is the existence of bi identity within these narratives, even if the character doesn’t identify as bi. After all, bi erasure doesn’t only refer to the way people are rarely called bi, but also to the way the option isn’t even brought up in situations where, logically speaking, it really should be at least mentioned.

There are lots of ways to do this, particularly when exploration of identity is part of the character’s arc. For example, have your character wonder about being bi; have them stumble on the idea during research if they’re not already familiar with the term; have someone else bring it up as an option; have a different character identify as bi; have your character perhaps go from identifying one way to identifying another.

For a specific example of how egregious this oversight can be, see my friend Kalen O’Donnell’s post about the TV series Faking It.

 

OK, but I don’t have a bi character or anyone attracted to multiple genders in my book.

I like that you’re reading through this long-ass post regardless! Not every book is going to have bi characters, which is fine, but keep in mind that the term and concept most likely still exist in your world. It means a lot it you could acknowledge that in places where it might logically arise. For example, by not jumping to gay the moment a character is interested in someone of the same gender.

 

I’m feeling awfully pressured right now.

In the end, the book and character are your own. I’m genuinely just trying to answer questions I’ve seen over the past few years.

Some of the people who asked these questions may have simply been defensive or actively trying to find ways to avoid representing bi characters. Still, I like to think that many of them were genuinely well-intentioned.

Openly discussing these matters—for example, the way Tess Sharpe has spoken about how meaningful her explicitly bisexual protagonist has been to readers—can make a lot of authors consider issues they wouldn’t have normally and change their approach in future books.

I’m not telling you what you should do; I’m trying to show you what your options are in different circumstances, and informing you of the wider context.

 

In the end, be honest about your character. Be honest about their experiences. Be honest about the bi, the pan, the fluid, the confused, the unlabeled, and the others.

But be honest about the world, too.

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