Written by Yen-Ting Kuo, Translated by George Bobyk
Image credit: Peter Salanki from San Francisco, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
In my opinion, bisexuality is a verb that is constantly rewritten, defined, altered, and shaped by the lived experiences of bisexual people. So, to try to define bisexuality is just using lifeless words to describe a rigid noun. Instead, the point should focus on the kind of lives bisexual people live. No label can express the abundant experiences that life offers. “One noun with different interpretations” can describe how many bisexuals use their own lives to define themselvesChen Lo-wei, 2011
Chen Lo-wei is one of “Bi the Way” founders, Taiwan’s first and currently only bisexual organisation. The quote above is an excerpt from Taiwan’s first book about bisexuality, I Love Him and Her: The Life Stories of 18 Bisexuals, written by Chen Lo-wei.
According to Chen Lo-wei, each bisexual person practices their bisexual life differently, so it is difficult to clearly define a singular life path for bisexual people. However, I believe that even though bisexual people have diverse lifestyles and experiences, it does not mean that people cannot analyse these stories to understand how Taiwanese society has created a context in which bisexuality becomes “one noun with different interpretations.” As I have conducted my research on the life experiences of bisexuals in Taiwan, I have noticed many common threads in their experience and the common challenges most bisexual people face.
Bisexuals are attracted to both males and females and are often easily misunderstood as monosexual. This makes it easy for people to misunderstand bisexual people as being able to freely explore and practise their sexuality in heterosexual and homosexual spaces. As such, bisexual people are often assumed not to face much stigma or oppression. This theory often hides the difficulty bisexual people often face as they are often forced to hide their identity to enter into intimate relationships. Rather than facing stigma from neither heterosexuals nor homosexuals, they often face stigma from both
Sexual Minorities Excluded by other Sexual Minorities
In 2013, Pride was held after ten years. It marked the 10th anniversary of Taiwan Pride, and the theme chosen for that year was ‘Seeing Homosexuals 2.0.” This was decided to echo the theme of the 1st Taiwan Pride in 2003, “Seeing Homosexuals.” Yet, the rights and interests of sexual minorities have still not been taken seriously.
Furthermore, since the term “homosexual” does not represent all LGBT+ groups, many non-gay LGBT+ groups protested. They argued that this name ignores their voices. Bisexuals were one of those groups to protest. However, since “bisexuals can pretend to be heterosexual,” some gay groups believe that bisexuals do not experience the oppression that homosexuals are subjected to as “non-heterosexuals.” They also regard bisexuals’ protests as more of a sign of them “having their cake and eating it.” We can thus say that bisexual people at the time were “sexual minorities excluded by other sexual minorities.,” seen by homosexuals in Taiwan as not facing real oppression yet trying to speak over others’ experiences.
Of course, now, in 2022, the situation for Taiwanese bisexual people has improved due to the heightened awareness of gender equality in Taiwan, but the problem has not truly reversed. Although another decade has passed since the 10th anniversary of Taiwan Pride, Bi the Way is still the only organisation in Taiwan’s gender movement whose core aim is to defend bisexual rights. Unfortunately, the members of this organisation are also dwindling by the day. Just as most homosexual people do not take coming out to heterosexual people lightly, many bisexual people feel afraid to come out to either heterosexual or homosexual people for the above reasons. Today, due to the lack of “bisexual groups” in Taiwan, for many bisexual people, the only way to survive in gay circles and avoid stigma and discrimination is to hide their true identity and chose to identify as gay instead.
The Ambiguity of “Tongzhi”
Although often understood as analogous to the English term “gay”, the term “tongzhi” 「同志」 is slightly different from any equivalent in English since it is not necessarily clear if the person using “tongzhi” is gay or bisexual. It can refer to someone being homosexual or used more broadly to refer to someone from the LGBTQ+ community. The ambiguity of the term tongzhi gives Taiwanese bisexual people the space to not directly lie about their own identity or cover it up. Numerous studies have shown that gay people who learn that their partner is bisexual will be worried that they will eventually go back and marry the opposite sex to conform to the heterosexual hegemony.
In addition, when a gay person knows his potential partner is bisexual (for example, if they meet on a dating app), even if they are eventually paired up, most people will not regard each other as life-long partners. What is more, some gay groups are hostile to bisexuals, even trying to exclude them. As a result, in Taiwan, many bisexuals call themselves tongzhi to not directly reveal their sexual orientation. This is also to avoid the unfavourable situation described above, “I only say that I am tongzhi; if you think I am gay, then it is your problem; I did not lie to you.” An interviewee once said to me. Unfortunately, this ambiguity is also a double-edged sword: adopting the strategy of claiming to be tongzhi and not revealing their bisexual identity has made it difficult for Taiwanese bisexuals to gain influence and visibility in the LGBT+ community.
Bisexuals Exist Everywhere but are not Seen
Even though Taiwan’s gender equality index ranks first in Asia, Taiwanese society is still full of misunderstandings about bisexuality, making many bisexuals reluctant to come out instead of remaining strategically ambiguous about their identity. I even know quite a few bisexuals whose family members and previous partners of different genders do not know they are bisexual. Moreover, even if some bisexuals are willing to reveal themselves and make a change since it is difficult for bisexuals to “identify each other” and create bisexual spaces. Hence, they can only affiliate themselves with gender advocacy groups not orientated towards bisexuals. This means bisexuals have less opportunity for exposure.
Research has shown that supportive communities can effectively improve the various problems encountered by bisexuals; however, many bisexuals in Taiwan choose to lead a low-key lifestyle because of the dilemma of coming out. This makes it difficult for bisexuals to gather and organise movements and mutual aid groups to increase understanding and tolerance for bisexuals in Taiwan.
Furthermore, this creates a negative cycle where bisexuals’ reluctance to show up for fear of being misunderstood means that there is no community to support bisexuals, so they have no courage to reveal themselves. And because of this, people cannot get to know bisexuals better, and they are even more reluctant to come out. I think an effective way to break this negative cycle and reduce internal conflicts between sexual minorities is to dispel the myth that bisexuals “can freely choose their sexual inclinations.” Bisexuality, like all other sexual orientations, is not a choice. It is sad that many within the LGBTQ+ community in Taiwan and beyond still refuse to accept this fact.
Yen-Ting Kuo is a masters student in the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan university. He is also a trainee high-school civics teacher. His research interests include gender/sexuality and education.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “Queer Taiwan”