For just over two decades now, Bisexual Visibility Month has been celebrated throughout this month. It’s a time to be loud and proud about all of the amazing things the bisexual communities have achieved - if you need an excuse!
Physical LGBTQ+ spaces have long provided safe places for queer people to meet, make friends, organise, and forget about hate. From bars to bookshops, they’re a place where communities don’t have to worry that they’re being watched, expected to play up to stereotypes associated with their sexual or gender label, and can simply celebrate every aspect of who they are.
But during the Coronavirus pandemic, physical LGBTQ+ spaces closed their doors, leaving bisexuals (amongst others in the community) feeling shut out. Luckily, TikTok - more specifically, ‘QueerTok’, stepped in to provide a little bit of joy and education while we were stuck inside. A quick scroll through QueerTok will offer you an abundance of all things digital bisexual culture. We're talking Girl in Red, sweater weather, split hair dye tutorials, and funny videos about how terrible we are at sitting on chairs.
But that’s not all QueerTok has to offer. Many, including myself, have found a digital home in the queer subcommunities of the Gen Z platform, and the content helps bust internalised biphobia.
Em should have moved to Brighton halls to study Sociology in September 2020. The 19-year-old says “This was my time. It feels embarrassing to say out loud but I was ready to be [bisexual] myself, fully and unapologetically,” she says. “Instead I’ve spent the last year in my childhood bedroom.”
Alongside missing out on freshers week, long nights in the library, and developing an inevitable crush on a seminar tutor, Em had a grand plan to come out as bisexual when she’d moved away. “I come from a small town and I felt ashamed that I liked girls too,” she says. “I never learned about LGBTQ+ relationships in sex education and, to this point, my experiences in LGBTQ+ spaces is none existent.”
That was until she found QueerTok. Between wholesome coming out videos, the #ImComingOut hashtag (which reportedly reached nearly 2 billion views on the platform), and Pride transformations, QueerTok has provided one of the most joyous spaces on the internet for young queer people throughout the pandemic.
On the surface, QueerTok looks like a lot of people lip-syncing to Megan Thee Stallion. But for Em, it ran much deeper. QueerTok gave her the language and space to come out to her parents and overcome the shame she felt.
“When I’d heard people online talking about coming out before I found QueerTok, they generally had quite harrowing stories of family rejection or struggles with friends. It didn’t make it seem very appealing at all. I was already terrified at the prospect of flirting with a girl openly but to think that I’d just go on not talking about it with loved ones felt really suffocating,” she says.
“I’d never seen someone speaking so openly about the way I was feeling. I’d spend hours at night scrolling. It was the first time I’d seen people talk about being bi and it being a fun and exciting thing.”
If you don’t have the language or see yourself in pop culture then it’s hard to celebrate your sexuality. QueerTok has gone some way in providing that. In 2021, biphobia and bi-erasure is as insidious and present as it’s always been.
Stereotypes have been peddled from cis-heterosexual communities and within LGBTQ+ communities. Data from the Annual Population Survey highlighted that more people identify as LGBTQ+ than in the past. However, a study conducted by Stonewall in 2018 found that 46% of bisexual men and 26% of bisexual women aren’t open about their sexual orientation with anyone in their families.
Shammi came out in 2015 and has been with their girlfriend Lane for two years. “I’m greedy. I’m confused. It’s a phase. I’m not gay enough. I’m too gay. I don’t know the struggle. I’m doing it for the male gaze. I’m doing it for attention. You name it and I’ve had it said to me,” they say.
While sexual fluidity has gained much more media attention over the last five years with celebrities like Halsey and mxmtoon speaking openly about their sexual identities, Shammi knows that bi-erasure still exists.
“That’s why LGBTQ+ clubs and bars have been so important to me on my journey. I can turn up and present how I want to present that day and it’s fine,” they say.
“Since I’ve not had that over the last 18 months I’ve taken to bombarding my girlfriend with QueerTok clips. It’s given us some semblance of normality and community. The group chats were alive with the sound of QueerTok!”
But TikTok isn’t all glittery blue and purple flags. While QueerTok has extended a virtual safe space for LGBTQ+ people, especially those who live in rural areas or are disabled and wouldn’t be able to access traditional spaces, it’s not perfect. The microaggressions bisexual people are all too used to experiencing in physical queer spaces, have also set up camp on TikTok.
Some users have spotted trends that intentionally playoff biphobic stereotypes and have even been promoted to bisexual users going against the whole point of the algorithm. “Don’t even talk to me about #SpicyStraight,” says Shammi, “I’m in a lucky position because I know who I am but if I’d had these videos pushed onto my feed three years ago when I was only just finding a place within the community and working out what being bisexual even meant?”
“It’s exactly the same behaviour that so many bisexual people have to put up with when they’re out in clubs.”
If you’ve never come across the #SpicyStraight hashtag, it usually relates to a person saying they’re attracted to the same sex but they could never date them or form any sort of emotional attachment. This is classic bisexual erasure. Many videos are created to get laughs and refer to games like spin the bottle, being drunk and horny on a night out, or making out with your friends and laughing about it later on.
Other videos explain “spicy straight” as women who say they’re bisexual but have limited sexual experience with the same sex - textbook biphobia creeping into the app we’ve found a home in.
#SpicyStraight plays on the misconception that bisexuality is performative rather than a valid sexual and romantic label. It invalidates same-sex relationships, period, as a passing drunk or horny phase.
“I know people probably don’t think it’s that deep but when you have to come out repeatedly and explain to people how you’ve been with your partner for so many years, that you’re neither lesbian nor straight, and that’s valid and okay is tiring,” says Shammi, “And describing same-sex encounters as spicy is so hyper-sexualising and damaging.”
One of the best things about TikTok is that if you like enough videos of one thing that’s pretty much all you’ll be shown (I’m so deep in berries and cream TikTok it’s no longer funny.) The algorithm has meant that communities like QueerTok, BookTok, AltTok, and even CrocTok have been able to thrive.
Users have long joked that the algorithm has known more about their sexuality than they have as, just like the sorting hat in Harry Potter, they were sorted into the right sub-category of QueerTok so quickly. Some have even said that TikTok knew they were bisexual before they did, moving them from LGBTQ+ ally videos slowly deep into the world of Bi factions education, Twilight thirst videos, and videos explaining the true process of becoming bisexual (prepare to be seen.)
Being recommended LGBTQ+ content straight off the bat isn’t just fun and convenient, it completely eradicates the need for LGBTQ+ users to seek out their communities. 26 year old Lane says “The algorithm means you don’t have to come out repeatedly. You don’t have to hope people will accept you and deal with the micro aggressions when they don’t. You’re almost immediately placed with people like you. When you come to TikTok for some distraction and light relief, that can be really comforting.”
However, if biphobic content is being pushed onto bisexual users For You pages then surely this completely defeats the object of TikTok’s notoriously accurate algorithm? A report by media watchdog Media Matters wanted to establish the link between LGBTQ+ creators and homophobic users.
They found that as soon as homophobic and biphobic users had started to express interest in hashtags and content associated with QueerTok, more videos would be pushed onto their For You page. This worked the other way in that if homophobic and biphobic creators used hashtags associated with QueerToK then LGBTQ+ users may be recommended their content.
Does that mean TikTok identifies a user as homophobic and tailors their feed to that interest? The report suggested so, despite TikTok claiming to prohibit discriminatory and hateful content.
A spokesperson for TikTok says "TikTok thrives on the diversity of our community, and we aim to provide a safe space where people feel welcomed and empowered to express themselves exactly as they are. We'll take whatever steps are necessary to help protect our community from those who seek to spread hate."
What does this mean for the bisexuals finding a home in this community? "It's jarring. One minute I’m watching someone realise they’re bi and finding so much joy and liberation in that and in the next I’m being recommended transphobic and violently anti-LGBTQ+ content,” says Lane. “It drags you back into a world where not everyone is for you or how you identify.”
“However, I can’t get away from the fact that QueerTok has been my Pride season this year,” says Lane, “It’s been my space to connect with new people, to cheer them on as they come out, and to enjoy content that’s created by and wholly celebrates communities that I love.”
While this has meant that some QueerTok users have been exposed to biphobia through weird trends or dodgy algorithms, Em says, “TikTok has a dark side. I think most people on social media know it’s not all good. However, do I think I’d have come out if it wasn’t for QueerTok? I don’t think so.”
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