Nkani Mpulwana speaks in such a hushed tone that is near-impossible to hear what she is saying. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian from her office phone, she whispers conspiratorially: “I can’t speak up now, but my colleagues will be hopefully be leaving soon.”
She fears her colleagues might catch wind of the fact that she is bisexual – “something I am still uncomfortable with,” she says. “Because, you know, there is the general perception – misperception, rather – that we are greedy … you know, sexually; that we can’t get enough; that there is something in us that is voracious and insatiable; that we are not selective and will take whatever we can get.”
According to the Bisexual Resource Centre (BRC) website, bisexuals face biphobia, or the fear or discrimination of bi people. “People may say that we’re just confused, or ‘on the way to gay’, or experimenting. Some think bi folks are more promiscuous, can’t be monogamous, and can’t be trusted. Some just think we plain-old don’t exist.”
A 2013 report by the Human Sciences Research Council’s Ingrid Lynch describes how bisexuals are invisible “both socially and within scholarly research”. It says “bisexuality is not easily conceived of as a legitimate sexual identification”.
The report is titled Erased, Elided and Made Invisible? South African Bisexual Relationships and Families. In it Lynch refers to as “the irrefutable silence around bisexuality”. Yet the BRC website points out, “bisexuals actually make up 52% of the lesbian, gay and bisexual population – that’s 33% women and 19% men”.
“We are also six times more likely to hide our orientation than lesbians or gay men,” the site adds.
“Bisexual people are really outcasts among outcasts,” says Mpulwana, who chose not to use her real name. “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities generally have a way of adopting heteronormative binaries, which is very problematic. Bisexuality is a problem to gay and lesbian people generally because, for those who identify as gay or lesbian, it’s kind of, ‘you’re either with us or against us’. They have this attitude that we’re traitors because in being able to choose a partner who is the opposite sex, we can dip into privilege that gay and lesbian people don’t have.”
Lynch concurs with this point. Her report notes that “many bisexual individuals are confronted with distrust in lesbian and gay spaces and are subsequently excluded from potential sources of support within these communities.”
Where then are the support systems for these “outcasts among outcasts”?
Says Mpulwana: “I present a show on the online radio station GaySA Radio, and during my research for one of my shows, I came across a YouTube video clip in which this guy spoke about how important it was for bisexual people to interact with other bisexuals, so that they could see, ‘there are people like me and they actually exist; we’re not unicorns’.”
In the hopes of offering these unicorns of the sexuality spectrum some support, Francois de Wet has initiated South Africa’s first support group for bisexuals, amBi, which is set to start meeting from May 6 in Pretoria. Having contacted queer organisations and publications, De Wet’s search for an existing support group for bisexuals ultimately came to nought.
“I found it hard to find like-minded people in South Africa. I wanted to start a support group here in South Africa because, as a bisexual man married to a heterosexual woman, I only truly found liberation when I started communicating and interacting with other bisexual people. This interaction has actually helped my wife a great deal as well in her own personal growth in respect of my bisexuality,” he says.
Despite claiming that “the only way you are going to destigmatise bisexuality is if you are more visible”, De Wet also chose to have his identity withheld. “Although I am out to most of my family and friends as bisexual, I am not out to work colleagues yet. And as I am typing this email, I am looking at a Mail&Guardian newspaper on our coffee table, so I am sure you’ll understand my caution,” he wrote in the run-up to our interview.
There is a good justification for such cautionary measures in the workplace. A UK-based study found that bisexual men, on average, earn 30% less per hour than their heterosexual counterparts. The study was conducted by professor Alex Bryson of University College of London’s Institute of Education and published in the journal Work, Employment and Society in 2016.
In addition to discrimination from the broader LGBT community and the corporate world, establishing and maintaining relationships can also prove to be a challenge.
Married to a heterosexual woman for the past three years, 32-year-old De Wet says: “We started dating in 2006 and got married in 2014. We’ve been together for more than ten years. My attraction towards men, however, never went away. As a matter of fact, it became more pronounced and intense, occupying my mind continuously.
“I tried distractions like overworking and burying myself in postgraduate studies, but those things just distracted me temporarily. I told my wife about my attraction towards men in 2013, a year before we got married. It’s been quite the journey. It is also not something that gets sorted out overnight. Four years on, and we’re still working on integrating my sexuality into our relationship in a manner that both of us are comfortable with.”
De Wet’s wife Sonja says: “When Francois told me, my initial feelings were shock and sadness. It is important to understand that when my husband came out to me, he was still grappling with his feelings and did not know what they meant or how to deal with them. So initially when he told me, neither of us really knew what this meant for us as individuals or as a couple.
“In principle, the fact that he is bisexual has never been difficult for me to accept. The notion does not offend me. I understand that his feelings are natural and organic. I have never thought that sexual orientation is a choice. It simply is who we are – and I cannot judge someone for simply being. So I accept who he is but the question of ‘how does this affect us’ has always been the more difficult thing for me to manage. It is difficult, but ultimately I believe it has led us to a much better, stronger and healthy place as a couple and as individuals,” she says.
Hannah Smith has been together with her current partner – a heterosexual man – for the past year.
“When we started this relationship, I started it on the basis that I’m gender-fluid; that beauty, to me, doesn’t come in a gendered package,” says Smith, who also chose to have her identity withheld. “He doesn’t understand it, but he accepts it,” she adds.
The mother of two says it is “difficult to establish a traditional family unit”. She adds: “But if you’re not what is considered a ‘traditional sexuality’, then you don’t really want to follow that kind of model, anyway.
“And besides, in a South African context, the traditional family unit is anyway one in which the men were often away working or hunting or whatever, and the women are home raising the children.”
Smith’s self-assured take on raising children as a bisexaul is one which not many other women in her position share. A 2013 study, put together by Lynch and David Maree, found respondents speaking about “particular challenges in achieving a non-traditional family”.
The study, titled Negotiating Heteronormativity: Exploring South African Bisexual Women’s Constructions of Marriage and Family, also found that non-traditional families were “costly and, for many, [therefore] out of their financial reach”.
Smith appears to be more fortunate than most. “All my partners have been actively involved in raising my children. I firmly believe in the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.”
The study also found that “although bisexual women might be perceived as sharing heteronormative privilege, in many aspects they face the same risk of violence and prejudice that lesbian women are confronted with”.
Of bisexual women, 46.1% had experienced rape at some point – compared to 13.1% of lesbian women and 14.7% of straight women 2010 Findings on Victimisation by Sexual Orientation.
“I’m not surprised by this,” says Smith, a Johannesburg-based entrepreneur, matter-of-factly. “There is the perception that, because you’re bisexual – to use a business term – it’s a ‘free market’. So, you know, ‘let’s take advantage of that free market’. Also, for many people, being bisexual means being confused. So people, especially those with a sociopathic nature, will take it upon themselves to ‘correct’ that ‘confusion’.”
Mpulwana adds: “I think that if you’re a masculine-presenting bisexual woman, your chances of being objectified and abused in this way are lessened. Most bisexual women, however, present in a way which is closer to the more traditional notion of what is considered female; more desirable, in that sense.
“But,” she adds, “women are, by default, objectified.”
While bisexual men may not be subjected to same levels of objectification women are, a common struggle would seem to be the sense of isolation felt by both.
“The worst thing for me was definitely the isolation,” says De Wet, adding: “So, for me, the affirmation of different ways of developing identity and the diversity of people’s life experiences are extremely important. Social isolation is a serious concern among the LGBTQ community. When someone doesn’t know many – or any – other people who are going through what they are trying to cope with, the person can feel isolated and stigmatised.
“Support groups help people feel less alone and more understood. I have certainly felt less alone and more understood through my interaction with other bisexual people.”
Mpulwana adds: “During my days at varsity, I identified as lesbian, even though I knew I also have an attraction to men. But, because of the people I was hanging out with at the time – mainly gay women – I suppose I felt pressure to ‘pick as side’. I was trying to fill a role, because I felt as though they wouldn’t really let me be, you know, me. But I don’t want to reinforce gender norms. That kind of environment was very, very stifling for me. I hated it. It made me feel very isolated. Because when you are at odds with what people think you should be – or want you to be – it makes it easier for them to mistreat them you. And to disregard you.”
Lynch and Maree said that by excluding bisexuality, “homosexuality polices its own boundaries and remains a seemingly homogenous identity around which individuals can cohere and politically mobilise”.
This exclusion of bisexuality – from both the gay and lesbian community as well as the broader society – is something Smith puts down to “a lack of understanding”.
“For many people, it’s a thing of ‘I fear myself and I don’t know what is inside me, so I don’t like what’s inside you’.
“But really,” she laughs wryly, “the world doesn’t exist in polarities anymore; it doesn’t. And neither does sexuality.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian