When Lewis started dating again after breaking up with his boyfriend of two and a half years, he noticed some "cultural differences", as he puts it, when going out for drinks with women he'd met on dating apps. His housemates had to remind him that women expected him to split the bill, and he registered that talking openly about past hook-ups wouldn’t go down all that well. But one thing grated: a lot of straight women would dismiss him out of hand because he was bisexual.
“There was a bit of a period where it was like, ‘Look, people are a bit funny about the bisexual thing. Let's not mention it until you’re further in,’” the 29-year-old said. “I thought that if people got to know me, they'd change their mind. By the time I met Laura, I told people on dating apps that if they didn’t want to know me because I was bi, they could feel free to swipe right.”
The talk went well with Lewis’s now-fiancée Laura, who knew about his bisexuality through a mutual friend before they’d started dating. Five years after first meeting at a house party, they’re now engaged and they have a four-month-old daughter. Lewis has also had some thoughtful conversations with his 11-year-old stepson, Laura’s child from a previous relationship, about what it means to be bisexual.
But for a lot of bi, pansexual and queer people attracted to more than one gender, being in a heterosexual relationship can be complex. Before things have the chance to get serious, many people are written off by prospective partners because of their sexuality. According to YouGov, just 38 percent of men would be happy to date someone bisexual, and just 28 percent of women would be willing to do the same.
This can be a hurdle for the 84 percent of queer people who do end up in an opposite-sex relationship with a straight person. During her last relationship with a straight man, Bella, 27, said she spent their first dates “debunking the myth that being bi meant threesomes are [a] definite”.
Lewis: "You shouldn't have to play a straight character for someone to have to love you." Photo: Spen Cooper/thegayphotographer
“Our first conversation in person actually put me off a little because he did that thing straight guys often do when you tell them you're bi – look really gleeful and hint at a threesome,” she said. “I also felt I needed to prove that my relationships with women were just as worthy of respect as my relationships with men.” Luckily, she said his assumptions about bi people “quickly faded” after a couple of dates.
But throughout her relationship history, people have questioned whether she can be faithful, often bringing up the myth that bi people are more likely to cheat in conversation on dates.
“It’s often been hinted to me that because I'm bi, any one gender would never be enough to fulfill me,” she said. “There’s this idea that I must be flighty and hard to pin down because I'm somehow insatiable, which is not a healthy idea for either person in the relationship to be carrying.”
Even as Lewis’s relationship with Laura went from strength to strength, other people felt the need to “warn” his partner that, as a bi man, he was more likely to cheat.
“I thought the difficulty might be coming out to my family,” he said. “I’m mixed race and I worried that my Jamaican family had different cultural values, but a lot of the hurtful comments came from other LGBTQ people.”
“I remember two gay guys chatting away to my fiancée in a club, and she mentioned that I was bisexual,” said Lewis. “They replied: ‘That's disgusting. Like, do you know how rare it is for a man to be attracted to men? You could have pretty much any man you liked.’ I felt like I’d put a target on her back.”
When 25-year-old Londoner Jess told her queer friends that she was dating a man again for the first time in a while, the tension was palpable.
“I got teased a lot for essentially letting the community down and even 'going back to the dick',” said the 25-year-old, who has been with her straight male partner for two years. “I think all these microaggressions are why bi and pan individuals often feel marginalised within our own community. I have definitely felt a need to 'prove' my queerness before because of this.”
For those who are successfully navigating mixed-sexuality relationships, the key has been finding a way to get involved in the queer world without alienating their straight partner.
For Maggie and Kat, who have been dating for six years, the queer world still feels new. Maggie was out as bi when the two got together at university, but four years into the relationship, she came out as trans.
“Because my relationship with Kat has morphed from a straight one into a queer one over time, it does sometimes feel like we're standing on the periphery of the queer world,” said 25-year-old Maggie, who has dated Kat for six years.
“In the queer world, the history of our relationship and our lack of familiarity with queer culture – and significantly, queer dating – means that we're seen as visitors there too. I find this incredibly challenging,” said Maggie. “Now I am essentially a bisexual woman in a relationship with a heterosexual woman who never envisaged herself being in a same-sex relationship.”
Kat is supportive of Maggie’s need to honour her identity, but struggles to situate herself in the LGBTQ community. When she first tried to go to a gay bar with Maggie, the bouncer misgendered Maggie, and assumed they were a straight couple. This left the couple feeling like “we didn’t qualify”.
“Because Maggie is both bi and trans, and those things are a lot more visible for her, I can feel like I don't know where to go with my own sexuality,” she said. “Part of me feels like I know I didn't have the ideal reaction to Maggie coming out and so I need to let her have the space to be herself. She can be kind of reluctant to be part of queer spaces sometimes, and for a while wasn't especially involved in Pride or specifically queer activities”.
Other queers who go out with straight people have had to find ways to carve out their identity. For Lewis, this has been by campaigning for bi equality, and facilitating more research into bi issues outside of the LGBTQ umbrella. For Bella, this has been about the way she dresses.
“I'm a cis woman who likes to wear make-up and dresses, but I also love waistcoats, baggy trousers, and sneakers,” she said. “I used to feel really obsessed with presenting as the right amount of masculine and feminine to be worthy in my sexuality.”
Since Bella has grown more confident in her sexuality, her relationship with her dress sense has changed. “Over the years that has morphed into a really solid sense of self internally, and I've found that now just having the confidence to approach whoever I wanna date has had a much bigger impact than whether or not I’m wearing a dress.”
In a world that craves binaries, fitting into more than one category is always going to be a challenge. But for these bi people, the reward of finding a relationship where they can truly be themselves has been worth the effort.
“There's no point hiding who you are. You shouldn't have to play a straight character for someone to have to love you,” said Lewis. “You might have to have some tough conversations and field a lot of questions, but it’s worth it to be accepted for who you truly are.”