At Student Pride 2018, The Nopebook had the pleasure of sitting down with Nichi Hodgson, journalist, sex educator, ex-dominatrix and one of the panellists for the event’s bisexuality discussion on bi representation, erasure and allyship. As a public figure and openly bisexual woman, Nichi offers her insight into bisexual representation, erasure in the mainstream, and the importance of using labels.
During the panel discussion and throughout Nichi’s BBC World Service documentary, Being Bisexual, many participants expressed that they’d had periods of uncertainty throughout their lives regarding their sexuality, and how coming to the conclusion that they were in fact bisexual was something that happened over time.
“I think it was a gradual thing for me,” explained Nichi. “Now that I look back on my childhood, I can see moments that were telling that I was bi and I didn’t realise. I have some really distinct memories, for example, from when I was in Brownies. I remember there was an older girl who had this gorgeous dark curly hair, and I remember thinking that she was really beautiful. She was probably about three years older than me, and she had a contraband Prince tape that she would let us listen to. I remember thinking when I made the documentary that I hadn’t thought about her for years, and I realised then that she was probably my first female crush in my real life. It’s been more of a ‘aha’ backwards moment — I’ve grown older and looked back at my life and thought, oh, that was this and this was that.”
“There are plenty of people that will read this interview that know me, but and don’t know that I’m bisexual, because it’s never occurred to them to ask and I haven’t told them.”
Many bisexual people often talk about the need to be constantly coming out – both in terms of having to affirm your sexuality when presumed to be gay or straight depending on your current partner, but also in the journey they take towards realising their own bisexuality.
“I presumed I was straight for many years,” says Nichi, a sentiment echoed by many bisexual people. “Then thought that I was having some kind of ‘experimental phase’, and then I had a girlfriend so I actually came out as a lesbian. My mum, who later confessed to me that she was bi herself, had very distinctly said ‘no you’re not, you still like men, just wait and see’. I found it incredibly patronising and really frustrating, and she’s a really liberal person as well. So I think that was an element of her struggling with herself and she was projecting it onto me at that time. I think it had gotten really complicated for her.”
“After I split up from my girlfriend, I really felt strongly attracted to men again, so I then had to say to everyone oh actually no, I actually really like men again. And it was other people that suggested [that I was bi] to me rather than me thinking it. I suppose I thought of my sexuality more in waves, and hadn’t really tied it to an identity. Now obviously I’m public facing so do more work around using the label, but there are plenty of people that will read this interview that know me, but don’t know that I’m bisexual, because it’s never occurred to them to ask and I haven’t told them.”
The Importance of Labels
The label ‘bisexual’ can often be misunderstood or misrepresented. A common misconception about bisexuality is that it means attraction to only cis men and women, and excludes the possibility of attraction to trans men and women or non-binary identities. In fact, the ‘bi’ in bisexual means being attracted to your own gender and genders different from yours.
“It’s really complicated because some people who are bi would actually say that their attraction IS binary,” explains Nichi. “They themselves might have quite a binary outlook on the world, wheras other people would not. I do like this idea now of saying two or more genders, I think that’s really progressive. I think that we just have to fight really really hard for other people not to tell our stories, and for us to be able to tell our stories and our truths.”
In fact, during Nichi’s BBC documentary, one of the participants dicussed that her ‘type’ was pretty much anyone except cisgender, heterosexual men — which is something that is not entirely uncommon in communities of people who are attracted to more than one gender.
“I think because you don’t feel like there’s a depth of understanding, from cis white men in particular,” Nichi says of this phenomena. “I was mentioning in the panel about my boyfriend, who is a lapsed Muslim and mixed race. Because of that, I feel like he’s got a much greater understanding of what it’s like to be a minority or to be targeted, or have judgement passed against you. I think for cis white guys, just that thing of explaining privilege to them is so hard sometimes, that you think ‘why am I bothering’, because there’s all these other people that are beautiful and wonderful and amazing that I’d much rather have some kind of interaction with them.”
“I think it’s my duty to keep using the label even though it would be very easy for me to completely stop.”
There are also those that might question the need for such labels in the first place. Nichi talks about the reasons why she will still call herself bisexual, and the more wider-reaching implications of discussing bisexuality as a real and valid sexuality.
“For me now, comfortable in a long term relationship [with a man], looking to be married and have quite a conventional life in a way, my label is still as important to me because one it reminds me of my journey. Also, I see so many people struggling and the need for the label — if they had the label, it would give them a certain protection in life, and it would give them a certain identity as well. I think it’s my duty to keep using the label even though it would be very easy for me to completely stop.”
Nichi brings up the international problem with bi erasure and the importance of using the label – in the documentary Being Bisexual, she speaks to bisexual activists across the world, including in places where ‘homosexual acts’ are illegal, in some places even punishable by death. “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or bi,” she says, “the law is made against acts rather than identities. If you are found guilty of these acts you are punished the same, but no one is fighting for you because you don’t identify as gay.
“People who are bi can’t claim asylum in the same way that people who are gay can in other countries, and that’s a really massive issue for me,” she continues. “I still want to inhabit the label because I think we’ve got to keep hearing it more until justice is being done for those people — I don’t have many struggles in my life, I’ve got to be honest, so I’ve got a privilege in that respect and I want to honour that by trying to help other people.”
Bi Erasure in the Mainstream and LGBTQ Communities
During the panel, Nichi had talked about how in the past, she had been guilty of her own bi erasure. In 2012 she published her sexual memoir Bound to You, pitched as a real life 50 Shades of Grey and centering around her experiences as a professional dominatrix and dating one of her clients. She was approached by a publisher after writing about her experiences for Stylist magazine.
“I was over the moon, and really wanted to do I,” says Nichi. “I presumed that it would mean I could write about all the truth of my life, but what became apparent quite quickly was that I couldn’t — I had to write within a reasonable script. Looking back, I managed to get a lot of the truth of my life out within the format, but there were still things that were kind of squeezed, and one of these was this relationship that I’d had with my girlfriend and in general my attraction to women was kind of toned down.
“I think at the time, I was complicit in my own bi erasure. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry so I didn’t feel confident enough to fight my own corner, and now that I’ve done another book and I’m older I would just say, no way, I’m having it my way. I think what was depressing was that they were open minded enough to take a book on BDSM, but not enough to engage with the bi quality as well.
“There are lots of people in my experience that tend to be bisexual AND into BDSM. There’s actually quite a natural correlation there, because you play with power roles, you don’t have to gender identify, there’s lots of different things you can be within BDSM. For me it’s a natural fit to talk about the two together, but it was obviously just kind of blowing their minds and too much for them to handle! I think even just in five years, that has shifted in publishing.”
There can often be an issue with bi erasure within LGBTQ communities themselves — Student Pride’s all-bisexual panel is an example of how organisations can take positive steps to include bi identities in the conversation. Nichi talks about the feeling of exclusion that can sometimes come from within queer communities.
“I’m blonde and small and I could be passed off as very very typical heterosexual woman. This is how I liked to present myself, I’ve experimented with different looks, including being more visibly queer as well, and it just doesn’t feel natural to me I suppose. So I represent myself as I feel comfortable now, but I think that again is a massive issue for people. I think what’s distressing is that there’s so much internalised biphobia that comes from the rest of the ‘letters’ so to speak, and they think that because we have it easier than them, I think there’s sometimes an animosity towards us, whereas the problems are just different.”
Bi Representation in the Media
Bi representation in the media is far and few between, with bisexual characters making up around just 13% of LGBTQ representation in major films in 2016. During the panel, the difference between how bi men and bi women are portrayed on screen was discussed, suggesting that bi men are often implied to be hiding the fact that they’re gay, whereas bi women are viewed largely through the male gaze and heavily sexualised.
“It’s hard work,” says Nichi. “I’m very conscious that I have written about being a dominatrix, I had a sex column for men’s health for three years — I write about sex all the time, so people’s perception of me is quite sexualised anyway. I’ve sort of stepped up to be a tiny bit more glamourous probably than I would be all of the time, but that’s not because I’m bi, it’s more because I’m working in the media. I do think that women are heavily sexuxalised in their representations, and there’s always these presumptions that if you write a bi character she’s there to have sex with another woman, she’s not there just to be herself, so that annoys me.
“If you had a reasonable number of bi writers working in Hollywood and in mainstream TV, then these characters would occur naturally.”
“We’re desperate for representation so we’ll sort of take anything we can get,” Nichi continues. “I think sometimes we probably need a bit more fight in us, which is why I appreciate Lewis [Oakley], because he’s the first one to say no, give me my rights and give me my representation. I think what would really help is if more people were out as bi — if you had a reasonable number of bi writers working in Hollywood and in mainstream TV, then these characters would occur naturally. Also, they probably wouldn’t all occur with a struggle, because not all the people do struggle that much — I didn’t have to struggle that much, and some people have struggled far more than me. So you’d get the full gamut, and that’s what you kind of want in an ideal world.”
Something else that was touched on in the documentary and the panel was how statistically, bi people are more likely to come out later in life – is this due to a lack of representation in mainstream culture?
“I think that there’s definitely a representation gap,” says Nichi, “and I think that it massively contributes to that issue, and then knock-on effect is that it impinges on people’s mental health and their ability to fit into their communities and to be comfortable. I do think there is a chain reaction with representation; if we had more, we would really benefit from it.”
Nichi’s parting words to the community is one of solidarity. “If you’re comfortable, come out. because you can help a lot of other people by doing so,” she says. “And it is stressed on the ‘if you’re comfortable’, because lots of people are not in a good situation where they can. But its’s power in numbers — the more of us that are out, the more of us that can help other people that are massively struggling.”